The Lydia Davis Symposium, Spring 2014
The Collected Stories by Lydia Davis, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2008.
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2014.
We seem to be reaching a consensus that there is something distinctly new about what Lydia Davis does. After awarding her the 2013 International Booker Prize over a slate of titans like Marilynne Robinson, Russia’s Vladimir Sorokin, and Pakistan’s Intizar Husain, the author and critic Tim Parks said that Davis deserved the award because he and his co-jurists “felt that we were reading something we hadn’t read before in any shape or form—that it really was sparkling and new and fresh, a new form for the short story, and that carried the day in the end.” Even discounting the hyped-up language of major literary awards, the claim is staggering: he essentially says that Davis is head and shoulders above nine of the greatest living writers in the world.
Such heady praise may owe something to the International Booker’s provincialism (Davis is their third Anglo out of five awards), but bear in mind that Parks is an estimable reader, and, more importantly, he is not alone. In awarding Davis one of its prestigious fellowships in 2007, the MacArthur Foundation raved, “eschewing the conventions of plot, character, and drama, Davis shows how language itself can entertain, how all that what one word says, and leaves unsaid, can hold a reader’s interest.” She “grants readers a glimpse of life’s previously invisible details, revealing new sources of philosophical insight and beauty.” Once again, this is language that underlines how particularly new Davis feels. Even The New Yorker’s difficult-to-impress James Wood was unambiguous in claiming that she has made something authentically new: “A body of work probably unique in American writing. . . . I suspect that [Davis’] prose will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions, distinct and crookedly personal, in the way of the work of Flannery O’Connor, or Donald Barthelme, or J. F. Powers.” The list goes on: David Shields says “she has utterly altered how I think about writing”; Francine Prose raves: “[she] expanded my ideas of what fiction could be, what language could accomplish.” There seems no end to her devotees, all making claims for Davis’ arresting newness.
These are major assertions, but they’re not excessive: Davis’ body of work really does seem this original. Original, but not sui generis: she’s an author whose forebears are right there in front of you. Some are in her fiction, like Beckett and Kafka. Others she’s translated: her first prominence came for bringing Maurice Blanchot’s demanding essays into English, and her endlessly ruminative narrators clearly show her following the French philosopher’s declaration that writing is “the invention of a language that one recollects” (words Davis herself translated in his essay “From Dread to Language”). Gertrude Stein is another ancestor, as she shares Stein’s strange sense of humor and delight in playing with the thinginess of language, particularly through sonic repetition. Then of course there is Franz Kafka, who, like Davis, was preternaturally capable of having everything that words can’t say somehow hijack his stories, becoming his true protagonists. In this way they both force a reader toward the unsaid through beguilingly simple prose.
As each of these writers did, she has developed her own sensibility, a certain experience that is instantly recognizable when you read a Davis story: the first piece in the 2008 Collected, simply titled “Story,” may very well exchange places with the volume’s last, “A Different Man,” which appears over 700 pages and two decades later. Both feel like the full articulation of a mature style, and everything in between feels as though it bears an essential familial resemblance. Davis has consistently spoken in her own singular voice.
So what exactly is the nature of her innovation? Many qualities leap to mind. A Lydia Davis story tends to be brief, not only in its overall length but also in each sentence within it. Her language is unadorned—simple even—but its rock-solid, compact voice feels somehow different from any other. Her work frequently turns on observations that all seem to come from the same jaundiced eye, but one that very often appreciates life’s humor. Hers is the voice of the soliloquy, which helps give her stories a form different from what we’re accustomed to. She works by building up repetitions, then suddenly introducing juxtapositions that change their course; this is a perfect fit for her obsessive narrators, who always seem to release five new questions in the process of pinning down just one detail. She loves to diagram out nests of relationships, and she frequently spends more attention on the system than the people that compose it. She is fascinated by objects, describing them in unfamiliar ways and often treating people like objects, or objects like people. Perhaps most of all, the stories adhere to the processes of logic and the ways in which it’s shaped by things like grammar, language, the law, morality, and commerce.
These are all recognizable, complementary aspects of Davis’ work, but I would say that none of them are that one thing that gives her stories their particular feel. More than anything else, I feel that the common denominator of her short fiction is its anecdotal quality.
