Review: On Lydia Davis’ “Can’t and Won’t”

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux ♦ 304 pp. ♦ $26.00 ♦ 8 April 2014

This review has been drawn from Vol. 2, No. 2 of the American Reader.

It is no great sin for a collection of short stories to be uneven—it is, after all, unlikely that a person will read a collection of stories front to back, in order of appearance. So the fact that Lydia Davis’ new collection, Can’t and Won’t, is so uneven as to be almost haphazard should not disqualify the volume from finding a place on a reader’s shelf.

Can’t and Won’t would, in fact, fit comfortably on a reader’s shelf or bedside table—just as it might fit comfortably, rather too comfortably, into that reader’s life. Indeed, it might fit so comfortably, so serenely, so undisturbedly into a shelf and a life, that one may be given to wonder if this isn’t less a book than a placebo: a collection that “does what Lydia Davis does,” that “does what fiction does,” without ever actually doing anything at all.

Of the nature of fiction, very little can be said definitively, of course. What should fiction be? How should it be? I won’t tread that ground. But certainly one fact of fiction is its inconvenience: no matter how innocently or unassumingly it may present itself, no matter how craftily a reader may reposition it, good fiction simply will not fit. It will jut out. Should the surface of the reader’s life be calm, it will disturb it; should the surface of that life be tumultuous, it will bring it to a deadly stillness. An acquaintance of mine has likened good fiction to a knife—and that seems right to me, however macabre the implications. And it’s no little, polite knife either, no cheese knife—it is a big, awkward chef’s knife one continually draws out in the oddest and most inappropriate places: in bed, on the metro, at a restaurant awaiting a tardy companion. There can be nothing truly sociable or rational about it or our reception of it because it is fundamentally immodest, inflexible, and, therefore, threatening. Always within it, even at rest, is the potential lethality of its realization, and this potential lethality is enough to make it most out of place, even when it is, so to speak, in its proper place.

This quality of inconvenience, which characterizes great fiction, is a matter not only of sentences but of soul; the former is hard to master, the latter is impossible to fake.

They were both named Davis, but they were not married to each other and they were not related by blood. They were neighbors, however. They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.

They did not know this about each other until she decided to put her rug up for sale.

Thus begins Ms. Davis’ story, “The Two Davises and the Rug.” It is an engaging and elegant opener; at the sentence level Ms. Davis is unquestionably a master of the craft. With an impressive economy not just of phrase and of detail, but of substance, she has engineered narrative tension—and has done so with wit, by mirroring subject and expression (the narrator speaks indecisively about indecision). And, because she builds suspense around what appear to be somewhat banal particulars, she also succeeds in palpating that tension, discovering within it a deep and potentially delightful irony.

It is, in short, a beautiful archway, well-constructed and most inviting…—where will it lead?

Nowhere really. The four pages that follow are merely recapitulations of these first two paragraphs—the exact same mechanism representing itself in various forms; the exact same joke retelling itself again and again. A woman decides to sell a rug she no longer likes at a charity flea market and she plans to sell it cheap—but the charity appraiser admires the rug and decides the price should be marked up. The woman, realizing she has misunderstood the rug’s value, gets second thoughts about selling it. When a man, who shares her surname but has no relation to her, offers to buy the rug at the high price, the woman declines to sell it. Then she feels guilty and begins vacillating: should she sell the rug or shouldn’t she?

A potentially interesting framework, I guess, but whatever potential it has is not harnessed here. In this story, we are sunk deep into a spiritless rendition of Flaubert: an account of how a bourgeois woman and bourgeois man attend rather too seriously, even self-seriously, to unimportant matters, an account of how these unimportant matters constitute the drama of their small lives. The small social life becomes the small interior life: “Now the rug entered her thoughts often, and she attempted to make up her mind about it almost daily, and changed her mind about it almost daily.”

And so the narrative also makes a claim about its protagonists’ bourgeois souls. So that there may be no room for doubt, the spiritual emptiness of the protagonists is later rather blatantly emphasized:

This Davis was left with the wish that there were a Solomon to turn to, for a judgment, because probably the question really was, not whether she did or didn’t want to keep the rug, but, more generally, which of them really valued the rug more.

