Book review: Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

Davis is one of the strangest and most original writers in the English language
April 23, 2014

Davis: The kind of writer we must teach ourselves how to read

Lydia Davis could be called a cult writer, if it weren’t for the fact that the cult has expanded, in the last few years, to include just about everyone. Her Collected Stories, which appeared in 2009 and included the contents of four slender volumes published over the previous decades, established her as one of America’s most respected writers, and in 2013 she won the Man Booker International Prize. Fortunately, however, Davis is not yet anthology-familiar. The sheer oddity of her prose, the quiet obsessiveness of her attention, her refusal to conform to the usual expectations of storytelling—all these qualities still make Davis genuinely surprising, the kind of writer we must teach ourselves how to read. The very title of her new collection of stories, Can’t and Won’t, hints at her artistic obstinacy: among the things Davis can’t and won’t do is write like anybody else.

In earlier books, Davis described her work as “stories,” but Can’t and Won’t bears no such subtitle, and the word has never been quite right for her short prose compositions. These can be as brief as a line or two, and take any number of forms, imitating poems or diary entries, essays or letters. Even when they do actually narrate, Davis’s pieces do not rely on plot and character for their effect; not for her the lumber of conflict and development and resolution, which we have seen before in hundreds of well-made, workshop-ready stories.

Instead, what fascinates Davis is rhetoric and tone. Many of her stories experiment with a rhetorical technique, testing its possibilities and limits: a dialogue with the questions erased (“Jury Duty,”) a foreign vocabulary lesson (“French Lesson I: Le Meurtre”), a veterinary medical history (“Molly, Female Cat: History/Findings”). And the principle of her work, the discovery that she is always testing out, is that as language approaches absolute plainness, the tiniest variations of tone take on a disproportionate fascination. The simpler the event Davis relates, and the more determinedly neutral her language, the more paradoxically unstable her work becomes, as the reader must work harder to interpret it.

Take “The Cows,” one of the longest pieces in Can’t and Won’t. This is a 15-page “story” consisting of nothing but repeated attempts to describe three cows that the writer can see from her window. It takes the form of a series of detached paragraphs, each a new approach to the subject, reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” (Some of Davis’s “stories” were first published in poetry journals.) But while Stevens is concise and metaphorical, Davis is literal-minded, careful, comprehensive, at times almost dull: “At a distance, one bows down into the snow; the other two watch, then begin to trot towards her, then break into a canter... They are often like a math problem: 2 cows lying down in the snow, plus 1 cow standing up looking at the hill, equals 3 cows. Or: 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows. Today, they are all three lying down.”

Nothing happens to the cows; there are no lyrical descriptions or shocking metaphors. Yet in their sheer cow-ness, they start to seem like paragons of integrity, and they enforce a corresponding integrity on Davis’s language. This, we begin to feel, is what paying proper attention really sounds like. When we hear that one of the cows escaped slaughter simply because she refused to get in the truck to the slaughterhouse—“So she is still there”—she becomes a kind of bovine Bartleby, prevailing through sheer obstinacy like the clerk in Melville’s story; and there is something similarly stubborn about Davis’s approach to writing. What interests her, interests her; no writer is so free from the impression of striving for effect. Like a number of her stories, the paragraph-long “The Woman Next to Me on the Airplane,” here given in its entirety, comes to seem like a parable for Davis’s art itself:

"The woman next to me has many fast and easy crossword puzzles to do during the flight, from a book called Fast and Easy Crosswords. I have only slow and difficult crosswords, or impossible crosswords. She finishes each puzzle and turns the page, as we fly at top speed through the air. I stare at one page and don’t finish any."

Oddly, Davis could be equally well identified with either of these two puzzlers. In her exactingness, in the frequent bewilderment of her characters and personae, she sounds like the traveller who can’t “finish any”: nothing is so characteristic of a Davis story as the sense of perplexity. Yet the stories themselves can be read “fast and easy,” because they are so short and logical, so classical in their approach to surfaces. They mean just what they say, and yet they seem to mean something much more than that.

This is one of the ways in which Davis resembles Franz Kafka, whom she clearly admires. (Her story in “In a Northern Country,” from her collection Samuel JohnsonIs Indignant, is a wonderful Kafka pastiche.) It is also the quality that frequently makes her stories dream-like. “My Husband and I,” another earlier story, has the weird matter-of-factness of a dream: “My husband and I are Siamese twins. We are joined at the forehead. Our mother feeds us. When we are moved to copulate we join lower down as well forming a loop like a certain espaliered tree. Time passes. I separate from my husband below and give birth to twins who are not joined together as we are. They squirm on the ground.”

