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 Won't, 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.
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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.Review:
“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 . . . ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work, Flaubert famously cautioned, and the sentiment applies to Can't and Won't. At the center of the book is the understanding that we can locate stories anywhere, that the most regular and orderly moments are, in fact, the most violent and original, that it is up to us to notice, to re-create, to preserve . . . 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
“Some writers have the uncanny ability to slant your experiences. Read enough Lydia Davis and her stories start happening to you . . . Her stories have a way of affecting the sense so that indecision itself becomes drama and a mutual shrug between two strangers can take on more meaning. This is what the best and most original literature can do: make us more acutely aware of life on and off the page. To read Davis is to become a co-conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation. Our most routine habits can suddenly feel radically new . . . Her work, which often consists of brief stories made up of seemingly mundane observations, resists classification and is especially immune to explanatory jibber-jabber. In a universe drowning in words, Davis is a respite .What she doesn't say is as important as what she does . . . She ignores any and all cramped notions about what is and is not a story, and her work has always freed up reads to conjure their own lasting, offbeat visions . . . Call Lydia Davis the patron saint of befuddled reality . . . Davis's books more fully mirror (and refract) the chaos of existence than safer, duller, more homogenous collections precisely because the stories aren't consistent in tone, subject matter, length, depth or anything else. Neither are we consistent. One moment you can't decide where to sit on a train, the next you find yourself staring squarely into the abyss. 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
“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 . . . 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 . . . 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, The Boston Globe
“Lydia Davis's short-story collections tend to exceed the boundaries of a single book and become libraries . . . Whatever its source, Davis's range is all the more impressive for reading as a series of natural progressions . . . Come to this one-book library for the mercurial gifts of its author; stay because the stories continually renew their invitation to be read inventively.” ―Helen Oyeyemi, The Guardian
“Davis's curtest works have a lot in common with poetry: this poised, metaphysical jest about time, death and language owes a debt to its line endings. Yet even at her most poetic Davis is a storyteller, even if her plots unfold with the quiet philosophical precision of a Samuel Beckett ‘fizzle' or theatrical monologue . . . when her genius for syntax is married to genuine emotion, then the results can be truly astonishing. In Can't and Won't, these emotions wheel ominously around death. ‘The Dog Hair' is both touching elegy for a deceased pet and surrealist joke that captures the futile yearning that accompanies grief. The knowing reserve of ‘A Story Told to Me by A Friend' explores how language creates love and, by extension, sorrow, how intimacy overcomes distance, and how distance gets in the way. The most memorable of all is ‘The Child,' which almost shocks with its dispassionate snapshot of a bereaved mother and a profound melancholy that beggars belief. Incorporated elegantly into this extraordinary five-line work are questions about art's capacity to fix such sadness. The final whispered command, ‘Don't move,' resounds endlessly. As so often in Lydia Davis, the less said, the better.” ―James Kidd, The Independent
“Unlike most American writers receiving international prizes, [Lydia Davis] . . . tend[s] to focus on very short stories, but they might be better described as succinct, exploding the accreted clichés of literary fiction, until so much of that intricate plotting, deft characterization, etc., seems to be futile marketing copy . . . Her new collection Can't and Won't makes use of extreme brevity . . . often to bracket deadpan jokes, tight little bows that unravel in your hands . . . neat simplicity is less façade than grist. Like Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, the twin variations of ‘Reversible Story' become more striking for their absence of incident . . . And ‘Men' demonstrates that, despite Davis's wry restraint, her prose can still trot into flight.” ―Chris Randall, The National Post
“So many of [Lydia Davis's] stories reflect paying attention to what is around us, to things we normally ignore . . . Her subjects are often mundane: lost socks, dog hair, cooked cornmeal. Yet they leave a resonance that makes us think again about the experiences that fill our lives but that we fail to think about . . . Because they are so tightly written and are usually so brief, [Davis's stories] demand that we think about them and reflect on what they may want to say to us.” ―Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
“Remarkably, it is often the stories that take up the least space on the pages of Can't and Won't that deliver the most emotion and are the most stylistically interesting . . . Across all of her stories, Davis uses words sparingly, resulting in prose that is never flowery and narration that keeps its distance from the reader. We are watching these characters and listening to them rather than being intimately invited into their lives. Davis writes grief subtly and beautifully in this collection . . . Can't and Won't is never more sad, more mundane, or more tragic than reality, and yet it is still striking that Davis creates such visceral depictions in her stories. The collection is a strong example of Davis's work and a worthwhile read, with content, form, and style that provoke thought and capture reality--usually in less than one page.” ―Cecilia Paasche, The Swarthmore Phoenix
