Books: Review of Can’t and Won’t

Author Lydia Davis Mixes Various Genres in Her Latest Book

Readers coming to Lydia Davis’s new book Can’t and Won’t looking for her renowned “hybridity,” the mixing of various genres in a single piece, will not be disappointed.

One genre that rarely makes its way into literature is the letter of complaint, but Can’t and Won’t includes six of these, among them “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer” and “Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company” and “Letter to the President of the American Biographical Institute, Inc.” The 30-page “Letter to the Foundation,” one of the longest pieces in the book, describes the difficulties the author faced after receiving a generous two-year research grant. It’s funny, meticulous, and occasionally tedious.

More successful are the many descriptions of dreams of both the author and her friends. Not surprisingly, these read like surrealist prose poems and are very much in keeping with the casual strangeness of Davis’s earlier work.

The 13 “stories from Flaubert,” are, Davis explains in her notes, “formed from material found in letters written by Gustave Flaubert.” These vignettes are among the strongest pieces in the book, and though Davis, a distinguished translator of French literature, rendered the letters into English, she acknowledges that her “aim was to leave Flaubert’s language and content as little changed as possible.” Obviously, this raises the question: Do these epistolary excerpts belong in a book of “stories” credited to Lydia Davis? (The answer, of course, is Who’s to say?)

Davis is also famous for her very short stories, and those, too, are plentiful. The title story is reprinted almost in its entirety on the front cover. “Ph.D.” reads, in full: “All these years I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D.” “Her Geography: Alabama” is just a single sentence long: “She thinks, for a moment, that Alabama is a city in Georgia: it is called, Alabama, Georgia.”

Davis has said in an interview that she allows each story just as much space as it needs: “how much, really, can you say about this fly on the wall of the bus, or this notice in a hotel room? Some of my thoughts or reactions are very brief, and their brevity is actually part of what I enjoy about them.”

As a result, no experiment is too inconsequential to be included, and that means the book contains some decidedly minor work, which tends to reveal itself in the longer pieces. Perhaps least successful is “The Cows,” 15 pages of detailed observations of three cows seen from the speaker’s kitchen window. Here is a section from near the end of the story, when a reader might reasonably be expecting a little narrative heat: “Their large tongues are not pink. The tongues of two of them are light gray. The tongue of the third, the darkest one, is dark gray.”

It would be easy to cherry-pick flat moments like this from throughout the book, but that would be unfair to Davis. Can’t and Won’t reveals an artist relentlessly probing the possibilities of fiction. Creative writing students are frequently told that a distinctive authorial voice is more important than a tightly plotted story, and Davis, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, is living proof of that dictum. To say that she values style over substance is not a criticism, but a simple recognition of her goals as an author.

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