Making Meaning from a Moment in Lydia Davis’s Our Strangers: A Review by Jazmyn Lowe

Miscommunication, simple acts of kindness, observations on aging and death: these create the fabric of Lydia Davis’s newest collection of flash fiction, Our Strangers. With minimalistic prose, Davis reminds us that even the most mundane moments are integral parts of understanding the human condition. Those often-overlooked exchanges between people create the foundation with which we become who we are and how we interact with one another. In “Egg,” for example, we are introduced to two American babies learning how to talk. The babies point to a white object and excitedly say their version of the word. “It does not matter that the round white object is not an egg but a ping pong ball. In time, they will learn this, too,” remarks the narrator. 

Known for her direct and precise style, Davis has produced several collections of both fiction and nonfiction as well as one novel. Her translations from French to English have earned her various awards, and other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship (2003), an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2013), the Man Booker International Prize (2013), and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story (2020). A short story found in this collection, “Claim to Fame #1: Ezra Pound”, was featured in issue nine of Miracle Monocle. Her career has showcased her unique style and heightened observational skills. 

Indeed, many of the stories included in the septuagenarian’s collection carry an undercurrent of a life spent in observation. This observation is precise and often poignant, such as the stories that discuss aging and death. In “Fear of Aging,” Davis’s version of flash fiction is only a short sentence: “At twenty-eight, she longs to be twenty-five again.” Davis’s gift of brevity is on full display in this piece as the reader finds that short gap of three years reinforced by the structure with which she gives it. Yet, the remaining space on the page plays its part: there is more life to be lived. 

Some stories discuss perspective: “It may be ugly, but it may simply be unusual, colorful, and strange”; “What drowned was a daddy longlegs. No one missed him, we thought. But with insects it’s hard to tell”; “‘Do I have a father, or did I have a father?’” These moments open the observation to the reader and provide a new lens with which to view mundane moments. Is that lamp ugly, or would it be beautiful to someone else? Are insects missed? Does the death of a parent change their standing place in our lives? 

Davis deftly interweaves moments of revision and meta-narrative into the collection. “Conversation at Noisy Party on Snowy Winter Afternoon in the Country,” for example, precedes its shorter version ten pages later. The shorter version includes only the dialogue of the party and omits the explanation of the joke and awkward misunderstanding of it. “Interesting Personal Vegetables” is followed by “Commentary on Interesting Personal Vegetables” in which Davis explains the mistakes she made in translation: “What she thought might have been wrapped in a blue aerogram letter was not a kunci but buncis, green beans.” These are examples of moments in which Davis invites the reader into the process of storytelling. In a collection laser-focused on observation, we are reminded that even her craft is included. 

Many of these stories include the interactions that take place between one another or, in the case of her "Claim to Fame" stories, tangential relationships. It is in these stories that the world is condensed into something more manageable, its vastness reduced to a connected network. The titular story examines the relationships between neighbors and how they can be vulnerable or conservative depending on the people involved. What is most interesting is that, even in conservative relationships, vulnerability is inevitable because of the proximity to one another in an apartment complex. The narrator tells us: “We are like a family and unlike a family, since we come together as strangers and form a temporary alliance, while family members often come to be strangers and are bound together only by blood.” 

Davis has made this collection of 144 stories available only through independent bookstores and specific online retailers to boycott Amazon’s monopolization of the market. 

JAZMYN LOWE is a prose editor of Miracle Monocle and aspiring author from southern Indiana.