New it ain’t: Lydia Davis’ “Varieties of Disturbance”

Davis, Lydia (2007), Varieties of Disturbance, FSG
ISBN-13 978-0-374-28173-1
ISBN-10 0-374-28173-4

“Varieties of Disturbance” is Davis’ sixth collection of short prose. Davis is one of the most honored and praised writers of her generation and a certified genius. She is also known as an accomplished translator, having translated Michel Leiris, Maurice Blanchot, and Marcel Proust, among others. Praise for her work seems to be ubiquitous, something I’ve only found out, strangely enough, once I started my reading of the “Varieties”. This book is advertised and praised as innovative, “rule-breaking” (back cover), with some, like Charles Baxter, claiming that Davis “is reinventing the short story in our time”. Ahem. Baxter is, I believe, mistaken (but it’s not his fault, we’ll come to that), since this book is nothing of the sort.

I have to admit that I have never before read a book like this. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is a good book, although the qualities of its stories is not consistent. Sometimes Davis heads for short time effect instead of letting her prose work out the ideas she has set them on, for example in the story called “Tropical Storm”:

Like a tropical storm
I, too, may one day become “better organized”

Or in a story called “The Busy Road”

I am so used to it by now
that when the traffic falls silent,
I think a storm is coming.

I will say this: The book is highly enjoyable and I don’t regret having read it. This is one of its two main strengths: the writing. Davis is an assured writer. She changes seamlessly from register to register, is in full control of her phrases’ cadences. This book is mostly extraordinarily well made; what’s more, Lydia Davis is an extraordinarily well read writer. She has dipped her quill deep into the inkwell of literary history, evoking writers and imitating different texts and styles. There are a few explicit references, chief among them a cutup/reworking of Kafka’s letters and a lame but, again, well-executed story that follows a traveler’s reading of Beckett on a road trip, but most of them aren’t. Davis is an ironist, however, and a true ‘postmodernist’, she rarely uses these styles, most of these stories are about the style they are written in. Thus, even when she writes in iambs or adopts the impish yet sharp tone of Lewis Carroll or Dr.Seuss, she never ‘stoops’ to their level of play, she keeps her distance, basically retelling a style as one would a story. A good example for this is the story “Jane and the Cane”.

The aforementioned story involving Beckett is, in part, symptomatic of a certain weakness of that collection: its strength rests on the power of Beckett’s words, not on Davis’ words and the best result of reading it is being sent back to yr own shelves to explore the grand Irishman’s words again . It consists of a complex interweaving of, for example, the trajectory of travel on the one hand and the trajectory of reading on the other. The story tells us how words and events are processed, how reading a text and reading a trip can be similar and what the givens in these two instances are. Contrary to what many critics seem to believe, however, ‘complex’ does not equal ‘good’. Just because a reader may feel he’s in over his head, the book isn’t suddenly a success. This effect is well known from critical reactions to so-called obscure writers. I have read more than one defense of Derrida that showed how little the defender understood of his subject (and I believe Derrida’s actually right); also, there are other writers in the postmodern section that I have not yet read that are praised by people who clearly have trouble understanding basic arguments, among them, most recently Ward Churchill.

Don’t get me wrong, the book is often intellectually tingling, quite like a crossword puzzle or a philosopher’s digest, There are short pieces that sound extremely deep and intellectually charged, I’ll quote two of them to illustrate the point made in the previous paragraph. The first one’s called “Index Entry” and touches upon all sorts of things, among them language in general and naming in special:

Christian, I am not a

The other one’s called “Suddenly Afraid”:

Because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn

Again, it’s almost a waste of breath to sum up its concerns, it’s all so plainly there. On the other hand, the simplicity and clarity is a merit of Davis’ work, I am just not sure how highly I would weigh that merit.

