Can’t and Won’t
by Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 2014
304 pages / $26 Buy from Amazon
Lydia Davis’ Can’t and Won’t is the latest offering from an author who, over the past few decades, has consistently confused notions of genre within literary fiction. A writer mostly of short fiction and a translator, notably, of Proust and Flaubert (whose letters supply the language for one series of pieces in the book), Davis is as at home with the authors of the late-twentieth century French avant-garde as she is with those of the nineteenth-century high-realist novel. As they do in all of her books, her stories work with minutiae of language and experience that are broadly accessible in ways that cannot be called simply conventional or experimental.
In the shorter pieces that appear toward the beginning of the book, Davis introduces numerous formal conceits and thematic concerns. Some of these are developed and then virtually exhausted later on. Others pass as momentary amusements of the kind that occupy a writer as committed to craft as Davis is. In stories like “Awake in the Night,” one of the stories in the collection labeled “dream,” logic, impulses and instincts in dreams have a surreal quality seemingly irreconcilable with narrative. The stories lack information usually necessary to the construction of a narrative, yet in “Awake in the Night,” information seems to be available, even if not in words. There is a “him” who is familiar to the narrator of the story, the dreamer, even if there is no earlier exposition of this person or his importance to the narrator. We rely on accumulation of information to solidify a relationship, but in this story, which is a dream, but also a story, the relationship is solid without the exposition.
“Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer” could be a commentary on style and content in literary branding, but it could also just be a story about peas. An unflattering false representation, the unappealing coloring of the peas depicted on the package of the peas that are colored much more attractively, appears to be, in the opinion of the narrator (“we”), more egregious than a flattering one. Despite the actual quality of the product contained in the package, the narrator, a collective voice that constitutes an audience, wants the gratification of accurately flattering presentation, perhaps more than the gratification of the product itself. A line like “Please reconsider your art” invites commentary about art in general, taken separately from the peas, but the narrator may be referring to the graphic art used to advertise the peas and none other.
In two stories called “The Cook’s Lesson” and “My Sister and the Queen of England,” an entire reality is created when certain details (negatively) are paid more attention. In both stories, one composed of language lifted from the letters of Flaubert, a narrator is scandalized when another character shows no interest in narrative incidents involving a royal figure. In these stories, royalty is important to some people, and presented by a large majority as if it is important, but others live in a world completely unfettered by this presentation of this institution, and so they live in a world where these things are not important or do not exist. Clashes of perspective like this, revealed by very banal encounters or recollections, provide Davis with material that few readers can dismiss.
In “Eating Fish Alone,” a narrator exposes intricacies of her psychology by recounting her experiences eating fish alone. The narrator experiences many minute moments of enjoyment and many minute moments of disappointment. Based on what surprises and delights the narrator (the flavors in a platter of assorted vegetables) and what disappoints her (the undue attention she ends up paying to the time she distributes between her dish and the book she brings to read at the restaurant) we get a comprehensive sense of her character. She often makes decisions by default, fish being one of these. She becomes anxious about certain aspects of her fish eating experience, which often deny her the ability to enjoy her meal. In the end, she is not able to enjoy that of which she initially conceives as a relaxing escape. She becomes too preoccupied with the fact that the goods and services with which she is being provided are being provided at someone else’s expense. She consistently feels overwhelmed by the variety of her choices. She feels impatient, she feels dissatisfied, and finally she feels guilty.
The narrator of “Dog Hair” mourns the death of her dog in short, declarative sentences like, “When the doorbell rings, no one barks.” The absence of a sound associated with the dog is a reminder of the death of the dog. The narrator reveals at the end of the story that she and her family gather what dog hairs they find in the hope that the hair that remains will eventually come together to make the dog again. Many of Davis’ characters think this way about death: if the dog’s bark is missing, but the dog’s hair is not, perhaps there is no proof that the dog is dead. The wholeness and the finality of the death are not accepted, and so certain objects or occurrences can point to the possibility that it has not come to pass.
This kind of examination of this particular stage of grief allows Davis to tackle questions of approach and content that persist throughout the book most thoroughly in “The Seals,” a longer story about a young woman mourning the deaths of her older sister and her father. The story is at once a work of conventional realism and an experiment. At the end of the story’s first paragraph, the narrator observes, “There were five of us, actually, like a poker hand.” Davis sets herself the following parameters: 1) start with the simple equation 5-2=3, 2) chart the emotional consequences wrought by this mathematical operation. What is remembered in the story is the loss, the whole loss, of the two people. The things that disappear along with the people, and the things that stay, take time to locate, understand and accept. Objects and memories will stay, and the person holds on to both as if they are the same thing. Voices, tendencies and traits disappear. The pain of the grief is in the reconciliation of these inconsistencies.
Toward the end of the story, after most of these confusions have been reconciled, the narrator decides, “You get older and see things more clearly and there’s less to be happy about. Also, you start losing people–your family.” For this narrator, happiness and sadness are also functions of gathered information or possessions. Knowing is possessing information. Once you’ve seen and learned enough, and have a large enough sample set based on which to judge the world, possessed enough of this knowledge, there is less to be happy about. Children have a sample set that lies within the margin of error; they can easily be seduced by an ice cream cone into believing that the world is a happy place. The narrator goes on to realize “The two kinds of grief were different. One kind, for him, was for an end that came a the right time, that was in the natural order of things. The other kind of grief, for her, was for an end that came unexpectedly and much too soon.” When do we decide that it is the right time for death? When enough has accumulated to justify a life. Years are large bins of bits, and we stack them up until the space allotted for their storage is full. When there is still space to store more, that space must be filled. A premature death is just that, an empty space. That’s why we feel so unfulfilled by a premature death: there is unfinished business.
Davis’ ability to create and observe these small details of experience and perceived reality, be they objects or ideas, without allowing herself any distractions, allow her to work freely in forms short and long and employ techniques designated, by and for other writers, as strictly either mainstream or avant-garde. The reason for this is simple: for Davis, there is only writing. As we live, we observe life and language to find in what we observe and in ourselves patterns that may appear familiar until they are revealed to be stunning and strange. For each of these observations, there is a narrator and a narrative moment. Each of these moments is already a story. When one is ready to be written down, Lydia Davis can and will.
Stephen Piccarella lives in Philadelphia. He’s a graduate of Bennington College. His fiction appears in Mask Magazine and he contributes regularly to Electric Literature‘s The Outlet and APIARY Magazine Online. You can follow him on twitter at @mobsterbisque.