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An unsigned letter to a peppermint manufacturer, a series of observations about cows, and a dream about a sentence in a trash can: these subjects represent a fraction of the many story forms on display in Lydia Davis’s book “Can’t and Won’t.” This narrative diversity in addition to the stark simplicity of her prose and the sheer brevity of her stories—some are literal one-liners—make the MacArthur fellow and Man Booker International Prize winner’s work difficult to categorize. However, Davis’s work is united by a singular voice and style. Davis’s terrain is the quotidian, but through sparse prose and incredible candor, she is able to examine the minutiae and mundane elements of our lives in abstraction. In “Can’t and Won’t,” this approach renders luminous conclusions about human nature that linger long after the short stories reach their end.
Though most of the collection’s stories lack a conventional narrative arc, Davis’s prose is incredibly satisfying. Some stories resemble poetry more than prose, such as “The Cornmeal,” a succulent description of the condensation caused by a hot dish of cornmeal, which is “taking action in its own little way.” Other stories consist of one-liners, letters, or lists. Davis also describes the varying inspirations for some of the stories, such as “dream” stories—stories influenced by dreams of the author and those related to her—and stories “from Flaubert,” which are derived from letters written by the French novelist and slightly rewritten. With few exceptions, these diverse stories are carefully orchestrated to maintain a delicious level of tension that culminates in startling conclusions just as effective as traditional narrative closure. One story depicts an anonymous woman bent over a child presumed to be her own. The one-paragraph story is so concise that the unspecified “she” is barely introduced before Davis reveals the child is dead. The situation is gripping enough to be the premise of a longer story, but instead the story ends with, “In life, the child would never sit still for a photograph. She says to herself, ‘I’m going to get the camera,’ as if saying to the child, ‘Don't move.’” This tale may end with more questions than answers, but the language’s distilled intensity gives the story a sense of fullness.
The sparse nature of the prose combined with Davis’s unflinching candor allows stories to serve as abstract examinations. Despite the casual title, “A Story Told to Me by a Friend,” which features a pair of long-distance lovers who have yet to meet, is told so plainly that it resembles a modern fable more than a piece of gossip. When one lover dies while the other boards a flight so they can meet in person, Davis conveys the tragedy of the ironic situation through a simple but surprising style shift. Though the last line is written in third-person like the rest of the story, Davis enters the mindset of the surviving lover to astonishing effect. When the lover visits the morgue to see his partner’s body, Davis states, “It was here, face to face with a dead man, that he first laid eyes on the one who, he had been convinced, was to have been his companion for life” (22). Without elaborating on the tragic circumstances or resorting to sentimentality, “A Story Told to Me by a Friend” is able to comment on how dreadful things can happen when you least expect them.
Fortunately, Davis’s frankness is also used for humor. One of the wittiest stories of the collection is “I’m Pretty Comfortable, but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable,” which is a litany of privileged problems that are equally humorous and cringe-worthy. These lamentations include “I need to go to the bathroom, but someone is in there,” “he doesn’t pronounce foreign words correctly,” and “the work I have to do this morning is difficult.” Though these situations are mundane and recognizable, they are incredibly accurate and illustrate the frankness of Davis’s syntax.
These beautifully spare and honest narratives make the stories from Flaubert pale in comparison. Davis, a highly regarded translator of Proust and Flaubert, states that, though she intended to keep Flaubert’s language and content as intact as possible, she did take certain liberties she felt were necessary. Though it is possible to see traces of Davis in her rendering of Flaubert, the translated stories seem flowery and overwrought when compared to her understated prose. Whereas Davis can draw sophisticated conclusions about human nature in one sentence or less, the Flaubert stories consist of dense paragraphs ending with dramatic exclamations. These graceless conclusions include, ““How insolent nature is!” “What a strange thing it is—the human brain!” and “Oh, we writers may think we invent too much—but reality is worse every time!”
Despite the grand proclamations by Flaubert, Davis’s tales, whether bleak or humorous, are true to reality. In one of Davis’s dream stories, “The Dog”, an anonymous speaker looks away from his deceased pet then turns around to see him once more. When the speaker turns, however, the dog is gone; “In that one moment he has vanished: a moment too soon, they have wheeled him away.” This dream story is highly mysterious, but the concise piece captures the fleeting nature of nightmares better than a lucid explanation. Davis’s singular style ultimately provides “Can’t and Wont” with startling glimpses into the hopes and anxieties that are common but worthy of her acute gaze.
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