The San Francisco Chronicle
April 18, 2014
Lydia Davis is a strange bird. Or, at least, the narrators who look so much like herself – writers, teachers, middle-aged women – are strange. In “Can’t and Won’t,” Davis’ fifth collection (sixth if you count “The Collected Stories”), and her first assemblage of new work since “Varieties of Disturbance” in 2007, Davis revisits her fictionalized nonfiction world built on anecdotes, aphorisms and very short stories.
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others, Davis is official literary dynamite. As a former bookseller at McNally Jackson in New York City, I was surprised by the fierceness of her fan base. One customer, for example, refused to read Siri Hustvedt’s “What I Loved,” saying he felt it “trash-talked” Davis. (Hustvedt is the current wife of Paul Auster, the former husband of Davis.)
Her “Collected Stories” are always faced out on the shelf and stacked in overstock, along with other interminably sold books like David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” and Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
She is known for her sometimes one-line-long stories, but also for her masterly observations and pinpoint sentence construction. Everything she writes looks effortless, like watching a ballerina pirouette across a stage, part of us is mesmerized and part of us thinks, “I could do that.”
“Can’t and Won’t” holds up to Davis’ former works, maintaining a level of tragic comedy, introspection and poetry expected from her followers. It contains 122 stories, lists, dreams, correspondences from Gustave Flaubert to his lover Loise Colet, and letters of complaint to various foundations and institutions.
In “Letter to a Marketing Manager,” Davis writes to correct the biographical mistake printed in a bookstore newsletter that states that Davis is a McLean Alumni (McLean being a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass.). “No other explanation occurs to me for your mistaken identification, unless your buyers assumed on the basis of the contents of my book, its title, or my admittedly somewhat wildeyed photograph that at some time in the past I was an inmate.”
In the story “The Dreadful Mucamas,” the narrator fights against the strong will of her two housekeepers, Adela and Luisa. The story reads like a play: “Adela cannot speak without yelling. … When setting the dining table, [she] puts each thing down with a bang.” What is annoying in real life becomes hilarious when broken down into elemental anecdotes. “I told Luisa they could go out on Sundays, even before breakfast. She yelled at me that they did not want to go out, and asked me, Where would they go?”
In “I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable,” the fitting title describes exactly what is to follow: 67 sentences cataloging the narrator’s slight irritation in a given situation.
“A man is coughing during the concert.”
“The shower is a little too cold.”
“The seam in the toe of my sock is twisted.”
“The blender is leaking at the bottom.”
“I can’t decide whether to go on reading this book.”
The story “The Cows” is a previously published chapbook (Quarternote Chapbook Series, 2011), and one of my most recommended books to date. Delighted to see it here, where its slim spine won’t be overlooked on a too tightly packed shelf, the story involves a woman, most likely Davis, describing the cows who live in a field across from her home.
“She moos towards the wooded hills behind her, and the sound comes back. She moos again in a high falsetto. It is a very small sound to come from such a large, dark animal.”
“If it snows, it snows on them the same way it snows on the trees and the field. Sometimes they are just as still as the trees or the field. The snow piles up on their backs and heads.”
“How often they stand still and slowly look around as though they have never been here before.”
Another list-generated story, “How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues of the TLS,” reveals exactly what Davis is and is not interested in: “Not interested in this poem:
(‘Light dazzles from the grass / over the carnal dune …’), Not interested in: most of this fiction. Interested in: the Southport Lawnmower Museum.”
There is a quirky familiarity to Davis’ characters, but one must be open to their own idiosyncrasies to feel it. Other critics have said that much of her work (even a third) should have been left unpublished.
It is true that some of the stories (or vignettes or comments or parables) are much stronger than others. I found her dream pieces, shaped by her or her friend’s dreams or dream-like experiences, to be a little silly. But if we keep in mind what Davis has said – that she is always working, always alert to things – imagine how many stories have already been edited out. We are lucky she chooses to write down any of it!
The opening sentence of an Independent article from last year states, “Lydia Davis, the shortest of all short story writers … has won the fifth Man Booker Prize.” Perhaps in her next collection we will find a letter to WN, pointing out how the journalist’s sentence composition suggests that Davis is a short-story writer who is also very short. The shortest short-story writer there is. Perhaps only a few feet tall. Certainly, she won’t let this misleading sentence go uncorrected.
For original link, click here.