Can't and Won't: Stories

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A new collection of short stories from the woman Rick Moody has called "the best prose stylist in America"

Her stories may be literal one-liners: the entirety of "Bloomington" reads, "Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before." Or they may be lengthier investigations of the havoc wreaked by the most mundane disruptions to routine: in "A Small ...

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Can't and Won't: Stories

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A new collection of short stories from the woman Rick Moody has called "the best prose stylist in America"

Her stories may be literal one-liners: the entirety of "Bloomington" reads, "Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before." Or they may be lengthier investigations of the havoc wreaked by the most mundane disruptions to routine: in "A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates," a professor receives a gift of thirty-two small chocolates and is paralyzed by the multitude of options she imagines for their consumption. The stories may appear in the form of letters of complaint; they may be extracted from Flaubert's correspondence; or they may be inspired by the author's own dreams, or the dreams of friends.

What does not vary throughout Can't and Won't, Lydia Davis's fifth collection of stories, is the power of her finely honed prose. Davis is sharply observant; she is wry or witty or poignant. Above all, she is refreshing. Davis writes with bracing candor and sly humor about the quotidian, revealing the mysterious, the foreign, the alienating, and the pleasurable within the predictable patterns of daily life.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Peter Orner
[Davis's] stories have a way of affecting the senses so that indecision itself becomes drama and a mutual shrug between two strangers can take on more meaning. This is what the best and most original literature can do: make us more acutely aware of life on and off the page. To read Davis is to become a co-conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation…this collection is as mercifully flawed and awkward as her characters themselves. Call Lydia Davis the patron saint of befuddled reality…What Davis is attempting to express is the wild divergence of human experience, how the ordinary and the profound not only coexist but depend on each other.
Publishers Weekly
★ 01/13/2014
With her fifth collection, Davis (Break It Down) continues to hone her subtle and distinctive brand of storytelling. These poems, vignettes, thoughts, observations, and stories defy clear categorization; each one is an independent whole, but read together they strike a fine rhythm. Davis circles the same central point in each entry: her characters examine the world with a detached, self-contained logic that seems to represent the process of writing itself. Some of the best pieces in the collection are the shortest, like “Brief Incident in Short a, Long a, and Schwa,” which ends: “Ant backtracks fast—straight at cat. Cat, alarmed, backs away. Man, standing, staring, laughs. Ant changes path again. Cat, calm again, watches again.” Others dwell longer on their subjects, such as “The Cows,” which depicts the movements and relationships of members of a herd, as seen from the window of a countryside home, or the memories of a woman whose older half-sister has recently died in “The Seals.” Several stories, set in 19th-century France, begin with “story from Flaubert,” and go on to tell of Provençal kitchens, fairs, and executions. There are also disgruntled letters addressed to a frozen pea manufacturer, an Alumni review, and a peppermint candy company. These repetitions give the collection a cadence, and Davis’s bulletproof prose sends each story shooting off the page. (Apr.)
The New York Times Book Review Peter Orner

Some writers have the uncanny ability to slant your experiences. Read enough Lydia Davis and her stories start happening to you . . . Her stories have a way of affecting the sense so that indecision itself becomes drama and a mutual shrug between two strangers can take on more meaning. This is what the best and most original literature can do: make us more acutely aware of life on and off the page. To read Davis is to become a co-conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation. Our most routine habits can suddenly feel radically new . . . Her work, which often consists of brief stories made up of seemingly mundane observations, resists classification and is especially immune to explanatory jibber-jabber. In a universe drowning in words, Davis is a respite .What she doesn't say is as important as what she does . . . She ignores any and all cramped notions about what is and is not a story, and her work has always freed up reads to conjure their own lasting, offbeat visions . . . Call Lydia Davis the patron saint of befuddled reality . . . Davis's books more fully mirror (and refract) the chaos of existence than safer, duller, more homogenous collections precisely because the stories aren't consistent in tone, subject matter, length, depth or anything else. Neither are we consistent. One moment you can't decide where to sit on a train, the next you find yourself staring squarely into the abyss. What Davis is attempting to express is the wild divergence of human experience, how the ordinary and the profound not only coexist but depend on each other . . . Can't and Won't is a more mournful and somber book than previous Davis collections. Calamity and ruin are always close at hand . . . Still, the wonky comedy remains, as does the knife-thrust prose, as does the exuberant invention . . . Random beauty, too, is everywhere . . . It is as if Davis means to remind us that only close, intense observation can save us, and only for the time being.
Elle Kate Christensen

Reading a Lydia Davis story collection is like reaching into what you think is a bag of potato chips and pulling out something else entirely: a gherkin, a peppercorn, a truffle, a piece of beef jerky. Her stories look light and crisp, with their unadorned prose and flat-footed style, but on closer inspection they are pity, knobby, savory, chewy, dense. They are also mordantly, slyly funny in their exposure of human foibles. Can't and Won't . . . is evidence of a writer who is in total control of her own peculiar original voice; its pleasures are unexpected and manifold . . . Davis . . . shares with Samuel Beckett a sharp playfulness and antipathy toward ornamentation, as well as a tendency to subvert dramatic expectations that is, in the aggregate, startlingly dramatic.
The Boston Globe John Freeman

Can't and Won't is the most revolutionary collection of stories by an American in twenty-five years. Here, indeed, are objects in all their eerie mystery--knapsacks, nametags, rugs, frozen peas--vibrating with possibility; but here, too, is consciousness dramatized in a truly new way, behaving with the stubborn inertia of those very same objects . . . No story writer alive has put sentences under so much pressure, so well, so consistently. In dealing with mortality, though, Davis's observational gaze has acquired a new warmth and depth . . . The difference between the words can't and won't is created by the mind. One is inability; the other is willed refusal -- but how often are they confused? Consciousness, these stories show, so often pivots between these poles on the axis of this confusion. The genius of Can't and Won't is that Davis has created a narrative out of that oscillation. Here is a mind rubbing up against the world, with fascination and wonder and disgust. It judges and it observes. Davis writes in sentences as radically lucid as any penned by Grace Paley, who was, in her lifetime, too often belittled as a miniaturist. What is tiny--like a molecule of oxygen--allows us to breath, as these stories do with their fabulous, occult integrity.
The Los Angeles Times David Ulin

