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Can't and Won't: Stories Hardcover – April 8, 2014


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1ST edition (April 8, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374118582
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374118587
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,132 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The title story in Davis’ latest collection of nimble and caustic stories, a wry tale about why a writer was denied a prize, is two sentences in length, but, as always with this master of distillation, it conveys volumes. In the wake of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009) and receiving the Man Booker International Prize, Davis presents delectably intriguing and affecting new works shaped by her devotion to language, vigilant observations, literary erudition, and tart humor. A number of strikingly enigmatic stories carry the tag “dream,” and they are, in fact, based on dreams dreamed by Davis and her family and friends. Thirteen intricately layered and thorny pieces flagged as “stories from Flaubert” improvise saucily and revealingly on the seminal writer’s letters. Elsewhere, Davis tosses together the trivial and the profound in hilarious and plangent tales about painful memories and epic indecision, deftly capturing the mind’s perpetual churning and the terrible arbitrariness of life. Then, amid all this fretfulness and angst, a narrator devotes herself to watching three serene cows in a neighboring field. Davis is resplendent. --Donna Seaman

Review

Praise for Can’t and Won’t

“Davis is an author who takes nothing for granted, even the form of the writing itself. Can a sentence be more than a sentence? How does experience reveal itself? These questions have been at the heart of Davis’ career from the outset . . . ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work, Flaubert famously cautioned, and the sentiment applies to Can’t and Won’t. At the center of the book is the understanding that we can locate stories anywhere, that the most regular and orderly moments are, in fact, the most violent and original, that it is up to us to notice, to re-create, to preserve . . . In many ways, Can’t and Won’t is like a set of William Burroughs cut-ups, random moments juxtaposed, one against the other, until reality takes on the logic of a collage. Unlike Burroughs, though, Davis’ intent is not to rub out the word. Rather, language is what gives shape to the chaos, allowing us to invest existence with a shape. That this shape is of our making, our invention is the point precisely.” —David Ulin, The Los Angeles Times


“Some writers have the uncanny ability to slant your experiences. Read enough Lydia Davis and her stories start happening to you . . . Her stories have a way of affecting the sense so that indecision itself becomes drama and a mutual shrug between two strangers can take on more meaning. This is what the best and most original literature can do: make us more acutely aware of life on and off the page. To read Davis is to become a co-conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation. Our most routine habits can suddenly feel radically new . . . Her work, which often consists of brief stories made up of seemingly mundane observations, resists classification and is especially immune to explanatory jibber-jabber. In a universe drowning in words, Davis is a respite .What she doesn’t say is as important as what she does . . . She ignores any and all cramped notions about what is and is not a story, and her work has always freed up reads to conjure their own lasting, offbeat visions . . . Call Lydia Davis the patron saint of befuddled reality . . . Davis’s books more fully mirror (and refract) the chaos of existence than safer, duller, more homogenous collections precisely because the stories aren’t consistent in tone, subject matter, length, depth or anything else. Neither are we consistent. One moment you can’t decide where to sit on a train, the next you find yourself staring squarely into the abyss. What Davis is attempting to express is the wild divergence of human experience, how the ordinary and the profound not only coexist but depend on each other . . . Can’t and Won’t is a more mournful and somber book than previous Davis collections. Calamity and ruin are always close at hand . . . Still, the wonky comedy remains, as does the knife-thrust prose, as does the exuberant invention . . . Random beauty, too, is everywhere . . . It is as if Davis means to remind us that only close, intense observation can save us, and only for the time being.” —Peter Orner, The New York Times Book Review

 

Can’t and Won’t is the most revolutionary collection of stories by an American in twenty-five years. Here, indeed, are objects in all their eerie mystery—knapsacks, nametags, rugs, frozen peas—vibrating with possibility; but here, too, is consciousness dramatized in a truly new way, behaving with the stubborn inertia of those very same objects . . . No story writer alive has put sentences under so much pressure, so well, so consistently. In dealing with mortality, though, Davis’s observational gaze has acquired a new warmth and depth . . . The difference between the words can’t and won’t is created by the mind. One is inability; the other is willed refusal — but how often are they confused? Consciousness, these stories show, so often pivots between these poles on the axis of this confusion. The genius of Can’t and Won’t is that Davis has created a narrative out of that oscillation. Here is a mind rubbing up against the world, with fascination and wonder and disgust. It judges and it observes. Davis writes in sentences as radically lucid as any penned by Grace Paley, who was, in her lifetime, too often belittled as a miniaturist. What is tiny—like a molecule of oxygen—allows us to breath, as these stories do with their fabulous, occult integrity.” —John Freeman, The Boston Globe

