Books

Lydia Davis
Can’t and Won’t

Davis has been for years labelled “a writer’s writer,” renowned for her radical approach to the short story. Her style is instantly recognisable, if difficult to describe. Here is “The Cornmeal”, a micro-story from her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, in its entirety: “This morning, the bowl of hot cooked cornmeal, set under a transparent plate and left there, has covered the underside of the plate with droplets of condensation: it, too, is taking action in its own little way.”

That tiny story is Davis in a nutshell: what looks like a mundane breakfast is isolated and scrutinised into something foreign. In this collection she continues to develop her obsession with objects and everyday moments. She examines the flotsam that bobs around our lives undocumented and unnoticed. Some stories are as short as one line while others run to multiple pages.

The strongest moments in the book are startlingly intimate: the shards of prose revealing our vulnerabilities and everyday terrors. In “Idea for a Sign”, Davis documents the anxieties of a passenger making vows during a train trip: “Will not talk on cell phone at all, aside from perhaps a short communication to my husband at the beginning of the trip home, summarising my visit in the city or, more rarely, a quick warning to a friend on the way down that I will be late; but will recline my seat back as far as it will go, for most of the trip, except when I am eating my lunch or snack; may in fact be adjusting it slightly, back and up, from time to time throughout the trip…” Here, Davis reveals much about her character. An equivalent feat might have taken a less accomplished writer an entire novel.

Still, some stories seem aimless. Another one-liner, “The Results of One Statistical Study” – “People who were more conscientious as children lived longer.” – is akin to flat and uninteresting “found poetry”. The strongest are miniature studies, revealing something about a character or the preoccupations of the author herself.

There is something very admirable in the way Davis refuses any stylistic or formal compromise in her work. She remains insistently avant-garde, a serious feat in an increasingly homogenised and commercialised literary landscape. This collection is best enjoyed in pieces, a few stories at a time: savoured for their compelling strangeness.  LA

Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis". Subscribe here.