Lydia Davis is back with a new book, her first since 2009's "Collected Stories" met with the acclaim that had long been her due. "Can't and Won't" is a collection of stories, it says on the cover, but some are more like poems. Some are one-liners. Some read like koans. Some are letters to the manufacturers of peppermint candies or frozen peas. Even the storylike stories are not much like other stories you've read, unless you've read Lydia Davis. Whatever you call them — and they seem designed to frustrate our categories — they're composed of sentences, and the sentence level is where Davis hunkers down, "looking into the face of a very small fried egg" or wondering "How many advertising slogans will I stare at out the window today?"
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Several reviews of "Collected Stories" quoted the story "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant," which, under the title, reads simply: "that Scotland has so few trees." I was surprised that almost no one but Christopher Ricks, in The Times Literary Supplement, noted that besides being funny and economical and upending our expectations of a story, this happens to be true. Johnson's indignation, Ricks wrote, "when it was reported, back then, helped to prompt afforestation in Scotland." I had known of Johnson's vexation at the lack of Scottish trees before I read "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant" — I might even have chuckled at it — but I hadn't given it much thought. By isolating this quirk, Davis demands that the reader consider it. A strange thing to be indignant about. But for that reason it seems to sum up the singularity of Johnson's mind, both his choler and his breadth of sympathetic reaction.
Things that whiz by most writers Davis slows to notice. A new story titled "The Language of the Telephone Company," lineated like a couplet, reads in its entirety: "'The trouble you reported recently / is now working properly.'" Again, the act of writing comes down to an isolation from context. Anyone sensitive to linguistic imprecision is used to dying a little every day ("Please do not take unpaid merchandise into restroom"). But Davis plucks the phone company's imbecilic blurt like an interesting weed and inspects it. The trouble is working properly — isn't that what we all want? Or is that precisely the problem?
Or consider "The Cows," a series of haibun-like observations of three cows who live across the road from the narrator:
That one's legs are moving, but because she is facing us directly she seems to be staying in one place. Yet she is getting bigger, so she must be coming this way. ... The snow on their faces is so white that now the white patches on their faces, which once looked so white against their black, are a shade of yellow.
Everyone who can see is familiar with such perceptions — which is precisely why they usually go unremarked, so that Davis' remarking them arrests our attention. She is our great looker-into-faces, our most diligent starer-out-windows, spinning corporate solecisms and bovine geometry into gold.
In a recent New Yorker profile by Dana Goodyear, Davis criticized the popular novelist Khaled Hosseini for being indifferent "to the full value of the idea of comparison." (Davis quoted some lazy metaphors from "And the Mountains Echoed" without naming the author or book, because "I don't like to knock other writers"). The writing in "Can't and Won't" isn't flashy or conventionally beautiful, but it's considerate of and attentive to the weight and poise of words. The narrator in "The Cows" — surely one of the best things Davis has ever written — describes the way the animals function "as a single entity," moving as a group:
(T)hey are not unlike the small flock of pigeons we sometimes see over the railway station, wheeling and turning in the sky continuously, making immediate small group decisions about where to go next.
At first glance, nothing could seem less cowlike than a flock of birds. But Davis rarely takes anything at first glance. She has studied cows, which do indeed, in small groups, possess a unidirectional grace, all tendency and flick. And she has wisely compared them with our least lofty bird, whose quirky beauty we overlook. (That railway station is not idly chosen, either. Davis' art depends on trains and buses and the places where people wait for them.)
Disclaimer: The above applies when Davis is actually writing rather than, say, transcribing spam (as she does in "Hello Dear"). Some of the scraps collected here are as slight as second-rate Russell Edson prose poems. But when Lydia Davis is writing, she makes everyone else look like they're transcribing spam. "They are motionless until they move again," she writes of the cows. To whom else, besides perhaps Wallace Stevens, would it occur to make such an observation? Before I got to "The Letter to the Foundation" (at nearly 30 pages, a veritable saga), I had been trying to imagine what American fiction would be like if Davis had never "copied out lines of Beckett … and tacked them to the wall," as we learn from Goodyear she did. Then I came upon these lines:
I realized that I could just as easily not have witnessed this scene, if I had chosen to stay in the bus station. I could have been sitting across the parking lot in the waiting room while this scene was taking place. It would still have taken place. I had never before thought so clearly about all the scenes that took place when I wasn't there to witness them. And then, I had a stranger and less pleasant thought: not only was I not necessary to those scenes, and not necessary to those lives that continued to go on without me, but in fact, I was not necessary at all. I didn't have to exist.
Very few contemporary practitioners of American fiction seem, in a strict sense, necessary — as if without them, the art would shrivel. I think of Charles Portis, Marilynne Robinson, a few others. It's true that Davis didn't have to exist, but she has made herself necessary.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" as well as the forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."
"Can't and Won't"
By Lydia Davis, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 289 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun