Lydia Davis' amusing, insightful stories address the estrangements of everyday life – and resist the hollowing of language

Jeffrey Czum/Pexels
Jeffrey Czum/Pexels

Lydia Davis is known for her minimalist fiction – “economy, precision and originality” is how the author Ali Smith once described her style. Her shortest story, Index Entry, amounts to just four words:

Christian, I’m not a.

Davis’ latest book Our Strangers is a pageant of quirky observations, dialogue-driven vignettes and gnomic flashes of insight. Among the shortest stories is Overheard on the Train: Two Old Ladies Agree, which at seven words is even shorter than its title:

“Everything gets worse.”

“Does anything get better?”

Stripped down to the barest narrative elements of character and event, Davis’ flash fiction requires the reader to actively engage in the production of meaning. We are forced to fill in the blanks to find some sense of resolution or satisfaction.

Review: Our Strangers – Lydia Davis (Canongate)

The stories in Our Strangers magnify minor conflicts during train and plane commutes, on phone calls with telemarketers, and in online forums. Often these banal scenarios provide subtle but convenient means of reflecting on bigger issues, such as the prospect of death, marriage breakdown, regrets about what we have said, and the effects of capitalism and technology on art, communication and politics.

Our Strangers is an assorted meditation on these and many other contradictions and absurdities of postmodern life. What unites Davis’ disparate stories are the startling moments of misrecognition, misremembrance and miscommunication that intrude on everyday life.

Sometimes, what results is funny. Some of the vignettes read like your standard Larry David scenario, with their combination of bad timing, presumed slights blown out of proportion, and a stubborn refusal to let little things go.

In one story, a woman on a train asks a young couple to mind her bag while she uses the restroom, but in an impulsive moment decides to enlist a more respectable-looking man to watch the couple. The drama escalates when he loudly refuses and the couple discover her treachery.

Many of Davis’ narrators feel alienated from and irritated by strangers going about their daily business. In Those Two Loud Women, Davis taps into the pervasive annoyance when others do not respect our expectations of decorum in public spaces:

Those two loud women – if they’re going to talk so constantly near me on the train, they could at least have an interesting conversation, one that I would like to overhear!

At times, the futility approaches Beckett-like absurdity. Characters become almost as irrationally irked by conversations with members of their own families. In several stories entitled Marriage Moment of Annoyance, cracks in otherwise functional relationships appear in the most routine interactions: deciding what to have for dinner; asking who was on the phone. One such story of marital annoyance reads,

“[Mumble, mumble].”

“I can’t hear you.”

“Do you want to hear me?”



She was trying to explain something to him.

What she said was confusing, contradictory, and a little incoherent.

“You’re like that insurance document!” he said to her.

Davis exalts these confused moments in which the people closest to us become strange and unknowable. At other times, her register shifts, in quick succession, from quirky humour to heartfelt reminiscences and sobering earnestness. Quietly reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s lyric poetry, the final story When We Are Dead and Gone reflects on the frontier between life and death:

When we are dead and gone,

it might be comforting

to hear the quick knock on the door

and the voice from the far side saying,


though we won’t be able to open the door.

This and other pieces blur the presumed borders between prose and poetry, while reflecting on their part in a storied literary tradition. One story evokes the “condensery” of thoughts and images of Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker. Struggling to recall someone she has seen on the train so she can write about him – “That obnoxious man!” – the narrator is suddenly struck by a similar phrase from an untitled Niedecker poem, which begins “The museum man…”.

This sets off a chain of questioning. Did her own phrase make her think of the poem? Or could it be that it “worked both ways: I began the story with those words because somewhere in my memory, though I didn’t know it, was the Niedecker poem”.

The narrator then rewrites her observations in the style of the Niedecker poem. A story that begins as one thing – an ordinary memory – becomes something more extraordinary: a reflection on craft, and the struggle between innovation and tradition.

Other authors alluded to in Our Strangers include Henry James, Franz Kafka, Ezra Pound (and his musician mistress Olga Rudge), Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare. Several stories dwell on the six degrees of separation that hypothetically connect ordinary people to such extraordinary characters.

Samuel Beckett (1977). <a href=",_Pic,_1_(cropped).jpg" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Roger Pic/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Roger Pic/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons</a>

These numbered stories, titled Claim to Fame, centre on marginal figures whose lives orbit well-known individuals, such as Marx’s brilliant daughter Eleanor “Tussy” Marx: a socialist editor, journalist, and translator, who, like Davis, translated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English.

We are introduced not to the famous burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, but to her unknown sister, apparently remembered as an actress by her own community. These sideways perspectives shift our collective memories of these famous historical characters, who become somehow more and less familiar to us.

Read more: In The Candy House, Jennifer Egan delivers an inventive novel for a digital age

Optimism of the will

Our Strangers also reflects Davis’ broader concerns about literature’s place in today’s political economy of words. This is not least because it opens with a statement on the importance of independent bookselling in an age of monopolistic practices. The book, the publisher advises, “is available for sale only at physical bookshops,, and selected online independent retailers”.

Davis “hopes this decision will stand as a sign of her solidarity with independent booksellers and encourage further conversation about the vital importance of a diverse publishing ecosystem”. She feels “corporations should [not] have as much control over our lives as they do”.

