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Can't and Won't Stories

Lydia Davis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

0374118582

9780374118587

Hardcover

304 Pages

$26.00

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Her stories may be literal one-liners: the entirety of “Bloomington” reads, “Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.” Or they may be lengthier investigations of the havoc wreaked by the most mundane disruptions to routine: in “A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates,” a professor receives a gift of thirty-two small chocolates and is paralyzed by the multitude of options she imagines for their consumption. The stories may appear in the form of letters of complaint; they may be extracted from Flaubert’s correspondence; or they may be inspired by the author’s own dreams, or the dreams of friends. 

What does not vary throughout Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis’s fifth collection of stories, is the power of her finely honed prose. Davis is sharply observant; she is wry or witty or poignant. Above all, she is refreshing. Davis writes with bracing candor and sly humor about the quotidian, revealing the mysterious, the foreign, the alienating, and the pleasurable within the predictable patterns of daily life.

REVIEWS

Praise for Can't and Won't

“Some writers have the uncanny ability to slant your experiences. Read enough Lydia Davis and her stories start happening to you . . . Her stories have a way of affecting the sense so that indecision itself becomes drama and a mutual shrug between two strangers can take on more meaning. This is what the best and most original literature can do: make us more acutely aware of life on and off the page. To read Davis is to become a co-conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation. Our most routine habits can suddenly feel radically new . . . Her work, which often consists of brief stories made up of seemingly mundane observations, resists classification and is especially immune to explanatory jibber-jabber. In a universe drowning in words, Davis is a respite .What she doesn’t say is as important as what she does . . . She ignores any and all cramped notions about what is and is not a story, and her work has always freed up reads to conjure their own lasting, offbeat visions . . . Call Lydia Davis the patron saint of befuddled reality . . . Davis’s books more fully mirror (and refract) the chaos of existence than safer, duller, more homogenous collections precisely because the stories aren’t consistent in tone, subject matter, length, depth or anything else. Neither are we consistent. One moment you can’t decide where to sit on a train, the next you find yourself staring squarely into the abyss. What Davis is attempting to express is the wild divergence of human experience, how the ordinary and the profound not only coexist but depend on each other . . . Can’t and Won’t is a more mournful and somber book than previous Davis collections. Calamity and ruin are always close at hand . . . Still, the wonky comedy remains, as does the knife-thrust prose, as does the exuberant invention . . . Random beauty, too, is everywhere . . . It is as if Davis means to remind us that only close, intense observation can save us, and only for the time being.” —Peter Orner, The New York Times Book Review 

Can’t and Won’t is the most revolutionary collection of stories by an American in twenty-five years. Here, indeed, are objects in all their eerie mystery—knapsacks, nametags, rugs, frozen peas—vibrating with possibility; but here, too, is consciousness dramatized in a truly new way, behaving with the stubborn inertia of those very same objects . . . No story writer alive has put sentences under so much pressure, so well, so consistently. In dealing with mortality, though, Davis’s observational gaze has acquired a new warmth and depth . . . The difference between the words can’t and won’t is created by the mind. One is inability; the other is willed refusal — but how often are they confused? Consciousness, these stories show, so often pivots between these poles on the axis of this confusion. The genius of Can’t and Won’t is that Davis has created a narrative out of that oscillation. Here is a mind rubbing up against the world, with fascination and wonder and disgust. It judges and it observes. Davis writes in sentences as radically lucid as any penned by Grace Paley, who was, in her lifetime, too often belittled as a miniaturist. What is tiny—like a molecule of oxygen—allows us to breath, as these stories do with their fabulous, occult integrity.” —John Freeman, The Boston Globe

“Lydia Davis’s short-story collections tend to exceed the boundaries of a single book and become libraries . . . Whatever its source, Davis’s range is all the more impressive for reading as a series of natural progressions . . . Come to this one-book library for the mercurial gifts of its author; stay because the stories continually renew their invitation to be read inventively.” —Helen Oyeyemi, The Guardian

