Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: Stories

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Davis, Jackson, Comensal, Pinckney, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Lydia Davis, Lauren Michele Jackson, Jorge Comensal, Darryl Pinckney, and more—that are publishing this week.

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Essays One by Lydia Davis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Essays One: “The first in a planned two-volume collection of the nonfiction of short story author Davis (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant) proves a cornucopia of illuminating and timeless observations on literature, art, and the craft of writing. A master of short, punchy prose works, Davis discloses her influences, some of which may be surprising even to longtime fans, including Roland Barthes, Franz Kafka, and Grace Paley, among many more. In a few essays, Davis presents first drafts of her own work along with the final versions, annotating and explaining revisions and providing an instructive window into her process. Interwoven throughout are short pieces on some of Davis’s favorite artists, or alternatively, those whom she finds pleasingly confounding. In the latter category is expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, whose 1973 work Les Bluets Davis credits with helping her to accept and embrace the inscrutable. Invaluable is the 2013 piece ‘Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits,’ which outlines best practices for creative writing, from honing one’s observational techniques to crafting believable dialogue. Fans of Davis’s unfailingly clever work should add this volume to their collection, and creative writers of every genre should take the opportunity to learn from a legend.”

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Innocents: “In his fifth novel, Crummey (Sweetland) imparts another heartfelt, extraordinary perspective on survival in the rugged isolation of his homeland of Newfoundland, this time from two pre-adolescent, newly orphaned siblings, after illness fells their infant sister and parents. Evered and Ada Best endure inconceivably severe weather conditions; their 19th-century livelihoods are at the mercy of nature—will they harvest enough fish to trade for necessary winter provisions? Besides the biannual visits of the ship, ironically named The Hope and run by an unscrupulous money-man, the brother and sister only have each other for companionship. Happenstance brings a captain and his cook to their cove—just in time to save a feverish Ada from near death; later a ship full of sailors looking to replace their mainmast arrives, temporarily enlivening their existence. Against the sensitive portrayal of how two naïfs handle their budding sexuality, these fortuitous encounters underscore Evered’s and Ada’s innocence about life and the larger world. Crummey delivers profound insight into how individuals grapple with the forces of nature, not only in the unpredictable environment, but in the mystifying interior of their temperaments, drives, and character. This story of how two guileless youngsters navigate life will have a deep emotional impact on its readers.”

White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about White Negroes: “Northwestern University professor Jackson’s insightful debut essay collection takes on cultural appropriation—particularly of black innovation by white celebrities, artists, and entrepreneurs—through the lens of power dynamics, identifying it as a process by which ‘society’s imbalances are exacerbated and inequalities prolonged.’ In the realm of pop culture, she analyzes the pursuit of ‘urban’ sexual wildness by Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, the aesthetic but not economic investment of the Kardashians in black fashion, and Paula Deen’s fetishistic presentation of Southern food alongside explicit racism. Her exploration of the art world juxtaposes the public reaction to Rachel Dolezal, made famous by her ‘impulse to inhabit blackness,’ with accusations against institutions such as the Whitney Biennial, which she asserts ignores black artists but treats depictions of antiblack violence as edgy and relevant. She identifies toxic white resentment of black success in the recent viral videos of white people calling the police on black people (often children) for using public pools, having lemonade stands, or barbecuing in parks. Jackson is uncompromising in her bold language, palpable in her outrage; she keeps her razor-sharp analysis in an accessible but academic register. She both calls out the damage done by appropriative and oppressive behavior and calls in white readers to take part in valuing black contributions in a way that helps black lives.”

