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Lydia Davis’s Very Short Stories to Save the World

Climate change made Lydia Davis rethink our relationships to each other, close and distant.

Rune Hellestad/Corbis/Getty Images
Lydia Davis at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s South Bank in 2013

Several years ago, Lydia Davis made a decision never to set foot in France again. Why such a prohibition—for the translator of Madame Bovary and In Search of Lost Time, a writer who spent two formative years there in her youth? The answer has less to do with France and more to do with the planet. In order to prevent a rise in temperature of more than the two degrees Celsius, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated, the average carbon footprint per person will have to drop below two tons. A round-trip flight between New York and Paris emits almost two tons of carbon dioxide, a person’s whole yearly allotment.

The resolution to stop flying set Davis on a new way of thinking. “The very monumentality of the decision, after a lifetime of traveling and involvement with foreign cultures and languages,” she said in a 2020 interview, “shocks me into other actions.” She joined a food co-op, served on a local governing board, and canceled credit cards that have not divested from fossil fuels. In her craft essays, she has advised writers to scrutinize the progression of their lists with fanatical rigor; she brings a similar exacting attention to her political commitments.

Our Strangers
by Lydia Davis
Bookshop Editions, 304 pp., $26.00

Her newest collection of fiction writing, Our Strangers, reflects this new consciousness in subtle ways. The pieces here—143 pieces in total—have a lot in common with her earlier work: Most are just a page or two in length, with a handful of very sparse prose pieces with line breaks. There are series that run through the collection—scrupulous descriptions of somebody’s distant relations to famous people, vignettes of moments of annoyance in a marriage—as well as pieces that are revisions, or alternate tellings, of previous ones. But if she continues to pay heed to the smallest, unturned details of the problems of domestic life, she affords them less importance than before. With insistence, she returns to themes of plant and animal life, community, and old age.

Davis has wondered if she should continue to write amid the destruction of our environment. Her increasing ambivalence about writing is detectable in Our Strangers—not because her prose is any less good, but because its fastidiousness now seems to culminate in ordinary everyday language. In her latest stories, she has made herself smaller, shifting her focus to networks, communities, and systems, the units which we will need to think in to change course collectively.

Davis’s title announces straight away the new territory she is exploring. Whereas older collections like Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), and Can’t and Won’t (2013) largely feature intimate relations—husbands, ex-husbands, friends, children—this collection foregrounds a cast of strangers—neighbors, fellow travelers, old men seen around town. These strangers variously produce reactions of irritation, bafflement, pity, gratitude, and intrigue.

Seven stories take place in trains. The narrators of these stories are crotchety, easily nettled by the behaviors of other passengers. One is a scholar who shushes those around her so she can dictate facts about the ancient language of Occitan to them. Exasperated with the convivial atmosphere in the car as she attempts to read stories printed with copious misspellings and faint type in a new dialect, she soliloquizes about the difficulty of her task. Her speech falls on deaf ears, and she concludes her tirade with a moralistic huff: “So, please.”

Another is more succinct with her complaint. In the four-line piece “Those Two Loud Women,” the narrator exclaims, “they could at least have an interesting conversation, / one that I would like to overhear!” Observe, Davis seems to instruct, the haughty condescension laden in that “at least,” and also the ironic banality of that reaction. In the most absurd of these stories, the narrator assiduously documents every sneeze that takes place during her journey. She records descriptions of each person who sneezes, the locations of their seats, the number of sneezes they release, and the rapidity of those sneezes. She questions why a man blesses one of them but not the rest.

Silly and mundane as these encounters are, they reflect a diligent interest in the petty trials of coexisting with others. Her literary encounters with strangers don’t all go poorly. “Pardon the Intrusion,” one of her longest stories in the book, takes the form of a list of fictionalized messages posted on a community board. Some are run-of-the-mill queries for recommendations for doctors, caregivers, or plumbers; some describe things that people are looking for, or looking to get rid of or sell.

In these snippets, Davis puts her arch eye for humor on full display. One note announces with no further explanation: “Dear colleagues, my daughter’s calculator died.” Another formulates the poster’s request as, “my turtle is interested in paying someone to stop by 3-4 times to drop some lettuce off with him.” (Can a turtle be interested in such a thing?) Somebody wants to find a violinist to play the Kreuzer Sonata with, and a complaint is lodged against a certain Dr. X: “VERY dismissive and rude.” A picture of the community—a middle- to upper-class one occupied with a good deal of academic and artistic activity—emerges.

“The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world,” the English writer G.K. Chesterton argued in an essay in his 1905 collection Heretics. He reasons that while we get to associate with like-minded people in a larger community, in a smaller one, we have no choice in the matter. Davis takes this proposition seriously. In her title story, Davis chronicles all the different relationships the narrator has had with her neighbors over the years. She starts out with the bad ones (a man once defaced her property out of spite), before proceeding to survey ones marked by generosity and goodwill. She advances a thesis statement for what it is to live in a neighborhood:

We are like a family and unlike a family, since we come together as strangers and form a temporary alliance, while family members often come to be strangers and are bound together only by blood. A neighbor becomes a sort of cousin, or parent. Or else a neighbor becomes a bitter enemy, an intolerable presence encroaching on one’s land.

