Philosophical inquiry, examinations of language, and involuted domestic disputes are the focus of Lydia Davis’s inventive collection of short fiction, Almost No Memory. In each of these stories, Davis reveals an empathic, sometimes shattering understanding of human relationships.
Lydia Davis is a literary citizen you can't help but root for. The author of five previous prickly, difficult, self-conscious works of fiction and the translator of over 20 works in French by such luminous thinkers as Sartre and Foucault, she is also an accomplished teacher and a champion of obscure fiction. Her new book of short stories comes complete with gushy plugs by masters of the form Grace Paley, Stuart Dybec and Charles Baxter.
In Almost No Memory, Davis appears determined to hack apart every preconceived notion of what a short story is. The 51 entrees range from a few sentences to several pages in length and in each one Davis skillfully runs the reader around inescapable mazes, down straight blind alleys and into infinite fictional Mobius strips. She presents all of the emotional and technical tools necessary for a traditional tale, then proceeds to not use them. The opening lines of "What Was Interesting" are emblematic of Davis' continuous short-circuiting: "It is hard for her to write this story, or rather she should say it is hard for her to write it well. She has shown it to a friend, and he has said it needs to be more interesting." Some of her stories are little more than gags; for example "Lord Royston's Tour" is an account of a British nobleman traveling through 19th century Russia, braving near-fatal conditions and the death of several servants, only to be killed by a simple squall off the coast of England.
These stunts masquerading as stories faintly echo Gertrude Stein, minus any semblance of humor or linguistic enthusiasm, not to mention intellectual or literary history. Oscar Wilde's writing on Browning could be applied to Davis: "He did not survey, and it was rarely that he could sing. His work is marred by struggle, violence and effort, and he passed not from emotion to form, but from thought to chaos." These cynical, hyper-analytical exercises might appeal to a few burnt-out grad students, but for the common reader and even for the most adventurous reader, Almost No Memory confirms Davis' lofty stature as a literary creature respected by many, but read by a very select few. -- Salon