Likely Stories: Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis

Jan 12, 2017

A series of fun stories from several pages down to even a few short lines.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Lydia Davis, recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, is as interesting and eclectic a writer as I have rarely encountered.  Her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, will wrinkle your brow, bring a smile to your face, and set the reader to thinking about the world and its wide variety of inhabitants.  Davis was born in 1947 to parents who were both of a literary bent.  She married the writer, Paul Auster, but they divorced, and she then married Alan Cote.  She has two children.  Lydia is most known for her short stories of extreme brevity, referred to as “flash fiction.”  Some of her stories consist of a single line, sometimes even as few as 3-4 words.  Despite their size, each of these stories contains a nugget of pure gold, some even have streaks of platinum.  Here is an example of one of those nuggets titled “The Dog Hair.”  She writes, “The dog is gone.  We miss him.  When the doorbell rings, no one barks.  We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes.  We pick them up.  We should throw them away.  But they are all we have left of him.  We don’t throw them away.  We have a wild hope -- if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again” (4).  The sadness and the memories of a beloved pet are all packed into 88 words.

Here is another slightly shorter story, “Circular Story”:  “On Wednesday mornings early there is always a racket out there on the road.  It wakes me up and I always wonder what it is.  It is always the trash collection truck picking up the trash.  The truck comes every Wednesday morning early.  It always wakes me up.  I always wonder what it is” (5).  Whatever will she do if they change the route and it passes by her home after lunch?  Here is a pair of funny little tales.  “Contingency (vs. Necessity).  “He could be our dog. // But he is not our dog. // So he barks at us” (18), and “Contingency (vs. Necessity) 2: On Vacation”: “He could be my husband. // But he is not my husband. // He is her husband. // And so he takes her picture (not mine) as she stands in her flowered beach outfit in front of the old fortress” (20).  Some of these stories have a definite poetic flair.

Another of my favorites is “The Bad Novel.” Davis writes, “This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on my trip – I keep trying to read it.  I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend.  My old friend the bad novel” (23).  I have experienced this quite a few times, but unfortunately for me, I do not have the patience for more than three strikes.  Finally, the title story, “Can’t and Won’t.  “I was recently denied a writing prize, because, they said, I was too lazy.  What they mean 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 contract them to can’t and won’t.  (46).

The most recent collection by Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t has dozens more of these fun and entertaining little nibblettes.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Happy reading!