REVIEW: 'Can't and Won't, by Lydia Davis

  • Article by: DYLAN HICKS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2014 - 2:00 PM

FICTION: A new collection of stories from Lydia Davis, one of literature’s most approachably idiosyncratic writers.

Lydia Davis is a master of, among other things, evocative nonspecificity. She often withholds the names of her characters and the cities and towns they live in, and although she might describe their clothes or cars, she won’t stoop to note who manufactured them. Through these somehow vivid omissions and her careful, unflashy prose, she has found a tone that seems at once contemporary and timeless, folkloric and urbane, dreamlike and quotidian.

“Can’t and Won’t,” Davis’ fifth story collection and sixth book (she is also a celebrated translator of Proust, Flaubert and other French writers), is less consistently brilliant than her previous books, but it again shows her to be one of contemporary literature’s most approachably idiosyncratic and dryly comic writers.

Particularly influenced by Kafka’s very short prose works, Davis has for decades been the leading practitioner of what is sometimes called micro-­fiction, stories that take up only a page or two, or even a paragraph or one terse sentence. The stories aren’t always narrative; if the idea were to sell fewer books, her publisher might package them as miniature essays or prose poems. Sometimes they’re rather like jokes. Here is one, “I Ask Mary about Her Friend, the Depressive, and His Vacation,” quoted in full:

One year, she says

“He’s away in the Badlands.”

The next year, she says

“He’s away in the Black Hills.”

Whether her subjects are undeniably grave or amusingly trivial — one character agonizes over whether to sell a rug — Davis has the rare ability to write calmly about anxiety, capturing all the circularity of a mind in agitation without resorting to run-on sentences or other staples of breathlessness.

As the story about the rug illustrates, she often draws surprising interest out of seemingly boring material, or out of boredom itself, as in the incisive “Not Interested.” Sometimes this is her challenge to herself and to her readers. “The Cows,” originally issued as a chapbook with illustrative photos, consists of fragmentary close observations of a neighbor’s black cows. I’ve read it twice: In one sitting, it reminded me a roomful of paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, beautiful and fittingly ruminative; the other sitting seemed to go on for many restless hours.

“Can’t and Won’t” is peppered with brief pieces that belong to sets, including a series derived from Flaubert’s letters, and another miniseries taken from dreams. A few of the Flaubertian shorts are of merely historical interest, and some of the dreams have a so-what quality, but others harmonize with and expand Davis’ signature styles, blurring the lines between translation, found art and traditional storytelling.

Serious but never pompous, Davis and her often fussy, bothered narrators see that life is routinely funny but by no means a joke. Like Samuel Beckett, another key influence, she has created a kind of wisdom literature of bewilderment.

Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician and the author of the novel “Boarded Windows.” He lives in Minneapolis.

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  • "Can't and Won't," by Lydia Davis

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    By: Lydia Davis.

    Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 289 pages, $26.

    Review: Davis draws surprising interest out of seemingly boring material as she blurs the lines between translation, found art and storytelling.

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