Can't and Won't: Storiesby Lydia Davis
The New York Times • Los Angeles Times • The Boston Globe
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/i>/b>/b>/i>/b>/b>
The New York Times • Los Angeles Times • The Boston Globe
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.)
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.
“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
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.
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Meet the Author
Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and four previous story collections, including Varieties of Disturbance, 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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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.