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Can't and Won't: Storiesby Lydia Davis
Synopses & Reviews
A new collection of short stories from the woman Rick Moody has called “the best prose stylist in America.”
Her stories may be literal one-liners: the entirety of “Bloomington” reads, “Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.” Or they may be lengthier investigations of the havoc wreaked by the most mundane disruptions to routine: in “A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates,” a professor receives a gift of thirty-two small chocolates and is paralyzed by the multitude of options she imagines for their consumption. The stories may appear in the form of letters of complaint; they may be extracted from Flaubert's correspondence; or they may be inspired by the author's own dreams, or the dreams of friends.
What does not vary throughout Can't and Wont, Lydia Davis's fifth collection of stories, is the power of her finely honed prose. Davis is sharply observant; she is wry or witty or poignant. Above all, she is refreshing. Davis writes with bracing candor and sly humor about the quotidian, revealing the mysterious, the foreign, the alienating, and the pleasurable within the predictable patterns of daily life.
"With her fifth collection, Davis (Break It Down) continues to hone her subtle and distinctive brand of storytelling. These poems, vignettes, thoughts, observations, and stories defy clear categorization; each one is an independent whole, but read together they strike a fine rhythm. Davis circles the same central point in each entry: her characters examine the world with a detached, self-contained logic that seems to represent the process of writing itself. Some of the best pieces in the collection are the shortest, like 'Brief Incident in Short a, Long a, and Schwa,' which ends: 'Ant backtracks fast — straight at cat. Cat, alarmed, backs away. Man, standing, staring, laughs. Ant changes path again. Cat, calm again, watches again.' Others dwell longer on their subjects, such as 'The Cows,' which depicts the movements and relationships of members of a herd, as seen from the window of a countryside home, or the memories of a woman whose older half-sister has recently died in 'The Seals.' Several stories, set in 19th-century France, begin with 'story from Flaubert,' and go on to tell of Provencal kitchens, fairs, and executions. There are also disgruntled letters addressed to a frozen pea manufacturer, an Alumni review, and a peppermint candy company. These repetitions give the collection a cadence, and Davis's bulletproof prose sends each story shooting off the page." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“Davis is an author who takes nothing for granted, even the form of the writing itself. Can a sentence be more than a sentence? How does experience reveal itself? These questions have been at the heart of Davis career from the outset....In many ways, Can't and Won't is like a set of William Burroughs cut-ups, random moments juxtaposed, one against the other, until reality takes on the logic of a collage. Unlike Burroughs, though, Davis intent is not to rub out the word. Rather, language is what gives shape to the chaos, allowing us to invest existence with a shape. That this shape is of our making, our invention is the point precisely.” David Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
"What Davis is attempting to express is the wild divergence of human experience, how the ordinary and the profound not only coexist but depend on each other....Can't and Won't is a more mournful and somber book than previous Davis collections. Calamity and ruin are always close at hand....Still, the wonky comedy remains, as does the knife-thrust prose, as does the exuberant invention....Random beauty, too, is everywhere....It is as if Davis means to remind us that only close, intense observation can save us, and only for the time being.” Peter Orner, The New York Times Book Review
"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 Cant and Wont 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, The Boston Globe
About the Author
Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and four previous story collections, the most recent of which, Varieties of Disturbance, was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is also the acclaimed translator of Swann's Way (2003) and Madame Bovary (2010), both of which were awarded the French American Foundation Translation Prize. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, published in 2009, was described by James Wood in The New Yorker as a “grand cumulative achievement.” She is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.
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