Samuel Johnson is Indignant by Lydia Davis

Ensconced, as I am right now, in short stories, one could scarcely imagine a greater contrast with Alice Munro. This is not just because Davis does rather stretch – or should I say shrink – the boundaries of what a short story is. Take this, for example:

Certain Knowledge from Herodotus

These are the facts about the fish in the Nile:

That’s it, the entire enchilada. It made me google Herodotus, fish and Nile, which sent me to this rather wonderful quotation:

There are many ways how to hunt crocodiles; I shall describe the way I think is most worth mentioning. The hunter baits a hook with a pig’s back, and lets it float in the river. He remains on the bank with a live piglet and beats it. The crocodile hears the squeals of the pig, follows the sound, and finds the bait, which it swallows; then the hunter hauls in the line. When the crocodile is ashore, he covers its eyes with mud; then the quarry is very easily overcome, but without that it would be very difficult.
Herodotus, Histories 2,70

Handy advice when I’m back in Australia next.

But where Munro is a rivet woman in a sense, dotting the ‘i’s to make her points – MEN-ARE-BAD-HAVE-I-MADE-THAT-CLEAR-YET? – Davis is anything but that. Munro tells, Davis asks. Munro leaves parts out in a way that seems almost like a child getting bored with what she is doing. Her stories have a tendency to include something of this nature: ‘and then ten years went by and then they met again but they didn’t stop to talk. The end.’. She is happy to fudge over those ten years with a sentence or two to give the idea of it. But you can’t imagine ten years. It seems odd to me and I suppose it is partly that which makes me think she is writing shrivelled-up novels.

Davis, on the other hand, does the very opposite of telling all. In ‘Jury Duty’ she literally omits half the story. We read only the answers, it is up to us to visualise the questions. Munro spoonfeeds, Davis gets us involved in the cooking, if that isn’t a corny way of putting it. Sometimes, as in ‘Jury Duty’, that is per force, and it works remarkably well, by the way. Other times she uses omission to involve the reader in a way that isn’t necessary, but surely impossible to shirk.

Finances

If they tried to add and subtract to see whether the relationship is equal, it won’t work. On his side, he is giving $50, 000, she says. No, $70, 000, he says. It doesn’t matter, she says. It matters to me, he says. What she is giving is a half-grown child. Is that an asset or liability? Now, is she supposed to feel grateful to him? She can feel grateful, but not indebted and, not that she owes him something. That has to be a sense of equality. I just love to be with you, she says, and you love to be with me. I’m grateful to you for providing for us, and I know my child is sometimes a trouble to you, though you say he is a good child. But I don’t know how to figure it. If I give all I have and you give all you have, isn’t that a kind of equality? No, he says.

For whom could these 161 words fail to tell a story, I wonder? A painful one, at that. I’ve read it many times now and it hurts every time.

Davis has me hooked. Her last but one story:

Money

I don’t want any more gifts, cards, phone calls, prizes, clothes, friends, letters, books, souvenirs, pets, magazines, land, machines, houses, entertainments, honours, good news, dinners, jewels, vacations, flowers, or telegrams. I just want money.

Okay, okay. I’ll buy the rest of your books, Lydia. The bait’s worked.

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