What Davis is evoking is conditionality, which is the great theme of this collection, indeed of her entire oeuvre. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) their brevity, her stories ask existential questions, about us and the world . . . At the center of the book is the understanding that we can locate stories anywhere, that the most regular and orderly moments are, in fact, the most violent and original, that it is up to us to notice, to re-create, to preserve . . . In many ways, Can't and Won't is like a set of William Burroughs cut-ups, random moments juxtaposed, one against the other, until reality takes on the logic of a collage. Unlike Burroughs, though, Davis' intent is not to rub out the word. Rather, language is what gives shape to the chaos, allowing us to invest existence with a shape. That this shape is of our making, our invention is the point precisely.
The Guardian Helen Oyeyemi

Lydia Davis's short-story collections tend to exceed the boundaries of a single book and become libraries . . . Whatever its source, Davis's range is all the more impressive for reading as a series of natural progressions . . . Come to this one-book library for the mercurial gifts of its author; stay because the stories continually renew their invitation to be read inventively.
The Independent James Kidd

Davis's curtest works have a lot in common with poetry: this poised, metaphysical jest about time, death and language owes a debt to its line endings. Yet even at her most poetic Davis is a storyteller, even if her plots unfold with the quiet philosophical precision of a Samuel Beckett 'fizzle' or theatrical monologue . . . when her genius for syntax is married to genuine emotion, then the results can be truly astonishing. In Can't and Won't, these emotions wheel ominously around death. 'The Dog Hair' is both touching elegy for a deceased pet and surrealist joke that captures the futile yearning that accompanies grief. The knowing reserve of 'A Story Told to Me by A Friend' explores how language creates love and, by extension, sorrow, how intimacy overcomes distance, and how distance gets in the way. The most memorable of all is 'The Child,' which almost shocks with its dispassionate snapshot of a bereaved mother and a profound melancholy that beggars belief. Incorporated elegantly into this extraordinary five-line work are questions about art's capacity to fix such sadness. The final whispered command, 'Don't move,' resounds endlessly. As so often in Lydia Davis, the less said, the better.
The National Post Chris Randall

Unlike most American writers receiving international prizes, [Lydia Davis] . . . tend[s] to focus on very short stories, but they might be better described as succinct, exploding the accreted clichés of literary fiction, until so much of that intricate plotting, deft characterization, etc., seems to be futile marketing copy . . . Her new collection Can't and Won't makes use of extreme brevity . . . often to bracket deadpan jokes, tight little bows that unravel in your hands . . . neat simplicity is less façade than grist. Like Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, the twin variations of 'Reversible Story' become more striking for their absence of incident . . . And 'Men' demonstrates that, despite Davis's wry restraint, her prose can still trot into flight.
The Wichita Eagle Gordon Houser

So many of [Lydia Davis's] stories reflect paying attention to what is around us, to things we normally ignore . . . Her subjects are often mundane: lost socks, dog hair, cooked cornmeal. Yet they leave a resonance that makes us think again about the experiences that fill our lives but that we fail to think about . . . Because they are so tightly written and are usually so brief, [Davis's stories] demand that we think about them and reflect on what they may want to say to us.
The Swarthmore Phoenix Cecilia Paasche

Remarkably, it is often the stories that take up the least space on the pages of Can't and Won't that deliver the most emotion and are the most stylistically interesting . . . Across all of her stories, Davis uses words sparingly, resulting in prose that is never flowery and narration that keeps its distance from the reader. We are watching these characters and listening to them rather than being intimately invited into their lives. Davis writes grief subtly and beautifully in this collection . . . Can't and Won't is never more sad, more mundane, or more tragic than reality, and yet it is still striking that Davis creates such visceral depictions in her stories. The collection is a strong example of Davis's work and a worthwhile read, with content, form, and style that provoke thought and capture reality--usually in less than one page.
The Financial Times Claire Messud

Ezra Pound famously exhorted the artist to 'make it new,' a directive on the one hand incontestable and, on the other, dangerously difficult. Lydia Davis is that rare writer whose work enacts the injunction: the dramas and ironies of her short--often very short--stories are those of our everyday lives, held up before us as if for the first time. The effect is rather like that of saying the same word over and over until it becomes alien, a new and strange thing: our relation to dog hair, to a piece of fish or a bag of frozen peas, or to an unsolicited invitation in the mail--any of these can provide an occasion for the world to shift, however slightly, upon its axis. High quality global journalism requires investment. It's possible to make any number of statements about Davis's fiction: that her stories are idiosyncratic, unmistakably Davisian; that she combines what might, in others, resemble whimsy with a bracingly unsentimental clarity of observation; that she shows a flagrant--and inspiring--disregard for rules or obligations (no teacherly insistence here upon what a story ought to be, upon its structure or requirements), and an almost philosophical openness to the objet trouvé that runs, like a surrealist thread, through her new collection of stories. All of these statements are true, and yet none can truly convey the first thing about her work, which is sui generis . . . Davis's signal gift is to make us feel alive-- not with pyrotechnics or fakery, not in grand dramas or confections whipped up for the purpose; but rather in her noticing of the apparently banal quotidian round, in records of our daily neuroses and small pleasures. These, she insists, are meaningful, and can be made new: these are the true substance of life.
National Public Radio Parul Sehgal

