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'Almost No Memory' by Lydia Davis

Fairy Tales Infused With A Heavy Dose Of Reality

Sunday, August 31, 1997

By Jane Mccafferty


Almost No Memory

By Lydia Davis

Farrar, Straus & Giroux


This book will appeal to people who are occasionally weary of the contemporary short story. Davis is a rebel, ignoring conventional expectation about what constitutes a story.

Many of these "stories" are paragraphs, such as "The Thirteenth Woman," which quickly tells the tale of a woman living in "a town of twelve women." The 13th woman is the outsider, made to feel invisible by the town and eventually by the universe itself.

"The rain did not fall on her, the sun never shone on her."

Davis gives us a long list of the woman's deprivations, and then ends the story by telling us "and yet in spite of all this she continued to live in the town without resenting what it did to her." I'm not sure if the story mocks a cultural code that tells women to suffer in silence or if Davis is more interested in revealing how swiftly language can create a fairy tale, complete with a main character who is admirable, if unbelievable. This sort of ambiguousness pervaded many of my responses to her work, and I enjoyed juggling the possibilities of meaning.

In "The Professor," a narrator tells us about her history of fantasizing about cowboys. This story is about how we internalize myth and how myth shapes our desire. The narrator knows that her ideas of "cowboys" come mostly from movies and knows that if she were to meet a "real cowboy" they'd have nothing in common, but still the fantasy has power. The narrator extends the cowboy myth by telling her own story. I won't give away the wonderful, surprising ending.

This experimental work succeeds because almost all the stories bring to light some kind of human truth. In "Glenn Gould," a woman narrates the story of her lonely time in a small town with a baby. The woman speaks in a flat, measured tone, as do all of Davis' narrators. It is as if they distrust themselves with language, knowing how powerful it is.

But in "Glenn Gould," the tone is also one of intimacy, of a woman who imagines an audience which cares about what ultimately is a very small chapter in her life. She has a baby, she watches "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," she falls in love with the show and imagines herself living Mary's life. And she feels consoled and proud when she discovers that Gould, the great pianist, also likes the show.

It's not so much the content that makes this ultimately both a funny and touching story as it is the narrator's odd mixture of restraint and confidentiality. It's also unusual to find television represented this way in literature. Usually, it's mocked or it's symbolic or it's background noise to remind us of what capitalists we are. In this story, the TV sitcom is a quiet refuge that enriches a lonely woman's imagination.

Questioning literary convention seems to be this writer's real concern. What's fascinating here is how her often radical inquiry remains quiet enough to allow the characters to live.

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