Can't and Won't: Storiesby Lydia Davis
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/b>/b>/b>
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.
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.)
“Davis is an author who takes nothing for granted, even the form of the writing itself. Can a sentence be more than a sentence? How does experience reveal itself? These questions have been at the heart of Davis' career from the outset . . . ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work, Flaubert famously cautioned, and the sentiment applies to Can't and Won't. 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.” David Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
“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.” Peter Orner, The New York Times Book Review
“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.” John Freeman, The Boston Globe
“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.” Helen Oyeyemi, The Guardian
“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.” James Kidd, The Independent
“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.” Chris Randall, The National Post
“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.” Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
“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.” Cecilia Paasche, The Swarthmore Phoenix
“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.” Claire Messud, The Financial Times
“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.” Parul Sehgal, National Public Radio
“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.” Simon Sweetman, Off the Tracks
“[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.” Dylan Hicks, Star Tribune
“What's wonderful and wholly original in her work is how the narrator is not a character, but Davis' mind itself.” Tricia Springstubb, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“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.” Stephen Piccarella, HTML Giant
“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.” Christine Smallwood, BookForum
“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.” Kate Christensen, Elle
“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.” David Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
“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.” Nicolas Pavlovich, City Paper (Baltimore)
“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.” Tracy O'Neill, The L Magazine
“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.” Chloe Schama, The New Republic
“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.” James Kidd, South China Morning Post
“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.” Vivek Tejuja, IBN Live
“Davis . . . 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 character examine the world with a detached, self-contained logic that seems to represent the process of writing itself . . . Davis's bulletproof prose sends each story shooting off the page.” Publishers Weekly
“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.” Donna Seaman, Booklist
“[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.” Benjamin Woodard, Numero Cinq Magazine
“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.” The Himalayan Times
“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.” Will Rees, Full Stop
“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.” K. B. Dixon, The Oregonian
“[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.” Adam Jones, Yakima Herald
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.
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
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Read an Excerpt
Can't and Won't
By Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2014 Lydia Davis
All rights reserved.
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.
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.
Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.
The Cook's Lesson
Today I have learned a great lesson; our cook was my teacher. She is twenty-five years old and she's French. I discovered, when I asked her, that she did not know that Louis-Philippe is no longer king of France and we now have a republic. And yet it has been five years since he left the throne. She said the fact that he is no longer king simply does not interest her in the least—those were her words.
And I think of myself as an intelligent man! But compared to her I'm an imbecile.
At the Bank
I take my bag of pennies to the bank and throw them into a machine that will count them. I am asked by a teller to guess how much my pennies are worth. I guess $3.00. I am wrong. They amount to $4.24. But since I am within $1.99 of the correct sum, I qualify for a prize. Many people nearby in the bank congratulate me warmly. I may choose from among a number of prizes. When I refuse the first and the second, and seem likely to refuse the next, the anxious teller unlocks a secure vault and shows me the full array, which includes a large plastic piggy bank, a coloring book and crayons, and a small rubber ball. At last, so as not to disappoint her, I choose what I think is the best of them, a handsome Frisbee with its own carrying case.
Awake in the Night
I can't go to sleep, in this hotel room in this strange city. It is very late, two in the morning, then three, then four. I am lying in the dark. What is the problem? Oh, maybe I am missing him, the person I sleep next to. Then I hear a door shut somewhere nearby. Another guest has come in, very late. Now I have the answer. I will go to his room and get in bed next to him, and then I will be able to sleep.
At the Bank: 2
Again, I go to the bank with my bag full of pennies. Again, I guess that my pennies will add up to $3.00. The machine counts them. I have $4.92. Again, the bank teller decides that I am close enough to the correct amount to win a prize. I look forward to seeing what the selection of prizes will be this time, but there is only one prize—a tape measure. I am disappointed, but I accept it. At least this time I can see that the teller is a woman. Before, I could not be sure whether she was a woman or a man. But this time, though she is still bald, she moves more gracefully and smiles more gently, her voice is higher, and she is wearing a pin on her chest that says Janet.
The Two Davises and the Rug
They were both named Davis, but they were not married to each other and they were not related by blood. They were neighbors, however. They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.
