“A fire does not need to be called warm or red,” Lydia Davis writes late in her sixth collection of short stories, “Can’t and Won’t.” “Remove many more adjectives.” Such a line can be read as both an observation and an artist statement, a writer’s call to arms. Davis’ work, after all, is about removing the unnecessary, the needlessly ornamental, about stripping narrative to its most essential form.
“Can’t and Won’t” features 121 fictions, some as brief as a single sentence; “105 years old: she wouldn’t be alive today even if she hadn’t died,” reads “Birthday” in its entirety. On the one hand, that’s the most literal sort of one-liner, an ironic existential joke. But even more, it asks us to reconsider what we think we know about the story, how it operates, what it does. Davis is an author who takes nothing for granted, even the form of the writing itself. Can a sentence be more than a sentence? How does experience reveal itself?
These questions have been at the heart of Davis’ career from the outset: Her first book, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” appeared in 1976. Over the intervening years, she’s published a novel (“The End of the Story”) as well as acclaimed translations of Proust (“Swann’s Way”) and Flaubert (“Madame Bovary”); in 2003, she was named a MacArthur Fellow, and in 2013, she won the Man Booker International Prize. Through it all, however, it’s been the story that’s compelled her, or more accurately the story stripped to its sparest form.
This is not to say she produces only microfiction — the most extended piece in “Can’t and Won’t,” “The Letter to the Foundation,” is 29 pages long. Yet even here, Davis plays with (or against) our expectations, crafting a narrative in which we cannot help but read between the lines.
“I had never before thought so clearly about all the scenes that took place when I wasn’t there to witness them,” the narrator, a teacher who has won a small foundation grant, tells us, describing her growing sense of drift. “And then, I had a stranger and less pleasant thought: not only was I not necessary to those scenes, and not necessary to those lives that continued to go on without me, but in fact, I was not necessary at all. I didn’t have to exist.”
What Davis is evoking is conditionality, which is the great theme of this collection, indeed of her entire oeuvre. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) their brevity, her stories ask existential questions, about us and the world.
In “The Magic of the Train,” we see two women who, “in their tight black jeans, their platform heels, their tight sweaters and jean jackets in fashionable layers, their ample, loose, long black hair,” are clearly in their early 20s — until they turn to reveal faces “pale, haggard, with violet shadows under their eyes, sagging cheeks, odd moles here and there.”
That this happens in a single paragraph is the whole idea, the way a gesture reveals the fallacies of first perception. But even more, Davis’ stunning final turn makes the story: "[W]e see that in the meantime, under the magical effect of the train, they have aged twenty years.”
The same is true of "Ödön von Horváth Out Walking,” in which the title figure, a Hungarian novelist of the early 20th century, discovers the skeleton of a hiker with a backpack containing, among other items, “a picture postcard of the Bavarian Alps, ready to send, that read, ‘Having a wonderful time.’”
In its brittle humor, its fatalistic irony, this is reminiscent of Kafka, who is an antecedent to Davis’ work. Another is Beckett, with whom she shares both a visionary spareness and an unflinching appreciation of the absurd. Then there’s Flaubert. Woven throughout the collection are a series of stories taken from his letters of the early 1850s, at the time he was writing “Madame Bovary.” That suggests a bridge between Davis’ translations and her writing (and why not?), but equally important, it offers a frame of reference, an aesthetic point-of-view.
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” Flaubert famously cautioned, and the sentiment applies to “Can’t and Won’t.” At the center of the book is the understanding that we can locate stories anywhere, that the most regular and orderly moments are, in fact, the most violent and original, that it is up to us to notice, to re-create, to preserve.
I think of “The Language of Things in the House,” which functions as a litany of susurrations: “Pots and dishes rattling in the sink: ‘Tobacco, tobacco.’ … The wooden spoon in the plastic bowl stirring the pancake mix: ‘What the hell, what the hell.’” Absurdity again (although more gentle than Beckett’s), but at the same time, its opposite — our ability, our need, to make meaning from the detritus of daily life.
In many ways, “Can’t and Won’t” is like a set of William Burroughs cut-ups, random moments juxtaposed, one against the other, until reality takes on the logic of a collage. Unlike Burroughs, though, Davis’ intent is not to rub out the word. Rather, language is what gives shape to the chaos, allowing us to invest existence with a shape. That this shape is of our making, our invention is the point precisely; “We have a wild hope,” Davis writes in “The Dog,” which details a couple’s efforts to pick up the hairs left by a dead pet — “if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog together again.”
Can’t and Won’t
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 290 pp., $26