Lydia Davis' stories have been called prose poems, case studies, riddles, koans--even gherkins, for being so small and tart and edible. But properly speaking, they are magic tricks. Davis is a performative writer, as subtle and economical in her movements as any magician, and she's out to enchant. Coming across her terse little stories feels rather like being shown a top hat, being told it's empty, being shown it's empty, and then watching something enormous and oddly shaped emerge from it. From a handful of sentences, Davis can wrest meaning or dazzle us with sleight of hand . . . These are stories deeply concerned with death, with aging, as the body as the site of breakdown and complaint. Dead dogs continue to pile up. There's the dead sister, a dead child, a dead cat named Molly. One story contains only snippets from local obituaries . . . the focus on mortality in Can't and Won't casts that famous fussiness of Davis' narrators in an edifying light . . . Davis dances right up to and around that final mystery that can't, won't and must be borne, that most inexplicable magic trick, life's vanishing act.
Off the Tracks Simon Sweetman

Davis has done the work. She fronts up. She's a writer. And here is some of her finest work . . . there's some new, fresh sadness this time around. There's something special in the way these stories sucker-punch you too. You read through pages of paragraph-long stories to arrive at something larger and when one of the small handful of 10-20 page stories hits you it is so deftly controlled, so exquisitely put together . . . the book, this collection, [is] an extraordinary set of surprises. The meditations on grief here are poignant and in one of the collection's longest stories the control around heartbreak, around the methodical explanation of grief and the delayed reactions is almost too much to take. Of course I mean that in the very best way.
Star Tribune Dylan Hicks

[Can't and Won't] again shows [Lydia Davis] to be one of contemporary literature's most approachably idiosyncratic and dryly comic writers . . . Whether her subjects are undeniably grave or amusingly trivial--one character agonizes over whether to sell a rug--Davis has the rare ability to write calmly about anxiety, capturing all the circularity of a mind in agitation without resorting to run-on sentences or other staples of breathlessness . . . Serious but never pompous, Davis and her often fussy, bothered narrators see that life is routinely funny but by no means a joke. Like Samuel Beckett, another key influence, she has created a kind of wisdom literature of bewilderment.
The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) Tricia Springstubb

What's wonderful and wholly original in her work is how the narrator is not a character, but Davis' mind itself.
HTML Giant Stephen Piccarella

Davis' ability to create and observe these small details of experience and perceived reality, be they objects or ideas, without allowing herself any distractions, allow her to work freely in forms short and long and employ techniques designated, by and for other writers, as strictly either mainstream or avant-garde. The reason for this is simple: for Davis, there is only writing. As we live, we observe life and language to find in what we observe and in ourselves patterns that may appear familiar until they are revealed to be stunning and strange. For each of these observations, there is a narrator and a narrative moment. Each of these moments is already a story. When one is ready to be written down, Lydia Davis can and will.
BookForum Christine Smallwood

When Lydia Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, the attempt to fix a label to her work reduced one of the judges . . . to a bit of flailing . . . Personally, I'm not sure what the problem with just calling her a writer is, unless it's this: If what she does is writing, we need a new name for what everyone else is doing . . . She makes the impossible look easy . . . Like Proust, whom she has translated, Davis writes the act of writing itself . . . her stories are filled with moments of crisis about how to carry on, or what word to put down next, and fears that it could all mean nothing in the end. She's a theorist of the arbitrary. The fact that she makes it look so easy--so arbitrary, even--is part of the fun . . . Lydia Davis is a translator even when she's not working in a foreign language. Writing is always a practice of choosing, but she makes this the subject as well as the method of her work; her meticulous, obsessive 'correctness' makes words as fraught as they are funny.
City Paper (Baltimore) Nicolas Pavlovich

Davis' writing forces us to think that there's a way to embody an entire world with the sparest details . . . The fact is, Lydia Davis is not just some kind of arch-experimentalist; she is a great storyteller . . . A single-line story defies convention and skews our very idea of what a story can or should do. It could, and should, seem like a gimmick, especially after several collections. But each of Davis' brief forays across the white space of the page continues to confound the confines of narrative and give it a new identity. She provides us with just enough information that our imaginations can do the rest . . . Davis uses observations . . . to trigger sensory memory, so that with these quick perceptions, the reader is able to complete entire scenes and imagine full-bodied characters in spite of their obvious absence. Davis shows that our brains are story-making machines. We can't help but fill in the blanks. And the result is a weirdly extreme kind of minimalism that almost seems maximalist while simultaneously making Raymond Carver and company look like the loquacious Proust (whom Davis has translated) . . . Each story of Davis' collection is a new tour de force, overwhelming us with the variety of invention . . . As in her previous work, depression, pain, and loss frequently seep in around the edges of these stories. Davis' characters seek change, desperately fighting for a new beginning, while, in heartbreaking fashion, coming to that near-breakdown phase. She writes, 'I had grown used to feeling two contradictory things: that everything in my life had changed; and that, really, nothing in my life had changed.' Often, Davis pivots between these two worlds: the ever-changing and the seemingly never-changing, and, likewise, everything in between. But just when there's a moment in which her characters feel safe, perhaps relieved, presumably with their futures altered for the better, Davis throws them once more toward that horrible condition they are running from. But even in the worst situations, there is always that unexpected wit lurking close at hand, as if to say that agony and misery, if fully disclosed, can exploit the short distance between tragedy and comedy and reveal something new about what it means to be human.
The L Magazine Tracy O'Neill

If you were to try to describe Davis's preoccupations in Can't and Won't in a word, you might choose 'distinction.' . . . distinction itself emerges in Can't and Won't as the stuff of existence. There is one major distinction we can't humanly conceive, that between life and death, but in all the minor distinctions--that between fish to avoid and fish to eat with caution, awards won and not won, commas kept or removed--something very human happens: characters delineate what they won't. They can't refuse death, but they can make very mortal distinctions. And these add up to life.
The New Republic Chloe Schama

Davis is perhaps the sparest contemporary fiction writer we have--breathtakingly bold in the limits she imposes on herself . . . There is no roughage in her writing--there is nowhere to hide. There are only the words--stark and striking, an experiment in just how little it takes to make a story. Her work can sometimes read like a test of discipline or the brilliant product of a dare: You thought I couldn't do it, didn't you? I broke your heart in one paragraph or less.
South China Morning Post James Kidd