She is not alone. She joins a growing group of authors who are seeking ways to resist the corporations that monitor, influence and commoditise what we read. Dave Eggers similarly refused to allow Amazon to sell the first run of his novel The Every (2021), about the perils of big-tech monopolies. Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence (2021), another COVID-era publication about what it means to be restored by books, also opens with a plea for US readers to support independent bookstores, such as Birchbark Books: a “locus” for “literate Indigenous people who have survived over half a millennium on this continent”.

The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci would conceptualise the root of these concerns as “cultural hegemony”: the ways in which those in power rule not only by controlling the economy, law and politics, but by governing the ideas of an age through the regulation of cultural production. This situation has only escalated since the beginning of the pandemic. While independent booksellers navigated the challenges of lockdowns, Amazon’s profits rose astronomically. That trend has not declined.

Our Strangers is not a political manifesto. Davis does not write openly about issues that concern her. Rather, she chooses to “let the preoccupation come out indirectly”. In the story Gramsci, for example, a man overhears his wife discussing the theorist with a friend on the phone, making a note of the credo Gramsci penned in 1929, while imprisoned by the Fascisti: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Although the wife later explains who Gramsci is, the husband initially worries it is an expensive Italian designer she wishes to splurge on, because they “don’t often use the word Marxist in their home”.

The political enters Davis’s collection through such unexpected flashes. Insights are gained through dry humour and ironies produced by misunderstandings and things left unsaid. While Our Strangers depicts deeply personal scenarios, the stories come together as an incisive snapshot of our present moment. The rifts that have opened up in US society since 2016, and deepened during the pandemic, provide the context for these meditations on miscommunication and disconnection.

Davis’ narrators use writing to try to take personal stands against the “wastefulness” of corporations, blasting apart the hypocrisy of their rhetoric. Letter to the U.S. Postal Service Concerning a Poster takes the form of a complaint about a poster for Styrofoam peanuts “co-sponsored by an internet auction service”. The advertisement describes sending parcels wrapped in synthetic materials destined to become landfill as “a kind of love”.

The narrator argues that “people shipping items that have been purchased through an internet auction are strangers to people buying these items, and the transaction is purely commercial”. The letter indicts the government service for selling out to large corporations, and in the process encouraging “the sort of” social and environmental “wastefulness of which our society is already sufficiently guilty.”

The complaints of Davis’ characters often come across as whimsically self-indulgent, naive and hypocritical. One writes a complaint letter to the eco-friendly corporation Who Gives a Crap, praising their charity contributions, while criticising their “attitude of brutal indifference that is all too actually pervasive in the times we are living in” by using language that might offend the neighbours when their boxes arrive on a customer’s doorstep.

Davis’ narrators can seem to be naive or lacking in self-awareness, but the stories are attempting to address the challenge of what Davis in one interview suggested was the most important issue facing the contemporary writer and us all: the climate crisis. What can the individual writer do to make a difference, to effect meaningful change, when corporations are not held accountable?

Many of Davis’ characters struggle to retain their political and moral values, while succumbing to the trappings of convenience and complacency. They also yearn for meaningful connections in a digitally networked social landscape that feels paradoxically disconnecting.

The collection’s title suggests the term estrangement, derived from the Latin extraneare: “to treat as a stranger”. Marx, namedropped in one story, saw alienation as the result of “estranged labor”, which reduced people to commodities and social relations to mere exchanges, alienating us from our work, one another and ourselves.

This seems to be an implicit concern of stories such as A Woman Offering Magazines, in which the narrator reflects on her quarrel with a woman selling magazine subscriptions over the phone, “who in the end did not seem like a real woman, or even a real human being”. They are unable to regard each other as real humans because they are locked in an awkward transaction:

I gave her a small bit of my humanity and she annihilated it suddenly, in a lighting bolt […] not because she was angry […] I was no longer useful to her. In fact, we did not really quarrel. And, really, there was no “we”.

What does capitalism do to our ability to connect with other people? It hollows out our words, Davis suggests. It reduces language to a mere transaction and people to strangers. All the while, corporations try to sell us the idea that their services will bring us the opposite: unlimited connection.

One takeaway message from Our Strangers seems to be that literature serves its purpose when it connects us with the community of humanity. At its best, literature provides an outlet for the pessimist to observe and exalt the ordinary, to read and know other people, to embrace them with all their oddities, flaws and predictabilities.

Above all, literature can strengthen the pessimist’s will and optimism, so that we can encounter our fellow strangers as more than their exchange values. This is not the kind of connection Amazon is designed to facilitate, nor the kind of community you sign up to on Facebook, a point Davis comically makes in Pardon the Intrusion, which is formatted like the forum messages posted on a local online marketplace.

The standout title story – among the longer, more allegorical inclusions – hones in on the interpersonal volatility that can arise when unfamiliar people live in proximity to one another. It suggests that, with time, those neighbours one might resent and regard as enemies can “become a sort of family”, bound together by a sense of familiarity and shared experiences that rise above presumed differences.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Tamlyn Avery, The University of Queensland.

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Tamlyn Avery does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.