Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Samuel Johnson is Indignant by Lydia Davis

Even as I feel the hot breath of the New York Public Library puffing down my collar, I don’t particularly want to give up the books I have of theirs in my possession. Among these is SJII, a collection of short stories that was first published by McSweeney’s, though I have flimsy Picador edition.

A ton of these stories are short shorts--the titular “Samuel Johnson is Indignant” is one sentence--which makes quoting them hard. I like that many of them are filled with a kind of tired fun, which mirrors my mod these last few months. In “Finances,” a story about worth in love, a man and a woman argue: “If I give all I have and you give all you have, isn’t that a kind of equality? No, he says.” Of course, on paper, a relationship is never worth it; you can almost feel the sigh of the author. Most of these shorties are the thoughts of cold narrators, or statements that feel like they’ve dropped from the lips of slightly nasty characters that seem so bland on the surface, such a as a woman who calls her sister down the stairs because she finds it amusing to watch the sister struggle to move her weight down them. Maybe they have names and genders, perhaps a profession (writers and teachers, mostly), but no features that poke out and stay stuck in the mind.

The two stories that I enjoyed the most, “In A Northern Country” and “The Furnace,” were both longer works with characters that throbbed. When I say I enjoyed them, I guess that I should also say that they were not enjoyable topics and in fact made me feel a little sad. But it is that absorption into a story is what I crave, and both delivered. “In A Northern Country” is about an old man in search of his brother, who sets off to a strange country with a dying language, only to become lost himself. I could feel the cold seeping in through the drafty lodgings the man found and the struggle to keep his memories in line with this unwanted, nightmarish present. “Furnace” is about an adult woman who keeps an unusual correspondence with her increasingly out-of-it father. As he looses his detailed stories of life to his daughter, she struggles to record them and not forget, as he is doing, a task that seems really out of place in her everyday life. I loved the descriptions of the notations he made on newspaper articles sent to his daughter. Without a ton of words, Davis is able to give us a feeling of this man, a really warm touch in a chilly book.

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