Can’t and Won’t 
by Lydia Davis.
Hamish Hamilton, 304 pp., £16.99, April 2014, 978 0 241 14664 4
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In her approach​ to story-writing Lydia Davis might almost have taken a vow of chastity, of the aesthetic sort publicised by the Dogme 95 group of filmmakers. Dogme principles included shooting on location, recording the soundtrack at the same time as the images (so as to exclude music other than what the characters could hear), using natural sources of light and a hand-held camera. Davis’s equivalent asceticisms would be: keep invention to a minimum. Don’t develop. Don’t explore relationships.

The Dogme manifesto – Lars von Trier was the most famous of the signatories, though he didn’t make the most successful film made according to Dogme principles, which was Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen – wasn’t really a vow of chastity but of poverty, since any film made according to the principles would come in cheap. Disowning the kitsch manipulativeness of Hollywood style was a strategic way of claiming the moral high ground for low-budget filmmaking, without even mentioning the factor of thrift. Davis’s choices must be more purely aesthetic, since the unit cost of a plain sentence and a fancy one is the same.

A piece like ‘The Dreadful Mucamas’ could loosely be described as a story deconstructed, though it comes closer to being a narrative flat-pack. It wouldn’t take much to assemble this archipelago of anecdotes about two unhelpful Bolivian servants (‘Adela sometimes takes the bell off the dining table and does not put it back on. Then I cannot ring for her during the meal’) into a more conventional story, though the stereotypes of presumptuous employers and disobliging staff are basic enough to work without the additional apparatus of psychology or empathy. Here and elsewhere Davis exploits the cooling effect of white space on the page, her short sections more widely separated than stanzas in a poem.

If her new collection had a motto it might be the title of a characteristic piece, ‘I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable’. Here the sections bathed in white space are single short sentences, a litany of trivial complaints: ‘The cat has ringworm,’ say, or ‘This pesto is hard to blend.’ The theme announced by the title expands not by development but aggregation. Though only one of the statements has an undertone of seriousness (‘I can’t have anything to eat or drink this morning because of the test’) it seems wrong to detect any satirical intent in the whole. These aren’t being offered as shameful examples of what are disparagingly called ‘First World problems’ but as a piecemeal portrait of a real state of mind, a place that most people visit often enough.

The theme of minor dilemmas that can’t be wished away appears elsewhere, in the difficulties of broaching sustainability issues with waiting staff in restaurants (‘Eating Fish Alone’) and at greater length in ‘The Letter to the Foundation’, where the recipient of a grant scrupulously lists all the ways in which it did not transform her life. Davis herself won the Man Booker International Prize last year, and it wouldn’t be entirely out of character for her to write a similar letter to the panel of judges. Literature has more to fear from seeking to rise above trivialities than from embracing them.

As a rule the drastic sifting of conventional material asserts the authenticity of what is retained. Even Raymond Carver’s foreshortened, shell-shocked stories make a claim of truth for the denuded lives being rehearsed. The narratives that survive Davis’s purge of the genre, such as lists, newspaper items and letters of complaint, tend towards the parodically trivial. A manufacturer of frozen peas is told, for instance, that the illustration on the packaging is misleading, on the unusual grounds that ‘you are falsely representing your peas as less attractive than they actually are.’ Even in so undramatic a register there is plenty of scope for anticlimax, often involving the slide from language describing a world to language considering itself. The title Can’t and Won’t seems to have a welcome truculence about it, but the corresponding piece (‘Can’t and Won’t’), one paragraph long, merely records the withholding of a writing prize on the basis that the contestant used too many contractions, not writing out the full forms ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’.

Close to thirty of the pieces in the book are narrated dreams, but very far from dreams as Freud theorised them. Dreams don’t take place in language, and every successive telling neutralises their charge. By the time a narrated dream has acquired elegant phrasing and a clear shape – by the time schoolchildren in a dream have ‘quick little legs’ – it might as well have been the superego as the id in charge of the night voyage. The wry night-time visions recorded here, in which for instance two former students of the dreamer have a tiny dispute in the snow, hardly signpost the royal road to the unconscious. There’s no prospect of them unleashing the beneficially disruptive energy the Surrealists imagined. It’s disconcerting to discover that not all the dreams are even Davis’s own, though a note at the end of the book makes it possible to work out which ones were passed on to her by friends. If not exactly interchangeable they share an underlying resignation, as if the low expectations and rueful self-knowledge of late middle age had permeated the psyche of a whole group, whether asleep, awake or on the borderline (‘dreamlike waking experiences’ are counted here as dreams).