Davis is something of a genius at twisting . . . ideas around her little finger, like a precocious child twirling her hair into odd shapes. There is wit, humour and a strange beauty in her compressed concentration of the short story . . . Even at her most poetic . . . Davis is a storyteller, albeit one whose plots unfold with the quiet, philosophical precision of a Borges story.
IBN Live Vivek Tejuja

When Lydia Davis writes short stories, you take notice. You observe them and linger in their bitter or sweet after-thought. You also get confused. You wonder what her stories are about. As a reader, you also want to give up some times. You do not want to turn the next page. That is what you feel like and you cannot help it. You keep the book aside and after some time you get back to the book and then it hits on you, what you have been missing out on. And then the true beauty of her writing hits you. Lydia Davis's new collection of stories, Can't and Won't is a fantastic collection of vignettes, of short stories and of really long stories . . . Can't and Won't is a collection that makes you ponder, makes you doubt, leaves you confused, perplexed and at the same time wrenches your heart with the most basic observations about life and living . . . The stories are sometimes complex, sometimes simple and sometimes just make you want to drop everything else and think about life. Can't and Won't is expansive. It is a collection that challenges you, delivered in well prose and above all conjures a sense of wonder and delight, with every turn of the page.
Booklist Donna Seaman

The title story in Davis's latest collection of nimble and caustic stories, a wry tale about why a writer is denied a prize, is two sentences in length, but, as always with this master of distillation, it conveys volumes. In the wake of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009) and receiving the Man Booker International Prize, Davis presents delectably intriguing and affecting new works shaped by her devotion to language, vigilant observations, literary erudition, and tart humor. A number of strikingly enigmatic stories carry the tag 'dream,' and they are, in fact, based on dreams dreamed by her Davis and her family and friends. Thirteen intricately layered and thorny pieces flagged as 'stories from Flaubert' improvise saucily and revealingly on the seminal writer's letters. Elsewhere, Davis tosses together the trivial and the profound in hilarious and plangent tales about painful memories and epic indecision, deftly capturing the mind's perpetual churning and the terrible arbitrariness of life. Then, amid all this fretfulness and angst, a narrator devotes herself to watching three serene cows in a neighboring field. Davis is resplendent.
Numero Cinq Magazine Benjamin Woodard

[Lydia Davis] continues to push the boundaries of narrative. [Can't and Won't] is a remarkable, exhilarating beast: a collection that resumes the author's overall style--short narratives, with the occasional longer piece--while simultaneously expanding her vision . . . with Can't and Won't, Davis deftly hones the art of looking backward, of calling the dead to life, of retaining the moments in life intended to remain fleeting. The result is a tapestry of method, style, and structure, all with the same objective: to possess that which has passed, to capture the lost and the unidentifiable.
The Himalayan Times

Daring, exciting intelligent and often wildly comic, Davis reminds us, in a world that likes to bandy its words about, what words such as economy, precision and originality really mean. This is a writer as mighty as Kafka, as subtle as Flaubert and as epoch-making in her own way, as Proust. The stories in this new collection illuminate particular moments in ordinary lives and find in them the humorous, the ironic and the surprising. Above all the stories revel in and grapple with the joys and constraints of language--achieving always the extraordinary, unmatched precision which makes Lydia Davis one of the greatest contemporary writers on the international stage.
Full Stop Will Rees

Davis's narrators are almost always in midst of some essentially normal situation, but unable to integrate that situation into the familiar world of the social throng. Instead her stories linger on the threshold of that world, exposing its artifice. This liminal, self-enclosed and yet outward looking perspective would seem to be the position of the writer. And yet, Davis is too intelligent by half to stray into any writerly heroics. The writer doesn't have any privileged access to some deeper truth of things. Far from it: writing is referred to as a deeply suspect activity -- at once treacherous ('Two Characters in a Paragraph') and evasive ('Writing'). Rather, the detached, analytical and incisive perspective that Davis's narratives open is simply another perspective on a world that is infinitely amenable, interpretable, ambiguous. Davis awakens the multiplicity of meanings; she doesn't settle on new ones . . . Davis has a particularly acute eye for the contracted violence, imbalances of power, and stirrings of ressentiment implicit in prosaic social relations . . . Davis gives voice to those inchoate mumblings, to those thoughts that half-form in our minds before collapsing under the weight of their own aporia and, with craft and care she follows them through their manifold turns and folds. And all this in prose that is stark, limpid, precise and quietly beautiful. (Hannah Arendt famously said of Kafka that he has no favourite words. The same is surely true of Lydia Davis.) Her stories give expression to the pit in the plum; the madness implicit in the quotidian. Like half-forgotten dreams, they linger somewhere between the alien and the familiar, the unreal and the hyper-real. At once uncomfortable, painful and compulsive, reading Lydia Davis is like looking into a mirror held too close to one's face; you can't bear to look, nor to look away.
The Oregonian K. B. Dixon

Davis's work is serious, sedate, and spare. It is also very funny . . . Choosing just one or two stories to highlight the highlights is not easy . . . Choosing just one or two stories to highlight the highlights is not easy . . . One particularly tempting piece is titled simply 'The Cows.' It is a miraculous and revelatory dissection of the ordinary, a tour de force, a showcase of Davis's talents. 'Not Interested,' a story near the end of the book, can be read in part as an artist's statement. It is an analysis of a doppelgangerish narrator's reading life. She is tired, she says, of novels and stories. She 'prefers books that contain something real.' This is the dilemma that Davis, the artful dodger, is trying artfully to dodge--a reaction to contemporary imaginative literature that is similar to her own. She is trying in her exact and meticulous examinations of the everyday to write a different sort of story--one that has, in addition to many other things, something real in it. Her work will be of little interest to the reader looking for wizards, nymphomaniacs, or serial killers, but of great interest to those looking for adventurous writing that is smart, original, ingenious, funny, and fun. This new collection is a welcome addition to a unique and dazzling body of work.
Yakima Herald Adam Jones

