Lydia Davis’ latest short story collection, Can’t and Won’t, is a multifaceted reflection on life. Humorous anecdotes and everyday stories are contrasted by agonizing tales of loss. Most stories span only a page, but Davis’ words have a way of revealing deeper levels of signification, often leaving you ill at ease.
This feeling owes much to the detachment of the narrative voice, which does not change much throughout the collection, but remains indifferent and dissociative. Yet, despite this, many of the stories are very emotional.
The most striking aspect of Can’t and Won’t is its variety when it comes to form and content. Ranging from one sentence stories, lists, fictional letters, and dreams to more traditional short stories, Davis presents a cross section of the human condition: the happiness, but above all the struggle and strangeness of all too familiar episodes. However, the disparate subjects and the seemingly arbitrary order of the stories can leave the reader at a loss. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, the reader finds himself too divided to fully grasp the range of emotions presented. But then Davis is one of those short story writers who should not be read from cover to cover. Her stories are at their best when contemplated upon individually.
Apart from being an accomplished short story writer Davis is also renowned for her translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Flaubert plays a special role in Can’t and Won’t; several stories are based on his letters, written to his friend and lover Louise Colet while he was working on Madame Bovary. These stories are very different from the rest of the collection.
Davis manages to combine the detached style of her everyday reflections with a kind of resolving climax lacking from the other stories. This is especially true compared to the surreal dream pieces. Presenting the reader with elusive episodes dreamt by Davis herself and her friends and family, she takes the loose narrative structure of her stories one step further. There is no beginning, no end, no plot, and one finds oneself asking the recurring question: “What is the point?”
Given Davis’ writing style, this applies to many of the stories. But perhaps that is the intention. Perhaps the reader should not be looking for meaning or understanding. There is no real point, no final absolution or climax. What she writes about is simply life. Sometimes it is unintelligible, sometimes pointless, but always life; and life is at the very heart of this collection.