The bond between strangers is not so different from the bond between family members, Davis suggests. Both can be seen as arbitrary. We might love our families, condemn them, or even reject them, but it’s impossible to entirely ignore them—and something like this applies to the strangers we live with, too.

Brian Dillon writes of Davis’s prose that her language “is character.” This astute observation gets to the heart of the technical mastery of a piece like “Winter Letter,” a mother’s report to her kids in the city on a recent vacation to rural Texas. She begins her letter with modest aims “not to let this go on forever” and to “tell you some of what we’ve been up to.” Earnest and excitable, she relays her lifestyle habits and her disagreements with their dad. Her various updates on domestic life are random and amusing, and she disarms us almost immediately: “We’re trying to eat healthy, and our best new discovery is, guess what … radishes!” She is chatty and she knows it, fixating on such minor changes as moving to a different chair at the table and observing the ladybugs that have started to appear in the kitchen. “I know this isn’t too fascinating, but it’s our life,” she says.

This is not a disdainful portrait of an elderly American couple in the vein of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Davis has great affection for the rambling mother and her minuscule attentions. If she writes her letter with the awareness that her kids might find her preoccupations trivial, she doesn’t seem too bothered by it. From glancing references to their dad’s restlessness and occasional moods, we gather that her energetic interest in small details is one she sustains entirely on her own.

She hurries to write down an anecdote from their trip before she forgets it. Not long ago, they went to Texas to visit her friend and “to spend a couple days looking at the vegetation.” Things start out as planned. They see the friend, check in at the inn, and do a tour of the surrounding area. There is slight friction between the married couple, but the differences are funny more than they are troubling. He takes an interest in military history and flags; she likes to notice the flora and fauna and discuss the advantages of composting toilets.

On the second day, a sudden storm causes torrential flooding. Plans to see their friend again are thwarted. In the afternoon, during a break in the rain, she goes out on a walk alone down by the river with a map from the inn that points out trees and shrubs that grow along different trails. At a crossroads, she is consulting her map when she is startled to see the gray face of a raccoon staring back at her. She stays still. The raccoon waddles toward her, until it is just a few feet away. She wonders if the raccoon knows she is there.

Not sure what to make of this, she calls the event again and again “strange.” “What was most strange about this experience was that I felt invisible, or more than that—I felt as I weren’t there at all,” she says. The tone and pace of her writing are transformed by her encounter in the wild. Until now, her letter is dotted with exclamations, driven by the propulsive momentum of putting everything down on paper. Now, she pauses to consider her feeling of derangement. Unnerved, she finally heads back to the inn, where, back to a place of safety, she turns chatty again. She tries to tell their dad about what just happened, but notes, “I don’t think he really understood how strange it was.”

The unaccountable incident with the raccoon is filed away, and she makes a few jovial closing remarks on an apron exhibit at the library, foot massage classes, and postal stamps. But there is a new feeling of disquietude by the time she signs off, as if something uncomfortable has been brought up at dinner and then effortfully covered up to reinstate the tenor of business-as-usual. She has come face-to-face with the indifference of other creatures—and the planet as a whole—to human existence.

It is tempting to see the stories in Our Strangers as pieces written primarily to poke fun and entertain. I almost made this mistake reading one particular piece framed as a letter of complaint to the U.S. Postal Service. In it, the writer complains about a poster in her local post office that glamorizes Styrofoam peanuts and excessive packaging. After detailing how the peanuts stick to her hands, she makes a pedantic correction to the wording of the poster, finally condemning its overall message, which promotes wastefulness. Her methods for protest are quaintly ineffectual and display a faith seemingly prevalent among older people that the same habits of local civic engagement work with entities such as the USPS.

But reading it over, I began to realize that Davis was rather serious about this letter, even if ironically self-aware about the comic disproportion between sender and recipient. She began publishing letters of complaint in Can’t and Won’t, and hard as it is to imagine a writer who edits her own writing to bits drafting grousing letters of complaint to unfeeling agencies and corporations, she has claimed to often do this in earnest. Embedded in this practice is the same quasi-religious dedication to her own experience that has run through all her writing, with relative unconcern for whether she has an audience or not.

In a tight seven-sentence piece, Davis writes that a person’s ultimate aim should be to “feel small and still feel strong, and good.” To act at all today—in relation to communities, in relation to the climate—requires an embrace of one’s own insignificance in the larger scheme of things. By giving meticulous form to her singular sensibility, Our Strangers suggests that this fact does not have to annihilate meaning. Rather, it can be a wellspring for the wonderful and absurd.