“Lydia Davis’s short-story collections tend to exceed the boundaries of a single book and become libraries . . . Whatever its source, Davis’s range is all the more impressive for reading as a series of natural progressions . . . Come to this one-book library for the mercurial gifts of its author; stay because the stories continually renew their invitation to be read inventively.” —Helen Oyeyemi, The Guardian

“Davis’s curtest works have a lot in common with poetry: this poised, metaphysical jest about time, death and language owes a debt to its line endings. Yet even at her most poetic Davis is a storyteller, even if her plots unfold with the quiet philosophical precision of a Samuel Beckett ‘fizzle’ or theatrical monologue . . . when her genius for syntax is married to genuine emotion, then the results can be truly astonishing. In Can’t and Won’t, these emotions wheel ominously around death. ‘The Dog Hair’ is both touching elegy for a deceased pet and surrealist joke that captures the futile yearning that accompanies grief. The knowing reserve of ‘A Story Told to Me by A Friend’ explores how language creates love and, by extension, sorrow, how intimacy overcomes distance, and how distance gets in the way. The most memorable of all is ‘The Child,’ which almost shocks with its dispassionate snapshot of a bereaved mother and a profound melancholy that beggars belief. Incorporated elegantly into this extraordinary five-line work are questions about art’s capacity to fix such sadness. The final whispered command, ‘Don’t move,’ resounds endlessly. As so often in Lydia Davis, the less said, the better.”  —James Kidd, The Independent

“Unlike most American writers receiving international prizes, [Lydia Davis] . . . tend[s] to focus on very short stories, but they might be better described as succinct, exploding the accreted clichés of literary fiction, until so much of that intricate plotting, deft characterization, etc., seems to be futile marketing copy . . . Her new collection Can’t and Won’t makes use of extreme brevity . . . often to bracket deadpan jokes, tight little bows that unravel in your hands . . . neat simplicity is less façade than grist. Like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, the twin variations of ‘Reversible Story’ become more striking for their absence of incident . . . And ‘Men’ demonstrates that, despite Davis’s wry restraint, her prose can still trot into flight.” —Chris Randall, The National Post

“So many of [Lydia Davis’s] stories reflect paying attention to what is around us, to things we normally ignore . . . Her subjects are often mundane: lost socks, dog hair, cooked cornmeal. Yet they leave a resonance that makes us think again about the experiences that fill our lives but that we fail to think about . . . Because they are so tightly written and are usually so brief, [Davis’s stories] demand that we think about them and reflect on what they may want to say to us.” —Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle

“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 . . . 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 . . . 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.” —Cecilia Paasche, The Swarthmore Phoenix

“Ezra Pound famously exhorted the artist to ‘make it new,’ a directive on the one hand incontestable and, on the other, dangerously difficult. Lydia Davis is that rare writer whose work enacts the injunction: the dramas and ironies of her short—often very short—stories are those of our everyday lives, held up before us as if for the first time. The effect is rather like that of saying the same word over and over until it becomes alien, a new and strange thing: our relation to dog hair, to a piece of fish or a bag of frozen peas, or to an unsolicited invitation in the mail—any of these can provide an occasion for the world to shift, however slightly, upon its axis. High quality global journalism requires investment. It’s possible to make any number of statements about Davis’s fiction: that her stories are idiosyncratic, unmistakably Davisian; that she combines what might, in others, resemble whimsy with a bracingly unsentimental clarity of observation; that she shows a flagrant—and inspiring—disregard for rules or obligations (no teacherly insistence here upon what a story ought to be, upon its structure or requirements), and an almost philosophical openness to the objet trouvé that runs, like a surrealist thread, through her new collection of stories. All of these statements are true, and yet none can truly convey the first thing about her work, which is sui generis . . . Davis’s signal gift is to make us feel alive— not with pyrotechnics or fakery, not in grand dramas or confections whipped up for the purpose; but rather in her noticing of the apparently banal quotidian round, in records of our daily neuroses and small pleasures. These, she insists, are meaningful, and can be made new: these are the true substance of life.” —Claire Messud, The Financial Times