Webster’s defines an anecdote as “a short story about an interesting or funny event or occurrence,” and indeed this is most often what Davis gives us. They are the stories a friend might share while waiting for the bus, the events that we tell to a spouse over dinner, those reflections we occupy ourselves with in a few spare moments, the incidents we just can’t get out of our head. An anecdote’s unit of exchange is the wry observation, a thing Davis is a master of and the reason why the rumor she was joining Twitter caused a minor sensation. Anecdotes also tend to be about small situations that we can easily relate to (and have probably experienced ourselves), and this is just the terrain Davis most frequently covers. The genius here is that in her hands these everyday stories feel both new and significant.
Here are some examples of standard Davis plots: A neighbor’s rooster is smashed to bits by a truck. A woman attends an uneventful session of jury duty. A writer takes a walk with a translator at a conference. A woman ruminates over a break-up. Someone turns the pages of an old dictionary. A woman watches her dying father. Sometimes she writes about famous people, but it is always in a slight way: when she makes Kafka her narrator, it’s not during a moment of high drama but rather all the Kafkaesque thoughts passing through his head as he cooks dinner (we hardly even get to see the woman he is preparing it for, and their date is dull). Her story about Marie Curie is a series of short anecdotes from the famous scientist’s life, and it only glancingly treats her Nobel-worthy discoveries. Even when Davis writes about death, she focuses in on the most quotidian or quirky details of the experience—for instance, the way a funeral homes refers to the ashes as “cremains.”
As that last example might suggest, Davis’ writing is true to the anecdote’s form in that it’s dominated by light irony and good humor. (For some reason, angst, drama, and tragedy rarely make for a good anecdote.) Although she can and does treat the very serious subjects that make up the great conundrums of existence, these matters are introduced surreptitiously, and even the presence of death cannot fully chase away her detached sense of bemusement and levity. For instance, her heartbreaking story “Head, Heart,” is emotionally devastating; but although it stings us with the difficulty of moving on after the loss of a loved one, it still sounds a little like child-speak: “Help, head. Help heart.” Looking through the Collected, only very, very rarely does Davis leave the friendly confines of the anecdote for something dominated by a sense of menace, by the elemental—for instance, the mysterious and spectacular “In a Northern Country.”
Davis’ work feels weighty because in a very significant, insidious way, anecdotes guide our lives. Just like Davis’ work, they appear small, but they have a way of sticking with us and popping up again and again. They are the things we most often talk about with one another, and they are generally where we examine life up close and learn its lessons. This is precisely what Davis does: she attacks the big subjects conversationally, and she insinuates them into the banality of everyday life, or everyday language. “A Mown Lawn” (from her 2001 collection Samuel Johnson Is Indignant), is a perfect example, finding the Vietnam War, female sexuality, and the law all by simply rolling that simple phrase round and round her mouth. Or “Happy Memories,” also from Samuel Johnson, where the narrator ruminates on the inevitable disintegration of her body and the loss of everything she loves, yet with an equanimity bordering on whimsy. Davis is quite consciously working in the existential terrain uncovered by the modernists, but her stories do not carry their unrelenting angst. She presents these concerns in a different light that’s appropriate to the anecdote. This is perhaps a large part of Davis’ success: the world does not lack for talented authors dreaming of filling Kafka’s and Beckett’s shoes, but very few are capable, or desirous, of finding how this legacy might be compatible with smallness, cheer, and whimsical humor. In a world where darkness is generally equated with seriousness and comedy is thought to be a matter for light fiction, Davis’ work is both courageous and refreshing.
Her anecdotes also provide a missing link between the minimalism of the ’70s, the dominant school when she was producing her first work, and the flash fiction that proliferates in an Internet era. Davis often eschews plot, character, setting—really all the trappings of so-called realist fiction—and in this she clearly shares many of minimalism’s aesthetic impulses, yet her work never feels “minimalist.” I think this is because whereas a writer like Raymond Carver always makes you aware of everything he has stripped away from his stories—this is what makes minimalism minimal—in Davis we never feel the lack: her stories are exactly as large as they should be. They don’t give the impression that they have stripped away all excess because there is simply no indication that there should be anything more than what we have. In this way Davis again references the anecdote, which never means to be any larger than it is and never gives the impression that it is a truncated version of something that’s actually much grander. It is a form that’s comfortable with being small because it simply is what it is.