[Lydia Davis is] one of our smartest, wryest and certainly strangest . . . American authors working today . . . and her latest book of stories, Can't and Won't, is as good as anything else she's done, maybe better . . . Davis's stories are certainly cerebral . . . And yet, there's a lot of humor in the stories, too. This comes from Davis's fierce intelligence, which is able to skewer the foibles and fritzes of our brains as well as she captures their functions. There's also a warmth in the stories.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-02-13
Five years after a mammoth, comprehensive collection of stories secured her literary legacy, this unique author explores new directions and blurs boundaries in writing that is always fresh and often funny. For one of the country's most critically acclaimed writers (The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, 2009), a new collection is like a box of chocolates, one in which—as she writes in "A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates"—a single piece can be "very good, rich and bitter, sweet and strange at the same time" and can feed "a vague, indefinite hunger, not necessarily for food." As previously, her shortest stories—a single sentence or paragraph, well less than a page—could often pass as the prose equivalent of a haiku or Zen koan, and elements such as character development, or even characters, are often conspicuous in their absence. The narrative voice has a consistency of tone throughout much of the collection: conversational, intelligent, by no means opaque or impenetrable like much postmodern fiction. It flows easily from dreams to conscious reflection, often about words themselves or "Writing" (the title of one very short story) or reading, ruminations that may or may not be the author's own. As the relationship between writer and reader becomes more familiar, one gets a sense of a narrative character and of what's important to that character (grammar, concision, precision) and how she spends her time (in academe, on various modes of transportation, among animals in the country). Some stories are based on the letters of Flaubert (whom Davis has translated, along with Proust and others), while others are unsigned (and unsent?) letters to various companies and boards, comments and complaints that often themselves turn into stories. In "Not Interested," the narrator explains, "I'm not interested in reading this book. I was not interested in reading the last one I tried, either....The books I'm talking about are supposed to be reasonably good, but they simply don't interest me....These days, I prefer books that contain something real, or something the author at least believed to be real. I don't want to be bored by someone else's imagination." Whether fiction or non, Davis never bores.
From the Publisher

“Widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today.”—Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker

“This is what the best and most original literature can do: make us more acutely aware of life on and off the page.”—Peter Orner, The New York Times Book Review

“[Can’t and Won’t] is evidence of a writer who is in total control of her own peculiar original voice; its ¬pleasures are un¬expected and manifold.”—Kate Christensen, Elle

“A master of sequencing. Davis mixes long and short dispatches to intoxicating effect.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“The most revolutionary collection of stories by an American in twenty-five years.”—John Freeman, The Boston Globe

“Drop everything and pick up Lydia Davis’s fifth collection of short stories . . . Observation, drama, and (yes) compression—it’s all there, giving the most minor moments a kind of epic weight.” —David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

“Davis’s signal gift is to make us feel alive.”—Claire Messud, Financial Times

“Davis dances right up to and around that final mystery that can’t, won’t, and must be borne, that most inexplicable magic trick, life’s vanishing act.”—Parul Sehgal, NPR

“Davis is official literary dynamite . . . Everything she writes looks effortless.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Los Angeles Times David L. Ulin

Drop everything and pick up Lydia Davis's fifth collection of short stories . . . Observation, drama, and (yes) compression--it's all there, giving the most minor moments a kind of epic weight.
Financial Times Claire Messud

Davis's signal gift is to make us feel alive.
NPR Parul Sehgal

"Davis dances right up to and around that final mystery that can't, won't, and must be borne, that most inexplicable magic trick, life's vanishing act."
San Francisco Chronicle

Davis is official literary dynamite . . . Everything she writes looks effortless.
The New York Times Dwight Garner

"A master of sequencing. Davis mixes long and short dispatches to intoxicating effect."
The New Yorker Dana Goodyear

Widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today.
Library Journal
The stories in Davis's new collection range from a single sentence to over 20 pages, composed of fragments, observations, correspondences, and traditional narratives. More than a dozen pieces are created from letters by Gustave Flaubert. At times the effect is of a writer experimenting and sharing her notebook. Yet the pieces are often affecting. Most interesting are the epistles, usually sent in the form of a complaint but wandering enough to offer real insight into the author of the missive, as when a woman explains that though she is grateful to receive a grant she is disappointed that it didn't free her from the agony of having to teach writing. Even an extended story that observes the behavior of cows has the power to draw the reader in, as does a list of the words that seem to be said by household appliances. The most moving piece is about the narrator's grief over her sister's death. VERDICT Davis, whose Varieties of Disturbance was a 2007 National Book Award finalist, is inventive and original. Recommended for fans of the short story and of "flash fiction." [See Prepub Alert, 10/21/13.]—Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
The Barnes & Noble Review

This could be a "story" in Can't and Won't:

I wanted to title my book of stories "Can't and Won't," but I thought that when a prospective buyer went to a bookstore and asked for it the clerk would think the customer was asking for "Kant and Wundt," a substantial tome of philosophy and psychology. I didn't like that. But then I thought it was more likely the clerk would think the customer was asking for "Cant and Wont," a light book of empty language and habitual behavior. I liked that, so I titled my book of stories "Can't and Won't."
I think his "story" is just as plausible as Davis's two-sentence title piece in which a narrator says he or she was denied a literary prize because the committee found him or her "lazy" for using contractions such as "can't and won't." My Davis "story" is somewhat longer than her Davis "story" and many of her shorts, and mine has more character development, action, and attention to setting than some. She rarely refers to high culture figures, but the self-consciousness and self-reference, the instability of mind and meanings, the general poverty of diction and lack of metaphor, the repetitive sentence structure, the circular movement, all giving the sense that language might be machine generated, are characteristic of Davis. Also representative are the possibly disarming admission that she customarily produces banalities and the clearly misleading assertion that she writes "stories."

