Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In Lydia Davis’s new collection of short stories, Can’t and Won’t, 122 stories take up a mere 283 pages. Davis, winner of the Booker International Prize, juxtaposes descriptions of cow behavior with internal monologues about whether the maids are stealing. She has stories about keeping a notebook on a train, the annoying sounds that people make as they rustle newspaper and chew, and a recording of an argument with the paper boy. Davis is almost undoubtedly the most celebrated flash fiction writer in American letters. This is not a bulletproof position as I learned in a conversation with Alan Cheuse, book critic at NPR, who called Davis’s work, “unreadable.” I differ from Cheuse’s take on Davis. At the very least, Davis is readable; after all, how can one complain about readability when a short story is a single line as in “Bloomington:” “Now that I have been here a while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.”
In order to properly discuss Can’t and Won’t, a couple of questions must be answered. Such as, just what the hell is Davis up to? Or rather, what is Can’t and Won’t? Nearly all the stories, if they are indeed stories, are written from a singular perspective. There are no hidden narrators, no dogs or small children telling stories. The narrator is almost certainly a woman who is very much like Lydia Davis. A woman who’s concerns range between the intellectual and the mundane, washing dishes and winning literary prizes. And if the narrator is singular, are we reading short stories, flash fiction, or a novel? To my mind the question isn’t necessarily germane; the history of the novel is a history that could have veered off in different directions and every few years Davis gives us an example of what might have been and what has been in other cultures and across time.
As I read Can’t and Won’t, I found myself asking whether all of Lydia Davis’s short stories are essential? In Davis’s case the answer is—probably not. And yet it seems to be that would be missing a good deal of the pleasure of reading Davis if we skipped some of them. To appreciate Davis’s craftsmanship, you have to at least look at all of the stories closely, even the silly one-liners because the narrator is a blank canvas whose details are filled out slightly more with each passing story until we are left with something immense and still indistinct, a portrait like our own.
The book is really a collection of musings – philosophical, tangential, funny, wry, and touching. The stories aren’t just good; they capture a certain truth about the strange and fragmentary nature of existence, our greatness and smallness. Davis has quietly captured the voice of a generation of educated people who have the gnawing sense that something has been left undone, a dish unwashed, a book unread, a mother not called. That these thoughts can be near universal is a large part of Davis’s immense charm. For Davis, the perfect narrator is someone who is standing at the window, wondering if the table will be set and whether her mother, newly wheelchair bound, will behave herself at dinner. In short, precisely the sort of person that most of us really are, concerned with the minutia of life, of family, of the yarn that is spun together to make a life. The musings of her narrator are speckled throughout with philosophical insights that arise naturally, like air pockets forming bubbles on water as it passes over rocks.
Davis is an excellent writer, a translator of both Proust and Flaubert, and her prose reflects this clarity and concision. Her sentences are often short and declarative. And they are textured with irony, intelligence, and wit. And when she does write longer sentences, they too are beautiful. In this way, Davis reminds me of Yasunuri Kawabata; her words are like rough-hewn diamonds compressed from the hard coal of language.
Though Davis has carved out a curious little corner of the literary universe, her work is almost unfailingly delightful. She’s both very good and very funny—a rare feat, often achieved by essayists, and tougher to sustain for novelists. The form allows Davis to keep shifting between the wry, the philosophical, and the sad, without leaving the reader with a sense of dislocation about the narrator. Rather, the inconsistency seems properly wedded to existence. We do have simple and very large observations that construct our days. “House Keeping Observation,” is described thusly, “Underneath all this dirt, the floor is really very clean.” On its own, the story is a simple and funny observation. It doesn’t mean much, and in it, we feel an echo of our own days, which do not amount to much either. Davis shows how those small and large things are wedded together to create our sense of self – fractured, strange, and sad.
One of the most memorable stories in the collection, “The Cows,” is a sixteen-page description of what cows in a pasture are doing. The story is replete with simple statements like, “The forelegs are more graceful than the back legs because they lift in a curve, whereas the back legs lift in a jagged little line like a bolt of lightning.” The story, ostensibly a very close meditation on cows, winds up leaving the reader feeling a strange sort of sadness, an awareness of the distance between ourselves and other species, and perhaps, by extension, one another. The descriptions are precise and leave the reader shaking his head and thinking, yes, that’s exactly what cows in a pasture look like. “She bucks, stiffly rocking back and forth. This excites another one to butt heads with her. After they are done butting heads, the other one puts her nose back down to the ground and this one stands still, looking straight ahead, as though wondering what she just did.”
In “The Two Davises and the Rug,” Davis satirizes the decision making of a woman who is unsure of whether to sell a rug at a garage sale after learning that it is more valuable than she thought. The story, which takes five pages, begins as such, “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.” Who has not had these same sentiments whether pointed towards lunch, a love affair, or something else? These wild vacillations are a very real part of the human condition, and Davis elucidates them with the efficiency of a Haiku poet.
What we’re left with at the end of 285 pages is neither a collection of short stories, nor a novel, but a sensibility, Davis’ sensibility – keen, intelligent, wry and funny – precisely the sort of person who you’d want to spend a day with. Her stories are aphoristic, epigrammatic, and essayistic, a bright reminder of the potential of writing, a subtle reminder of our small, messy lives.