No one writes a story like Lydia Davis. In the years since she began publishing her lyrical, extremely short fiction, she has quietly become one of the most impactful influences on American writers, even if they don’t know it. That’s largely because she makes economy seem so easy. You could read several of her stories into a friend’s voicemail box before you were cut off (and you should). You could fit one of her stories in this column. Some you could write on your palm.
Of course, not all of Davis’s fiction is quite so compact. ‘A Few Things Wrong With Me’ sets out to dissect a failed relationship. Like much of Davis’s fiction, it’s set almost entirely in the head of the narrator as she works through her impressions. The prose is deceptively simple (‘It’s easy to come to the wrong conclusions about people’) and charmingly self-effacing (‘I said he was talking about me as though I were an old tyre that might blow out on the highway.’). One of our personal favorites, ‘They Take Turns Using a Word They Like,’ reads simply: ‘? “It’s extraordinary,” says one woman. “It is extraordinary,” says the other.’
At first, it reads like a country-club joke, but it’s impossible not to imagine the kind of women who like ‘extraordinary’ and the contexts in which they’re trading it. That’s part of the joy of Davis’s fiction, an interactivity fostered by the spareness. Davis won a MacArthur ‘genius’ award in 2003, but we prefer to think of her as contemporary fiction’s most perceptive people-watcher.