And yet now seems Lydia Davis's moment. In 2013 Davis won the Man Booker International Prize and received an Award of Merit medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This collection occasioned a recent New Yorker profile and bears blurbs by James Wood, Ali Smith, Colm Tóibín, and Ben Marcus, who sound as if they were writing under the influence of laughing gas. The momentum toward this moment began when that most literary of presses, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, published Davis's Collected Stories in 2009. After reading Can't and Won't, I went back to that book. I won't claim I found the patience to read all 733 pages, but I did survey the kinds of "stories" in the whole and did read the 200-plus pages from Varieties of Disturbance, which was published in 2007, to see if this new book displays changes in method or achievement from her most recent work.

"Let be be finale of seem," says Wallace Stevens in "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." Davis is celebrated for eschewing or mocking all those old-fashioned fictional conventions of "seem": words artfully arranged, characters that appear to be people, passages of discourse that seem to be conversation, pages that might be mistaken for a narrative. She is the Empress of Ice-Cream, queen of transient small pleasures served cold. In Can't and Won't the Empress is barely clothed with her short shorts. The most distinctive and remarked on feature of Davis's work, these one- sentence or one-page "stories" occupy a larger proportion of Can't and Won't than of the Collected Stories. Perhaps encouraged or emboldened by her praise and awards, Davis has given over a third of her new book to her briefs. Here is an example, the whole of "Bloomington": "Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before." Here is all of her final piece entitled "Ph.D.": "All these years I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D."

I do have a Ph.D., so I'm familiar with Davis's few learned references in the collection, including Maurice Blanchot and Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which tells one story in ninety-nine different ways. I've read Stein's prose poems in Tender Buttons. I know the B-list of experimental short fictioneers — Beckett, Borges, Barthelme, Barth — and Russell Edson (an early influence on Davis), as well as some of the literary theorists who replaced "story" first with "fiction," then with "text," and now maybe with "verbal artifact." I get Davis's tradition, but my tolerance for the inconsequential — texts for nothing and about nothing and eliciting nothing — is limited, though I recognize that "stories" of the kind I have quoted and invented could be ideal reading for cell phones. Or the texts could function like bread between wine tastings, but too many of Davis's shorts — really "tinies"— come one after another, page after page of eked words, white space, and inconsequence. In Can't and Won't, less is least.

Davis may be a little nervous about the increase of shorts because she uses her last page to explain what she's doing in two kinds of brief "stories" not found in Varieties of Disturbance. Many of the new one-page pieces are labeled "dreams." Davis says some of them were contributed by others and some were her own. Though presented as a stickler for precision in her profile, Davis fails to note that the "dreams" are not, in fact, dreams but verbal accounts of dreams and probably selective accounts at that. That is, they are fictions. I know people who skip over dreams in novels. The temptation is strong in Can't and Won't. Some other one-page pieces are called "stories from Flaubert" and are "formed from material found in letters" written by that novelist. How much credit for these appropriated anecdotes should go to Flaubert and how much to Davis is impossible to tell. Perhaps weary of invention, Davis has decided to put others' words in her work. A third kind of short in Can't and Won't can be called, after the following "Housekeeping Observation," observations: "Under all this dirt the floor is really clean." This one happens to be more koan-like than most. Try meditating, for example, on this geographical observation: "She thinks, for a moment, that Alabama is a city in Georgia: it is called Alabama, Georgia."

With "Dreams," "Flauberts," and "Observations," Davis is using slightly different methods from her recent work to test just how much inconsequence readers will accept. For most writers, the items in all three groups would be confined to their notebooks for possible use in or development to stories. For Davis, the pieces are "stories." Perhaps together they even trace the development of story from Flaubertian anecdote to modernist surrealism to postmodernist whatever. Individually, though, the pieces pretty much flatline, with a few blips of faint wit, on the consequence monitor. However, if you find the works I've quoted subtle or profound or humorous, you need read no further. Get thee to a bookstore and carefully pronounce Can't and Won't

Davis's stripped approach in the one-liners or one-pagers carries over to the less short or little longer texts, which also fall into several categories. There are lists: of numerous items the narrator doesn't find interesting or does find interesting in the Times Literary Supplement, many things that make a narrator uncomfortable, characteristics of a cat named Molly, the sounds of objects in a house, and "Local Obits," one or two sentences of life summaries found in obituaries. Like the very existence of the shorts, the items seem arbitrary. They form a series rather than a sequence, the origin of "consequence." Some other texts are "Travel Observations." A narrator, possibly the same narrator since Davis pays scant attention to different voices, is traveling by train or plane and observes the passing scene and other people. Because the narrator is moving, the pieces can be called sequences or narratives, though usually not moving narratives because the route is fixed and the style is generally affectless.

Varieties of Disturbance has only two lists and two travel stories, so with Can't and Won't Davis is amping up arbitrariness and, to my mind, damping down significance. But among her mid-length pieces is a heretofore little used mode — the faux letter — that generates more interesting work. The letters are addressed to manufacturers of frozen peas and candies, a bookstore manager, a "Biographical Institute," and to a foundation. In these, Davis shifts from her wonted reduction of means to compulsive elaboration, and the texts begin to have the weight of stories. The letters begin with modest purposes — to complain, correct, or inform — but a scrupulous or manic desire to explain extends the missives far beyond their initial goals to revelations about the person writing and, in the twenty-eight-page letter by a professor to a foundation, to a sad and comic commentary on academic life. But missing from almost all the mid-length pieces, even from letters addressed to a named recipient, is human reciprocity. The Empress observes and thinks and sends messages but has no use for dialogue.