“Davis’s curtest works have a lot in common with poetry: this poised, metaphysical jest about time, death and language owes a debt to its line endings. Yet even at her most poetic Davis is a storyteller, even if her plots unfold with the quiet philosophical precision of a Samuel Beckett ‘fizzle’ or theatrical monologue . . . when her genius for syntax is married to genuine emotion, then the results can be truly astonishing. In Can’t and Won’t, these emotions wheel ominously around death. ‘The Dog Hair’ is both touching elegy for a deceased pet and surrealist joke that captures the futile yearning that accompanies grief. The knowing reserve of ‘A Story Told to Me by A Friend’ explores how language creates love and, by extension, sorrow, how intimacy overcomes distance, and how distance gets in the way. The most memorable of all is ‘The Child,’ which almost shocks with its dispassionate snapshot of a bereaved mother and a profound melancholy that beggars belief. Incorporated elegantly into this extraordinary five-line work are questions about art’s capacity to fix such sadness. The final whispered command, ‘Don’t move,’ resounds endlessly. As so often in Lydia Davis, the less said, the better.”  —James Kidd, The Independent

“When Lydia Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, the attempt to fix a label to her work reduced one of the judges . . . to a bit of flailing . . . Personally, I’m not sure what the problem with just calling her a writer is, unless it’s this: If what she does is writing, we need a new name for what everyone else is doing . . . She makes the impossible look easy . . . Like Proust, whom she has translated, Davis writes the act of writing itself . . . her stories are filled with moments of crisis about how to carry on, or what word to put down next, and fears that it could all mean nothing in the end. She’s a theorist of the arbitrary. The fact that she makes it look so easy—so arbitrary, even—is part of the fun . . . Lydia Davis is a translator even when she’s not working in a foreign language. Writing is always a practice of choosing, but she makes this the subject as well as the method of her work; her meticulous, obsessive ‘correctness’ makes words as fraught as they are funny.” —Christine Smallwood, BookForum

“Reading a Lydia Davis story collection is like reaching into what you think is a bag of potato chips and pulling out something else entirely: a gherkin, a peppercorn, a truffle, a piece of beef jerky. Her stories look light and crisp, with their unadorned prose and flat-footed style, but on closer inspection they are pity, knobby, savory, chewy, dense. They are also mordantly, slyly funny in their exposure of human foibles. Can’t and Won’t . . . is evidence of a writer who is in total control of her own peculiar original voice; its pleasures are unexpected and manifold . . . Davis . . . shares with Samuel Beckett a sharp playfulness and antipathy toward ornamentation, as well as a tendency to subvert dramatic expectations that is, in the aggregate, startlingly dramatic.” —Kate Christensen, Elle

“Davis is perhaps the sparest contemporary fiction writer we have—breathtakingly bold in the limits she imposes on herself . . . There is no roughage in her writing—there is nowhere to hide. There are only the words—stark and striking, an experiment in just how little it takes to make a story. Her work can sometimes read like a test of discipline or the brilliant product of a dare: You thought I couldn’t do it, didn’t you? I broke your heart in one paragraph or less.” —Chloe Schama, The New Republic

“[Lydia Davis] continues to push the boundaries of narrative. [Can’t and Won’t] is a remarkable, exhilarating beast: a collection that resumes the author’s overall style—short narratives, with the occasional longer piece—while simultaneously expanding her vision . . . with Can’t and Won’t, Davis deftly hones the art of looking backward, of calling the dead to life, of retaining the moments in life intended to remain fleeting. The result is a tapestry of method, style, and structure, all with the same objective: to possess that which has passed, to capture the lost and the unidentifiable.” —Benjamin Woodard, Numero Cinq Magazine

