Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis
I could have picked another book by Lydia Davis – I could have picked from a few and probably I should highlight Varieties of Disturbancesince that was my introduction to this incredible writer. But Can’t and Won’t – which I reviewed back when I read it in 2014 as a new release is probably the book I think about the most when I think about Lydia Davis; the one I’ve recommended the most, the one that really blew my mind I guess.
Because, in just under 300 pages there are 122 separate stories. Some of these short stories are so brief as to be just one sentence. Some are head-scratchingly opaque, some are clear and precise. The thing that blew my mind with this, Varieties and some of the other stories from Davis collections is the fact that both writer and reader get to wrestle with the concept of just what is a story.
“Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.”
That (above) is one single story – the whole thing. It’s here in the book Can’t and Won’t. Later in the same book in a story called Cows – which I also read as a standalone chapbook with photos – a dozen pages or so (basically a novel by Davis standards) are devoted to straight, dry description of cows. The cows that live across the road. Davis is fascinated by them. They’re not a metaphor. They are just cows. She captures their vacant, joyless stare. She ponders whether they are ever thinking about anything, or enjoying anything. She is in love with their simplicity – and the complications around that. I’ve read and re-read Cows. It’s captivating. And yet I still don’t quite understand it. Which is what I love about it.
And the same is true of many of the short stories here and in other books by Davis. She really plays with the form – to the point that there are translations, dreams, shopping lists, poems, prose poems, flash fiction and what might even just be brain dumps – but never does it feel like this was just dropped down quickly because: that’ll do. Quite the opposite. You get the impression that days, weeks, months are spent on nearly every piece – the hours between full stops, the decision-time around placing punctuation. You can just imagine it.
Davis has been a huge influence on me. On both my reading and my writing. And I say that with the full knowledge that I could never hold a candle.
But still. This book blew my mind. So much so I had to read it again.
Books That Blew My Mind is an occasional series here at Off The Tracks – thinking back on great books that I loved (and still love); books that found me at just the right time.