Lastly, an anecdote is generally told for a certain reason, and this is what gives Davis’ stories their offbeat energy. We all know a good tale when it happens to us—it fills us with a desire to share it with another person, and it has a way of coming to mind just when we need it to keep the conversation going. It’s not hard to sense this desire in Davis’ narrators. Their voices sound like people who want to tell us their stories because they’ve made them think about life differently. This is the quality of her writing that I think continually draws me back in. I know I am always going to receive a new viewpoint, very often on an old question; I am going to look differently at an everyday term, or a daily occurrence, or a question I have pondered all my life. Not only that, I am going to see the very process by which these matters become unfamiliar—this is exactly what Davis walks us through, sentence by sentence, as her stories inch through their logic. It is a little magical to watch it happen, and it makes me want to fill in all the infinitely small, infinitely deep crevices that Davis surmounts in her innumerable leaps of intuition.
One of my favorite of her stories is “Jury Duty,” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. It has such a peaceful, refreshing voice, the kind that our biases tell us shouldn’t come across as sincere, worldly, or weighty, but does. The premise is simple: a woman answers a series of unspecified questions about the term of jury duty she has just fulfilled. You get the sense she’s talking with a girlfriend over coffee. So uneventful is this story that the narrator doesn’t even get to serve, she just waits at the courthouse all day, imagining that those “who stayed on the jury were the Chosen.” After failing to join the ranks of the Chosen, she’s sent off to a lunch break with the other jurors. On the way out she happens to see a bunch of convicts, “all men, in orange suits,” and it makes her “feel even more that I was good, or that I was not bad. That it was all very simple, some people were good and some people were not so good.” This establishes a bond with her fellow rejects, these not-bad, un-Chosen people, and as they all head out of the courthouse to lunch it reminds the narrator “of something and I wasn’t sure what.” Suddenly it hits her:
Then I realized it was ladybugs. You can order a package of ladybugs and you get a few hundred in the package. You keep them in the refrigerator until the warm weather comes, and then you release them to feed in your yard. Some of them stay nearby and feed, and some fly away. That’s how it was. We were released all at the same time into the neighborhood, nearly two hundred of us, most of us not knowing the neighborhood, and we went out and looked for a place to eat. Most of us stayed and ate near the courthouse.
From jurors to ladybugs—has ever such a leap been made? Yet it works perfectly. It is precisely for moments such as these that we tell anecdotes. These instants of pure illumination and wonder are among life’s graces, and they carry much, much more within them than meets the eye. We all want to believe that worthy literature drips with pathos, is formed from epic plots and holds high philosophical weight atop world-churning dilemmas, but the fact is that in order to have earned its right to exist, a story need simply provide the proper home for a passage that so gracefully shows us the strange wonder of this life.
I am going to return to Lydia Davis in a moment, but first I need to go back to the beginning. For some reason that I don’t entirely understand, and lack the space here to even attempt to explain in depth, we have conspired to make modernism difficult. So, for instance, we simply never speak of Finnegans Wake without first genuflecting before its unreadability. We always define that book by that one essential trait before we attempt to describe it, having scared off half its readers before we have even begun. Ditto for its kid brother, Ulysses, which is said to be beyond most of us. We call In Search of Lost Time gigantic beyond all proportion, its sentences labyrinthine, its plot as static as a broken clock. And so on and so forth. This is what we do to our modernist icons—we valorize them as things that make us think of Mt. Everest.