“Lydia Davis’ stories have been called prose poems, case studies, riddles, koans—even gherkins, for being so small and tart and edible. But properly speaking, they are magic tricks. Davis is a performative writer, as subtle and economical in her movements as any magician, and she’s out to enchant. Coming across her terse little stories feels rather like being shown a top hat, being told it’s empty, being shown it’s empty, and then watching something enormous and oddly shaped emerge from it. From a handful of sentences, Davis can wrest meaning or dazzle us with sleight of hand . . . These are stories deeply concerned with death, with aging, as the body as the site of breakdown and complaint. Dead dogs continue to pile up. There’s the dead sister, a dead child, a dead cat named Molly. One story contains only snippets from local obituaries . . . the focus on mortality in Can’t and Won’t casts that famous fussiness of Davis’ narrators in an edifying light . . . Davis dances right up to and around that final mystery that can’t, won’t and must be borne, that most inexplicable magic trick, life’s vanishing act.” —Parul Sehgal, National Public Radio

“Davis has done the work. She fronts up. She’s a writer. And here is some of her finest work . . . there’s some new, fresh sadness this time around. There’s something special in the way these stories sucker-punch you too. You read through pages of paragraph-long stories to arrive at something larger and when one of the small handful of 10-20 page stories hits you it is so deftly controlled, so exquisitely put together . . . the book, this collection, [is] an extraordinary set of surprises. The meditations on grief here are poignant and in one of the collection’s longest stories the control around heartbreak, around the methodical explanation of grief and the delayed reactions is almost too much to take. Of course I mean that in the very best way.” —Simon Sweetman, Off the Tracks

“[Can’t and Won’t] again shows [Lydia Davis] to be one of contemporary literature’s most approachably idiosyncratic and dryly comic writers . . . Whether her subjects are undeniably grave or amusingly trivial—one character agonizes over whether to sell a rug—Davis has the rare ability to write calmly about anxiety, capturing all the circularity of a mind in agitation without resorting to run-on sentences or other staples of breathlessness . . . Serious but never pompous, Davis and her often fussy, bothered narrators see that life is routinely funny but by no means a joke. Like Samuel Beckett, another key influence, she has created a kind of wisdom literature of bewilderment.” —Dylan Hicks, Star Tribune

“What’s wonderful and wholly original in her work is how the narrator is not a character, but Davis’ mind itself.” —Tricia Springstubb, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“Davis’ ability to create and observe these small details of experience and perceived reality, be they objects or ideas, without allowing herself any distractions, allow her to work freely in forms short and long and employ techniques designated, by and for other writers, as strictly either mainstream or avant-garde. The reason for this is simple: for Davis, there is only writing. As we live, we observe life and language to find in what we observe and in ourselves patterns that may appear familiar until they are revealed to be stunning and strange. For each of these observations, there is a narrator and a narrative moment. Each of these moments is already a story. When one is ready to be written down, Lydia Davis can and will.” —Stephen Piccarella, HTML Giant

 

“When Lydia Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, the attempt to fix a label to her work reduced one of the judges . . . to a bit of flailing . . . Personally, I’m not sure what the problem with just calling her a writer is, unless it’s this: If what she does is writing, we need a new name for what everyone else is doing . . . She makes the impossible look easy . . . Like Proust, whom she has translated, Davis writes the act of writing itself . . . her stories are filled with moments of crisis about how to carry on, or what word to put down next, and fears that it could all mean nothing in the end. She’s a theorist of the arbitrary. The fact that she makes it look so easy—so arbitrary, even—is part of the fun . . . Lydia Davis is a translator even when she’s not working in a foreign language. Writing is always a practice of choosing, but she makes this the subject as well as the method of her work; her meticulous, obsessive ‘correctness’ makes words as fraught as they are funny.” —Christine Smallwood, BookForum

“Reading a Lydia Davis story collection is like reaching into what you think is a bag of potato chips and pulling out something else entirely: a gherkin, a peppercorn, a truffle, a piece of beef jerky. Her stories look light and crisp, with their unadorned prose and flat-footed style, but on closer inspection they are pity, knobby, savory, chewy, dense. They are also mordantly, slyly funny in their exposure of human foibles. Can’t and Won’t . . . is evidence of a writer who is in total control of her own peculiar original voice; its pleasures are unexpected and manifold . . . Davis . . . shares with Samuel Beckett a sharp playfulness and antipathy toward ornamentation, as well as a tendency to subvert dramatic expectations that is, in the aggregate, startlingly dramatic.” —Kate Christensen, Elle

“What Davis is evoking is conditionality, which is the great theme of this collection, indeed of her entire oeuvre. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) their brevity, her stories ask existential questions, about us and the world . . . At the center of the book is the understanding that we can locate stories anywhere, that the most regular and orderly moments are, in fact, the most violent and original, that it is up to us to notice, to re-create, to preserve . . . In many ways, Can’t and Won’t is like a set of William Burroughs cut-ups, random moments juxtaposed, one against the other, until reality takes on the logic of a collage. Unlike Burroughs, though, Davis’ intent is not to rub out the word. Rather, language is what gives shape to the chaos, allowing us to invest existence with a shape. That this shape is of our making, our invention is the point precisely.” —David Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