To sum up, Davis achieves sounding complex not by being a good thinker or good reader but by having read a large amount of good thinkers and writers. Her work draws from a huge bulk of sources and never shies away from flaunting this. Critics may erroneously declare her innovative, but the writer in these texts never pretends to make it new. Davis is postmodern in the best sense of the word. A similar effect is aimed at in a consummate story about a walk which a male critic and a female translator of Proust undertake. The critic is, we learn, dismissive of her work, preferring an older, less faithful but more poetic version. An episode on the walk these two take reminds the translator of an episode in Proust. She proceeds to quote the passage in both translations. Again, a similar set of questions and problems is raised as in the Beckett story, again pretty unsubtle, in a way that does not allow the reader to read it in a different manner. That happens because these stories are very spare, Davis unerringly going straight for the philosophical jugular of her pieces. She is rather disinterested in what is usually referred to as plot, if each story is taken on its own. However, over the course of the collection, things happen, people are described, interiors and exteriors are evoked, the works. “The Varieties of Disturbance” covers a large terrain, yet still keeps within the enamel confines of domestic life, roughly speaking. We find epigrams on the small humdrum tragedies of everyday life, as well as longer faux-academic studies of, for example, the letters a class of schoolchildren send a sick, hospitalized classmate. Davis’ writing which, while always competent, sometimes even dazzling, actually works best in sober contexts, like said study, or, in one of my favorite pieces, an account of the procession of maids passing through the household of a writer by the name of “Mrs. D.”. This is one of my favorite pieces because so much that is characteristic about the book is gathered here. Sobriety, pastiche, and subject. What subject? The domestic space. The titular disturbance is the disturbance of the private order, of our daily patterns. The title story dwells a little on the issue, I’ll quote the last third:

When I describe this conversation to my husband, I cause in him feelings of disturbance also, stronger than mine and different in kind from those in my mother, in my father, and respectively claimed and anticipated by them. My husband is disturbed by my mother’s refusing my brother’s help and thus causing disturbance in me greater, he says, than I realize, but also more generally by the disturbance caused more generically not only in my brother by her but also in me by her greater than I realize, and more often than I realize, and when he points this out, it causes in me yet another disturbance, different in kind and in degree from that caused in me by what my mother has told me, for this disturbance is not only for myself and my brother, and not only for my father in his anticipated and his present disturbance, but also and most of all for my mother herself, who has now, and has generally, caused so much disturbance, as my husband rightly says, but is herself disturbed by only a small part of it.

Make of that what you want. I think this part illustrates the merits and demerits of Davis’ work very well, although the writing is not typical, and from your reaction to it you may gauge the possible reaction you may have to the whole book.

I did say earlier that this book does not break new ground yet I also said that I have not read a book quite like this before. Where similar books concentrate on one or two sorts of adaptions, this one crawls with influence, we mentioned this earlier. At every single point the reader hears other writers. The most significant reference are probably works like Lichtenberg’s enormous Sudelbücher, his collection of aphorisms, essays and other texts. I know that the word aphorism is these days connected to all sorts of weak writing. Lichtenberg’s work, on the other hand, contains narrative episodes, thoughts and finished essays on literature and science. Lichtenberg was a true polymath, another word that has been applied to too much less worthy books these days, much as I love David Foster Wallace, he is often like a fish out of water when tackling science in non-fiction. Other writers and texts that come to mind reading Davis include Thomas Bernhard and books of his like “Der Stimmenimitator”, or short prose like Kafka’s, Beckett’s, Barthelme’s or Barth’s, it’s really a long list, and this is off the top of my head. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is unlike any of these books, because it resembles all of them, in part, without the original fire or brilliance. It’s a weaker collage of others’ styles, a weaker collage of others’ ideas, written by a very good writer. So how does the mistaken idea of innovation enter the picture? The publisher or the author printed the word “stories” on the cover of this book of short prose. As short prose, this is nothing new, as stories, this book does indeed break new ground. If I change the title of my inane master’s thesis and add the words “a novel” to it, I promise a novel the kind of which you have never before read. Distinguishing modes of reading from kinds of texts is not the worst idea, sometimes.

“The Varieties of Disturbance” is written in one voice, even when being punny, alliterative, iambic, this is the voice of one person. The book explores what I have called the enamel confines of domestic life. How children, maids and mothers shape our lives’ rhythms. This is the interesting part, the affecting part, the part that sets this book apart from similar texts. This it what makes it re-readable, watching the prose explore the nooks of this voice’s life, watching how babies, dogs, brothers cause little and big disturbances in her life. All the ideas about language and theory, none of them are new, nor particularly riveting. Yes, it’s fun, but that part of the book is like “Kill Bill”. New it ain’t. Read the book if you’re up for a bit of intellectual fun, do not read it if you want something special or new. Although your time is better spent with any writer named in this review, it’s not badly spent with Lydia Davis. Did I make sense?

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4 thoughts on “New it ain’t: Lydia Davis’ “Varieties of Disturbance”

  1. Pingback: Lydia Davis: Varieties Of Disturbance - World Literature Forum

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