19 May, 2014Issue 25.2FictionLiterature

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Christy Edwall

Lydia Davis
Can’t and Won’t
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014
289 pages
ISBN 978-0374118587


It is difficult to talk about Lydia Davis’s fictions without talking about their size. The length of these fictions–occasionally extending to just a few words–sets her work apart from the short story of the New Yorker and the turgid productions of MFA culture. To be microscopic is to risk being slight. But while Davis’s minimalism asks, as all minimalism does, whether it counts and whether it can be taken seriously, the majority of her work answers resoundingly in the affirmative.

The narrator of the story from which the collection takes its name, “Can’t and Won’t”, is denied a writing prize because of her laziness: “What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions”. Minimalism also risks this accusation: compression and concision may be seen as omission or evasion. The short short story points at itself, asking whether its brevity is indicative of authorial laziness. Yet it is clear when reading Davis that contraction–while seeming to indicate carelessness and a certain shirking of commitment – is more precise and labouring, rather than less. Here fiction operates within tighter margins. Can’t and Won’t – Davis’s first book to be published after the Collected Stories of 2009 and her winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 – tests whether her fictions continue to count or whether they teeter over into preciousness.

Davis’s style is sparse in instinct and her narratives frequently work additively. She is drawn to lists, parallel statements, negations, slight adjustments, and inflections rather than metaphor. Whole stories are structured in this way, as in “Local Obits” where the names of the elderly deceased are recounted almost liturgically with an elaboration of their interests (“‘Tootles’ enjoyed puzzles of all kinds, painting items her husband built, and keeping in touch with family and friends via the computer”). It is a slow dance with very sharp, slight footwork.

In this she resembles Elizabeth Bishop, a poet whom she mentions in “The Rooster”. Bishop, who is often seen as a miniaturist, suffered in her own day from comparisons with poets of the Grand Style, like her friend Robert Lowell, to whom she wrote to say she feared herself a “minor Wordsworth”. Much of Davis sounds like Bishop: they share a slanted reality through exquisitely shaped ordinary words. Consider the overt oddness of “The Gentleman of Shallott”, who feels he is “half looking-glass”:

… He loves
That sense of constant re-adjustment.
He wishes to be quoted as saying at present:
‘Half is enough’.

As with Bishop’s pointed “at present”, Davis excels in hyper-precise language, wielding ordinary rather than inflated words with notable articulation. This is evident in her “Letters to”, a genre which, although she masters it, feels over-represented in this collection. In “Letter to a Frozen Pea Manufacturer”, the writer complains delicately about the unattractive peas on the packet of frozen peas she purchases, which she claims represent the peas “as less attractive than they are”. After describing the peas on the packet, comparing them with the peas inside the packet and the overall effect of the brand marketing, the writer concludes: “We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art”. Here there are no contractions, but the world is scrupulously microcosmic: a letter of complaint is an expression of aesthetic dissatisfaction at a suburban staple and a trial for exactness.

The letters, scattered throughout the collection, are commonly dissatisfied at a misunderstanding or misrepresentation. The writer-narrator is politely pedantic, personally voluble though never effusive, and dignified to the point of stiffness. She responds to a misprint in a bookstore newsletter, writes about the misrepresentation of the number of bijoux peppermint sweets bought at Christmas, and answers a scam (“Letter to the President of the American Biographical Institute, Inc.”). In one case, Davis varies the theme. Her “Letter to the Foundation” is (in some sense) solicited. The subject is more personal: a woman’s account of how she spent the grant she was awarded for research, hoping to break away from the teaching job that she dreads, but never quite able to do so.

Davis is not generally a warm writer. The longest story in the collection, “The Seals”, which unpicks the history of a woman’s relationship with her dead sister, while still undoubtedly a Davis story, bears a maudlin weight, as though Davis were attempting to foray into deeper feeling. Other critics have judged “The Seals” to be one of the best stories in her collection, but this reveals the critics’ misplaced loyalty to realism which sees more meaning in explicit suggestion and heavy grief. Instead, Davis is much more successful at creating feeling through obliqueness, as in the earlier “Old Mother and the Grouch”, which recounts a marriage in all its grand gestures of pettiness and its miniature wars:

Old Mother makes an unpleasant remark about one of their lamps.
The Grouch is sure Old Mother is insulting him. He tries to figure out what she is saying about him, but can’t, and so remains silent.

Just over a fifth of the stories included in the volume are subtitled “Dream”. These stories often lack the cohesion of a Davis perception; they seem to struggle too hard. Davis’s stories work because they unravel the underlying surrealism of daily life: describing, for example, the elderly and lunatics hired as civic servants in “City Employment” to wander the streets so that “the rest of us will feel sane”. The surrealism of dreams is of another kind entirely, and the two don’t harmonise. The dream tag too heavily tries to authorise or create an experience, insisting on the particular circumstances of the fiction’s production, infringing on the text and the reader’s experience, trying urgently to frame it, suspicious of the fiction’s ability to make it on its own.

At the end of the collection, Davis notes that the pieces which she labels as dreams come from her dreams or dream-like experiences, or the dreams of others. It is evident, then, that she has tried to rescue her dream-stories from a surging, frothing subconscious, and to test what to make of the dream genre, which is usually confined to the private dream diary. But they lack the wit of her conscious productions: the Oulipo-ish snark of “The Brief Incidence in Short a, Long a, and Schwa”, or the stubborn, gleeful petulance of “Negative Emotions”, in which a well-intentioned teacher circulates a memo to his fellow teachers on how to control their negative emotions, to ill effect.

While seeming to pad out the collection, like the dreams, Davis’s fourteen translations from Flaubert, scattered throughout the collection and, as clearly marked, are more successful. She explains that she took the episodes from Flaubert’s letters, translated them, and then, while desiring to leave the language and content alone as far as possible, shaped the episode. The excerpts bear Davis’s imprint in a strong and successful fusion of sensibility and style. Her choice of how to conclude “The Cook’s Lesson” is telling: “And I think of myself as an intelligent man! But compared to her I’m an imbecile”. This exclamation is self-indicting and entertains irony. It bursts forth with sudden energy from a person who views the world–perhaps quite misleadingly–as comprehensible by continuous acts of comparing.

By comparing the episodes from Flaubert with Davis’s original work, one can observe how she differs from him. In her translations, Flaubert is willing to digress from his material to draw a conclusion, to extend his thoughts towards a larger truth. She writes in “The Old Soldier”: “I thought about how, in this perpetual half-sleep of old age (which precedes the other sleep, and is a sort of transition from life to nothingness…” Davis’s fiction does not do this. Her ruminations are internal and solipsistic and, so far as these ruminations concern others, they hypothesise the separate world of the other (whether that other is a cow or a truculent husband). Instead of resolving problems in consolatory syntax, her language exacerbates it.

The Collected Stories of 2009 was an international revelation of Davis’s narrow but weighty oeuvre; it emphasised the fact that fiction loses nothing by brevity and gained precision and provocativeness. But, while Can’t and Won’t flares up in moments of pure Davis-like pleasure, the collection is neither as consistent nor as generous as her Collected Stories. It feels like a rushed job, inflated by translations and dreams where one wishes for more of the exasperated wit found in the domestic skirmishes of “The Dreadful Mucamas”. Instead, Can’t and Won’t misses the heft of her earlier work and this absence is noticeable precisely because when Davis is good, she’s very good indeed.

Christy Edwall is reading for an MPhil at Clare College, Cambridge.