“Davis’ writing forces us to think that there’s a way to embody an entire world with the sparest details . . . The fact is, Lydia Davis is not just some kind of arch-experimentalist; she is a great storyteller . . . A single-line story defies convention and skews our very idea of what a story can or should do. It could, and should, seem like a gimmick, especially after several collections. But each of Davis’ brief forays across the white space of the page continues to confound the confines of narrative and give it a new identity. She provides us with just enough information that our imaginations can do the rest . . . Davis uses observations . . . to trigger sensory memory, so that with these quick perceptions, the reader is able to complete entire scenes and imagine full-bodied characters in spite of their obvious absence. Davis shows that our brains are story-making machines. We can’t help but fill in the blanks. And the result is a weirdly extreme kind of minimalism that almost seems maximalist while simultaneously making Raymond Carver and company look like the loquacious Proust (whom Davis has translated) . . . Each story of Davis’ collection is a new tour de force, overwhelming us with the variety of invention . . . As in her previous work, depression, pain, and loss frequently seep in around the edges of these stories. Davis’ characters seek change, desperately fighting for a new beginning, while, in heartbreaking fashion, coming to that near-breakdown phase. She writes, ‘I had grown used to feeling two contradictory things: that everything in my life had changed; and that, really, nothing in my life had changed.’ Often, Davis pivots between these two worlds: the ever-changing and the seemingly never-changing, and, likewise, everything in between. But just when there’s a moment in which her characters feel safe, perhaps relieved, presumably with their futures altered for the better, Davis throws them once more toward that horrible condition they are running from. But even in the worst situations, there is always that unexpected wit lurking close at hand, as if to say that agony and misery, if fully disclosed, can exploit the short distance between tragedy and comedy and reveal something new about what it means to be human.” —Nicolas Pavlovich, City Paper (Baltimore)

“If you were to try to describe Davis’s preoccupations in Can’t and Won’t in a word, you might choose ‘distinction.’ . . . distinction itself emerges in Can’t and Won’t as the stuff of existence. There is one major distinction we can’t humanly conceive, that between life and death, but in all the minor distinctions—that between fish to avoid and fish to eat with caution, awards won and not won, commas kept or removed—something very human happens: characters delineate what they won’t. They can’t refuse death, but they can make very mortal distinctions. And these add up to life.” —Tracy O’Neill, The L Magazine

“Davis is perhaps the sparest contemporary fiction writer we have—breathtakingly bold in the limits she imposes on herself . . . There is no roughage in her writing—there is nowhere to hide. There are only the words—stark and striking, an experiment in just how little it takes to make a story. Her work can sometimes read like a test of discipline or the brilliant product of a dare: You thought I couldn’t do it, didn’t you? I broke your heart in one paragraph or less.” —Chloe Schama, The New Republic

“Davis is something of a genius at twisting . . . ideas around her little finger, like a precocious child twirling her hair into odd shapes. There is wit, humour and a strange beauty in her compressed concentration of the short story . . . Even at her most poetic . . . Davis is a storyteller, albeit one whose plots unfold with the quiet, philosophical precision of a Borges story.” —James Kidd, South China Morning Post

“When Lydia Davis writes short stories, you take notice. You observe them and linger in their bitter or sweet after-thought. You also get confused. You wonder what her stories are about. As a reader, you also want to give up some times. You do not want to turn the next page. That is what you feel like and you cannot help it. You keep the book aside and after some time you get back to the book and then it hits on you, what you have been missing out on. And then the true beauty of her writing hits you. Lydia Davis’s new collection of stories, Can’t and Won’t is a fantastic collection of vignettes, of short stories and of really long stories . . . Can’t and Won’t is a collection that makes you ponder, makes you doubt, leaves you confused, perplexed and at the same time wrenches your heart with the most basic observations about life and living . . . The stories are sometimes complex, sometimes simple and sometimes just make you want to drop everything else and think about life. Can’t and Won’t is expansive. It is a collection that challenges you, delivered in well prose and above all conjures a sense of wonder and delight, with every turn of the page.” —Vivek Tejuja, IBN Live

“Davis . . . continues to hone her subtle and distinctive brand of storytelling. These poems, vignettes, thoughts, observations, and stories defy clear categorization; each one is an independent whole, but read together they strike a fine rhythm. Davis circles the same central point in each entry: her character examine the world with a detached, self-contained logic that seems to represent the process of writing itself . . . Davis’s bulletproof prose sends each story shooting off the page.” —Publishers Weekly