But modernism is not that difficult, or, at least, its difficulty is greatly overblown. If the writing was really so willfully obscure, it would be self-satisfied garbage unworthy of our attention. But modernism is not self-satisfied garbage: it’s some of the most ingenious writing I’ve ever read. Its art is in how carefully it uses language, not how difficultly. Syntactically, Kafka’s sentences are not hard, yet he still manages to make them defy the mind, and that is why he is a great artist. The same for Virginia Woolf: I first read her To the Lighthouse as a complete modernist novice, and, despite her famously long, intricate sentences, I finished it in just a few hours. It was only later that I was to learn how I could return to these same sentences for a lifetime and never finish with them. Even Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives is not that demanding of a read: after you’ve gotten the hang of it, all of the awkwardness slips off like so many unwanted pounds and you’re simply carried along by the beauty of her utterance. The same, I think, could be said even for the more ponderous modernist works—it’s true that many sections of Ulysses are more complex than something like Kafka, but even Ulysses is surprisingly fast once you get used to its movement. And of course Hemingway . . . is there any more to say?
Or consider those writers carrying on the modernist tradition in later generations: Thomas Bernhard’s works are dark and emotionally challenging, but the sentences are not difficult to read. Roberto Bolaño’s sentences are perfectly calibrated works of literary architecture, and they too are easy to read. For all the ballyhooed length of Javier Marías’s sentences, they are also simple to follow, and his books are as plotty as they come. Most of J.M. Coetzee’s novels can be read in a heartbeat. Etc, etc.
My point, I suppose, is that good writing is good writing. The great modernists did not write dense, impenetrable prose any more than the great romantics or the great classicists, or Shakespeare, or whomever—if they did then they wouldn’t be great. No—they wrote amazingly elegant sentences that could be re-read again and again for a lifetime. I believe modernism only took on a sheen of difficulty after the fact, partly because of what we, its children, wanted to make it into, and partly because so many second-rate modernists were added to its ranks after the fact through our well-meaning efforts to rigorously develop the corpus in full.
This brings me to Lydia Davis, whom we surely must recognize as part of modernism, and yet who is very much not a difficult writer. We can start with her sentences, which, for the most part, are short. They also rarely delve into abstractions: though much of her work could be called philosophical, it stays firmly within the realm of the concrete, avoiding jargon and finding ways to drag rarefied concepts back down into terms we can all easily comprehend. Her stories are also very short, many of them comprising just a page or two, and this surely makes her easier to digest. And, as Davis’ writing is frequently categorized as poetry, she is without a doubt one of the most widely read, gratuitously acclaimed poets of her generation, yet she is immune to the charge of difficulty that most poets must withstand these days.
So here is another reason I would say that Davis is of the first rank among writers: she does very challenging, imaginative things with language, things that at their best can withstand hours and hours of thought, but she makes it look easy, almost charmingly simple. This is the bottomless symmetry of a Calder mobile, those sinuous, perfectly balanced lines that appear to be the most basic of forms yet that only came into existence though the hands of a genius. This is modernism made popular and easy to love.
Davis has honed her prose to the point where she reflects the best of modernism, and she has brought this uncompromising, innovative work to a wide readership. These are considerable achievements. More than that: we might only count a handful of living writers who have managed as much. In nudging modernism toward the cultural mainstream she has reminded us that modernism can be fun, and inspiring, even as it plumbs the abyme. Her humorous, lightly ironic tone that slaps its own face as much as it slaps ours feels at once hip, humane, and worldly. She also manages to accrue many of the benefits of poetry—the brevity, the fixation over language, the ability to discuss abstract ideas with vivid language free from plot’s constraints—without having to apologize for all the baggage that comes along with poetic enjambment. She has sort of disguised poetry as short fiction, or interbred the two, and this is a key thing: if Davis wrote short novels instead of short short stories, and definitely if she wrote poetry, she would have a much smaller readership. (This might explain why her one novel, The End of the Story, is often overlooked.)
The upshot of this is that Davis has managed to make modernism feel fresh and cool, without attracting any of the negative press that would burden a so-called difficult modernist like Bernhard or Woolf. In addition to the anecdote, I would say this is one of the foundations of her originality, and of her success. I would also say that this gives her great relevance as a writer and thinker.
There is a fine line between creative banality and irrelevance. It’s a line Davis has magnificently tiptoed along throughout her career, although from time to time she trips off of it. To paraphrase the recent words of a friend: at times the fiction does everything as it should—technique, sophistication, artistry, irony—but the glue seems somehow missing. This is a thing I find too often occurring in her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t.