They did not know this about each other until she decided to put her rug up for sale.
It was a brightly patterned wool rug, red, white, and black, with a bold design of diamonds and some black stripes. She had bought it at a Native American store near the town where she used to live, but now she found out it was not Native American. She had grown tired of it where it lay on the floor of her absent son's room, because it was a little dirty and curled up at the corners, and she decided to sell it in a group sale that was being held to raise money for a good cause. But when it was much admired at the sale, more than she expected, and when the price of ten dollars that she had put on it was raised by an appraiser to fifty dollars, she changed her mind and hoped that no one would buy it. As the day wore on, she did not lower the price on the rug, as others were lowering their prices around her, and though people continued to admire it, no one bought it.
The other Davis came to the sale early in the day and was immediately attracted to the rug. He hesitated, however, because the pattern was so bold and the colors so starkly red, white, and black that he thought it might not look good in his house, though his house was furnished in a clean, modern way. He admired the rug out loud to her, but told her he wasn't sure it would look right in his house and left the sale without buying it. During the day, however, while no one else was buying the rug and while she was not lowering the price, he was thinking about the rug, and later in the day he returned for the purpose of seeing the rug again, if it was still there, and making up his mind whether to buy it or not. The sale, however, had ended, all the goods had been either sold or bagged for donation, or packed up and taken back home, and the expanse of green lawn by the porch of the parish house, where the sale had been held, lay clear and smooth again in the late-afternoon shadows.
The other Davis was surprised and disappointed, and a day or two later, when he ran into this Davis at the post office, he said he had changed his mind about the rug and asked if it had been sold, and when she said it had not, he asked if he could try the rug in his house to see if it would look good.
This Davis was immediately embarrassed, because in the meantime she had decided she should keep the rug after all, clean it up, and try it out here and there in the house to see how it would look. But now, when the other Davis showed such interest in the rug, she was no longer sure she should do that. After all, she had been willing to sell it, and she had thought it was worth only ten dollars. She asked the other Davis if she could take a few more days to decide whether she was willing to part with it. The other Davis understood and said that was fine, to let him know if she decided she didn't want to keep the rug.
For a while she left it in her son's room, where it had originally been. She looked in on it now and then. It still looked a little dirty, with curled-up corners. She still found it somewhat attractive and at the same time somewhat unattractive. Then she thought she should bring it out where she would see it every day, so that she would feel more impelled to make a decision about whether or not to keep it. She knew the other Davis was waiting.
She put it on the landing between the first floor and the second floor, and thought it looked good with the drawing that hung on the wall there. But her husband thought it was too bright. She left it there, however, and continued to think about it whenever she went up or down the stairs. A day came when she decided quite firmly that although she found it quite attractive, the other Davis should have it, or at least try it out, because he liked it and it would probably look better in his house. But the next day, before she could act on her resolution, a friend came to the house and particularly admired the rug: this friend thought it was a new rug, and she thought it was very pretty. Now this Davis wondered if she shouldn't keep it after all.
Meanwhile, however, the days were passing, and she worried very much about the other Davis. She felt that he had clearly wanted to try the rug out and she was selfishly keeping it, even though she had been willing to sell it—and for only ten dollars. She felt that he probably wanted it, or admired it, more than she did. And yet she did not want to give up something that she had once admired enough to buy in the first place, and that other people also admired, and that she might like very much if she cleaned it up.
Now the rug entered her thoughts often, and she attempted to make up her mind about it almost daily, and changed her mind about it almost daily. She used different lines of reasoning to try and work out what she should do. The rug was a good one—an expert had told her that; she had bought it because she liked it in the Native American store, though apparently it was not Native American; her son liked it, the rare times he came home for a visit; she would still like it if it was cleaned up a little; but on the other hand, she had not kept it clean before and probably would not again; and the other Davis, to judge by the presentation of the interior of his house, which was clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged, would clean it up and take good care of it; she had been ready to sell it; and the other Davis had been ready to buy it. The other Davis would probably be willing to pay the fifty dollars for it, which she would then give to the good cause. If she kept the rug, it occurred to her, she herself should probably give fifty dollars to the good cause, since she had been willing to sell it and no one had bought it—though then she would be paying fifty dollars to keep something that was already hers, unless perhaps it could no longer be considered really hers once it was put out for sale for the good cause.
