Women on the Verge

Lydia Davis is a master storyteller. I thought so when I read her 2014 collection, Can’t and Won’t. And I still think so now that I’ve read her omnibus work, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. This massive volume combines the 4 short story collections Davis had published prior to 2009. Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001), and Varieties of Disturbance (2007).

I can’t say that I loved each story as much as I should. To read 4 short story collections by the same author, back to back, seems to do that author a disservice. Davis must have thought long and hard which stories to include in one or the other collection so they could speak to each other. In this omnibus form, I hear a lot of chatter.

So let me instead talk about my favorite stories and the themes that resonate with me.


Davis is fond of oddballs. They tend to play the role of hero (or antihero). The oddball may be presented as a comic character but the humor is always gentle. Davis laughs with, rather than at, these misfits. For example, poor Mrs. Orlando is afraid of everything.

Though she takes every precaution, no precaution will be enough. She tries to prepare for sudden hunger, for cold, for boredom, and for heavy bleeding. She is never without a bandaid, a safety pin, and a knife. In her car she has, among other things, a length of rope and a whistle, and also a social history of England to read while waiting for her daughters, who are often a long time shopping.

Lydia Davis, “The Fears of Mrs. Orlando”

Davis is able to turn something disturbing into an object of beauty. For example, a woman bearing her mother’s ashes to their final resting place.

It has been so long since she and I traveled together.
There are so many place we could go.

“Traveling with Mother”


Mortality is a theme that recurs across The Collected Stories. A parent is failing, mentally or physically. The adult child doesn’t want to see it, won’t admit that this change is irreversible.

In “The Furnace”, father and daughter exchange letters. Their correspondence is innocuous. He recalls childhood memories of a coal furnace. She reports on the inspection of her own basement furnace. As long as the father continues to write about long-dead coal men and defunct coal hobs, his daughter can convince herself that he’s alright.

He left to get ready for bed, and then came back into the room wearing dazzling white pajamas. My mother asked me to admire his pajamas, and he stood quietly while I did. Then he said, “I don’t know what I will be like in the morning.”

“The Furnace”

Just as this father and daughter deflect the notion of his decline by talking furnaces, another daughter uses grammar to come to terms with death.

“He is dying” sounds more active than “He will be dead soon.” That is probably because of the word be — we can “be” something whether we choose to be or not. Whether he likes it or not, he “will be” dead soon. He is not eating.

“Grammar Questions”

On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Women stand front and center in The Collected Stories. But they strike no heroic poses. If anything, life is oppressive to them. They are barely holding on or have already lost all control.

She could not drive if there were too many clouds in the sky. Or rather, if she could drive with many clouds in the sky, she could not have music playing if there were also passengers in the car. If there were two passengers, as well as a small caged animal, and many clouds in the sky, she could listen but not speak.

“How She Could Not Drive”

The women in Davis’s collection suffer because they’re too old or too young. Or because they’ve recently become a new mother or have been too long stymied in their career as a professor. But of all the dreaded fates Davis assigns to her female characters, to be a sister is the worst.

“Two Sisters” comes from Davis’ first collection, Break It Down. One sister must, by definition, be prettier or clumsier or more promiscuous than the other. The sisters must grow up to despise each other and to vent their jealousy through their respective husbands and children. They will strive all their lives to best each other. Time will eventually reduce them to mirror images of each other.

Davis returns to sisters in her third collection, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. These sisters do not marry and do not leave home. They must share the same bed.

They do not sleep well and are not refreshed in the morning. One wakes early, goes to the toilet, and would like to resume sleeping. But there is no joy in going back to bed when her sister lies there already sweating like a sow in the early heat.

“Two Sisters (II)”


26 October 2019 | Karen Kao