Story by story, Can’t and Won’t is Davis’ shortest book yet, with roughly three-quarters of the pieces here counting less than a page in length. Already I can hear the critics murmuring things about the rarefied “late style”—and it’s true that Davis is approaching 70 years of age—but this book does not feel like a baroque foray into unmapped territory so much as a rest to catch one’s breath.
Part of the charm of encountering Davis’ really short stories—I mean the one- to three-liners—is that they pose a refreshing counterpoint to whatever is going on around them. If you see them in the pages of a journal, they usually puncture everything else in it. And even if you find them in the pages of a Lydia Davis book, they juxtapose nicely with the longer prose around them. So their dominance in this collection is not to their advantage: in fact, it makes it difficult to ignore the fact that many of them strike the same note. See, for instance, the similarities between “Bloomington”—”Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before”—and “Ph.D.”: “All these years I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D.” Or the two successive stories “The Old Vacuum Cleaner Keeps Dying on Her” and “Family Shopping”: one ends with a maid screaming “motherfucker!” at an object, the other with a woman screaming “I’ll wring your neck!” at her sister.
Even when ignoring the similarities, many of the extremely short stories (or just call them poems) are not as fresh as in previous volumes. “Master” reads, “‘You want to be a master,’ he said. ‘Well, you’re not a master.’ / That took me down a peg. / Seems I still have a lot to learn.” Surely Davis deserves as open-minded a reading as possible, but the only interesting thing I can detect about this story is that it was written by Lydia Davis. It lacks the ambiguity and ingenuity that characterize her best work in this form: for instance, “Suddenly Afraid” from her 2007 collection, Varieties of Disturbance, which reads “because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn.” This is typical Davis in seeding the trivial with the fearsome—imagine the growing sense of panic as you, a writer, failed and failed to write a word essential to your identity. It asks questions about how our sense of self is mediated through language, while also dramatically revealing just how reliant we are on it. And it’s so very immediate: you can almost feel the narrator inching her way toward the correct spelling, like that nickel she can’t quite fish out from her pocket. But “Master” does not have that range of implication, and nor does it evoke such strong emotions. Or consider the story “The Results of One Statistical Study,” which reads “People who are more conscientious // as children // live longer.” There is some charm in the “people / as children” part, but overall the awkward spacing seems to be trying much too hard to force novelty into a largely uninteresting statement. It doesn’t linger in the mind, and nor does it produce that small gasp of wonder as does the superior “Information from the North Concerning the Ice”: “Each seal uses many blowholes, and every blowhole is used by many seals.” I do, however, think Davis succeeds with the earlier story from Can’t and Won’t, “The Language of the Telephone Company,” which says, “‘The trouble you reported recently / is now working properly.’” This one gets the chuckle, but then it makes you ponder—is that good language or bad? Why does something sound so normal when spoken, yet look so off when written down? I also admire Davis’ precision with that line break, effectively slicing the statement at the exact right point to make the language writhe like a split worm.
It’s unfortunate that roughly 1/5th of the stories in Can’t and Won’t are derived from dreams. Though dreams are a fascinating subject for a number of reasons, their unembellished narration only rarely makes for an interesting story, and the ones that manage that trick seem to do so by working against the very things that characterize them as dreams. This is no slight against Davis: I’ve never really seen any author do much of interest with their dreams, presented as such. And there is another reason Davis should not mine dreams for subject-matter: her non-dream stories are so much better at capturing dreams’ strange juxtapositions and beguiling sensations, and without resorting to the excessively absurd logic and flat endings that tend to make dreams founder as stories.
