Can't and Won't
Lydia Davis

Critics like to coo about length of Lydia Davis’s stories—they are sometimes a page, or a single line—and their scope, too, is often small. She writes a crisp, unflappable English, never gasping with florid similes or purple prose. Instead, her work clicks along with a steady rat-tat-tat that belies its richness of feeling, its gnarled textures. It is an art of tabulation, of transcription, an art of lists. And some pieces take the form of letters of complaint—to food companies, awards committees—those stiffly formal missives that smuggle in some stifled, private ache.

But missing from so much writing on Davis is any mention of the sudden bite to her work, how it lodges a muted—though unmistakable—protest. Rumbling beneath many of her stories is an implicitly female defiance, and her genius lies in the power to tease out the violent impulses that nest so comfortably in the structures of daily life—in our routines and glancing exchanges, our behaviors and patterns of thought.

She has a preference for domestic scenes and marital quibbles; even the few fabulist reveries carry with them the soft abstraction of bedtime stories. Her protagonists, mostly women, add up facts, sort through evidence, or muddle through the coiled uncertainties of circumstance, all in the hope of some tiny, twinkling revelation.

The woman in “New Year’s Resolution,” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001), learns that her friend Bob has decided to drink less, to lose weight. But she has been reading her Zen philosophy and, having made a friend of emptiness, has resolved to learn to see herself as nothing. “Is this competitive?” she asks, wonderfully. “He wants to lose some weight, I want to learn to see myself as nothing.” Listen for Davis’s tensile tonal poise: she teeters between naive and sage, chuckling and straight. The problem, though, is not that this woman is competitive—Buddhists rarely are—but that her surrender to the gaping Nothing of existence undoes the punishing labor of life itself:

But how does a person learn to see herself as nothing when she has already had so much trouble learning to see herself as something in the first place? It’s so confusing. You spend the first half of your life learning you are something after all, now you have to spend the second half learning to see yourself as nothing. You have been a negative nothing, now you want to be a positive nothing.

(It hurts to rip excerpts from her stories—they are so neatly self-contained, they snap so tightly shut, that stray passages always look a bit starved and sad, orphaned from context.) It is no coincidence that this tireless student of Zen, who shuttles between something and nothing, substance and lack, is a “she,” not a he. But Bob is content to busy himself with the spiritual banalities of food and drink, secure in his right to, well, be. The urges to “be something” and to “be nothing” tug vigorously at the psyche, wrenching at its seams. And those injunctions themselves, walloping the mind with all the force of history and male mastery, can only be resisted through a sly undoing of their terms. “Maybe for now I should just try, each day, to be a little less than I am.”

But it is too easy to mistake her unadorned style for a kind of curtseying docility or a daintily “feminine” approach to craft. Her demystifying gesture, her shrugged anti-philosophy almost reads like a subdued version of the snotty Dictionary of Received Ideas by Flaubert. (A crusader against cliché, in this little pamphlet he subjected the cherished, unquestioned notions of his day to the surgical incisions of satire. Smug, epigrammatic wisdom winds up bloody and mangled: “BASILICA. Grandiose name for a church.” “ANTIQUES. Always modern fakes.”) Fitting, then, that wedged between the fables and dream diaries of Can’t and Won’t, Davis’s latest collection, we should find new translations of Flaubert’s personal letters. She has chosen light, colorful episodes, plucked expertly from the clammy flesh of nineteenth-century France. Provincial scenes emerge to illustrate some wry principle or strange fact—a working-class funeral or traveling exhibition, for instance, serve as marvelous specimens of human callousness. And many of these pieces end with an aspirated glance at the heavens, as poor Gustave drinks in life’s brimming absurdities: “How insolent nature is!” “Oh, charlatans!” And, most desperate of all: “Oh, Shakespeare!”

People do not talk like this anymore; no desolate howls, no fainting apostrophes to Providence. In the mumbled idiom of Lydia Davis, truth does not come thundering down from Olympus, but sprouts like a weed. So her little Flaubertian interludes—there are fourteen in all—perform a slanting experiment in tone. There is still something unyielding about experience, despite the shift in register; her sensibility travels through time, cocking its head at every oddity and disjunction. And language should herd these sundry facts into some kind of order—but the archetypal Davis woman, a strange mix of ingénue and crone, pushes through language, leaning on it heavily, waiting for it to crack.

From “Local Obits,” in Can’t and Won’t :

Helen loved long walks, gardening, and her grandchildren.

Richard founded his own business.

Anna later helped on the family farm.

Robert enjoyed his home.

Alfred enjoyed his best friends, which were his two cats.

Henry enjoyed woodworking.

By the end of those nine pages, we know that Albert loved animals; Stella, cats; and “Dick was meticulous in the care he gave to his home, yard, and automobiles.” We also hear the pat formulas of mourning; the rosy blankness of provincial life; and the muffled thud of death. There is something archetypally American in this avant-garde collage, enamored as it is of lilting commonplaces, but Davis manages to suffuse her work with an ingenious sympathy. In this dour litany, the collective sense is of old people tottering about, drifting calmly into extinction—but the screaming terror of death is strangely, brilliantly, absent. “Local Obits” stands not as a lordly critique of obituaries or an excoriating deconstruction of their form; it is a signal, small but true, of the staying power, the necessity, of blandness. The real tragedy of death might be its leveling indifference, how lives are left puny and deflated, tapering off to a mumbled list of hobbies and pets.