The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays of D.H. Lawrence edited by Geoff Dyer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Bad Side of Books: “Dyer (Broadsword Calling Danny Boy) selects and introduces an uneven but fascinating array of essays by D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930). Comprising 38 selections from the earlier collections Phoenix and Phoenix II, the book demonstrates Lawrence’s mastery of multiple genres, from philosophical tract (‘Of Being and Not-Being’) and book review (‘Death in Venice by Thomas Mann’), to memoir (“Myself Revealed”) and nature writing (“Flowery Tuscany”). Dyer edits with a light hand, presenting the essays in strict chronological order so readers can ‘follow the twists and turns of Lawrence’s writing and thought over time.’ Occasionally, his editorial presence proves too recessive, with minimal footnotes. The wide variety of topics—one stretch of essays considers, in turn, Cézanne, pornography, Christianity, and the mines of Lawrence’s home county of Nottingham—makes it likely that any reader can find something of interest, but unlikely that the entirety will appeal consistently to those new to Lawrence. Such neophytes will also find that some of Lawrence’s thoughts regarding race, ethnicity, and gender jar discordantly against modern norms. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive example of a curious mind grappling with big issues, and samples the work of a writer of great intelligence and wit.”

The Mutations by Jorge Comensal (translated by Charlotte Whittle)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Mutations: “Comensal’s punchy debut follows a group of physically and emotionally ailing characters in present-day Mexico City. Lawyer Ramon Martinez opens his mouth ‘like an angry baboon’ to discover a painful lump. His whole tongue needs to be removed; his wife Carmela seems more worried about his children’s reactions than his pain, though she adopts his insomnia ‘in solidarity.’ Psychoanalyst Teresa de la Vega, a breast cancer survivor, specializes in treating people with illnesses. One patient is Eduardo, a young man also very concerned with cancer, having had leukemia as a child. Teresa obsesses over Eduardo as Carmela does over her family. When Eduardo comes down with bronchitis, Teresa and the reader are compelled to wonder about the connection between neurosis and physical ailments. A quote from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor introduces the novel’s second half. Teresa, Eduardo, and Ramon and his family anchor the narrative, while Comensal folds in other, complementary plot threads. Ramon’s doctor, Joaquin Aldama, becomes passionately involved in the care of his terminal patient Lorena Galvan, but not so much in that of Luis Ramirez, who is fond of complex conspiracy theories about his illness. The novel gets its comic charge from blunt and colorful descriptions of emotional situations that in other fiction would dictate long and evocative passages (‘The dream’s latent content represented the paradox of the jouissance of the Other.’). Sidestepping sentimentality and elaborate emotional expression, Comensal brings comic compassion to his treatment of contemporary neuroses.”

Busted in New York and Other Essays by Darryl Pinckney

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Busted in New York and Other Essays: “This robust group of essays written between 1994 and 2018 by novelist Pinckney (Black Deutschland) explores African-American identity, politics, and culture. Covering such topics as Aretha Franklin’s ‘profound influence’ and what Pinckney sees as Afro-pessimism’s futility, the author puts his insightful perspective on full display in each selection. From the highs of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign to the lows of police violence in Ferguson, Mo., Pinckney acknowledges both the social progress that’s been made and the urgency for further change. In the book’s title essay, Pinckney recounts spending a night in the Manhattan municipal jail known as ‘the Tombs’ after he and two friends were arrested for smoking a joint outside a nightclub. Spending that night and much of the next day behind bars, Pinckney observes how ‘the system’ exercises absolute control over ‘the nonwhite young, the poor’ in ways previously unknown to him and his friends, all educated professionals able to easily brush off the experience. Reflections on black women’s experiences are relatively underrepresented, but nonetheless, Pinckney demonstrates his extensive range as a commentator on African-American life. This collection offers a deep dive into his prolific career as an indispensable critic of his times.”

A Writer’s Writer’s Writer: Lydia Davis and the Naked Mind


At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child. —Lydia Davis, “A Double Negative”
Like many Lydia Davis fans, I sometimes mentally write parodies of her very short stories as I go about my day. Once you’ve been steeped in her work, this can become a mental tic:
The plastic things in the dishwasher never get dry. I do not want to dry them by hand before I put them away, yet if I do not put them away I cannot load the dirty dishes that are in the sink. I could put the plastic things away wet, but I am afraid of mildew.
Davis is mostly an acquired taste, but her way of seeing is contagious. She writes in a form that is, as far as I know, entirely her own. There is such a thing as flash fiction—stories of a page or so—but Davis takes brevity one step further. Many of her stories are no more than three or four lines; most are no more than a medium-sized paragraph. The sentence in the epigraph is not an excerpt from “A Double Negative.” It’s the whole story.

