Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis, book review: Short stories aspire to the condition of poetry in this pithy and witty collection


Lydia davis must be the most quotable fiction writer working today. This says much about her wit and wisdom, but something too about her now-famous pith. Even the shortest review could cope with spoiling the beginning, middle and end of "Her Birthday": "105 years old:/she wouldn't be alive today/even if she hadn't died."

Davis's curtest works have a lot in common with poetry: this poised, metaphysical jest about time, death and language owes a debt to its line endings. Yet even at her most poetic Davis is a storyteller, even if her plots unfold with the quiet philosophical precision of a Samuel Beckett "fizzle" or theatrical monologue.

In the strangely thrilling anti-drama of "The Two Davises and the Rug", two people called Davis (wherever does she get these names?) wonder, respectively, whether to buy and sell a "brightly patterned wool rug". The narrative exalts pedantry to existential levels as the protagonists fret over ideas of ownership, intention, uncertainty, economics, aesthetics and even love in four and half pages.

This story feels positively epic compared to many in Can't and Won't, the first book to be published after Davis herself became famous, or very nearly, thanks to 2009's The Collected Stories and her triumph in 2013's Man Booker International Prize.

Mistaking Davis's narrators for Davis herself is fun but possibly treacherous – some of the most personal-sounding pieces are translations from Flaubert's letters. But there are signs that her brush with literary celebrity has left a mark. For instance, the four (and a 12th) line title-tale: "I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was too 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."

Possibly the nearest thing we have to "a defence of short fiction", the squib makes a mockery of "laziness" and literary propriety by transcending the sum of its parts of speech. See that spiky comic timing ("they said"), typography (those italics) and allusive nod to Beckett: "I cannot go on, I will go on", perhaps? And there's always the nice joke that this story does contain "cannot" and "will not".

One danger of the brevity and superabundance of Davis's imagination is that her brisker exercises can skim unmemorably off the eyeball: "Learning Medieval History", for instance. But when her genius for syntax is married to genuine emotion, then the results can be truly astonishing. In Can't and Won't, these emotions wheel ominously around death. "The Dog Hair" is both touching elegy for a deceased pet and surrealist joke that captures the futile yearning that accompanies grief. The knowing reserve of "A Story Told to Me by A Friend" explores how language creates love and, by extension, sorrow, how intimacy overcomes distance, and how distance gets in the way.

The most memorable of all is "The Child", which almost shocks with its dispassionate snapshot of a bereaved mother and a profound melancholy that beggars belief. Incorporated elegantly into this extraordinary five-line work are questions about art's capacity to fix such sadness. The final whispered command, "Don't move", resounds endlessly. As so often in Lydia Davis, the less said, the better.