Can’t and Won’t

By Lydia Davis

Most authors recoil at being called “a writer’s writer,” and for good reason. It’s nice to be well thought of within one’s profession, but what the label mostly suggests is a writer nobody else but another writer would want to read.

American author Lydia Davis certainly has her fans, having won awards for her translations of Proust and Flaubert as well as the prestigious 2013 Man Book International Prize for her own fiction. She has also heaped up moraines of critical praise (a lot of it, yes, coming from other writers).

With Can’t and Won’t, however, it’s hard to see her grabbing any wider audience – even in the unlikely event that this was her goal.

Davis is an idiosyncratic writer best known for her microfictions: stories that may be only a dozen words long. The title refers us to the use of contractions, and may be taken as signaling Davis’s formal interest in cutting out redundant or superfluous elements, a technique of extreme compression and condensation. What we are left with may be no more than a description of basic shapes, colours, and sounds.

In fact, it’s hard to think of all of the “stories” collected here as stories. They may be short poems, aphorisms, lists of items, finger exercises, or even telephone-pad doodles. Digital natives may find something in them akin to blog posts or tweets.

And if mention of blog posts and tweets also makes you think of writing that is ephemeral, banal, and narcissistic, you won’t be far from the sensibility of this volume. Davis’s voice is endlessly self-regarding, to the point of being neurotic.

Again and again we see the narrators here perseverating over trivialities and indulging in static self-analysis. How many candies were in the box of candies she bought? Is that a typo on the restaurant menu, or a misspelling? And here are some of the fascinating points brought out in the piece “I’m Pretty Comfortable, but I Could be a Little More Comfortable”: “My thumb hurts,” “My navel orange is a little dry,” “The back of my neck is prickly,” “My fork is too short,” “My tea water takes too long to boil” (this goes on for seven pages).

One can understand the point Davis is getting at – that in an aesthetic of extreme contraction, minutiae rule – but this is an idea that is neither profound nor memorably expressed. It can be lightly amusing, but only in the way of a Seinfeld episode “about nothing.” Here, for example, is one character confronting the moral dilemma posed by a box of chocolates:

She wondered whether it was right to eat a chocolate by herself, and, if it was right, then whether one had to be in a certain mood or frame of mind to eat a chocolate by oneself. It did not seem right to eat a chocolate out of anger, or resentment, or greed . . . But if one did eat a chocolate by oneself out of greed, was it less wrong if the chocolate was very small?

Perhaps to provide ballast against moments like these, some anecdotes from the letters of Flaubert are thrown into the mix. These come as a relief, as the other “letters” we get all sound like people talking to themselves. Also included are a number of dreams. Davis is no doubt aware of the axiom that nothing is as boring as listening to someone else’s dream, but one assumes she doesn’t care. Your boredom is not her problem. If life is trivial and dull, then that’s where she’s going.

One may be charmed or repelled by Davis’s self-absorbed, faux-naif pose. In true neurotic-blogger fashion, she herself seems to find it a source of anxiety. Near the end of the book she even registers some dismay at her own writing, feeling what the novelist David Shields referred to as “reality hunger”: a disappointment with fiction and a greater need to connect and engage with the world. And so she wonders if perhaps she should be moving on:

What I should do, instead of writing about people who can’t manage, is just quit writing and learn to manage. And pay more attention to life itself. The only way I will get smarter is by not writing anymore. There are other things I should be doing instead.

The rest should be silence.

Review first published in the Toronto Star May 4, 2014.

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