“The title story in Davis’s latest collection of nimble and caustic stories, a wry tale about why a writer is denied a prize, is two sentences in length, but, as always with this master of distillation, it conveys volumes. In the wake of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009) and receiving the Man Booker International Prize, Davis presents delectably intriguing and affecting new works shaped by her devotion to language, vigilant observations, literary erudition, and tart humor. A number of strikingly enigmatic stories carry the tag ‘dream,’ and they are, in fact, based on dreams dreamed by her Davis and her family and friends. Thirteen intricately layered and thorny pieces flagged as ‘stories from Flaubert’ improvise saucily and revealingly on the seminal writer’s letters. Elsewhere, Davis tosses together the trivial and the profound in hilarious and plangent tales about painful memories and epic indecision, deftly capturing the mind’s perpetual churning and the terrible arbitrariness of life. Then, amid all this fretfulness and angst, a narrator devotes herself to watching three serene cows in a neighboring field. Davis is resplendent.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist

“[Lydia Davis] continues to push the boundaries of narrative. [Can’t and Won’t] is a remarkable, exhilarating beast: a collection that resumes the author’s overall style—short narratives, with the occasional longer piece—while simultaneously expanding her vision . . . with Can’t and Won’t, Davis deftly hones the art of looking backward, of calling the dead to life, of retaining the moments in life intended to remain fleeting. The result is a tapestry of method, style, and structure, all with the same objective: to possess that which has passed, to capture the lost and the unidentifiable.” —Benjamin Woodard, Numero Cinq Magazine

“Daring, exciting intelligent and often wildly comic, Davis reminds us, in a world that likes to bandy its words about, what words such as economy, precision and originality really mean. This is a writer as mighty as Kafka, as subtle as Flaubert and as epoch-making in her own way, as Proust. The stories in this new collection illuminate particular moments in ordinary lives and find in them the humorous, the ironic and the surprising. Above all the stories revel in and grapple with the joys and constraints of language—achieving always the extraordinary, unmatched precision which makes Lydia Davis one of the greatest contemporary writers on the international stage.” —The Himalayan Times

“Davis’s narrators are almost always in midst of some essentially normal situation, but unable to integrate that situation into the familiar world of the social throng. Instead her stories linger on the threshold of that world, exposing its artifice. This liminal, self-enclosed and yet outward looking perspective would seem to be the position of the writer. And yet, Davis is too intelligent by half to stray into any writerly heroics. The writer doesn’t have any privileged access to some deeper truth of things. Far from it: writing is referred to as a deeply suspect activity — at once treacherous (‘Two Characters in a Paragraph’) and evasive (‘Writing’). Rather, the detached, analytical and incisive perspective that Davis’s narratives open is simply another perspective on a world that is infinitely amenable, interpretable, ambiguous. Davis awakens the multiplicity of meanings; she doesn’t settle on new ones . . . Davis has a particularly acute eye for the contracted violence, imbalances of power, and stirrings of ressentiment implicit in prosaic social relations . . . Davis gives voice to those inchoate mumblings, to those thoughts that half-form in our minds before collapsing under the weight of their own aporia and, with craft and care she follows them through their manifold turns and folds. And all this in prose that is stark, limpid, precise and quietly beautiful. (Hannah Arendt famously said of Kafka that he has no favourite words. The same is surely true of Lydia Davis.) Her stories give expression to the pit in the plum; the madness implicit in the quotidian. Like half-forgotten dreams, they linger somewhere between the alien and the familiar, the unreal and the hyper-real. At once uncomfortable, painful and compulsive, reading Lydia Davis is like looking into a mirror held too close to one’s face; you can’t bear to look, nor to look away.” —Will Rees, Full Stop

“Davis’s work is serious, sedate, and spare. It is also very funny . . . Choosing just one or two stories to highlight the highlights is not easy . . . Choosing just one or two stories to highlight the highlights is not easy . . . One particularly tempting piece is titled simply ‘The Cows.’ It is a miraculous and revelatory dissection of the ordinary, a tour de force, a showcase of Davis’s talents. ‘Not Interested,’ a story near the end of the book, can be read in part as an artist’s statement. It is an analysis of a doppelgangerish narrator’s reading life. She is tired, she says, of novels and stories. She ‘prefers books that contain something real.’ This is the dilemma that Davis, the artful dodger, is trying artfully to dodge—a reaction to contemporary imaginative literature that is similar to her own. She is trying in her exact and meticulous examinations of the everyday to write a different sort of story—one that has, in addition to many other things, something real in it. Her work will be of little interest to the reader looking for wizards, nymphomaniacs, or serial killers, but of great interest to those looking for adventurous writing that is smart, original, ingenious, funny, and fun. This new collection is a welcome addition to a unique and dazzling body of work.” —K. B. Dixon, The Oregonian

