A long story short

Last Updated 12 April 2014, 14:58 IST

The short stories in American writer Lydia Davis’s ‘Can’t and Won’t’ range from one-liners to lists to letters. Dwight Garner reviews the indescribable stories that leave you asking
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Lydia Davis’s short stories are difficult to describe, but people like to try. A friend of mine likens them to mosquitoes. Some you swat away, he says. Others draw blood.

Dan Chiasson, writing in The New York Review of Books, has compared them to “radar blips that promise interstellar life” and “specimen creatures in jars.” The novelist Kate Christensen, in Elle, said reading one was like reaching into a bag of potato chips and pulling out something else, “a gherkin, a peppercorn, a truffle, a piece of beef jerky.”

That gherkin line appeals to me. That’s what we should say about Davis: She has a new book of her gherkins out. Her stories are briny and often delicious, after all, though also a bit impudent and stunted. You devour them as if they were on toothpicks.

Davis’s new book, Can’t and Won’t, is her first volume of stories since “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” was published to near-global acclaim in 2009. If her new book seems like a holding pattern, it’s a pattern she has mindfully, and a bit statically, held since almost the start of her career.

Her stories are short, some literally one-liners. The title story in her collection “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant” (2001), for example, declared in its entirety “that Scotland has so few trees.” Many are a few paragraphs; a handful trail on for five or more pages. They deliver little in the way of traditional narrative. Some are letters or lists. All are wizened and witty in a cosmic way; the emotional juice has largely been sucked from them.

Davis is also a highly regarded translator of Proust and Flaubert. Several of the pieces in “Can’t and Won’t” are short excerpts, translated by Davis, from Flaubert’s letters. These end up sounding like things she would have written. In one, he asks, “What is it that makes me so attractive to cretins, madmen, idiots, and savages?” It’s Flaubert’s gherkin.
The letters in Davis’s collections are always worth seeking out. In her new book, there’s one to a frozen-peas manufacturer criticizing the art on its packaging. Another chides a hotel manager for the misspelling of “scrod” on a menu.

Another is addressed to a foundation from which the narrator, a writer, has won a large award. (Davis received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003.) It’s practically a novella for this writer: 29 pages. It is also, for her, remarkably soulful. The narrator speaks of her existential depression and her awkwardness as a teacher, “my uncertainty, my unimpressive exterior, my lack of training, my lack of confidence and command.”

Davis often meditates on the nature of privilege, on what are sometimes called first-world problems. One story is a checklist of small bummers: “My navel orange is a little dry”; “I didn’t get two seats to myself on the train”; “I need to go to the bathroom, but someone is in there.” These aren’t accompanied by Roz Chast illustrations, but they could be.

My favourite piece in “Can’t and Won’t” may well be the one titled “How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues of the TLS.” She is referring to The Times Literary Supplement, the London-based weekly specialising in book reviews of scholarly titles.
Because it’s a weekly, it piles up. Unlike The New Yorker, which also piles up, you can’t convince yourself that you’ve read it because you’ve looked at all the cartoons.

Davis’s solution to the TLS problem is to decide, topic by topic, whether she is interested. So we get items like:“Interested in:the social value of altruismthe building of Pont Neuf the history of daguerreotypes”and: “Not interested in:a cultural history of the accordion in America (‘Squeeze This’)” As these excerpts indicate, some of her stories trail down the page like verse. She is among the handful of living writers who have had work appear in both The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Poetry series.

Another favourite is titled “The Language of Things in the House.” A few samples of the sounds things make, at least in Davis’s curious mind: “Water being sucked down drain of kitchen sink: Dvorak”; “The wooden spoon in the plastic bowl stirring the pancake mix: ‘What the hell, what the hell.’”

There’s a kind of genius in Davis’s interstellar (to borrow Dan Chiasson’s word) wit. I like many of her stories very much. But I don’t quite share the outsize regard that James Woods and Jonathan Franzen, among others whose opinions are worth taking seriously, have for her work.

She is, for sure, a master of sequencing. She mixes long and short dispatches to intoxicating effect, like a chef dealing out an illimitable tasting menu. But her longer stories, taken alone, are largely inert and possess a sameness of mood — you wouldn’t mistake many of them for the work of a major writer. Her planets need their satellites, or they fall from the sky.

There’s a good, small, ironic story in Can’t and Won’t titled “Not Interested.” It starts this way: “I’m simply not interested in reading this book.” It ends with these two sentences, which speak, if too roughly, to how I came to regard this collection: “I feel like saying: Please spare me your imagination, I’m so tired of your vivid imagination, let someone else enjoy it. That’s how I’m feeling these days, anyway, maybe it will pass.”

It will pass. The next time a Lydia Davis book arrives, I’ll be in line to consume it. When finished, I’ll feel a bit empty again. Then I’ll look forward to the next one.

(Published 12 April 2014, 14:58 IST)

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