Davis is one of the strangest and most original writers in the English languageby Adam Kirsch / April 24, 2014 / Leave a comment
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…