“Ezra Pound famously exhorted the artist to ‘make it new,' a directive on the one hand incontestable and, on the other, dangerously difficult. Lydia Davis is that rare writer whose work enacts the injunction: the dramas and ironies of her short--often very short--stories are those of our everyday lives, held up before us as if for the first time. The effect is rather like that of saying the same word over and over until it becomes alien, a new and strange thing: our relation to dog hair, to a piece of fish or a bag of frozen peas, or to an unsolicited invitation in the mail--any of these can provide an occasion for the world to shift, however slightly, upon its axis. High quality global journalism requires investment. It's possible to make any number of statements about Davis's fiction: that her stories are idiosyncratic, unmistakably Davisian; that she combines what might, in others, resemble whimsy with a bracingly unsentimental clarity of observation; that she shows a flagrant--and inspiring--disregard for rules or obligations (no teacherly insistence here upon what a story ought to be, upon its structure or requirements), and an almost philosophical openness to the objet trouvé that runs, like a surrealist thread, through her new collection of stories. All of these statements are true, and yet none can truly convey the first thing about her work, which is sui generis . . . Davis's signal gift is to make us feel alive-- not with pyrotechnics or fakery, not in grand dramas or confections whipped up for the purpose; but rather in her noticing of the apparently banal quotidian round, in records of our daily neuroses and small pleasures. These, she insists, are meaningful, and can be made new: these are the true substance of life.” ―Claire Messud, The Financial Times
“Lydia Davis' stories have been called prose poems, case studies, riddles, koans--even gherkins, for being so small and tart and edible. But properly speaking, they are magic tricks. Davis is a performative writer, as subtle and economical in her movements as any magician, and she's out to enchant. Coming across her terse little stories feels rather like being shown a top hat, being told it's empty, being shown it's empty, and then watching something enormous and oddly shaped emerge from it. From a handful of sentences, Davis can wrest meaning or dazzle us with sleight of hand . . . These are stories deeply concerned with death, with aging, as the body as the site of breakdown and complaint. Dead dogs continue to pile up. There's the dead sister, a dead child, a dead cat named Molly. One story contains only snippets from local obituaries . . . the focus on mortality in Can't and Won't casts that famous fussiness of Davis' narrators in an edifying light . . . Davis dances right up to and around that final mystery that can't, won't and must be borne, that most inexplicable magic trick, life's vanishing act.” ―Parul Sehgal, National Public Radio
“Davis has done the work. She fronts up. She's a writer. And here is some of her finest work . . . there's some new, fresh sadness this time around. There's something special in the way these stories sucker-punch you too. You read through pages of paragraph-long stories to arrive at something larger and when one of the small handful of 10-20 page stories hits you it is so deftly controlled, so exquisitely put together . . . the book, this collection, [is] an extraordinary set of surprises. The meditations on grief here are poignant and in one of the collection's longest stories the control around heartbreak, around the methodical explanation of grief and the delayed reactions is almost too much to take. Of course I mean that in the very best way.” ―Simon Sweetman, Off the Tracks
“[Can't and Won't] again shows [Lydia Davis] to be one of contemporary literature's most approachably idiosyncratic and dryly comic writers . . . Whether her subjects are undeniably grave or amusingly trivial--one character agonizes over whether to sell a rug--Davis has the rare ability to write calmly about anxiety, capturing all the circularity of a mind in agitation without resorting to run-on sentences or other staples of breathlessness . . . Serious but never pompous, Davis and her often fussy, bothered narrators see that life is routinely funny but by no means a joke. Like Samuel Beckett, another key influence, she has created a kind of wisdom literature of bewilderment.” ―Dylan Hicks, Star Tribune
“What's wonderful and wholly original in her work is how the narrator is not a character, but Davis' mind itself.” ―Tricia Springstubb, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“Davis' ability to create and observe these small details of experience and perceived reality, be they objects or ideas, without allowing herself any distractions, allow her to work freely in forms short and long and employ techniques designated, by and for other writers, as strictly either mainstream or avant-garde. The reason for this is simple: for Davis, there is only writing. As we live, we observe life and language to find in what we observe and in ourselves patterns that may appear familiar until they are revealed to be stunning and strange. For each of these observations, there is a narrator and a narrative moment. Each of these moments is already a story. When one is ready to be written down, Lydia Davis can and will.” ―Stephen Piccarella, HTML Giant
“When Lydia Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, the attempt to fix a label to her work reduced one of the judges . . . to a bit of flailing . . . Personally, I'm not sure what the problem with just calling her a writer is, unless it's this: If what she does is writing, we need a new name for what everyone else is doing . . . She makes the impossible look easy . . . Like Proust, whom she has translated, Davis writes the act of writing itself . . . her stories are filled with moments of crisis about how to carry on, or what word to put down next, and fears that it could all mean nothing in the end. She's a theorist of the arbitrary. The fact that she makes it look so easy--so arbitrary, even--is part of the fun . . . Lydia Davis is a translator even when she's not working in a foreign language. Writing is always a practice of choosing, but she makes this the subject as well as the method of her work; her meticulous, obsessive ‘correctness' makes words as fraught as they are funny.” ―Christine Smallwood, BookForum
“Reading a Lydia Davis story collection is like reaching into what you think is a bag of potato chips and pulling out something else entirely: a gherkin, a peppercorn, a truffle, a piece of beef jerky. Her stories look light and crisp, with their unadorned prose and flat-footed style, but on closer inspection they are pity, knobby, savory, chewy, dense. They are also mordantly, slyly funny in their exposure of human foibles. Can't and Won't . . . is evidence of ...
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