Can't and Won't
Can't and Won't
By Lydia Davis
Farrar Straus Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374118587, 289pp.
Publication Date: April 8, 2014
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.
Praise for Can’t and Won’t:
“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
“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“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
“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“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
Praise for Lydia Davis:
“Big rejoicing: Lydia Davis has won the Man Booker International prize. Never did a book award deliver such a true match-winning punch, rather like one of Davis’s ingenious, playful, formally inventive and unexpectedly powerful (for their size) short stories might. Best of all, a new audience will read her now and find her wit, her vigour and rigour, her funniness, her thoughtfulness, and the precision of form, which, even among short-story practitioners known for these qualities, mark Davis out as unique . . . She’s such a reader’s writer, this daring, excitingly intelligent and often wildly comic writer who reminds you, in a world that likes to bandy its words about, what words such as economy, precision and originality really mean. It’s all about how you read and about the reflorescence of what and how things mean with Davis, who works in an understated, concentrated way and in a form that usually slips under the mainstream radar. So look again, because this is a writer as mighty as Kafka, as subtle as Flaubert and as epoch-making, in her own way, as Proust. As a translator, she has recently produced magnificent English versions of classics by the latter two, but it’s the short-story form that she’s made her own, and even changed the potential of, over three decades of honing a style whose discipline is a perfect means of release of hilarity, myth, merciless sharpness, and, most of all, of a celebration of the thinking, vital, fertile mind.
A two-liner from Davis, or a seemingly throwaway paragraph, will haunt.
What looks like a game will open to deep seriousness; what looks like philosophy will reveal playfulness, tragicomedy, ordinariness; what looks like ordinariness will ask you to look again at Davis’s writing. In its acuteness, it always asks attentiveness, and it repays this by opening up to its reader like possibility, or like a bush covered in flowerheads.
She’s a joy. There’s no writer quite like her.” —Ali Smith, The Guardian
“Davis . . . has influenced a generation of writers including Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, who wrote that Davis, ‘blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction.’ . . . Announcing the winner, Booker judge Professor Sir Christopher Ricks said: ‘Lydia Davis’ writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind. Just how to categorise them? Should we simply concur with the official title and dub them stories? Or perhaps miniatures? Anecdotes? Essays? Jokes? Parables? Fables? Texts? Aphorisms, or even apophthegms? Prayers, or perhaps wisdom literature? Or might we settle for observations? There is vigilance to her stories, and great imaginative attention. Vigilance as how to realise things down to the very word or syllable; vigilance as to everybody’s impure motives and illusions of feeling.’” —Adam Sherwin, The Independent
“[Davis’s] stories expand the possibility of fiction itself, broaden its horizons, challenge its preconceptions. She is – and these sometimes seem like virtues the literary world has shunned – experimental, complicated, daring. In Ezra Pound’s famous phrase, she makes it new . . . “Unsettling” is her trademark. Reading her collections—Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001) and Varieties Of Disturbance (2007)—is to be perpetually caught off guard. She switches between elegy and comedy, surrealism and the quotidian, perplexity and epiphany: reading one Davis story tells you nothing about what the next story might be like . . . Her work, in so many ways, is not about altering what literature is, but trying (and failing) and failing (and trying) to capture what being human is.” —Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
“Among the true originals of contemporary American short fiction.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Davis is a magician of self-consciousness. Few writers now working make the words on the page matter more.” —Jonathan Franzen
“All who know [Davis’s] work probably remember their first time reading it . . . Blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction.” —Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s
“Sharp, deft, ironic, understated, and consistently surprising.” —Joyce Carol Oates
“The best prose stylist in America.” —Rick Moody
“A body of work probably unique in American writing, in its combination of lucidity, aphoristic brevity, formal originality, sly comedy, metaphysical bleakness, philosophical pressure, and human wisdom. I suspect that The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions.” — James Wood, The New Yorker