It is unclear what drives this story. As a portrait, it’s one-dimensional. As a critique, it is too obvious, even saccharinely so, mimicking the simplistic American indie-film critique of middle-class life: “Our desires are not our own, or are they?” Mostly, it seems like a well-turned joke. And the joke is no less mean (and meaningless) for its being self-directed. Exactly why are we touching down on the two Davises at this moment? Why is this the whole of what we see? Even when the reader amps it up—perhaps this rug is a stand-in for life itself, perhaps this is a contemplation of suicide, of “to be or not to be”—still, this niggling issue of tone remains. Why does this all seem like little more than mockery?

This removed, and slightly veiled, narrative condescension is a trademark of Ms. Davis’ writing in Can’t and Won’t, a collection which takes empty, circular bourgeois life as its subject, and then immediately seems to resent having done so. Ms. Davis writes as if she were forced to take on this subject, as if it were an assignment, and so many of her stories here read like transcriptions of (elegant) tantrums. Most problematically, the writing fails to tune into the spirit and soul—the stakes—of its subject matter. Here there is no sustained, revelatory encounter with the bourgeois self but, rather, an exhausted glance, even a self-exhausted glance, at a life that fails to inspire or activate the beholder. Part of the issue is that Ms. Davis tends to over-identify with her subject matter, leading her to linger too long in uninteresting places and vacate too soon those contemplations that, with a greater delicacy or compassion, might have proved fruitful. As a result, the writing tends to vacillate between over-empathy and quiet smirking—a cause and symptom, respectively, of constricted vision.

When the stories suffer from over-empathy, we usually wind up in the space of the banal liberal koan, abundant in this collection. Here are some examples, in full:

The story “Judgment”:

Into how small a space the word judgment can be compressed: it must fit inside the brain of a ladybug as she, before my eyes, makes a decision.

The story “The Cornmeal”:

This morning, the bowl of hot cooked cornmeal, set under a transparent plate and left there, has covered the underside of the plate with droplets of condensation: it, too, is taking action in its own little way.

The story “Bloomington”:

Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.

These stories must elicit an “ahh” of satisfaction from any disciple of liberal comfort, but for those readers who have declined to take the easy way out of man’s search for meaning, these insights are emotionally and spiritually dense, and not even originally so. “The Cornmeal” in particular is so curiously trite that even now I wonder if it is actually serious.

But it must be serious, because this is the order of insight the reader is treated to throughout the volume, albeit less baldly manifested. “The Magic of the Train” is a corny meditation on aging and perspective. “The Letter to the Foundation,” a companion piece of sorts to the title story, “Can’t and Won’t,” is a story in which the “weird letter” conceit becomes too conceited to function. I think “How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues of the TLS,” a catalogue of topics of semi-recent essays in the Times Literary Supplement, accompanied by a whip-quick decision of her interest or lack of interest in reading about that topic, is supposed to be funny and relatable but is actually just a bit rude and insular.

Indeed, Ms. Davis is a little too relatable a little too often in this collection. Very little here challenges or puts up a fight, very little sees with new eyes. When people praise this collection, I think what they mean to say is, “I know exactly what she means!” But should a writer aim to shore up her readers’ idea of the world? Again and again in Can’t and Won’t, I get the feeling I am being drawn into an in-crowd of worn and tired perspectives, and, to be frank, as a liberal middle classer, it is an invitation I receive too often. If Ms. Davis is going to take the bourgeois up as a subject, she must do more with it than simply commiserate. The story “Writing” features the sort of sad misunderstanding of the writing craft that one imagines gets paraded around Brooklyn when the beers have run down to backwash:

Life is too serious for me to go on writing. Life used to be easier, and often pleasant, and then writing was pleasant, though it also seemed serious. Now life is not easy, it has gotten very serious, and by comparison, writing seems a little silly…

…What I should do, instead of writing about people who can’t manage, is just quit writing and learn to manage. And pay more attention to life itself. The only way I will get smarter is by not writing anymore. There are other things I should be doing instead.