There are also various ‘stories’ and one ‘rant’ drawn from Flaubert’s letters, most of them written to Louise Colet when he was working on Madame Bovary (of which Davis has published a translation). These are reliably sharper in tone and more highly coloured than anything Davis provides on her own account. In ‘The Funeral’, for instance, Flaubert describes the various trivial and self-serving conversations going on beside the burial plot while the widower sways with grief ‘like a stalk of grass in the wind’ and ends by saying: ‘Oh, we writers may think we invent too much – but reality is worse every time!’ He’s not saying that invention is superfluous, just that there is no upper limit of grotesqueness to what happens every day.

It isn’t unusual that a writer should be drawn to another practitioner with an antithetical temperament and strategies, but it’s a little odd for Davis to find a place for Flaubert in her own work. Something similar happens when she outsources some savage comedy from Ödön von Horváth for another piece. It’s as if she worries that a couple of twists from the peppermill of irony are needed to boost the piquancy of the book. Luckily she’s droll and companionable on the page, with no need to enlarge her range or apologise for its limitations.

It’s true that art and life in her work don’t seem antagonistic but rather exhaustedly codependent, to the extent of maintaining each other’s illusions. In one piece (‘Writing’) she writes: ‘What I should do, instead of writing about people who can’t manage, is just quit writing and learn to manage. And pay more attention to life itself. The only way I will get smarter is by not writing anymore.’ Of course any such proposition, written down, is as self-refuting as Epimenides the Cretan warning us that all Cretans are liars.

There’s nothing to distinguish many of the pieces in the collection from ‘life writing’ except the author’s caginess about the life they’re from, and the imaginative freedom granted to the reader by that same caginess. Steadfastly Davis holds back from crossing the dreadful river into the confessional mode, there where the ferryman wears Oprah’s face. The ‘I’ of these pieces may sometimes travel alone, but she is also part of a ‘we’ of which no details are given. Those attuned to gossip and aware of her past marriage to Paul Auster get nothing more substantial to chew on than a fragmentary piece called ‘An Awkward Situation’ in which an unnamed ex-husband solicits help with a writing project. A few unthrilling details can be deduced. She plays the piano. Either she has been friends for some time with a couple whose cellar of fine wine calls for specialist insurance (as in the piece ‘Reducing Expenses’ from the 2007 collection Varieties of Disturbance) or she doesn’t believe in letting go of material before all possible nourishment had been extracted from it (‘Reversible Story’ here).

There are more roundabout ways of producing a self-portrait, one of them displayed in ‘How I Read as Quickly as Possible through My Back Issues of the TLS’, with topics classified across five pages purely on the basis of whether they interested her enough to read the associated review: ‘Not interested in:/The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History’ but ‘Interested in:/the psychology of lying/Anne Carson on the death of her brother/French writers admired by Proust/the poems of Catullus/translations from the Serbian.’ This is perhaps no more than an upmarket version of Liking things on Facebook, but that too, as advertisers understand, is self-portraiture by incremental clicks.

Davis’s method seems to involve starting from scratch every time, being alert for every drifting spore that might be imaginatively viable. The next piece in the book, ‘Notes during Long Phone Conversation with Mother’, starts off all business (‘for summer she needs/pretty dress cotton’) before the last word starts to disintegrate on the page, taking on its own dimly crawling permutative life, from cotton to conton by way of nottoc and coontt. This isn’t the ‘pure psychic automatism’ beloved of the Surrealists, let alone Mrs Yeats on honeymoon, but it has its own restricted eloquence, testifying to a dutiful restless boredom and, who knows, perhaps even a fearful fascination with dementia.

The organisation of the book into five parts doesn’t reveal much in the way of underlying structure, though the dreams seem to come in clusters, but then it would be odd for development to be a principle of the whole though not the parts. One effect of so many pieces being extremely short is that quite modestly substantial ones (by the standards of Alice Munro, let alone Henry James) come to seem monumental. Two of these longer pieces, not widely separated in the book, make claim to some sort of symmetry with their titles (‘The Cows’ and ‘The Seals’), when in fact they represent opposite extremes of Davis’s dealings in prose.

‘The Cows’ is an attempt, in those widely separated paragraphs, to describe, yes, cows. Three of them in a field. If this is nature writing then it also hints at Gertrude Stein’s Cubist prose:

It is because of the way the joints in the legs work: Whereas the two lower joints of the front leg bend the same way, so that the front leg as it is raised forms a curve, the two lower joints of the back leg bend in opposite directions, so that the leg, when raised, forms two opposite angles, the lower one gentle, pointing forward, the upper one sharp, pointing back.