But in the end, “Local Obits” is cold, hard information—poignant but opaque. We live, I am told, in the information age, an age replete with looming tech corporations, with “globalized” markets, with rickety, arcane financial instruments—an age equipped with its own brand of “information” fiction. This is a genre propped up by big books, the stony slabs of Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace. We assume that the most acute rendering of our “condition”—mediatized, distractible, flat—is to be found in those vast, unfurling novels that splay our culture so gaudily on the page. In The Satanic Verses, for instance, we find ourselves squinting at the flashing lights of Rushdie’s prose: “what a leveler this remote-control gizmo was, a Procrustean bed for the twentieth century; it chopped down the heavyweight and stretched out the slight until all the set’s emissions, commercials, murders, game-shows, the thousand and one varying joys and terrors of the real and the imagined, acquired an equal weight”—this, only halfway through the sentence! Behold the jabbering ecstasies that mark this new cult of postmodernists, apostles of what James Wood has rather oddly dubbed “hysterical realism”—odd because he invokes an archaic female “neurosis” to describe what is (pace Zadie Smith) a breed of footnote-scrawling, culture-brandishing men.

In the mumbled idiom of Lydia Davis, truth does not come thundering down from Olympus, but sprouts like a weed. 

Davis, of course, works small. But she shares the central wager of hysterical realism—that being ground between the clanging gears of detail and urbane triviality, there might be something yielding and quizzical and human. In “Local Obits,” she, too, peeks through our readymade expressions and gleaming bromides. She, too, dares us to find the flinching psyche behind the icily precise procession of facts. But unlike those nouveau-hysterics, she does not plunge us into great bubbling vats of verbiage, but treats us to a spare, tidy meal. She, like Rushdie, takes an interest in how the “varying joys and terrors of the real and the imagined” take on “an equal weight,” but she does not rocket up to a vaunted, panoramic height to survey some swarming, spurious totality. She is content to present the world, with all of its teeming complexity, through one scared pair of eyes.

Take, for instance, “The Language of the Telephone Company.” It manages to squeeze the frantic zigzags of contemporary speech into a single well-turned couplet, a choice snippet of corporate, rubber-stamped gibberish:

The trouble you reported recently
is now working properly.

And in an older story, “Letter to a Funeral Parlor”:

Dear Sir,

               I am writing to object to your use of the word cremains, which was used by your representative when he met with my mother and me two days after my father’s death.

The cheap dazzle of commodified language is especially sick, of course, when it seems to leer at the dead: “As one who works with words for a living, I must say that any invented word, like Porta Potti or pooper-scooper, has a cheerful or even jovial ring to it that I don’t think you really intended when you invented the word cremains.” The problem here is a matter not merely of diction, but of the obvious silliness of language when it bumps against the unspeakable.

• • •

Lydia Davis’s last booknot including The Collected Stories—is called Varieties of Disturbance, and indeed, her entire oeuvre might well gather under that name. But Varieties (2007) broke from her other work in its stark, doleful tone; the plainspoken Davis had become a Davis in mourning, as some of that volume’s most resonant pieces centered on the death of her parents. Her language games now carried with them a daunting weight, never quite dreary or funereal, but somber and slow.

That was seven years ago. Can’t and Won’t also hovers around the question of death—and in some cases, poses it bluntly—but this time it is the death of the author. (The “author” being Davis herself, not some Barthesian bogeyman.) Here is “Old Woman, Old Fish,” in its entirety:

The fish that has been sitting in my stomach all afternoon was so old by the time I cooked and ate it, no wonder I am feeling uncomfortable—an old woman digesting an old fish.

In typical, methodical Davis fashion, mortality does not announce itself with apocalyptic visions or bellowed proclamations of The End. Death creeps into life, lies alongside it, gives it its sour taste.

But death also gives life its shape, draws its rigid outlines. “The Landing” begins: “Just now, during these days when I am so afraid of dying, I have been through a strange experience on an airplane.” Something is wrong with the wings: landing will be difficult, dangerous, and could end with the plane scraping against the tarmac runway to a fatal, fiery halt. The announcement comes via the loudspeaker, and our protagonist—Davis herself—looks around as death’s stillness ripples through the fuselage. Even the composure of the flight attendant looks like “the calm of fatalism, I now thought, fatalism produced by his long training and experience, or perhaps simply by an acceptance of the end.” And in the midst of this tangled psychic foliage, a clearing:

While I was thinking this large thought, my eyes were again shut, I was clasping my hands together until they were moist, and I was bracing my feet very hard against the base of the seat in front of me. It wouldn’t help to brace my feet if we had a fatal crash. But I had to take what little action I could, I had to assert my tiny amount of control. In the midst of my fear, I still found it interesting that I thought I had to assert some control in an uncontrollable situation.

We know this Davis, the same one who ricochets between Zen and self, something and nothing, baring herself to the cruel and unending vacillation of systems and circumstances beyond her power to control or even narrate. Davis the airplane-passenger steels herself against the bigness of things by taking refuge in the smallest of things—her immediate environs, the sphere of her little actions and premonitions. That story ends, perfectly, with the utter bathos of her survival. It seems like a fitting statement of her whole tidy cosmology: life’s habit of puttering blithely, preposterously, along.

Yet “the Landing” remains—for all its flights of existential grandiosity—a neat fable about power, from the view of one without it, one angled against it. It is Davis’s quintessential stance: wry malcontent, tight-lipped dissenter, scrambler of conventions and codes—“I had to assert my tiny amount of control.”

“Can’t and Won’t” is the name of a story in this book; the title blurts a refusal that dredges up Bartleby the Scrivener even as it encapsulates Davis’s own lovely, lucid dissent:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.