‘Jack in the Country’ by Lydia Davis

I’m a long-time reader, first time contributor, to the Personal Anthology series— and perhaps I read it with a slightly competitive edge. I drank in Jonathan’s recent deep-dive into the five years of the project, and was unsurprised to see Lydia Davis reigning supreme among the picks. I nearly picked her perfect-paragraph story, ‘The Mother’, but as she has so many bangers, why choose one that’s been picked before? (Reading it would take you less time than reading this Anthology anyway.)

Davis could write a story about anything — in a conversation for the International Literature Festival Dublin in 2021,I heard her speak of feeling inspired by overhearing the term “caramel drizzle” at an airport Starbucks. ‘Jack in the Country’ sits at just over a page, and centres around a couple swapping stories about their friend Jack. The only issue is that they’re talking about different Jacks, a misunderstanding with disastrous consequences. As is Davis’ signature, it’s brilliantly concise and deftly sad, a parable of the impossibility of complete communication in a relationship:

“Henry cannot know, since he will not speak to Laura, that in fact a third Jack has become involved in this story, to the distress of the second Jack, for Laura’s affections have already strayed from the Jack that Ellen knows only slightly and that Henry does not know, and fastened on a Jack in the country unknown to them all.”

First published in Almost No Memory, Picador, 1997. Collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Penguin, 2014)

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