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Posted on 20 Jan 2015 in Fiction |

LYDIA DAVIS Can’t and Won’t. Reviewed by Phoebe Chen

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cantandwontIn her ninth collection of flash fiction Lydia Davis writes with complex emotional ambiguity about the spaces in between. 

Lydia Davis began her career as a translator of French literature, and perhaps as a kind of reprieve from the unwieldy sentences and dense prose of Proust, Flaubert and Blanchot, she turned to the pithy terrain of flash fiction. Despite her reluctance to associate with generic and formal qualifiers, her work has varyingly been categorised as short essays, microfiction, and poetry. Her formal transgression predominantly takes on the form of vignettes, concise excursions into world of domestic paraphernalia, quiet neuroses and absent husbands. A selection of Davis’s work over the last three decades has been published in The Collected Stories (2009) and, like Philip Roth and Chinua Achebe, she has won the Man Booker International Prize (2013). Her latest (ninth) collection of shorter-than-short narratives, Can’t and Won’t, is a welcome continuation of her style, with the average story clocking in at one and a half pages.

The collection reads like an impersonal diary, fragments of the prosaic gathered by an unnamed, presumably female narrator, interspersed with brief recollections of dreams, ‘dreamlike waking experiences’, and translated excerpts from Flaubert’s unpublished letters and short stories. If conventional narratives are grounded in events, in the things that happen, Davis writes about the spaces in between, magnifying the elusive non-events that are frequently felt, but rarely dwelt upon. ‘Circular Story’ is a five-sentence observation of an early morning rubbish removal truck:

On Wednesday mornings early there is always a racket out there on the road. It wakes me up and I always wonder what it is. It is always the trash collection truck picking up the trash. The truck comes every Wednesday morning early. It always wakes me up. I always wonder what it is.

Even the dream stories seem grounded  in mundane familiarity. ‘In the Train Station’ recalls a dream in which the narrator sees a Tibetan Buddhist monk in a crowded train station. She has just missed her train when the monk approaches her, asking for directions. In ‘The Dog’, the narrator looks out of a car window and sees her dog lying on a gurney, in the middle of a doorway, with two flowers adorning his neck. The narrator looks away, and looks back again, but the dog has vanished.

While stolen salamis, letters to frozen pea manufacturers and nose-picking train passengers dust the collection with subtle comedy, Can’t and Won’t sees a shift away from the more pointed humour of Davis’s earlier work, towards a tone that is quietly sombre in a way that can’t be immediately pinpointed. The deaths in the collection aren’t furnished with maudlin sentiment; rejection is not wrapped in passionate outburst. Even romantic longing is presented with to-the-point concision. The linguistic precision of a translator has led to Davis’s fastidious grammatical and syntactical decisions – the terseness of these seemingly disparate narratives might alienate the immersive reader, but brevity is the only way these stories ensure their gravity. It’s not that the tenuous prolongation of fleeting moments may leave them feeling strained or self-gratifying, but that the unwritten words inform the writing as much as the ones on the page; the rest of the story lies in the negative space of each vignette.

In the first half of ‘Awake in the Night’, we get a hint that someone is missing:

I can’t go to sleep, in this hotel room in this strange city. It is very late, two in the morning, then three, then four. I am lying in the dark. What is the problem? Oh, maybe I am missing him, the person I sleep next to.

Presence is carefully placed next to absence, making its weight all the more palpable. In ‘Contingency (vs. Necessity) 2: On Vacation’, there is a similarly tense interplay between lexical presence and absence:

He could be my husband.

But he is not my husband.

He is her husband.

And so he takes her picture (not mine) as she stands in her flowered beach outfit in front of the old fortress.

Neither absent nor entirely present, the words in brackets mark the briefest of forays into the realm of unspoken words. We get a sense that there is much the narrator thinks and feels, but she is stoppered by reluctance, exhaustion or both. This precarious balancing of divulging and withholding endows Davis’s stories with their complex emotional ambiguity. Prose can so often be prescriptive, dictatorial in its cues for eliciting various sentiments; Davis’s writing is remarkably touching without the trappings of pathos. Even when she does draw from an arsenal of adjectives, her imagery emerges as a brief burst of something potent, but light. The imagery in ‘The Men’ is strangely stirring:

Flocks of women attempt to land on an island, seeking husbands from a tribe of very beautiful young men. They blow across the sea like cotton buds or seeding wild plants, and when rejected they pile up offshore in a floating bank of woolly white.

And in the entirety of  ‘The Low Sun’:

I am a college girl. I tell a younger college girl, a dancer, that the sun is very low in the sky now. Its light must be filling the caves by the sea.

There is no context and no need for context; concision dulls the white noise of extraneous detail, instead calling our attention to a dancer, the sun, light, caves and the sea. If there’s anything aphorists would have us believe, it’s profundity in brevity. In seeming to actively eschew any appearance of the profound, the sweeping, Davis achieves exactly these things.

Lydia Davis Can’t and Won’t Hamish Hamilton 2014 HB 304pp $29.99

Phoebe Chen is an undergraduate student in Law, English, and Film Studies at the University of Sydney. 

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here or from Booktopia here.

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