This is not to say there are no good stories in this volume. “Wrong Thank-You in Theater” is a painful and evocative meditation on what might be called the final excess: that little, teensy extra bit of something that finally proves too much, the straw that breaks the back. In “Wrong Thank-You,” it is excess callousness, excess clarity, and excess sensitivity that intersect to sad effect. “I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable” is a liberal koan that actually works: it is witty, provocative, and surprising. “The Dreadful Mucamas” chronicles the “silent warfare” between the narrator and her cast of servants, and is a funny, deranged foray into class, labor, and society. (For some reason, Ms. Davis seems to have her best insights into class relations when she displaces the servant class into another race or country of origin; here and elsewhere in the volume, that other place is Latin America.) Then there is “Men,” which beautifully dramatizes the sudden intrusion of desire in a life—the havoc that ensues, how we are terrified and wish desperately to be spared. The story in full:

There are also men in the world. Sometimes we forget, and think there are only women—endless hills and plains of unresisting women. We make little jokes and comfort each other and our lives pass quickly. But every now and then, it is true, a man rises unexpectedly in our midst like a pine tree, and looks savagely at us, and sends us hobbling away in great floods to hide in the caves and gullies until he is gone.

These are the triumphs. But as I have said, they are distributed with too miserly a hand.

Comfort is one of the “keywords” Franco Moretti uses to understand the bourgeois in his 2012 monograph, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature; his inquiry into the term proves quite useful in understanding the failures of Ms. Davis’ work, so I do hope you will bear with me as I further elucidate parts of his study.

Now, Mr. Moretti noted that even as the use of the term comfort evolved along with the bourgeois class that favored and valorized it, its meaning remained “ambiguous.” In fact, Moretti argued, “ambiguity was precisely the point of the term.”

What can we make of this ambiguity? Mr. Moretti noted a link between comfort and convenience. By the late seventeenth century “comfort [was] no longer what returns us to a ‘normal’ state from adverse circumstances, but what [took] normality as its starting point, and [pursued] well-being as an end in itself, independently of any mishap: ‘a thing that produces or ministers to enjoyment and content.’ ” And convenience, Mr. Moretti explained, in accordance with the OED, was “the quality of being…suitable or well-adapted to the performance of some action”; “material arrangements or appliances conducive to personal comfort, ease of action.”

A convenience is that actual, material thing that facilitates comfort, ease of action. Lest you think these to be neutral terms, consider that these come with moral and ethical baggage—Protestant-ethical baggage, to be specific:

“Relief,” “aid,” “sustenance” from “want, pain, sickness,” the word used to mean. Centuries later, the need for relief has returned: this time though, not relief from sickness—but from work… It is this proximity to work that makes comfort “permissible” for the Protestant ethic; well-being, yes; but one that doesn’t seduce you away from your calling, because it remains too sober and modest to do so.

The stories of Can’t and Won’t are precisely this: conveniences that bring one comfort, perfectly adaptable, permissible, and useful Genussmittel, or “means of indulgence.”

Genussmittel are “somewhere in between necessaries and luxuries…coffee and tobacco, chocolate and spirits,” they are what we call “stimulants”:

Little shocks that punctuate the day and week with their delights, fulfilling the eminently “practical function” of securing “the individual more effectively into his society because they give him pleasure.”

This is a perfect description of Can’t and Won’t: a book that functions as do a pack of cigarettes or a box of Nespresso cartridges. These are not so much stories as they are things that might get you through the week, things that have the capacity to punctuate your day with their delights.

And for the liberal egoist what is more delightful than meaningfulness?

It is what he buys when he buys a ticket to a Wes Anderson film, it is what he buys when he buys into the New York Times, it is what he buys after he has decided to give up and feels guilty for doing so: something easy, something that condemns everyone but him, something that justifies his own life by aestheticizing it, something that says life is hard without making it much harder, that which returns him back into the flow of things unperturbed, but with something else to say, to someone, after work, at the bar, an opinion, a feeling, a defense, whatever.

It is not fiction per se, but it is a fiction that fits.