April 11, 2014

Lydia Davis issues more odd dispatches in ‘Can’t and Won’t’

“Tastes just like chicken,” you might say when you’re not sure what to make of a new food.

When approaching Lydia Davis’ work, a dominant tendency of reviewers is to liken what she’s doing to something else.

In the New York Times, the reviewer went with gherkins. Someone else said that reading her stories is like putting your hand in a bag of chips and pulling out something unexpected.

“The Language of Things in the House” is a list of common household actions accompanied by their corresponding onomatopoeias. “Markers rolling and bumping in a drawer that is opened and then shut: ‘Purple fruit.’ 

” If you’re listening for the sounds you will hear them; if you are not, you will not.

She breaks into the list with commentary that aptly addresses what might be running through a reader’s mind while reading her new collection, “Can’t and Won’t”: “Once the rhythm and the consonants are there, our brain, having this word somewhere in it already, may be supplying the appropriate vowel.”

In other words, many of these “stories” — ranging from one sentence to about 20 pages — are so unlike the stories readers are accustomed to that the temptation is to supply the “appropriate vowel,” so to speak, in order to shape what she’s giving us into a form that’s more easily digested.

She goes on to say: “There is no meaningful connection between the action or the object that produces the sound (man’s foot on gas pedal) and the significance of that word (‘Lisa!’).”

To those constantly looking for meaning and patterns and a narrative, this might let the reader off the hook a little when he encounters the following (complete) stories:

“She thinks, for a moment, that Alabama is a city in Georgia: it is called Alabama, Georgia.”


“Sitting with my little friend in the sunshine on the front step:

“I am reading a book by Blanchot

“and she is licking her leg.”

Most of Davis’ writing is self-conscious, not in the way we often use the term, but in that she’s hyper aware of her characters’


. The stories in this collection are largely told from an unnamed person’s point of view. There’s not enough information from one story to the next to stop the reader from thinking, or contrarily, to lead the reader to think, that the voice is consistent from one story to the next.

In “Idea for a Sign,” the narrator is on a train and musing that it would be handy if passengers were made to wear signs detailing the annoying things they know they’ll do during the trip so that those just boarding can make an informed decision about where to sit.

Once the narrator starts to imagine what her sign would include, it appears that


might be aggravating to sit by. Included in her over page-long list: “May keep unscrewing the top of my water bottle and taking a drink of water, especially while eating my sandwich and about one hour afterwards” and “When reading through a back issue of a literary magazine, may rip pages out in order to save them.”

Davis’ dry humor weaves in and out of the stories. “The Rooster” is about a person who offers condolences to a shop owner whose rooster has just been killed by a car. The neighbors smile as they tell her the story of how the rooster was killed.

The owner is incredulous: “I suppose they were amused by the violence of the impact and the sight of the bird exploding up into the air off the front of the truck, feathers everywhere.”

In a way, Davis presents us with what we each already have — one viewpoint. But these narrators don’t have a standard first-person point of view; they aren’t experiencing their lives from the inside out as most narrators are, but from the outside in, then further in.

That is, ordinarily we see a character interacting with a world, and the character processes what she senses and continues to interact. The effect is that we feel that we are being allowed to walk around in someone else’s life for a bit and see how they operate — we get to be a fly on the wall.

The closest we get to being a fly is in stories like “The Problem of the Vacuum Cleaner”:

“A priest is about to come visit us — or maybe it is two priests.

“But the maid has left the vacuum cleaner in the hall, directly in front of the front door.

“I have asked her twice to take it away, but she will not.


certainly will not.

“One of the priests, I know, is the Rector of Patagonia.”

In general, Davis’ characters are so locked in their minds that there is no processing something and then turning outward to act. In fact, many of the stories are dreams — the ultimate in-your-own-head process.

“I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable” is a list of 67 complaints. “I’m tired.” “This pesto is hard to blend.” “They have a new weatherman on the radio.”

Finally, she complains, “The clock is ticking very loudly.”

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