It’s a small misnomer to label this new book by MacArthur "Genius" fellow Lydia Davis a collection of stories. Many of the pieces are a paragraph long, some less. And Davis doesn’t often follow a story from one place to the next. There are certainly no cliff-hanger endings.
Then again, Davis has never been about cheap thrills or tidy forms. She’s more like a literary equivalent of one of those technicians on "CSI": She shows up in the vicinity of a story and immediately begins dusting for clues. How a story is put together, to her, is as interesting as what a story wants to tell us.
Varieties of Disturbance shows Davis at her technical best, telling stories through inspired deconstruction. "We Miss You" parses the sentiment from the cliché in a children’s letter of sympathy for a sick classmate. "How It is Done" analyzes the elisions in a high school sex-ed book.
A poet as well as a translator, Davis is extremely good at turning our perception on one line. Her best stories pile up one such mind-bender after another and then turn this observational jujitsu on the form of the story—and often memory, too.
The collection’s gem is a three-page riff called "Grammar Questions," in which the narrator parses the words she uses to describe her ailing father. "People may say ‘the body’ and then call it ‘it.’ I will not be able to say ‘the body’ in relation to him because he is still not something you would call ‘the body.’"
This is tricky, sometimes miraculous work. After all, Davis reminds us that words are tools, that stories are devices, and then in the space of just one sentence can make us forget all that so we can read, listen and believe.
In the Driver’s Seat
Helen Simpson Knopf, hardcover, $22
America may still be the best country in the world in which to be a short-story writer, with our MFA programs and dozens upon dozens of quarterly journals. But environment isn’t everything, apparently. With hardly any of those cultural institutions, England somehow has managed to produce Helen Simpson.
Funny, wry and always closely attuned to the lives of women and especially mothers, Simpson is the U.K.’s answer to Lorrie Moore. Twice named one of Britain’s best young novelists by Granta magazine, Simpson, like Moore, refuses to be coaxed toward another form. In the Driver’s Seat is her fourth collection of short stories, which include 2000’s Hey Yeah Right Get a Life.
Simpson isn’t nearly as gum-snappy a writer as her book titles suggest. In the Driver’s Seat sees her maturing into middle age the way Moore did 10 years ago in Birds of America, the burdens of motherhood weighing heavily on her characters, like Zoe in “Early One Morning,” and mortality, too, which comes and pitches its pup tent in the life of Tom, a war correspondent diagnosed with lung cancer in "If I’m Spared."
There is nothing flashy to In the Driver’s Seat—the stories turn and arc just as they’re supposed to, and always come to a satisfying conclusion. It’s the aftereffects, however, which mark them as noteworthy, and make clear that its title is drenched in the blackest of ironies.
I Think of You
Ahdaf Soueif Anchor Press, paper, $13
These exquisite stories by Egyptian-born novelist Ahdaf Soueif feel like postcards from another era. They recall the sights and sounds of Cairo in the ’50s and ’60s. They describe the pain and dislocation of a woman’s move from the Middle East to England shortly thereafter. There is, inevitably, a story about the impossibility of going home again after making such a move.
Although best known for her sprawling epic novels, like the Booker finalist The Map of Love, Soueif has an impressive ability to fold her work into the smaller form. Her stories have a more contemporary feel, sharper elbows. Several pivot on finely observed moments. Three of the stories follow Aisha, who moves to England in "1964" and is harassed as a Muslim. Another two follow Asya, who is similarly haunted by a marriage gone awry, and in this case, a miscarriage.
Soueif herself now lives in London, and one can feel the distance she writes across—as well as the loss—in creating characters that are plagued by homesickness and exile. "The scene of jasmine fills the air," begins "Melody." By the end of this book, we understand why a simple scent means so much to some.