If economy and precision are regulating principles for Davis, the words do not adequately indicate just what it's like to read her work. Her narrators solve puzzles, volley equations, and worry over issues of semantics, while choosing to ignore the human implications of their pursuits … Davis avoids the narrative dressing that typically assists the reader's feelings. Furthermore, there's a nearly autistic failure to acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter, and a curious lack of interest in narrative scenes between characters. The diction is cold and delivered in an anthropological monotone, which throbs like a bass note, suggesting that human beings are no more significant than a glass of water … Davis is an extraordinary technician of language, capable of revealing elusive human tendencies through the most unusual means.
[Davis] wants us to engage in a minute scrutiny of language, to pay attention to the valence of words and the logic of syntax for what they reveal of character, interiority and story. Sprinkling her present collection with aphorisms, anecdotes and internal monologues, she ensures that we will read very carefully indeed … Against all expectations, Davis coaxes idiosyncrasies of personality and society from a dry subject, but ultimately the writer’s intelligence and expertise are more memorable than the character studies conducted through laboratory samples of language. Still, when Davis sets her fiction fully loose to ponder questions of language and being, the results can be remarkable … Her belief that language is both the subject and the medium of fiction has not led her, as we might expect, into solipsistic echo chambers, but into new worlds.
I sometimes had the odd feeling I was reading a translation. Perhaps it was because of her pitch-perfect imitations of other authors (in this volume, ‘Kafka Cooks Dinner,’ a poignant and funny tour de force, is the sole example) or her somewhat puritanical renunciation of the swish of a signature style (a show of reserve that has itself become immediately recognizable). Her concerns are a translator's concerns: the necessity and difficulty of close reading — of books, of people, of the world; the obligation to refrain from imposing one's own agenda on that reading, however tempting it may be; and the impossibility of fulfilling that obligation … One of the great pleasures of Davis' work is discovering the many forms a story can take. And how much of the shtick of fiction it can do without: almost all of it.
Devoted fans will herald the arrival of her fourth story collection, Varieties of Disturbance. Though classic Davis in its economy, logic and wit, it nonetheless reflects a maturing — and sobering — intellect. These new pieces are rarely as pleasing as her earlier work (particularly the brilliant and sympathetic ‘Samuel Johnson Is Indignant’), but their almost scientific analysis of human feeling and communication is in many ways more acute … Each of these short pieces reads as an epiphany. Collected, they leave the impression of a writer's mind toiling, churning out revelations by the page … Like all of Davis' collections, Varieties of Disturbance is well structured, with longer stories broken up by short ones and recurring images spaced to allow readers the pleasure of gathering them up.
It’s inspiring to watch Davis map out knotty ruminations without devolving into tongue-tied panic. Her stories are also deeply funny, though not in a willful way. Eschewing one-liners, Davis creates humor by making distressing topics collide with matter-of-fact, vaguely fascinated tones. It’s as if her characters were rubbernecking while cruising past the pileups of their own obsessions. While the short pieces in Varieties will seem familiar to Davis’s fans, the longer ones reveal she is still pushing her material into even more complicated territory … Varieties also finds Davis cranking up her trademark philosophical jolts. Quite possibly buzzed on Proust, Davis (who recently translated Swann’s Way) delivers some intricate meditations on the elasticity of time … No topic that falls under her characters’ gaze sits still, because they can see through almost anything, even themselves.
Davis’ hallmark shorts provide addictively powerful, rapid encounters with tragedy, humor and existential confusion in the span of a page or a line. These tales reside in fiction’s grand thematic territory: sex, family, love and betrayal. But they also touch on less hallowed topics, including pet flatulence and eyeballs. Precious few of these stories signal ‘story’ through the use of dialogue, scenes or plot, but they thrill with their depth and dynamism … Though unconventional, the shorter pieces in Disturbance are formally conservative compared to the longer stories. With a few exceptions, these longer pieces challenge reader expectations and attention spans in lengthy narratives presented as case studies, pseudo-scientific journals and instructional manuals … These oddly shaped longer stories can be intriguing and funny, but also tedious—perhaps intentionally so.
Davis's spare, always surprising short fiction was most recently collected in Samuel Johnson Is Indignant . In this introspective, more sober culling, Davis touches on favorite themes (mothers, dogs, flies and husbands) and encapsulates, as in 'Insomnia,' everyday life's absurdist binds ... Davis's work defies categorization and possesses a moving, austere elegance.
Her impersonal, bloodless tone, plain prose style and tendency to summarize rather than dramatize can have a distancing effect; but Davis’ ability to parse hopelessly snarled human interactions (as in the title story) astounds. An initially off-putting collection that gradually becomes habit-forming.