One of Davis’ particular strengths is how she observes things from angles that thrust us into new emotional terrain. In “Grammar Questions,” which appeared in Varieties of Disturbance, she describes a man who is slowly succumbing to death: “The only thing he is still doing is breathing. He looks as if he is breathing on purpose, because he is working hard at it, and frowning slightly.” The very idea of having to consciously focus on such an essential task as breathing—and to have it be the whole of your existence—takes us intimately into the dying man’s struggle. It so precisely, and originally, defines what dying is: the point in our life when nothing is as important as simply maintaining our breath. We feel frighteningly close to death and experience deep sympathy for the dying man—as well as for the narrator, who has the unenviable task of watching all this. Such observations earn Davis her plaudits. But in “The Cows,” one of the lengthier and much-discussed pieces in Can’t and Won’t (and originally published as a chapbook in 2011), her observations fail to do so much, or much of anything. They read like the sorts of things that anyone might observe about cows. For instance, “Standing with their back ends close together now, they face three of the four cardinal points of the compass.” But any animals might be doing this, there is nothing bovine about it. Later on in “The Cows,” one senses some potential when we learn that they “like to be licked,” for this seems something that might pertain to cows in some interesting way, but things fail to go anywhere: “while she is being licked, she stands very still with her head slightly lowered and a look of deep concentration in her eyes.” This has none of the penetration, the elegance of the dying man’s breath.
A much better animal story in this new collection is the two-page “The Rooster,” which feels at once about something and nothing. As it begins, the narrator’s neighbor, Safwan, has seen his rooster die while trying to cross the road: “his rooster had often wandered into the road picking at crumbs, Safwan said, instead of staying in the back yard, because of the dog in the yard next door.” After registering her regrets, the narrator “picked up two of the rooster’s oily green feathers from the side of the road for a keepsake,” and then sends a text message to her friend Rachel, explaining how she missed the rooster, “whose regular cry all day long made me happy.” Rachel sends her back some lines from Elizabeth Bishop describing a hen, but the narrator finds them unconvincing, then muses about another line of Bishop’s, “The pet hen went chook-chook,” which she thinks sounds more like a train than a bird. After this she hears an eye-witness account of the accident from some neighbors, who, she imagines, “were amused by the violence of the impact and the sight of the bird exploding up into the air.” Finally she realizes that the rooster probably crossed the road to see the hens in a chicken coop, then muses that chicken are sociable creatures. She concludes with advice from a guidebook: “When you are ready to buy your chicks, be sure to buy at least five.”
I prefer this story because we understand the narrator’s attachment to the rooster in much more vivid terms than with Davis’ fascination with the cows. The rooster also becomes something of an enigma: just how did he die, and why? I admire how Davis effortlessly moves us through several interactions and multiple, diverse pieces of information, bringing them all together over the irrational central incident. And then there is that resounding last line, seemingly pertinent, but in a not-quite-fathomable way. With its range of responses to the creature’s death—Safwan’s frustration, the narrator’s own sadness, the bemused bunch of witnesses, Rachel and Elizabeth Bishop, and the guide to raising chickens—this to me feels much truer to how we relate to animals than do all of Davis’ observations of cows.
Just one more example: I want to wander toward a conclusion by considering one of the relatively successful stories in this collection, “The Letter to the Foundation,” which follows the lightly Kafkaesque struggles that ensue once a writer receives a longed-for grant. The grant is a very mixed blessing, one of those things that seems unambiguously good in the abstract but then introduces all sorts of uncomfortable complications once obtained. In writing a long letter to the granting foundation, the writer attempts to convey this experience. She says that the grant brought to her “a feeling of freedom because of the sudden change in my life,” but this freedom was not necessarily good:
but then, once I became used to that freedom, even small tasks became more difficult. I placed constraints on myself, and filled the hours of the day. Or perhaps it was even more complicated than that. Sometimes I did exactly what I wanted to do all day—I lay on the sofa and read a book, or I typed up an old diary—and then the most terrifying sort of despair would descent on me: the very freedom I was enjoying seemed to say that what I did in my day was arbitrary, and that therefore my whole life and how I spent it was arbitrary.
As observations, these are good, but I still don’t find them as strong as “Grammar Questions.” Fundamentally, we have all been in a situation where we finally receive a longed-for thing, only to discover that it really doesn’t change our life, or changes it in ways that are more bad than good. I applaud Davis for capturing this feeling in “The Letter to the Foundation,” but I cannot help but think that the story stops short. It captures this feeling, but it doesn’t delve into it as Davis should, perhaps to plumb the systems that nurture it, or to chase these spiraling thoughts farther and farther—in short, to do what Davis does so well: untangle the hidden assumptions at work in order to offer a new perspective on a common feeling. This is what occurs when her stories have that “glue” my friend spoke of earlier. “Grammar Questions” has that glue. It upends the way I look at things. Every time I read it I cannot help but think about it for the rest of the day.
