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Can't and Won't
By Lydia Davis
Farrar Straus & Giroux
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
It's natural to think of experimental and realist fiction as two different poles: authors either write form-busting stories that ask readers to rethink what a story can be, or they write small-scale dramas about ordinary people told in a down-to-earth form. If we're to follow this thought through to its logical conclusion, a story in the experimental mode will be more concerned with its form, with factors like chronology and presentation, while a story in the realist mode will be more concerned with content, with factors like plot and characters. Lydia Davis has always bridged this gap, though: her stories focus on ordinary people doing ordinary things, but she's always been interested in how many different ways she can tell about those ordinary people doing their ordinary things, and through a combination of the two modes filter ordinary life through a completely new lens. More on that later.
In some ways, this, her latest collection, is her way of running in place after 2007's excellent Varieties of Disturbance. I can't help but think of this as a slight step down from that book, but Varieties is a career high for her, so it's no big deal. For the most part, Can't and Won't is typical of Davis. The stories are of microscopic length: "Bloomington" and "Housekeeping Observation," among others, are just single sentences long, although they're both masterfully crafted sentences full of conflict, contradiction, and character. Their subject matters -- professors receiving prizes, customers' complaints about restaurants -- are so mundane that you might wonder why anyone would even write about such things. Yet her precision of language and her commitment to exploring new forms (besides the super-short stories she's made her name with, she loves using letters and studies as forms; there are three letters in this collection, for instance: one to a fictional frozen peas manufacturer, one to a peppermint candy company, one to a grant foundation) has a peculiar effect on the reader; you might catch yourself thinking harder about the small conflicts in these experiences that seem so minor than you had without reading Davis. You might realize these boring moments aren't so boring after all; they're full of these strange and rich and often funny details that Davis invites us all to look over; consider what you might otherwise miss in your rush to get through the mundane. These stories are so mindful, so meditative; full of jittery angst, yes, but with a sense of center among the angst that's also downright relaxing. Transformative is today's word. This volume contains stories about vacuum cleaners, abandoned luggage, and a variety of other topics that might be considered too mundane to write fiction about, until Lydia Davis stops you and makes you wonder just why you consider it too mundane.
Now, I find it hard to talk about a collection like this in terms of its individual stories; since Davis' stories are often so short in the first place, I find they function best within the context of one another, surrounded by brief (and sometimes, in fairness, not-so-brief; consider the brilliant "Cows") companions. However, a special mention for sheer brilliance must be made for "The Cows." This is an incredible story. It's about exactly what its title promises, cows on a ranch, but Davis lends conflict and even subtle character to her bovine subjects. It kept me enthralled for the whole of its length, and it's a longer piece. About cows. Just ordinary cows. That's one of the best short stories I've read all year. Couple these great stories with a few dream diaries (some of which are more interesting than others, I'll admit) and stories culled from Flaubert's notebook -- Davis has earned acclaim for her translation of the Madame Bovary author, and also has the courage to take on Proust -- and you've got another terrific collection. It might even change you a little if you let it.
Out of 10: 9.0