Literary one-liners: in Lydia Davis’s new collection, brevity is the soul of wit

Lydia Davis, short-story writer

The cover of Lydia Davis’s new collection of (very) short stories is printed simply with an excerpt from the four-line titular story “Can’t and Won’t.” In this story, an author is denied a prize and accused of laziness for using too many contractions. The cover, like the story excerpted on it, pokes fun at convention in a playful yet wry style that is characteristic of Davis’s writing in this collection of stories that range from one sentence to twenty pages, from whimsical to deeply melancholic.

Davis is known for writing very short stories that pack a punch, and this collection includes many that are no exception. 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. Davis’s stories are quite varied in form. Some appear like poems due to stanza-like formatting, altered spacing, fragmented sentences, and repetition. The majority of the stories follow a more classic format, but the mix keeps the eye engaged and surprised. 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. One paragraph-long story called “The Dog Hair,” perfectly captures the experience of losing a beloved pet through a narrator who still finds the hairs of a diseased dog. The story ends with a wistful, tender longing: “We have a wild hope—if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.” In a 21-page story called “The Seals,” Davis again describes perfectly and heartbreakingly the pain of loss, this time the grief after losing a sister and a father: “The first New Year after they died felt like another betrayal—we were leaving behind the last year in which they had lived, a year they had known, and starting on a year that they would never experience.”

The humor Davis is known for is largely absent here, which isn’t necessarily a critique. What humor there is comes in punchy, irreverently clever stories that are more brain-laugh than belly-laugh inducing, but funny nonetheless. In one such story called “Idea for a Sign,” the narrator describes what people should post when they board trains: “It might help if we each wore a little sign saying in what ways we will and will not be likely to disturb other passengers, such as: Will not talk on cell phone; Will not eat smelly food.”

Egregious train behavior becomes an inside joke between Davis and the reader as she weaves references in and out of multiple stories. In a later, irreverent story that lists minor annoyances titled, “I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable,” one complaint on the list reads, “I didn’t get two seats to myself on the train.” A second complaint says, “The person behind me on the train is eating something very smelly.”

Categorized stories are also interspersed throughout the book, prefaced with the italicized words “story from Flaubert,” or followed by the word “dream.” The dream stories are taken from actual dreams and “dreamlike waking experiences” experienced by Davis and some of her friends and family, which she explains in her notes and acknowledgments at the end of the book. The Flaubert stories are interpretations of actual letters written and sent by Flaubert that Davis, an accomplished French translator, translated and adapted. The style of these letter-stories is direct and spare, describing events with little detail or emotion, reminiscent of the author’s narrative voice in his fiction. The Flaubert stories are often quaint description of daily life in France, a far cry from the wandering, outlandish dream stories. One Flaubert story begins, “Louis has been in the church in Mantes looking at the chairs. He has been looking at them very closely.”

Short stories are wonderful for many reasons, but for a reader with limited pleasure-reading time, they are particularly effective. Each story offers an image, an interpretation, of a different kind of life. In this collection, a story often offers a brief journey into imaginations, into ponderings, into obsessions. Without dwelling too long on any one theme or character, short-stories leave ideas percolating and building off of each other, culminating in further introspection and reflection as one progresses through the stories. I recommend leaving this book on your bedside table and reading a few stories a day, allowing Lydia Davis’s prose to please, emote, and enter the psyche.

To echo the sentiment of the last line of one “story from Flaubert” in the collection: “Oh, we writers may think we invent too much—but reality is worse every time!” 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.

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