CAN'T AND WON'T (Stories). By Lydia Davis. FSG. 289 pages. $26.
In 2009, Lydia Davis published a chunky volume of "Collected Stories." Blink, five years have passed, and here is "Can't and Won't," the next installment of her experimental fictions.
Davis' stories are notably fractional and microscopic. Within them, epic emotions shrink down to everyday dimensions. Whether she's distilling episodes from Flaubert's letters to his lover, Louise Colet, registering consumer complaints in letters to corporations, or watching three cows in a pasture season after season, Davis gets her edge from characters' - or her own - efforts to impress logic on the illogical.
The title story of the collection is a fine place to start. This story appears right on the cover, "because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can't and won't."
That's it. Davis has identified it as one of the collection's dream pieces and disclosed that she actually had this dream. Like most of Davis's stories, "Can't and Won't" operates on two fronts: living, and reflecting on the living. Both, for Davis, are verbal experiences.
Other stories also set up the "I" figure as a sorter and refuser of experiences. In "I'm Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable," for instance, Davis compiles a seven-page list of first-world irritations - everything from "When I toast the raisin bread, the raisins get very hot" to "In the restaurant they are playing a loop of soft rock music."
It's funny, but grouped together, these challenges to perfection have something to say about the interaction between mind and world. The gap between a world of ideals and one of nagging shortfalls is where Davis' imagination often takes hold. What are we to make of her tally of grievances? Is the focus on small defects a comment on how myopic and self-enclosed consciousness can be? Or do small defects stand in for larger complaints against our depleting condition? Yes and yes.
Davis' signature story is lean and brisk. Of the collection's 122 stories, many are only a couple of lines long. "The Dog Hair" tells a quick story of loss and hope. The dog is dead, and the family missing him. When the doorbell rings, no one barks. When they come home, no one is waiting. His white hairs are everywhere. Davis writes, "We have a wild hope - if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again." The absence in the story is a match for the absence, all that white space, on the page.
The best stories in "Can't and Won't" are two of the longest: "The Cows" (17 pages) and "The Seals" (25 pages). Each is a work of deep love and fastidious details.
"The Cows" live across the road from the speaker - three massive philosophical creatures who like to lick things and to be licked. When humans come, they always step forward, sometimes advancing "as a group in little relays." Davis records their forms of play (chiefly variations on head-butting, trotting and prancing). She marvels at their vocalizations (a high falsetto, very small to come out of such large animals). She celebrates a newborn ("so miniature that he looks like a thin black staple").
She's there, season after season, to record constancy and variety: "If it snows, it snows on them the same way it snows on the trees and the field. ... The snow piles up on their backs and head." The ending is lovely. As dusk turns to a purplish blue dark, it becomes "harder and harder to see their black bodies against the darkening field. Then they can't be seen at all, but they are still out there, grazing in the dark."
"The Seals" is all about absence, specifically the narrator's grief years after her older sister dies of a brain tumor. The family is a troubled one, but they're also a unit - five of them, like a poker hand. The narrator's mind keeps circling, picking up artifacts and stray images, holding herself to an ethic of exaction. She becomes obsessed with measurement: how much did her sister love her, and what was the nature of that love?
She writes, "Once she was gone, every memory was suddenly precious, even the bad ones, even the times I was irritated with her, or she was irritated with me. Then it seemed a luxury to be irritated." When she does speak to her sister's memory, the loss is so plain and the words so direct that the effect is heartbreaking: "(T)o have you there in person, in the flesh, for a while, pressing down the mattress, making folds in the cover, the sun coming in behind you, would be very nice."
With mathematical precision, Lydia Davis calculates the delicacy and terror of the everyday.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.