Look Again, More Carefully: ‘Can’t and Won’t’ by Lydia Davis reviewed for Review 31

This review of Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis was originally published by Review 31 in May 2014.

'Can't and Won't'

Can’t and Won’t. Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780241146644

‘I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance I would not write out in full the words cannot or will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t. ’So goes Lydia Davis’ two-sentence story ‘Can’t and Won’t’, from which her latest collection takes its title. On the first read, the piece seems uncomfortably self-effacing. But as soon as the words have sunk in they start to sound ridiculous: the reasoning of the judges is absurd (plus, the observant reader will notice that Davis uses ‘would not’ rather than ‘won’t’ in the story).
What Davis is really doing here is displaying her extraordinary talent for using minimal words to maximum effect. Even as she problematises her brevity she allows us to see things more clearly by stating them more simply. Though some might call it laziness, brevity is actually one of the qualities for which the American writer is most celebrated – and she has, by this point in her career, honed it almost to perfection.Can’t and Won’t contains 112 stories yet spans only 289 pages. As though paper is at a premium, every word Davis has written works hard for its place inside the book. As she comments in ‘Revise 1’: ‘A fire does not need to be called warm or red.’ Far from being ‘lazy’, Davis works tirelessly to excise the excess baggage of conventional storytelling from her writing.What we’re left with are the nubs of matters, which Davis usually locates in the superficially mundane ephemera of her own everyday life: getting from a to b, making lists, shopping, eating, working and sleeping. Read collectively, the stories inCan’t and Won’t create a (fictionalized) picture of a nice, middle-aged, middle-class life – and the small annoyances, tragedies and existential angst such a life, as nice as it is, contains.Most of the time, this means rich self-parody – as in ‘Eating Fish Alone’, where Davis describes the difficulty of knowing which kind of fish it is permissible, in ethical and environmental terms, to eat. The narrator explains, ‘usually I can remember only that I should not eat farmed salmon or wild salmon, except for wild Alaskan salmon, which is never on the menu.’ And in ‘I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be A Little More Comfortable’, the narrator lists a series of laughably minor complaints, including buying ‘sour cream by mistake.’ Elsewhere, a much sadder tone emerges, as in ‘The Seals’, a tender reflection on the death of the author’s sister. But even among the themes of death and grief Davis’ trademark sense of humour is still there – though it is perhaps slightly more muted than it was in her previous collections.

Davis’ humour is largely observational. She has a knack for rescuing what are normally considered non-events from oblivion and laying them out for inspection. In ‘On the train’, the narrator bonds with a stranger in mutual contempt for a pair of women talking loudly in the seats ahead of them. The new allies then alienate each other: the narrator by eating a messy lunch, the stranger by picking his nose. It’s a scenario that anyone who’s ever been on a train will recognize, made more comical, and at the same time meaningful, through Davis’ detailed dissection of the events (though she admits ‘I would not report this if I were the one picking my nose’).

The pinnacle of Davis’ unique ‘observational’ form is reached in ‘The Cows’: a painstaking, disarmingly moving report on the activity of a group of cows visible from her kitchen. In passing, cows in a field appear to do very little. But by watching them for long enough, and noticing the small moves they make, Davis allows us see their true complexity. It shows what can be learned just from gazing idly out of a window, ostensibly doing nothing. Her stories make us notice the things we might so easily miss.

As well as her own ‘real’ world, Davis uses the world of the 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert for inspiration. Several stories are spun from anecdotes that Davis found in his letters, presumably while the doing research for her acclaimed translation of Madame Bovary. In the notes she explains, ‘My aim was to leave Flaubert’s language and content as little changed as possible.’ The from Flaubert stories make it apparent how much Davis’ translation work has influenced her fictional work; she seems to translate experience into stories in the same way she translates French — with as little embellishment as possible.

In other stories, Davis uses dreams – hers and those of her friends – as source material. It’s a cliché to say that hearing about other people’s dreams is boring, but unfortunately not even Davis’ skillful telling can change the fact that it is – for the most part – true. On the whole, though they have charm, the dream stories in Can’t and Won’t lack the punch that the other stories have, though ‘Ph.D.’ – the last story in the collection – is an exception: ‘All these years I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D.’ It’s a brilliantly deadpan way to end the book: on a note of anxiety, doubt and ironic humour, which subtly chimes with the title story.

The insecurity displayed – and dispelled – in ‘Can’t and Won’t’ persists as an undercurrent throughout the collection. This is in spite of – or perhaps because of – the fact that Davis has six short story collections and a Man Booker to her name (not to mention the success of her translations, poetry and novel). In ‘The Letter to the Foundation’ – one of several stories in Can’t and Won’t to take the ‘Letter to’ form – Davis meticulously explains how an overabundance of privilege can feel like a curse as much as a blessing. ‘The Foundation’ has awarded the letter-writer a grant, relieving her of (most of) the teaching responsibilities she hates. Initial joy gradually splinters into paranoia, guilt and paralysis. Eventually, the grant beneficiary confesses: ‘What began as a great relaxation, once the pressure was lifted, became an endless, boundless laziness…’

A similar sense of ennui also features in ‘Not Interested’, a story about an unexpected bout of boredom and disaffection, in which the narrator declares that she is tired of fiction: ‘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.’

With Can’t and Won’t, there’s no danger of being bored by someone else’s imagination. At points, you can almost see Davis imagination flash. In ‘Judgment’, for instance, a story – that could equally be called a poem- is neatly tweezered out of a noun: ‘Into how small a space the word judgment can be compressed: it must fit inside the brain of a ladybug as she, before my eyes, makes a decision.’ The image of a word bulging inside an insect is exquisitely Davis-esque: witty, exact and full of empathy. It reminds us – as all of the stories in Can’t and Won’t do – to look again, more carefully.

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