“[Lydia Davis is] one of our smartest, wryest and certainly strangest . . . American authors working today . . . and her latest book of stories, Can’t and Won’t, is as good as anything else she’s done, maybe better . . . Davis’s stories are certainly cerebral . . . And yet, there’s a lot of humor in the stories, too. This comes from Davis’s fierce intelligence, which is able to skewer the foibles and fritzes of our brains as well as she captures their functions. There’s also a warmth in the stories.” —Adam Jones, Yakima Herald

 

Praise for Lydia Davis

“Big rejoicing: Lydia Davis has won the Man Booker International prize. Never did a book award deliver such a true match-winning punch, rather like one of Davis’s ingenious, playful, formally inventive and unexpectedly powerful (for their size) short stories might. Best of all, a new audience will read her now and find her wit, her vigour and rigour, her funniness, her thoughtfulness, and the precision of form, which, even among short-story practitioners known for these qualities, mark Davis out as unique . . . She’s such a reader’s writer, this daring, excitingly intelligent and often wildly comic writer who reminds you, in a world that likes to bandy its words about, what words such as economy, precision and originality really mean. It’s all about how you read and about the reflorescence of what and how things mean with Davis, who works in an understated, concentrated way and in a form that usually slips under the mainstream radar. So look again, because this is a writer as mighty as Kafka, as subtle as Flaubert and as epoch-making, in her own way, as Proust. As a translator, she has recently produced magnificent English versions of classics by the latter two, but it’s the short-story form that she’s made her own, and even changed the potential of, over three decades of honing a style whose discipline is a perfect means of release of hilarity, myth, merciless sharpness, and, most of all, of a celebration of the thinking, vital, fertile mind.
     A two-liner from Davis, or a seemingly throwaway paragraph, will haunt.
     What looks like a game will open to deep seriousness; what looks like philosophy will reveal playfulness, tragicomedy, ordinariness; what looks like ordinariness will ask you to look again at Davis’s writing. In its acuteness, it always asks attentiveness, and it repays this by opening up to its reader like possibility, or like a bush covered in flowerheads.
     She’s a joy. There’s no writer quite like her.” —Ali Smith, The Guardian

“Davis . . . has influenced a generation of writers including Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, who wrote that Davis, ‘blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction.’ . . . Announcing the winner, Booker judge Professor Sir Christopher Ricks said: ‘Lydia Davis’ writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind.  Just how to categorise them? Should we simply concur with the official title and dub them stories? Or perhaps miniatures? Anecdotes? Essays? Jokes? Parables? Fables? Texts? Aphorisms, or even apophthegms? Prayers, or perhaps wisdom literature? Or might we settle for observations? There is vigilance to her stories, and great imaginative attention. Vigilance as how to realise things down to the very word or syllable; vigilance as to everybody’s impure motives and illusions of feeling.’” —Adam Sherwin, The Independent

“[Davis’s] stories expand the possibility of fiction itself, broaden its horizons, challenge its preconceptions. She is – and these sometimes seem like virtues the literary world has shunned – experimental, complicated, daring. In Ezra Pound’s famous phrase, she makes it new . . . “Unsettling” is her trademark. Reading her collections—Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001) and Varieties Of Disturbance (2007)—is to be perpetually caught off guard. She switches between elegy and comedy, surrealism and the quotidian, perplexity and epiphany: reading one Davis story tells you nothing about what the next story might be like . . . Her work, in so many ways, is not about altering what literature is, but trying (and failing) and failing (and trying) to capture what being human is.” —Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman

 

“Among the true originals of contemporary American short fiction.” —San Francisco Chronicle

 

“Davis is a magician of self-consciousness. Few writers now working make the words on the page matter more.”  —Jonathan Franzen

“All who know [Davis’s] work probably remember their first time reading it . . . Blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction.” —Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s

“Sharp, deft, ironic, understated, and consistently surprising.” —Joyce Carol Oates

“The best prose stylist in America.” —Rick Moody

 

“A body of work probably unique in American writing, in its combination of lucidity, aphoristic brevity, formal originality, sly comedy, metaphysical bleakness, philosophical pressure, and human wisdom. I suspect that The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions.” — James Wood, The New Yorker

 

