Can't and Won't

The Christian Science Monitor, April 28, 2014 | Go to article overview

Can't and Won't


Reviewed by Tom LeClair for The Barnes & Noble Review

This could be a "story" in Can't and Won't.

I wanted to title my book of stories "Can't and Won't," but I thought that when a prospective buyer went to a bookstore and asked for it the clerk would think the customer was asking for "Kant and Wundt," a substantial tome of philosophy and psychology. I didn't like that. But then I thought it was more likely the clerk would think the customer was asking for "Cant and Wont," a light book of empty language and habitual behavior. I liked that, so I titled my book of stories "Can't and Won't."

I think his "story" is just as plausible as Davis's two-sentence title piece in which a narrator says he or she was denied a literary prize because the committee found him or her "lazy" for using contractions such as "can't and won't." My Davis "story" is somewhat longer than her Davis "story" and many of her shorts, and mine has more character development, action, and attention to setting than some. She rarely refers to high culture figures, but the self- consciousness and self-reference, the instability of mind and meanings, the general poverty of diction and lack of metaphor, the repetitive sentence structure, the circular movement, all giving the sense that language might be machine generated, are characteristic of Davis. Also representative are the possibly disarming admission that she customarily produces banalities and the clearly misleading assertion that she writes "stories."

And yet now seems Lydia Davis's moment. Last year Davis won the Man Booker International Prize and received an Award of Merit medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This new collection occasioned a recent New Yorker profile and bears blurbs by James Wood, Ali Smith, Colm Toibin, and Ben Marcus who sound as if they were writing under the influence of laughing gas. The momentum toward this moment began when that most literary of presses, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, published Davis's "Collected Stories" in 2009. After reading "Can't and Won't," I went back to that book. I won't claim I found the patience to read all 733 pages, but I did survey the kinds of "stories" in the whole and did read the 200-plus pages from "Varieties of Disturbance," which was published in 2007, to see if this new book displays changes in method or achievement from her most recent work.

"Let be be finale of seem," says Wallace Stevens in "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." Davis is celebrated for eschewing or mocking all those old-fashioned fictional conventions of "seem": words artfully arranged, characters that appear to be people, passages of discourse that seem to be conversation, pages that might be mistaken for a narrative. She is the Empress of Ice-Cream, queen of transient small pleasures served cold. In "Can't and Won't" the Empress is barely clothed with her short shorts. The most distinctive and remarked on feature of Davis's work, these one-sentence or one-page "stories" occupy a larger proportion of "Can't and Won't" than of the "Collected Stories." Perhaps encouraged or emboldened by her praise and awards, Davis has given over a third of her new book to her briefs. Here is an example, the whole of "Bloomington": "Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before." Here is all of her final piece entitled "Ph.D.": "All these years I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D."

I do have a Ph.D., so I'm familiar with Davis's few learned references in the collection, including Maurice Blanchot and Raymond Queneau's "Exercises in Style," which tells one story in 99 different ways. I've read Stein's prose poems in "Tender Buttons." I know the B-list of experimental short fictioneers - Beckett, Borges, Barthelme, Barth - and Russell Edson (an early influence on Davis), as well as some of the literary theorists who replaced "story" first with "fiction," then with "text," and now maybe with "verbal artifact. …

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