She is, The New Yorker once quipped, “a writer’s writer’s writer”—but her work isn’t really difficult. It’s oddly shaped, true, but it’s also entertaining and frank and often full of emotion. Her subject matter is often maddeningly quiet: A rug is sold; strangers silently judge each other on a train; a woman tries to decide what to do while her baby naps; a bowl of cornmeal releases steam. Yet what she writes is somehow clearly fiction, not prose poems or aphorisms or miniature essays.

She doesn’t so much compress the classic short story form as throw it out entirely. She is mostly uninterested in character development, exposition, setting, and conventional plot. Her stories tend to be linear, logical, cerebral, and funny, revealing oddities of thought and feeling, tiny shifts in character, quirks in language.

I recently reread her five story collections and found them far more personal than I remembered, and also strangely comforting. Strangely, because Davis can seem like cold comfort. Her metaphysical outlook is bleak, her scope microscopic. A surprising number of stories have to do with insects and mice. She revels in the small, the mundane, even the petty.

Taken individually, her stories can be baffling; a single one is usually too slender and strange for the mind to grab hold of. Read cumulatively, and they take you somewhere new.

She can be a usage scold, ferreting out writing problems and holding them up to the light with philosophic curiosity. (“The trouble you reported is now working properly.”) Her third collection is titled Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and a number of her stories take the form of letters to hotel and store managers complaining about misworded signs. The habit can feel misanthropic, but it reveals a ferocious protectiveness of language and a thirst for precision. Her own sentences are pristine, so she is in a position to cast stones.

“A Double Negative” is typical of her. The title indicates that this is not a story about people or feelings, but syntax. Then comes an unapologetic statement of ambivalence toward motherhood. And yet the woman described seems prepared to go ahead in order to avoid regret. She is making a ruthless calculus, but an honest one. What will motherhood be like for her? What will childhood be like for her children? In the final phrase, attention to language reasserts itself with the nearly punctilious sensitivity to verb tense—but this is also a psychological development, because there is a difference between not having and not having had. At the end we are left looking at all that white space on the page, which elevates this complicated sentence to the level of a story. Which implies that something has happened.

Most of her narrators conspicuously lack vanity. They wear their own worst qualities on their sleeves—their selfishness, impatience, anxiety, or addiction to comfort. They are bad mothers and wives and teachers, and they don’t mind if we notice. (The early stories about bad girlfriends are equally undisguised about neediness.)

But the lack of disguise is attractive, to me anyway. Her brevity has a lot to do with it; we never have time to tire of the tiresome qualities. So does her humor. (“Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become ‘better organized.’”)

She is rarely metaphysical. Christianity makes appearances in Davis’s work, but far less frequently than commuter trains, Flaubert, and bugs. “The Churchyard” mentions a dream image of cradling the living body of Jesus “amid a cozy pile of people.” A really motivated reader could argue for this as an image of the universal church, except that Davis’s work in general doesn’t really support this. The story “Index Entry” reads, in its entirely, “Christian, I’m not a.” It’s as though she thought we might be wondering.

At five pages, a very long story by her standards, “Pastor Elaine’s Newsletter” is her most sustained meditation on the Bible. In a newsletter from a church they visited once at Easter, a couple reads the pastor’s lesson on a verse from the book of Romans: “I do not understand what I do; for I don’t do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate” (a 2,000-year-old sentence that reads like a Lydia Davis story).