“This welcome collection of Lydia Davis’s short fiction, which gathers stories from four previously published volumes, reveals that her obsessions have remained fairly consistent over the past 30 years: frustrated love, the entanglements of language, the writer engaged in the act of writing. But even when Davis traverses familiar territory, her masterful sentence style and peculiar perceptiveness make each work unmistakably distinct. Davis is known for her ability to pack big themes into a tight space; many stories here are less than a page, and some consist of only one sentence. The longer pieces frequently find her narrators making much out of the seemingly meager. In ‘The Bone,’ which first appeared in the collection Break It Down, a woman describes in detached detail the night a fishbone was caught in her now ex-husband’s throat. In ‘The Mice’ a narrator feels rejected by the mice that will not come into her kitchen, ‘as they come into the kitchens of [her] neighbors.’ —Kimberly King Parsons, Time Out New York

 

“Lydia Davis is one of the best writers in America, a fact that has been kept under wraps by her specialization in short fiction rather than the novel and her discomfort with the idea of one event following another in some sensible pattern, an expectation she frequently plays with, as a kitten will with your fingers. Watch out for those teeth and claws. With the publication of this big book, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Davis might well receive the kind of notice she’s long been due. She is the funniest writer I know; the unique pleasure of her wit resides in its being both mordant and beautifully sorrowful (her short piece ‘Selfish’ begins, ‘The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,’ and you can see the regrets that birthed the sentence, even while it cracks you up). Like many great writers of short pieces she is able to convert everyday experience into a light comic drama—cooking for her husband in ‘Meat, My Husband’ or the task of writing in ‘What Was Interesting’—that builds toward a piercing moment of reality. Some of Davis’s stories are only one or two sentences long and many don’t exceed two pages, which is good, because seeing them all together in this 700-page volume and surviving the power of the longer ones, you realize you’re lucky to be getting out of the book psychically intact—or almost intact. She’s that good.” —Vince Passaro, O, The Oprah Magazine

 

“What to do with all the empty white space that drifts over the 733 pages and nearly 200 fictions of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis? Make origami, maybe. Like Don DeLillo, who drafted Underworld at the pace of one paragraph per sheet of paper—the technique, he once explained, evolved out of ‘a sensitivity to the actual appearance of words on a page, to letter-shapes and letter-combinations’—Lydia Davis is as much sculptor as writer. ‘I put that word on the page, / but he added the apostrophe,’ reads the entirety of one recent story, ‘Collaboration With Fly.’ Another, ‘My Mother’s Reaction to My Travel Plans,’ doesn't even stretch onto a second line: ‘Gainsville! It's too bad your cousin is dead!’” —Zach Baron, Village Voice

 

“No one writes a story like Lydia Davis. In the years since she began publishing her lyrical, extremely short fiction, she has quietly become one of the most impactful influences on American writers, even if they don’t know it. That’s largely because she makes economy seem so easy. You could read several of her stories into a friend’s voicemail box before you were cut off (and you should). You could fit one of her stories in this column. Some you could write on your palm.” —Jonathan Messinger, Time Out Chicago

 

“Lydia Davis is the master of a literary form largely of her own invention. Her publisher calls what she writes fiction—and her short prose pieces do have characters, settings and sometimes a plot, however minuscule—while haughtier literary types might think of it as a kind of fleshy prose poetry or designate it ‘flash fiction.’ The classically minded and fantasy fans might characterize it as updated fable. Whatever you call them, Davis’ little writings are mostly in prose and often less than a page long. They are also unceasingly surprising, deeply empathic, sharply witty, often laugh-out-loud funny and really, really good.” —Craig Morgan Teicher, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

 

“This volume contains the stories from four collections: Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007). They are shocking. Be prepared for a level of self-consciousness (remember, Beckett). Be prepared for narrators with disorienting levels of discomfort (remember, Kafka). Be prepared for moments of beauty that are sharp and merciless (remember, Proust).” —Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times


More About the Author

Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections, the most recent of which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is the acclaimed translator of a new edition of Swann's Way and is at work on a new translation of Madame Bovary.

Customer Reviews

I'm an ardent Lydia Davis fan, but this is not my favorite.
eva b.
After reading these stories, I bought everything she's ever written.
jm zivic
Quick stories were something I thought would be right up my alley.
book beach bunny

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Tony Covatta on June 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I was disappointed in Lydia Davis's latest collection of "stories." This one contains the usual collection of aphoristic one or two liners, a few of her characteristic page and a half plays on themes or tropes, some very short traditional stories, and at least one full length masterfully done longer story, "The Seals" which I would recommend to anyone. There are also some pointless short sketches of dreams of hers and her friends, and reworkings of scenes from Flaubert.