“Davis’s narrators are almost always in midst of some essentially normal situation, but unable to integrate that situation into the familiar world of the social throng. Instead her stories linger on the threshold of that world, exposing its artifice. This liminal, self-enclosed and yet outward looking perspective would seem to be the position of the writer. And yet, Davis is too intelligent by half to stray into any writerly heroics. The writer doesn’t have any privileged access to some deeper truth of things. Far from it: writing is referred to as a deeply suspect activity — at once treacherous (‘Two Characters in a Paragraph’) and evasive (‘Writing’). Rather, the detached, analytical and incisive perspective that Davis’s narratives open is simply another perspective on a world that is infinitely amenable, interpretable, ambiguous. Davis awakens the multiplicity of meanings; she doesn’t settle on new ones . . . Davis has a particularly acute eye for the contracted violence, imbalances of power, and stirrings of ressentiment implicit in prosaic social relations . . . Davis gives voice to those inchoate mumblings, to those thoughts that half-form in our minds before collapsing under the weight of their own aporia and, with craft and care she follows them through their manifold turns and folds. And all this in prose that is stark, limpid, precise and quietly beautiful. (Hannah Arendt famously said of Kafka that he has no favourite words. The same is surely true of Lydia Davis.) Her stories give expression to the pit in the plum; the madness implicit in the quotidian. Like half-forgotten dreams, they linger somewhere between the alien and the familiar, the unreal and the hyper-real. At once uncomfortable, painful and compulsive, reading Lydia Davis is like looking into a mirror held too close to one’s face; you can’t bear to look, nor to look away.” —Will Rees, Full Stop

“Davis’s work is serious, sedate, and spare. It is also very funny . . . Choosing just one or two stories to highlight the highlights is not easy . . . Choosing just one or two stories to highlight the highlights is not easy . . . One particularly tempting piece is titled simply ‘The Cows.’ It is a miraculous and revelatory dissection of the ordinary, a tour de force, a showcase of Davis’s talents. ‘Not Interested,’ a story near the end of the book, can be read in part as an artist’s statement. It is an analysis of a doppelgangerish narrator’s reading life. She is tired, she says, of novels and stories. She ‘prefers books that contain something real.’ This is the dilemma that Davis, the artful dodger, is trying artfully to dodge—a reaction to contemporary imaginative literature that is similar to her own. She is trying in her exact and meticulous examinations of the everyday to write a different sort of story—one that has, in addition to many other things, something real in it. Her work will be of little interest to the reader looking for wizards, nymphomaniacs, or serial killers, but of great interest to those looking for adventurous writing that is smart, original, ingenious, funny, and fun. This new collection is a welcome addition to a unique and dazzling body of work.” —K. B. Dixon, The Oregonian

“The title story in Davis’s latest collection of nimble and caustic stories, a wry tale about why a writer is denied a prize, is two sentences in length, but, as always with this master of distillation, it conveys volumes. In the wake of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009) and receiving the Man Booker International Prize, Davis presents delectably intriguing and affecting new works shaped by her devotion to language, vigilant observations, literary erudition, and tart humor. A number of strikingly enigmatic stories carry the tag ‘dream,’ and they are, in fact, based on dreams dreamed by her Davis and her family and friends. Thirteen intricately layered and thorny pieces flagged as ‘stories from Flaubert’ improvise saucily and revealingly on the seminal writer’s letters. Elsewhere, Davis tosses together the trivial and the profound in hilarious and plangent tales about painful memories and epic indecision, deftly capturing the mind’s perpetual churning and the terrible arbitrariness of life. Then, amid all this fretfulness and angst, a narrator devotes herself to watching three serene cows in a neighboring field. Davis is resplendent.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Davis . . . continues to hone her subtle and distinctive brand of storytelling. These poems, vignettes, thoughts, observations, and stories defy clear categorization; each one is an independent whole, but read together they strike a fine rhythm. Davis circles the same central point in each entry: her character examine the world with a detached, self-contained logic that seems to represent the process of writing itself . . . Davis’s bulletproof prose sends each story shooting off the page.” —Publishers Weekly

In the Press

Excerpt: Can't and Won't | Book Keeping
Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.

Reviews from Goodreads

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BOOK EXCERPTS

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A Story of Stolen Salamis
 
 
My son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn kept a shed out back in which he cured and smoked salamis. One night, in the midst of a wave of petty vandalism and theft, the shed was broken into and the salamis were taken. My son talked to his landlord about it the next day, commiserating over the vanished sausages. The landlord was resigned and philosophical, but corrected him: “They were not sausages. They were salamis.” Then the incident was written up in one of the city’s more prominent magazines as an amusing and colorful urban
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Lydia Davis

  • Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and four previous story collections, the most recent of which, Varieties of Disturbance, was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is also the acclaimed translator of Swann’s Way and Madame Bovary, both of which were awarded the French American Foundation Translation Prize. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, published in 2009, was described by James Wood in The New Yorker as a “grand cumulative achievement.” She is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.

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