The recently released The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis seems likely to be met with much the same responses as were Flannery O'Connor's comprehensive The Complete Stories and John Cheever's somewhat more selective The Stories of John Cheever: both an exuberant embrace of, finally, a singular locus for all of her work and a defiant rejection of what many may see as a marketing ploy that deprives each work of its specificity and singularity in its respective, original collection. I certainly understand the grousing of the latter camp: it can be unnerving to discover that you're reading – or listening to or watching or in any sense experiencing – something in a manner other than that in which it was initially intended by its author. But I see no reason not to rejoice at this new publication: I have all of her work but I still intend on buying this, if only to have everything so concretely in one digestible, easily-relocatable spot.
"Boring Friends," from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, is one of my favorite of Davis' short stories; I think this is in large part due to how beguilingly it snuck up on me: I initially was entirely unmoved by it, and even felt somewhat annoyed by what, for lack of a better word, felt like it's "ease." Here it is in its entirety:
We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.
It is not, as it turns out, an easy story, but it makes it difficult to appreciate this. Initially the story struck me as something half-finished, innocuous in its Seinfeld-esque humor; surely, I could identify with the articulately, artlessly phrased concerns of its pluralized narrator, but it felt too self-conscious in its attempt at a clever exposition of the logic behind these concerns. And the story ends before it "does" anything with this observation, not yet quite an anecdote; I think that what had, in part, led me to being annoyed me by the story was a blurb quoted on the book jacket in which a critic referred to her as "an erudite stand-up comedian." I had approached the book as if it were, essentially, a collection of high-minded jokes; and certainly there are jokes, but it is not a collection of them: as I should have understood, it is a collection of stories. And the story here is oblique and hidden: there are many hints at what is "behind" the story – the plural narrator is just wonderful, the "we" not actually signifying a dual narration but rather just a colloquial combination, on the singular narrator's part, of him- or herself with the other half of what is likely a marriage or coupleship of some sort; this, more than anything else, leads the reader into considering further who the narrator may be, something that would not happen as readily were the narration singular – but what I find most poignant and daring about the story is how essentially boring it is. While the story is not, as I had first thought, a simple, approachable, universally identifiable, and uninteresting piece of observational humor, it is observational humor that the narrator had set out to make, and thus Davis' story is rather a story about the story presented herein than the story presented by the prose; this just breaks my heart: the narrator is so recognizable in his or her eagerness to make a clever joke but is ultimately "undone," in a sense, by Davis' injection of minor "hints" at the story beyond the narrator's story; the wonderfully too-specific "only four" is perhaps the greatest example of these. I love how Davis so fearlessly couches her real intentions behind or within the prose of her stories; the "true stories" exist outside of the prose, but Davis makes a selfless artistic gamble in presenting her stories this way. "Boring Friends" is a masterfully calibrated story, willing to sacrifice to some its tremendous effect in the pursuit of so beautifully capturing someone who may, really, just be a kind of boring person.
I would love to hear your impressions of the story; you may find it in the Media section of her Art+Culture Artist page here.