Beyond discussing the substance of the work itself, I do not think it would be interesting to speculate about why I find Can’t and Won’t the least compelling of Davis’ collections. I will say, however, that in this collection Davis feels more like a commodity than ever before. What I have enjoyed most about her writing—indeed, what I enjoy most about great literature in general—is how it resists being reduced to anything but itself. Kafka, for instance, despite being analyzed as everything from a Jew to a Gnostic to a Freudian to a Marxist to a Christian (this is Saul Friedländer’s brilliant observation), despite being interpreted probably more than any writer of the twentieth century, remains as untouched as the very first day he was published. Absorbing all our best efforts, Kafka remains Kafka. This is when literature is most like art, and some of Davis’ work does reach this rare space. But in Can’t and Won’t I have such a strong sense of the work so easily becoming bounded and trivialized, of it becoming just another commodity to be bought and sold. More so than with any other Davis book I’ve read.
I think part of my disconnect may be that the stories in Can’t and Won’t studiously distance themselves from the very sort of tough existential questions that Davis has made such an art of approaching in her own way. Rather than veering toward the dying man’s breath, they veer off in the direction of light humor—what Can’t and Won’t feels most like is a very precisely honed book of jokes. Of course, an effective sense of humor has always been one of Davis’ most potent weapons, and I would not want to see her work deprived of it, but here it leaves precious little room for the other emotions that tend to mix so profoundly in her fiction. For instance, “Letter to the President of the American Biographical Institute, Inc.,” one of several “letters of complaint” in this book. Here, a woman named Lydia Davis receives notice of being nominated for “Woman of the Year” (as “Lydia Danj”), with an accompanying offer of a formal “decree” for a mere $195. The thoughts generated by this ludicrous offer are too ordinary, and the tone of the response does not punch: “The fact that you have mistaken my name and that you are also asking me to pay for my award suggests to me that you are not truly honoring me but rather want me to believe I am being honored so that I will send you either $195 or $295. But now I am further puzzled.” Davis goes on to hypothesize that the firm producing this award must have conducted lengthy “research,” either generating a list of accomplished but unworldly women, or a list of accomplished women so deeply in need of validation as to fork over $195, despite knowing this is a scam. She concludes, “If your research has identified me as a member of one of these two groups . . . then I am sorry and I must wonder what it suggests about me.” But really—what is all this “research”? Wouldn’t the firm have simply bought a list of names and fired off its mail, not caring to know anything more about its marks? And would someone of Lydia Davis’ accomplishments really care?
I can appreciate that the Lydia Davis in “Letter to the President” is probably just a version of the real Lydia Davis, as are most of her autobiographical figments. And I can imagine that this semi-fictitious Davis might react in this way. My problem is that I do not find this convincing. I admit, I enjoyed the letter as I read it, and I appreciated the implicit feminist critique in the idea that a female writer might fall prey to such a condescending tactic, whereas a male writer would probably shred the letter without another thought. But again, I feel like this story was more about enjoying the joke than that mix of humor, angst, and revelation that makes Davis sparkle—that realm of eye-opening-astonishment that I regularly enter whenever browsing through the Collected. One of the things that’s so good about Davis is that she attempts to respond to situations that few, if any, writers before her have attempted to address. There is authentic risk there, and courage. I applaud her for the risks she continues to take, attempting to make literature out of things like dreams and Flaubert’s letters, as well as her ongoing translation efforts from the French and the Dutch. It is precisely this sort of continual experimentation and discovery that all of our very best writers should exhibit. And now we know how Davis responds to junk mail—I do not find it as inspiring as her response to death, jury duty, a mown lawn, Kafka cooking dinner, old dictionaries, the buzzing of a fly, or grammar. Or, to speak of this most recent collection, a zany idea for a sign, a fight over a rug, how the telephone company talks, dirt on the floor, eating fish ethically, digestion, and books one doesn’t like very much. The author who covered all of those subjects is the Lydia Davis who received the astonishing acclaim with which I began this piece. And that is the Lydia Davis whom I celebrate in this essay.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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