Reality Is Worse

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis
    Hamish Hamilton, 304 pp, £16.99, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 241 14664 4

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’.

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