All of it is delivered in very well done prose, but I found too much of it pointless and cold, and when Ms. Davis reveals herself, as many of the snippets seem autobiographical, the persona that emerges is of a person who is not very engaging, indeed is a bit cranky and self-centered. Something has happened to her sensibility since she wrote the stories contained in her Collected Stories. There she came across as quirky, but plucky and engaging, willing to risk a bit of herself in exploring her situation in the world. Here she seems a smaller person, with a jaundiced point of view. An irritating example is the somewhat longish letter to the hotel manager where she takes the hotel to task for placing "schrod" on the menu, insisting that there is no such thing as schrod. Of course, there is. Schrod is young cod. I've known this for years. If she was intending to portray the narrator as an irritable and irritating pedant, on purpose, she did so, but at what a cost. The story, like most of this collection was to this reader only irritating, riddled with a solipsism that I did not find enjoyable. Ironically many of the successful stories she wrote earlier had to do with her divorce or the deaths and declines of her mother and father. Difficulty brought out the best in her.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Norman A. Bert on May 29, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Stories? Well not exactly. But these observations, sketches, and snippets work their way under your skin. Read just one while limiting yourself to a single potato chip.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Laurence Raw on September 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The title adumbrates the book's basic concern: "Can't" suggests an inability to do something; "Won't" a conscious decision not to do anything. This tension between willed action and human powerlessness persists throughout most of the stories in this collection. In "A Visit to the Dentist" the speaker speculates on whether "thoughts are fluid, and flow downward from one person to another;" suggesting a lack of self-determination; in "An Awkward Situation" the protagonist finds herself in an unexpectedly difficult situation, prompting her to wonder where her husband is and why he does not come to help her out. Even when human beings do have control over their lives, they often discover that their actions seem absurd, at least to the readers. What are we to make, for example, of the sentence in "The Piano," telling us that "One driver walks away down the lane with his back turned while the other shoves it over the cliff?" Through such stories Lydia Davis reminds us of language's limitations - although we use it to persuade, or think 'rationally', we are often faced with situations that are quite simply impossible or inexpressible. On such occasions we have to trust in ourselves and/or rely on our own judgments. Sometimes this process can be difficult - in "The Letter to the Foundation" the writer wonders whether they "have to exist" any more - but in the end perhaps we have to accept the way of the world and get on with it by acknowledging that there is no permanent "meaningful connection" between words, actions and things.

This kind of ontological speculation might suggest that CAN'T AND WON'T is a difficult read.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Kendra B on April 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Lydia Davis continues her dialogue with the world in this new collection of stories. Davis creates a space for thinking, realizing, and understanding our own intellectual process, by giving us a lens to look through. Her observations and the way she articulates them is sharp and distinct. Reading her writing changes me in small wonderful ways.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By eva b. on July 20, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I'm an ardent Lydia Davis fan, but this is not my favorite. There are some winners here, but some that feel like inert fillers.
Understood that she is an important translator of French literature, but those pieces seem inappropriate in this collection.
Maybe that's another book. I'm having a bit of a slog to finish this book. Some of it just feels tired and forced (to earn the publisher's advance). With regrets . . .
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By Jack Anderson on July 28, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
By Jack Anderson
Reading Lydia Davis is like eating potato chips. Just as it's difficult to nibble only one potato chip without reaching for another, so it's hard to read just one of her mostly very short stories and mini-essays. You keep wanting to go on to another and another. Provided you don't pig-out on them, they're usually quite tasty. (One, by the way, involves a grandmother who accidentally eats her hearing aid while devouring a bowl of cashews.) Some are weaker than others: for instance, a bunch of sketches inspired by Flaubert. But for the most part, Davis has a keen eye and a wicked tongue. She's good at one-liners; take "Bloomington": "Now that I've been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before." Her two-liners aren't bad, either; here's "Housekeeping Observation": "Under all this dirt / the floor is really very clean." Her longer pieces can be sharp social comedies, among them a portrait of a woman dithering over the problems of ordering fish in a restaurant, and an account of class warfare involving some bumbling servants and their snooty employer. Davis loves dithery characters. But they're not always comic. "The Landing" is an agonizingly detailed and increasingly harrowing description of a woman's thoughts and feelings during an emergency airplane landing. "Local Obits" initially seems merely snide, for it consists of excerpts from what appear to be obituaries in a small-town newspaper: bits of information about perfectly ordinary people who led almost colossally uneventful lives.But as these biographical accounts go by, one can find their ordinariness surprisingly poignant, inspiring sighs rather than snickers.
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