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book review

‘Can’t and Won’t’ by Lydia Davis

30davis credit anna parini

No poet practiced William Carlos Williams’s edict, “No ideas but in things,” quite like the French writer Francis Ponge.

An editor, surrealist, and sometime insurance salesman who died in the last century at age 89, Ponge dedicated his life to writing prose poems about objects: the silent plea of oranges, the brief life of a match.

One book, “Le Savon,” looks at a bar of soap from several dozen points of view.

Lydia Davis has clearly read Ponge closer than most American writers, and in “Can’t and Won’t,” her first new story collection in a decade, the MacArthur fellowship and Man Booker Prize-winning writer proves that grappling with an influence does not always produce mere imitation.


“Can’t and Won’t” is the most revolutionary collection of stories by an American in twenty-five years.

Here, indeed, are objects in all their eerie mystery — knapsacks, nametags, rugs, frozen peas — vibrating with possibility; but here, too, is consciousness dramatized in a truly new way, behaving with the stubborn inertia of those very same objects.

The mind at the heart of the book has some things it’d like to resist, like the guy picking his nose on the train; the pea manufacturer that makes delicious frozen legumes, but advertises them with very unappetizing photographs. This mind — this book’s protagonist — also has some larger concerns about mortality, too.

“The Dog Hair,” an 85-word story about the death of a pet, describes a family picking up all the hair he left behind. “We have a wild hope,” Davis writes, “if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.”

These are not stories by conventional terms. Some are as short as thirty words; others are merely lists. But the best of them replace narrative arc with the mind’s torque so beautifully that its revelations arrive with the same power as catharsis.


Fans of Davis’s work will be familiar with this grab-bag aspect to the collection. As “Collected Stories,” the squat, pink volume that brought together three decades of her work made clear, no story writer alive has put sentences under so much pressure, so well, so consistently.

In dealing with mortality, though, Davis’s observational gaze has acquired a new warmth and depth. In “The Seals,” the book’s longest piece, a woman mourns the death of her mother and sister. The narrator remembers sitting up with the latter, watching television.

“[A]nd then she would grow quiet, she was quiet for so long that you would look over and see that her head was leaning to the side, the lamplight shining on her light hair, or her head was bowed over her chest, and she would sleep until we all stood up to go to bed.”

There is a rhythm and pace to “Can’t and Won’t.” Each of the five sections features letters Davis has translated, altered, and slightly rearranged from Flaubert. There are stories about dreams, or dream-like experiences. Each section includes a rant, or a letter to some offending party.

The rants are bizarre, hilarious exercises in pique. An unnamed writer pens notes to manufactures of candy and to the marketing manager of Harvard Bookstore to correct a biographical mistake. A Boston hotel menu, the writer would like to point out, has misspelled the word scrod.


Every part of the book also has a story made-up of field-note-like observations. Some of these pieces are very funny. “I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable” unfolds as a list of miniature irritations, including: “He chews so loudly I have to turn on the radio” and “when I toast the raisin bread, the raisins get very hot.”

A set of images appears and then recurs in later stories: trains and caves, pianos, dogs and fish, letters not sent or turning up in the wrong location. Davis’s repetition and tweaking of her patterns creates a deeply satisfying mental music — the kind one hears when abstract thinking has been conveyed in very specific language.

One of the book’s recurring concerns has to do with agency. What or who is the actor, and what is being moved? In “The Landing,” the narrator describes an airplane flight she took that ended in an emergency landing.

“[A]s long as I felt I had to take action, I was anguished, and when I gave up all responsibility and stopped trying to do anything at all, I was relatively at peace, even though the earth meanwhile was circling so far below us and we were so high up in a defective airplane that would have trouble landing.”

The difference between the words can’t and won’t is created by the mind. One is inability; the other is willed refusal — but how often are they confused? Consciousness, these stories show, so often pivots between these poles on the axis of this confusion.


The genius of “Can’t and Won’t” is that Davis has created a narrative out of that oscillation. Here is a mind rubbing up against the world, with fascination and wonder and disgust. It judges and it observes. Davis writes in sentences as radically lucid as any penned by Grace Paley, who was, in her lifetime, too often belittled as a miniaturist. What is tiny — like a molecule of oxygen — allows us to breath, as these stories do with their fabulous, occult integrity.

John Freeman is the author of How to Read a Novelist.