“This welcome collection of Lydia Davis’s short fiction, which gathers stories from four previously published volumes, reveals that her obsessions have remained fairly consistent over the past 30 years: frustrated love, the entanglements of language, the writer engaged in the act of writing. But even when Davis traverses familiar territory, her masterful sentence style and peculiar perceptiveness make each work unmistakably distinct. Davis is known for her ability to pack big themes into a tight space; many stories here are less than a page, and some consist of only one sentence. The longer pieces frequently find her narrators making much out of the seemingly meager. In ‘The Bone,’ which first appeared in the collection Break It Down, a woman describes in detached detail the night a fishbone was caught in her now ex-husband’s throat. In ‘The Mice’ a narrator feels rejected by the mice that will not come into her kitchen, ‘as they come into the kitchens of [her] neighbors.’ —Kimberly King Parsons, Time Out New York
“Lydia Davis is one of the best writers in America, a fact that has been kept under wraps by her specialization in short fiction rather than the novel and her discomfort with the idea of one event following another in some sensible pattern, an expectation she frequently plays with, as a kitten will with your fingers. Watch out for those teeth and claws. With the publication of this big book, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Davis might well receive the kind of notice she’s long been due. She is the funniest writer I know; the unique pleasure of her wit resides in its being both mordant and beautifully sorrowful (her short piece ‘Selfish’ begins, ‘The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,’ and you can see the regrets that birthed the sentence, even while it cracks you up). Like many great writers of short pieces she is able to convert everyday experience into a light comic drama—cooking for her husband in ‘Meat, My Husband’ or the task of writing in ‘What Was Interesting’—that builds toward a piercing moment of reality. Some of Davis’s stories are only one or two sentences long and many don’t exceed two pages, which is good, because seeing them all together in this 700-page volume and surviving the power of the longer ones, you realize you’re lucky to be getting out of the book psychically intact—or almost intact. She’s that good.” —Vince Passaro, O, The Oprah Magazine
“What to do with all the empty white space that drifts over the 733 pages and nearly 200 fictions of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis? Make origami, maybe. Like Don DeLillo, who drafted Underworld at the pace of one paragraph per sheet of paper—the technique, he once explained, evolved out of ‘a sensitivity to the actual appearance of words on a page, to letter-shapes and letter-combinations’—Lydia Davis is as much sculptor as writer. ‘I put that word on the page, / but he added the apostrophe,’ reads the entirety of one recent story, ‘Collaboration With Fly.’ Another, ‘My Mother’s Reaction to My Travel Plans,’ doesn't even stretch onto a second line: ‘Gainsville! It's too bad your cousin is dead!’” —Zach Baron, Village Voice
“No one writes a story like Lydia Davis. In the years since she began publishing her lyrical, extremely short fiction, she has quietly become one of the most impactful influences on American writers, even if they don’t know it. That’s largely because she makes economy seem so easy. You could read several of her stories into a friend’s voicemail box before you were cut off (and you should). You could fit one of her stories in this column. Some you could write on your palm.” —Jonathan Messinger, Time Out Chicago
“Lydia Davis is the master of a literary form largely of her own invention. Her publisher calls what she writes fiction—and her short prose pieces do have characters, settings and sometimes a plot, however minuscule—while haughtier literary types might think of it as a kind of fleshy prose poetry or designate it ‘flash fiction.’ The classically minded and fantasy fans might characterize it as updated fable. Whatever you call them, Davis’ little writings are mostly in prose and often less than a page long. They are also unceasingly surprising, deeply empathic, sharply witty, often laugh-out-loud funny and really, really good.” —Craig Morgan Teicher, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“This volume contains the stories from four collections: Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007). They are shocking. Be prepared for a level of self-consciousness (remember, Beckett). Be prepared for narrators with disorienting levels of discomfort (remember, Kafka). Be prepared for moments of beauty that are sharp and merciless (remember, Proust).” —Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times
Reading a story by Lydia Davis is like watching a magic trick: She shows you a top hat that's obviously empty, and then she pulls out of it something enormous and oddly shaped. More at NPR.org
NPR Audio Player Requires Flash Upgrade: Please upgrade your plug-in to view this content.
The award-winning author is known for her brevity, and Can't And Won't doesn't disappoint. Davis tells NPR's Rachel Martin that the works of Russell Edson inspired her to write super-short stories. More at NPR.org
NPR Audio Player Requires Flash Upgrade: Please upgrade your plug-in to view this content.