...despite the quality of remoteness that permeates all of Davis’s work, in Our Strangers, our present anxieties creep in ... Rather than overt argument, what mainly preoccupies Davis is meticulous, almost obsessive observation of other people: passengers on trains, diners at Salzburg restaurants, a woman at a Watertown Price Chopper attempting to recycle shampoo bottles. The book feels, at times, like a compendium of off-kilter folk tales. But as the collection builds, a quiet statement begins to form: Davis seems to be providing a vision of how we might relate to the people who exist around us, of what an actual community might look like ... As fun as these neighborly fables are, the stories that linger draw their emotional heft from, or capture wry truths about, our closest attachments ... A few stories lose their tautness, particularly the ones that mention the process of their own composition...But even these reveal Davis’s ethic, which is as alert to grammatical constructions as to reality’s specifics.
Davis, a meticulous fiction writer and an acclaimed translator, observes words with care and bemusement, tuned to the way different contexts alter their sound and meaning, sparking confusion or humor or heartbreak ... However strange the process, there’s plainly pleasure in it for her, and that feeling is infectious across Our Strangers ... Davis is keying in on something more specific: the disconnect between how a speaker and receiver grasp the world, how we strive to keep others’ attention to our silly little anecdotes. If the mom wants a deeper connection with her children, why isn’t she getting it? Why does she feel a tale of applesauce will close the gap? Davis takes story seriously because she’s alert to how conventional storytelling disappoints us. For her, a clear arc always has to confront the world’s absurdity ... Davis’ fussiness evokes watchmakers or jewelers, but those analogies miss her humor. Indeed, her MO is a little closer to Buster Keaton’s. His cinematic gags were often built on the careful assemblage of a host of pieces that sometimes resolved in catastrophe, sometimes meshed delightfully. Either way, they’re beautifully choreographed, braiding attentiveness with a sense of the surreal. It’s the same for Davis: For all her concern with specificity and exactitude, her stories are usually set in moments where imprecision and confusion rule.
Lydia Davis is a sly miniaturist whose distinct blend of personal reflection, flash fiction, and poetic concision serve up little epiphanies in shot glass-sized portions ... Fortunately, Our Strangers, which is Bookshop.org's first publication, is notable for more than its author's stand against online behemoths ... I've enjoyed Davis's koan-like stories for years but never reviewed them, in part because I found them more appealing when ingested in micro-doses, like homeopathic remedies, rather than glugged down from start to finish on deadline.
Although I still prefer to savor her work in dainty sips, I'm happy to report that, even read straight through, the more than 150 short-shorts in Our Strangers again feature her wry response to what she sees as life's essential oddness. Her focus has shifted largely from issues of parenting and domestic relationships to aspects of aging, but the results are as penetrating as anything she's written.