The most substantial pieces in Can't and Won't are essentially meditations but can be safely termed stories. They are consequential because thoughts or actions within them have consequences for their characters and because the stories could have more than a transient effect on the reader's consciousness. Varieties of Disturbance has quite a few such stories. In Can't and Won't they number only three — the letter to the foundation and two with animals in their titles. In "The Seals" the narrator remembers her dead sister, the complications she caused, and the narrator's ambivalences toward her. "The Cows," my favorite, could be called, after Wallace Stevens, "Eighty-nine Ways of Looking at Three Cows." Watching cows from various perspectives in or near her home, the narrator learns about them and about how her mind and feelings work. Although lacking the emotional tug of "The Seals," "The Cows" could very well be a perceptive epistemological exercise. Or I could be desperate to say something complimentary about Davis's work.

Towards the end of Can't and Won't, yet another category not so explicitly present in Varieties of Disturbance emerges: metafiction. Two one-page pieces advise revisions of works we don't see, and somewhat longer texts called "Writing" and "Not Interested" are comments on reading. Since I have that Ph.D., I would never be so naïve as to think the narrator of these last two is Lydia Davis, but some of the remarks might be construed as a rationale for the kind of fiction Davis has always done and is now doubling down on. (Maybe that last phrase should be "halving down on.") In "Writing," the narrator complains, "Writing is often not about real things." The narrator of "Not Interested" says, "These days, I prefer books that contain something real, or something the author at least believed to be real. I don't want to be bored by someone else's imagination." "Let the lamp affix its beam," says Stevens in "The Emperor of Ice Cream." No more illusions, no further imaginaries. Although I can invent such stuff, the Empress suggests, I won't.

But ontologically (if I may) the naked sentences and arbitrary texts in Can't and Won't "contain" no more of the "real" than traditional stories. If the texts look too dumb to have been invented or appear to be autobiographical or even if the author uses her own name within a piece, as Davis does in several, the reader still can't know that the text is "real," that it is true and not a fiction. Like the first novels in English, Davis's writings do sometimes resemble documents — scholarly studies in Varieties of Disturbance; lists, letters, medical records, and obituaries here — found in the real world, but that doesn't mean her works are therefore found objects. Her texts are imitations of real documents, just as written stories are imitations of real oral storytelling. Books like Davis's may seem to offer raw truth, but they have been cooked, if only slightly or badly.

"It seems a country-headed thing to say," said William Gass many years ago, "that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words." Since both conventional stories and Davis's texts are word-made imitations, the evaluative question for me is consequence. The narrator of "Not Interested" is easily bored by "good" novels and stories. The writers who so hyperbolically praise Davis in her blurbs are probably also bored by traditional fiction, no matter how "good" or skilled or imaginative it may be. David Shields in Reality Hunger — which, perhaps not coincidentally, praises Davis and carries a blurb from her — is the spokesmen for those who suffer from Fiction Attention Disorder, readers sated and jaded by artists' imagination and art. F.A.D. makes Shields susceptible to faddish "reality" writing akin to reality television. Examined with even a little rigor, Shields's arguments against fiction turn out to be rationalizations for the confessed narcissism from which he has constructed a career. Me, I'm bored by banalities and irritated by trivialities that an author implies are mysteriously consequential because "real" and because included in a printed book (not just broadcast into the Twitterverse). I'm not against real life in life, but in language my hunger is for profundity or ingenuity or subtlety or, better yet, all three in a single work.

I believe Davis is having her moment now because every decade or so a writer emerges — a Burroughs or Barthelme or Carver in America — who seems to be cleansing the palate of fiction with the "real" and causing cognitive dissonance with an unconventional style. "Seems" because I think actual cognitive dissonance is created by works such as Atwood's Alias Grace, which mixes historical facts and invention, or Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, which combines real documents and the fantastic. Davis's dissonance is easily "recuperated," as the theorists say. She doesn't really threaten and does no harm. The Empress is becoming more insistent on inconsequence but issues no ukases. Lydia Davis doesn't pretend to be anything she's not. No, it's writers like Shields and her other boosters who make extravagant and, ironically, unrealistic claims for her fiction who have no clothes. Could I be the Emperor? It's possible, but until I get more from Davis I'll keep thinking of myself as Stevens's "Snow Man," who sees "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

Tom LeClair is the author of five novels, two critical books, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circlated periodicals. He can be reached at

Reviewer: Tom LeClair

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374118587
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 105,658
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and four previous story collections, the most recent of which, Varieties of Disturbance, was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is also the acclaimed translator of Swann's Way (2003) and Madame Bovary (2010), both of which were awarded the French American Foundation Translation Prize. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, published in 2009, was described by James Wood in The New Yorker as a "grand cumulative achievement." She is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.
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Read an Excerpt