The verse, and the pastor’s letter, provoke the couple, and they read a little further in a King James Bible one of their mothers has left in their house (which might be a metaphor for Davis’s own relationship to religion). They read in the book of Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit, in particular “long-suffering,” a quality they feel the lack of when it comes to their children:
We think how we have been with our children this day or the day before, how we have stood holding the little one, so heavy, and put out our hand to push the arm of the older one to get him out of our way or to make him move faster, or driven in the car with them in the heat, damp, with a knot of rage in us, and yearned to reach inside, or outside, somewhere, and find more long-suffering, and have not known how to do it.
Having driven in a hot car with bickering children myself, when Davis’s complicated sentence turns its final corner at the phrase “yearned to reach,” I expect not a yearning to reach inside the self but a yearning to reach into the back seat and grab someone’s arm, not gently. The interior turn takes me by surprise.

Davis is not a religious writer, but she is often a moral one, and her moral stories strike hard. This one ends with a chilling, this-worldly consciousness of the effects of the parents’ anger:
And we wonder: What stores of anger have we laid down in the older one already? What hardness are we putting in the heart of the little one, where there was no hardness?
The very funny “I’m Pretty Comfortable but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable” is a list of 67 upper-middle-class complaints like: “This pesto is hard to blend” and “The sound system in the exam room is playing folk music” and “The people in front of us are taking a long time choosing their ice cream.” Taken as a whole, they reveal an excruciating level of self-concern that feels unsettlingly familiar.

It’s probably clear by now that Davis is both a cerebral and a domestic writer, and for me this is her main appeal. I might like to live more in the world of language and ideas, like I did in grad school, but I now spend a lot of time on mundane chores I sometimes enjoy and sometimes loathe.

Davis is a philosopher who situates her interrogations in the workaday world. “Cows” is on the one hand a painstaking study of visual perception, but it’s also about standing in the kitchen looking out the window. “We Miss You” is about the subtle ways in which language reveals character, but it’s also about children writing to a sick classmate. “Priority” is about existential paralysis and dishes.

This habit of mind has a feminist dimension: She gently but firmly sets aside the false binary between women who wonder about the nature of time and women who deal with cat pee.

If the struggle of middle age is accepting life as it is, with its limitations and commitments, the creeping frailty of the body, the ingrained habits of mind, not all of them good—and if the sweetness of middle age is a better ability to see one’s flaws and sigh or smile over them rather than grinding one’s teeth—then Davis is a writer for midlife.

Perhaps she writes so very briefly because she deliberately avoids justifying or explaining faults. Many great novelists take pains to help us empathize with difficult characters, to show us what history has shaped them, how their minds work. Dostoevsky wants us to understand why Raskolnikov murders the old woman, to see his choice as in some way logical and sane. Nabokov seduces us with beautiful language so that Humbert Humbert does not seem like a monster. Davis takes an opposite approach. Though she writes about sins far more tepid and small than these, it’s the lack of defense that shocks.

Davis has said in an interview that she is judgmental because her mother and mother’s mother were judgmental, and that the critical voice is always with her. Throughout the stories runs a secondary thread of moral anxiety that an old Catholic might call scrupulosity—a paralysis over the fine shadings of right and wrong—painted with a mix of humor and pathos. The story called “Right and Wrong” begins, “She knows she is right, but to say she is right is wrong, in this case,” then spins out a dozen variations and contingencies without ever mentioning what the woman is right about. The story “How Difficult,” about a woman whose mother has continually called her “selfish, careless, and irresponsible” ends this way:
Now I’m the one who says to myself, “Why can’t you think of others first, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing, why don’t you remember what has to be done?” I am annoyed. I sympathize with my mother. How difficult I am! But I can’t say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself.
In such a stringently judgmental context, a naked statement like “she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child” feels like an act of rebellion and courage.

Davis is not indifferent to the consequences of real failings (“What stores of anger have we laid down in the older one already?”), but she seems to indicate that we can only tell our real problems from imaginary ones if we first see clearly. We must first clear away the well-intentioned, softening camouflage.

And after all, decluttering is what Lydia Davis does best.

Image: Flickr/Hey Paul Studios

#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis

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Lydia 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

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