Review of Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis

Title: Can’t and Won’t
Author: Lydia Davis

I had read a review of the Davis’ recent book in Reader’s Digest April 2014 edition where the reviewer was all high praises for Lydia Davis and there was a special mention of the above mentioned book saying its a collection of short stories. That is when I picked up this book and started reading it.

Once I started, the first 5-6 pages I kept on turning back and forth because I couldn’t quite relate to the chapters there. So I went back to the first page and started reading it again. And that is when I realized that each page/chapter that I was seeing was a whole new different short story. After that I was totally amused and smitten. The stories in this book are all short stories which are either a sentence long, a page long or just comprise of 2-3 sentences. There are a few long “short” stories considering the length of the story the author writes. The language used is very rich and you can’t flicker your mind to wander off because either you may never get back to the story again or the story would have already been over by then.The formation of sentences are intriguing, interesting and not that easy. She talks of mundane things yet makes it seem very interesting. before you search for more and want more from the story, the author knows when to pull back.

One of my favorite stories is called “The Chair” where the author is trying to guess the relationship status of a middle-aged lady in the Prayer Room whether she is a married woman(ruled out because she cant find a Mr. with the same last Name), widow(ruled out because she isn’t sad). It ends with she must be looking out for a partner as she can see the red dye of the hair smeared on the chair from behind. It sounds much better in her words than my explanation. Another favorite of mine is “Bloomington” which reads, “Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.” But the best of all stories is the author goes on an on about irrelevant things trying to connect a lot of people with lot of things in one single paragraph and then she says “Oh, we writers may think we invent too much — but reality is worse every time!”. I personally felt it was very profound and witty at the same time.

But I have a few qualms about the book. The stories are written as “dream” and “story from Flaubert”. The ones mentioned as dreams are really boring and pointless. It is like reading Davis’s night diary which I personally wasn’t very interested in. Are they are normal things which probably each one of us would have dreamt off but trying to create a short story out of it was very uninteresting. the 13 stories from Flaubert were formed from material found in letters written by Gustave Flaubert, most of them to his friend and lover Louise Colet , during the period in which he was working on Madame Bovary(mentioned in the Appendix). These stories are derived from his letters and combination of two or more letters blended with figment of Lydia’s imagination. These are quite good.

Given a chance, I would probably never read a short story collection again from the same author if its about her dreams. Else will surely try to read. May be next time I would want to read about her “not ‘this’ short stories/novels if she comes up. Overall the book was creative and one of its kinds. I had never before read anything like that.

Ratings: 3.5/5 (I liked it but could have been better without the dreams)