A Story of Stolen Salamis
My son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn kept a shed out back in which he cured and smoked salamis. One night, in the midst of a wave of petty vandalism and theft, the shed was broken into and the salamis were taken. My son talked to his landlord about it the next day, commiserating over the vanished sausages. The landlord was resigned and philosophical, but corrected him: “They were not sausages. They were salamis.” Then the incident was written up in one of the city’s more prominent magazines as an amusing and colorful urban incident. In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods “sausages.” My son showed the article to his landlord, who hadn’t known about it. The landlord was interested and pleased that the magazine had seen fit to report the incident, but he added: “They weren’t sausages. They were salamis.”
The Dog Hair
The dog is gone. We miss him. When the doorbell rings, no one barks. When we come home late, there is no one waiting for us. We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes. We pick them up. We should throw them away. But they are all we have left of him. We don’t throw them away. We have a wild hope—if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.
Circular Story
On Wednesday mornings early there is always a racket out there on the road. It wakes me up and I always wonder what it is. It is always the trash collection truck picking up the trash. The truck comes every Wednesday morning early. It always wakes me up. I always wonder what it is.
Idea for a Sign
At the start of a train trip, people search for a good seat, and some of them take a careful look at the people nearby who have already chosen their seats, to see if they will make good neighbors.
It might help if we each wore a little sign saying in what ways we will and will not be likely to disturb other passengers, such as: Will not talk on cell phone; will not eat smelly food.
Included in mine would be: Will not talk on cell phone at all, aside from perhaps a short communication to my husband at the beginning of the trip home, summarizing my visit in the city, or, more rarely, a quick warning to a friend on the way down that I will be late; but will recline my seat back as far as it will go, for most of the trip, except when I am eating my lunch or snack; may in fact be adjusting it slightly, back and up, from time to time throughout the trip; will sooner or later eat something, usually a sandwich, sometimes a salad or a container of rice pudding, actually two containers of rice pudding, though small ones; sandwich, almost always Swiss cheese, with in fact very little cheese, just a single slice, and lettuce and tomato, will not be noticeably smelly, at least as far as I can tell; am as tidy as I can be with the salad, but eating salad with a plastic fork is awkward and difficult; am tidy with the rice pudding, taking small bites, though when I remove the sealed top of the container it can make a loud ripping noise for just a moment; may keep unscrewing the top of my water bottle and taking a drink of water, especially while eating my sandwich and about one hour afterwards; may be more restless than some other passengers, and may clean my hands several times during the trip with a small bottle of hand sanitizer, sometimes using hand lotion afterwards, which involves reaching into my purse, taking out a small toiletries bag, unzipping it, and, when finished, zipping it up again and returning it to my purse; but may also sit perfectly quietly for a few minutes or longer staring out the window; may do nothing but read a book through most of the trip, except for one walk down the aisle to the restroom and back to my seat; but, on another day, may put the book down every few minutes, take a small notebook out of my purse, remove the rubber band from around it, and make a note in the notebook; or, when reading through a back issue of a literary magazine, may rip pages out in order to save them, though I will try to do this only when train is stopped at a station; lastly, after a day in the city, may untie my shoelaces and slip my shoes off for part of the trip, especially if the shoes are not very comfortable, then resting my bare feet on top of my shoes rather than directly on the floor, or, very rarely, may remove shoes and put on slippers, if I have a pair with me, keeping them on until I have nearly reached my destination; but feet are quite clean and toenails have a nice dark red polish on them.
Copyright © 2014 by Lydia Davis

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Table of Contents


A Story of Stolen Salamis 3

The Dog Hair 4

Circular Story 5

Idea for a Sign 6

Bloomington 8

The Cook's Lesson 9

At the Bank 10

Awake in the Night 11

At the Bank: 2 12

The Two Davises and the Rug 13

Contingency (vs. Necessity) 18

Brief Incident in Short a, Long a, and Schwa 19

Contingency (vs. Necessity) 2: On Vacation 20

A Story Told to Me by a Friend 21

The Bad Novel 23

After You Left 24

The Bodyguard 26

The Child 27

The Churchyard 28

My Sister and the Queen of En gland 29

The Visit to the Dentist 31

Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer 32

The Cornmeal 33


Two Undertakers 37

I Ask Mary About Her Friend, the Depressive, and

His Vacation 38

The Magic of the Train 39

Eating Fish Alone 40

Can't and Won't 46

Pouchet's Wife 47

Dinner 48

The Dog 49

The Grandmother 50

The Dreadful Mucamas 51

Reversible Story 61

A Woman, Thirty 62

How I Know What I Like (Six Versions) 63

Handel 64

The Force of the Subliminal 65

Her Geography: Alabama 67

The Funeral 68

The Husband- Seekers 69

In the Gallery 70

The Low Sun 71

The Landing 72

The Language of the Telephone Company 77

The Coachman and the Worm 78

Letter to a Marketing Manager 80


The Last of the Mohicans 85

Grade Two Assignment 86

Master 87

An Awkward Situation 88

House keeping Observation 90

The Execution 91

A Note from the Paperboy 92

In the Train Station 93

The Moon 94

My Footsteps 95

How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues

of the TLS 96

Notes During Long Phone Conversation with Mother 101

Men 102

Negative Emotions 103

I'm Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little

More Comfortable 105

Judgment 112

The Chairs 113

My Friend's Creation 114

The Piano 115

The Party 116

The Cows 118

The Exhibition 134

Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company 136

Her Geography: Illinois 139


Ödön von Horváth Out Walking 143

On the Train 144

The Problem of the Vacuum Cleaner 145

The Seals 146

Learning Medieval History 171

My School Friend 172

The Piano Lesson 173

The Schoolchildren in the Large Building 174

The Sentence and the Young Man 175

Molly, Female Cat: History/Findings 176

The Letter to the Foundation 179

The Results of One Statistical Study 208

Revise: 1 209

Short Conversation (in Airport Departure Lounge) 210

Revise: 2 211

Left Luggage 212

Waiting for Takeoff 214

Industry 215

The Sky Above Los Angeles 216

Two Characters in a Paragraph 217

Swimming in Egypt 218

The Language of Things in the House 219

The Washerwomen 226

Letter to a Hotel Manager 227

Her Birthday 232


My Childhood Friend 235

Their Poor Dog 236

Hello Dear 238

Not Interested 239

Old Woman, Old Fish 242

Staying at the Pharmacist's 243

The Song 245

Two Former Students 246

A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates 247

The Woman Next to Me on the Airplane 251

Writing 252

Wrong Thank- You in Theater 253

The Rooster 254

Sitting with My Little Friend 256

The Old Soldier 257

Two Sligo Lads 259

The Woman in Red 260

If at the Wedding (at the Zoo) 261

The Gold Digger of Goldfi elds 264

The Old Vacuum Cleaner Keeps Dying on Her 266

Flaubert and Point of View 267

Family Shopping 269

Local Obits 270

Letter to the President of the American Biographical

Institute, Inc. 279

Nancy Brown Will Be in Town 282

Ph.D. 283

Notes and Acknowledgments 285

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2014

    After reading a very positive review in the NYT, I put this book

    After reading a very positive review in the NYT, I put this book on my "must read" list.  Having now read the book, I'm baffled by the positive review.  The longer stories are incredibly tedious.  All feature an obsessive, indecisive, over-inclusive narrator who shares every thought that goes through her head.  If you like short stories, read Alice Munro or Lorrie Moore.  This collection is a bore and not worth your time or your money.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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