#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis

September 22, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 3 2 min read

coverLydia Davis was doing Lydia Davis before doing Lydia Davis was cool.

That is, before colleges offered courses in “flash fiction,” Davis was patiently crafting sentences “as clean as a bone” (to crib from James Baldwin) and joining these sentences together in small, miraculous assemblages. Here’s one from Varieties of Disturbance called “Collaboration With Fly”:

I put that word on the page,
but he added the apostrophe. 

Here’s another, called “Lonely”:

No one is calling me. I can’t check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out, someone may call while I’m out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in. 

Like the color fields of Mark Rothko or the sculpture of Donald Judd, Davis’ stories give off a disarming appearance of simplicity. However, as anyone who’s ever tried to work in her manner without collapsing into mannerism will attest, there is tremendous art behind the artlessness. These assemblages are, in fact, tools, their purpose to wrench us a little bit out of our habitual ways of moving through the world. The word Disturbance is characteristically apt and elegant – le mot juste.

As is “Variety.” Like Davis’ other sterling collection of this decade, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, Varieties of Disturbance intermingles stories in the classic Davis mode with longer and more unusual experiments. Several of these – “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders,” “Mrs. D and Her Maids,” “Cape Cod Diary” – are among my favorite pieces here.

In Davis’ hands, things are both exactly what they are and not quite what they seem, and after an hour or so, Varieties of Disturbance starts to look less like a collection of experimental fiction and more like an adventure story: there’s no telling what the next page will bring.

(It’s also worth mentioning that this book has one of the best covers of the millennium.)

Read an Excerpt from Varieties of Disturbance.
More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)
Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Her stories are surgically good. They are like stainless steel surgical instruments.

    I received her forthcoming Collected Stories book in the mail the other day, which includes all of VARIETIES and her other collections. It’s wonderful.

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