Davis can’t avoid projecting human values onto the animals but she doggedly tries to peel them off:

It is the lowered head that makes her seem less noble than, say, a horse, or a deer surprised in the woods. More exactly, it is her lowered head and neck. As she stands still, the top of her head is level with her back, or even a little lower, and so she seems to be hanging her head in discouragement, embarrassment, or shame. There is at least a suggestion of humility and dullness about her. But all these suggestions are false.

‘The Seals’ comes much closer than most of the pieces to conventional storytelling. There is an emotionally charged if not positively dramatic situation, of a woman taking a train journey at a time of year that makes her think of family losses. There’s a smoothly calibrated counterpoint between her thoughts and what she sees out of the window:

It’s beginning to rain, little drops driven sideways across the windowpane. Streaks and dots across the glass. The sky outside is darker and the lights in the car, the ceiling light and the little reading lights over the seats, seem brighter. The farms are passing now. There’s no wash hanging out, but I can see the clotheslines stretched between the back porches and the barns.

There’s plenty of feeling in the writing:

That fall, after the summer when they both died, she and my father, there was a point when I wanted to say to them, All right, you have died, I know that, and you’ve been dead for a while, we have all absorbed this and we’ve explored the feelings we had at first, in reaction to it, surprising feelings, some of them, and the feelings we’re having now that a few months have gone by – but now it’s time for you to come back. You have been away long enough.

Yet there’s also a resistance to letting the narrative stand on its own as a short story must, and a withholding of specifics that seems almost pathological. It’s as if the narrator’s identifying her city of residence by name rather than implying New York by referring to ‘our own Penn Station’, saying ‘Christmas’ rather than ‘this day’ or ‘this holiday’ would make her impossibly naked. It’s not just that she withholds her sister’s name; seven pages of the story pass before she can bring herself even to use the word ‘sister’. The more exact description, ‘half-sister’ (the women had different fathers), doesn’t appear at all. The teasing question of what the ‘seals’ of the title are – animal-shaped fridge deodorisers that become fetishes long after any possible usefulness because of their link with the dead woman – stands in for any other detail, including such relevant information as where she is going for Christmas. For once the elements missing from the piece don’t seem like elegant abstentions but actual deficiencies.

By whittling away​ material like a postmodernist scrimshanker Davis can sometimes arrive at remarkable shapes. In ‘Local Obits’ she reproduces or perhaps mimics short statements about the dead from local newspapers, unbearable in their lack of eloquence. Many of them testify to lives of quiet desperation beyond anything Thoreau could have imagined: ‘He lived a full life, continuing to do tractor work on the farm even after it was sold … with anyone who knew him or even didn’t know him, he would strike up an hour-long conversation.’ The number of organisations joined seems to correspond inversely with actual quality of life: ‘He was a member of the American Legion, the Kinderhook Elks Lodge, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Tin Can Sailors-National Association of Destroyer Vets, the Men’s Club of Five Towns, the Saints Social Club, and the ROMEOs.’ Would you rather be remembered for your ‘extensive collection of elephant figurines’ or for your ‘legendary handlebar moustache’? Only rarely does a hint of personality come through the threadbare sincerity of the prose: ‘Paul, 78, worked on county highways, was a member of the famed Keyser’s Softball Team, and loved to bowl and jitterbug with his sister Babe.’ Paul and Babe could just as easily be nightmares as charmers, their arrival at bowling alley or dance hall a matter of dread rather than anticipation.

It’s pitiless of Davis to expose dozens of these wilting posies of tribute on the bleached lawn of her page, and yet it isn’t cheap. The effect is of two simultaneous camera movements, zooming in on repetitive weaknesses of phrasing – the gardeners, sportsmen, hunters and birdwatchers invariably described as ‘avid’ – but also pulling back and up, like the standard-issue shot in a war film that shows us a cemetery stretching all the way to the horizon. These particular obituaries are inadequate, but so is every obituary. If an obituary was capable of representing the dead person adequately, absence would pack up its tents and move on.

One absentee brought back to something like life is the subject of ‘Molly, Female Cat: History/Findings’, which takes the form of (and may actually reproduce) a vet’s notes. Non-scientific writing prides itself on its expressiveness, so it’s surprising to see how much character-drawing can emerge from a purely diagnostic account: ‘Keeps owners company in vegetable garden … Will not play with other cats … Will not play with owners in presence of other cats, but will play with owners in bathroom … Affectionate with owners, purrs and closes eyes when petted … Tolerates exam by vet, nervous but no overt hostility.’ In this context it’s a shock to read: ‘Cries when petted just above tail/Sometimes cries before or after urinating/Sometimes cries after nap.’ Presumably there is no conscious change of register on the vet’s part – the word ‘cry’ plausibly the technical term, preferable to the layperson’s ‘miaow’ – yet for a moment Molly seems to give voice to her feelings more vividly than any other creature in these stories.

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