One day she was given a large cardboard box full of fresh vegetables by the son of a friend: it was midsummer by now, and he had too many vegetables in his garden even to sell. There were too many vegetables in the box for her and her husband, and she decided to share them with some of her neighbors who did not have gardens. She gave some of the vegetables to a neighbor around the corner, a professional dancer who had recently moved into the neighborhood with his blind dog. When she left him, she took the rest of the vegetables across the street from him to the other Davis and his wife.
Now, as they were talking in the driveway about one thing and another, including the rug, she admitted to them that she often had a hard time making up her mind, and not only about the rug. Then the other Davis admitted that he, too, had a hard time making up his mind. His wife said it was amazing how firmly her husband could decide in favor of something, before he changed his mind and decided just as firmly against that thing. She said that it helped him to talk to her about whatever the thing was that he was trying to make up his mind about. She said her answers were usually, in sequence, over a period of time: "Yes, I think you're right"; "Do whatever you want"; "I don't care." She said that in this case, since both Davises were so indecisive, the rug was taking on a life of its own. She said they should give it a name. Both Davises liked that idea, but no name came to mind right away.
This Davis was left with the wish that there were a Solomon to turn to, for a judgment, because probably the question really was, not whether she did or didn't want to keep the rug, but, more generally, which of them really valued the rug more: she thought that if the other Davis valued it more than she did, he should have it; if she valued it more, she should keep it. Or perhaps the question had to be put a little differently, since it was, in a sense, already "her" rug: perhaps she merely had to decide that she valued it more than she had before, just enough more to keep it. But no, she thought again, if the other Davis really loved the rug more than she did, he should have it. She thought maybe she should suggest to the other Davis that he take it and keep it in his house for a while, to see whether he loved it very much, or merely liked it somewhat, or in fact did not want it at all. If he loved it, he should keep it; if he did not want it, she would keep it; if he merely liked it somewhat, she would keep it. But she was not sure this was the best solution, either.
Contingency (vs. Necessity)
He could be our dog.
But he is not our dog.
So he barks at us.
Brief Incident in Short a, Long a, and Schwa
Cat, gray tabby, calm, watches large black ant. Man, rapt, stands staring at cat and ant. Ant advances along path. Ant halts, baffled. Ant backtracks fast—straight at cat. Cat, alarmed, backs away. Man, standing, staring, laughs. Ant changes path again. Cat, calm again, watches again.
Contingency (vs. Necessity) 2: On Vacation
He could be my husband.
But he is not my husband.
He is her husband.
And so he takes her picture (not mine) as she stands in her flowered beach outfit in front of the old fortress.
A Story Told to Me by a Friend
A friend of mine told me a sad story the other day about a neighbor of hers. He had begun a correspondence with a stranger through an online dating service. The friend lived hundreds of miles away, in North Carolina. The two men exchanged messages and then photos and were soon having long conversations, at first in writing and then by phone. They found that they had many interests in common, were emotionally and intellectually compatible, were comfortable with each other, and were physically attracted to each other, as far as they could tell on the Internet. Their professional interests, too, were close, my friend's neighbor being an accountant and his new friend down South an assistant professor of economics at a small college. After some months, they seemed to be well and truly in love, and my friend's neighbor was convinced that "this was it," as he put it. When some vacation time came up, he arranged to fly down South for a few days and meet his Internet love.
Excerpted from Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis. Copyright © 2014 Lydia Davis. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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In Can't and Won't, Lydia Davis serves up another delicious feast of slice-of-life stories. Davis proves that stories don't have to be lengthy or padded, to be captivating. In fact, some of these stories are less than a page long. But they say all they need to say. When reading her books, I am always torn between greedliy speeding through them, versus making them last. She takes the quotidian and makes it engaging. If you are looking for thrills and chills, this book is not for you. But if you are looking for high-quality writing that leaves you yearning for more, don't miss 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.