Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In her first collection in over a decade Lydia Davis continues on with her unique approach to the short story. Her stories are postcards, single sentences, prose-poems, lists, letters, translated notes, found dialogues, overheard conversations, remembered dreams – they might be anything but stories. You might spend some of your time reading her work wrestling with the notion of what a story is. And that would be fair enough, it’s clear Davis spends some of her time when writing wrestling with that very notion. But whether these even are stories – and I really don’t think that matters – what matters is that Davis has done the work. She fronts up. She’s a writer. And here is some of her finest work.
Okay, so there are several volumes before this and work with translations, a novel too. And Can’t and Won’t does not in any way eclipse what has happened previously but 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. No reason that it wouldn’t be but it’s all the more to marvel at when you have been following a series of short short fables and odes. As good as some of the pithy prose-poem entries are – and for the most part they’re droll if they’re ever funny – it’s the longer stories where the real emotional range is shown. And though that might not at all be surprising – if you’re really good you should be able to do more with more – it makes the book, this collection, 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.
Then there’s the several-page observation of the cows across the road – diary notes to form some sort of observational essay. Straight language, no tricks – but the trick is in the simplicity.
Honesty is Davis’ great deception here. You go back to the single-long and half-page stories and read again and again. You find a new truth. You find some new shining moment, another glimmer within the heartbreak, or a poignancy to the paean. And there are also some amusing angry rants – complaint letters that threaten to buckle under the weight of their own absurdity. Then there’s a very Carver-like slice-of-life around aeroplane turbulence and the aftermath of a tricky flight. There, as in several other cases within this book, a huge swell of normality – of everything continuing on fine, without issue, swallows up the self-centredness of the narrator, reminds you that whatever drama you are in or imagining is infinitesimal in the scheme. Then you start to think of Davis putting these stories together, like those pinhead artists, chiselling away under the microscope, hyper-aware, focussed.