Dreaming, in fact, may be the condition which all of Davis’s fiction strives to attain. This is not because improbable or dream-like things happen in most of her stories, but because a dream’s logic and its contents are so often at odds: bizarre things seem reasonable, while ordinary things become horrifying. A story like “The Fish,” from her first full collection Break It Down, summons this kind of incongruity: “She stands over a fish, thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today. Now the fish has been cooked, and she is alone with it. The fish is for her—there is no one else in the house. But she has had a troubling day. How can she eat this fish, cooling on a slab of marble?” Turn the story one way, and it is a domestic anecdote; turn it another, and it seems full of ominous mysteries. The fish “has been cooked”—by who? It is “for her”—but how does she know?

In Can’t and Won’t, Davis takes this procedure to its logical conclusion, by including a series of short pieces that are actually labelled “Dream.” A note explains they “were composed from actual night dreams and dream-like waking experiences of my own, and the dreams, waking experiences, and letters of family and friends,” but the effect on the reader is the same; we are being told someone’s dreams, which is notoriously uninteresting. When an original story just fails to make sense, it seems like an artistic decision, but when a dream does the same, it is simply what we expect. Thus a dream-story like “The Sentence and the Young Man”—“A sentence lies exposed to public view, in an open trash can. It is the ungrammatical sentence ‘Who sing!?!’”—seems banally weird, rather than challengingly so.

These dreams, interspersed throughout the book, amount to less than the sum of their parts. A different problem is presented by the series of short pieces marked “Story from Flaubert,” which select telling or ironic anecdotes from Flaubert’s letters. Davis is a leading American translator of French literature, who has produced new versions of Madame Bovary and Swann’s Way among many other books, and each of these Flaubertian morsels is well chosen. But what they reveal, in aggregate, is not Davis’s sensibility but Flaubert’s—the famous combination of nostalgic romanticism and black cynicism. Under the title “The Execution,” for instance, we find Flaubert’s reflection on “our compassion,” as demonstrated by the way 10,000 people flocked to witness a public execution. “And we shake our heads over the Roman gladiators. Oh, charlatans!”

There is clearly a point of contact between Flaubert’s sensibility and Davis’s—the careful visual description, the undercurrent of irony. But the truth is that Flaubert’s misanthropy, his ability to be shocked and horrified by what human beings take for granted, is pretty far removed from Davis’s sympathetic eye for human foibles. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” one of the first pieces in Can’t and Won’t, is typical of her comic vein, painstakingly recording the vacillations of the narrator—whom the title encourages us to identify with Davis herself—over the trivial matter of whether to give or sell an old rug to a friend, who is also named Davis:
"This Davis was left with the wish that there were a Solomon to turn to, for a judgement, probably because 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."
As in “The Cows,” the focus and consistency of Davis’s attention, her determination to track every twist of thought and emotional wobble, increases in inverse proportion to the significance of the subject. But where Davis’s deadpan in other stories produces a sense of strangeness of even dread, here it becomes almost kindly, a way of acknowledging and absolving her own neurotic ambivalence. In her most obviously comic pieces, this stickling over language and description becomes the target of her own satire, as in “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” one of several in Can’t or Won’t cast as letters of complaint to various businesses. “We are writing to you because we feel that the peas illustrated on your package of frozen peas are a most unattractive colour,” this begins, and while the “we” must refer to the narrator’s family, it also evokes the royal “we,” adding to the absurd self-seriousness of the complaint.

Yet this mock-epistolary form also yields one of the most emotionally compelling pieces in Can’t and Won’t, Davis’s “The Letter to the Foundation.” While she changes some details, the piece seems inspired by her actual experience of winning a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation in 2003. This lucrative so-called “genius grant” is meant to free writers to work, but for the writer behind Davis’s long, meandering, apologetic letter, such freedom comes as an existential shock: “For weeks I... felt vaguely ill, and afraid of accidents. I was afraid I would die. Why was I immediately afraid I would die? Was my life suddenly worth more because of this grant? Or did I think that because something good had happened to me, now something bad was going to happen?”

As the letter goes on, Davis confesses, through her narrator-surrogate, to her desperate fear and loathing of teaching students, and her ambivalence about money and success—feelings which must be widely shared among writers but are seldom so plainly and precisely stated. In this story, as in “The Seals,” another long piece about the aftermath of losing a parent and a sibling, Davis does not break her usual style, but forces it to perform feats of emotional excavation to which it might not first appear suited. Astringent and penetrating, Davis’s prose looks more than ever like one of the unique creations of American literature.

Hamish Hamilton, £16.99