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Lydia Davis’ stories bewilder - then enlighten

 
 
 <span class="cutline_leadin">Can’t and Won’t. </span>Lydia Davis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $26.
Can’t and Won’t. Lydia Davis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $26.

If we can agree that we’re most comfortable defining a short story as a narrative structure with a beginning, middle and end that runs about seven to 30 pages, Lydia Davis’ latest collection contains only a handful of traditional stories. The rest is a shotgun-spray of errata: recounted dreams; fictionalized episodes from the diary of Flaubert; letters of complaint from a woman to various confectioners; a methodical description of cows standing out in a field; and a multitude of two- and three-liners that are simply poems or jokes or notes.

For perhaps the first half of the book, the reader experiences a fair amount of resistance and frustration with Davis’ fascination with banality. Does she not know that assuming others will be interested in one’s dreams is at worst rude and at best dull? What could be the point of dedicating an entire page to this, the entire text of Housekeeping Observation: “Under all this dirt/the floor is very clean.” Would she claim to a poet that this is a poem? Why show us Flaubert but not show him doing anything interesting?

When these koan-like pieces work, they work well, but only when Davis allows herself an appeal toward beauty. In one of the dream segments, entitled The Low Sun: “I am a college girl. I tell a younger college girl, a dancer, that the sun is very low in sky now. Its light must be filling the caves by the sea.”

But most of the book makes a conscious effort to prune itself of such moments, preferring the simple image to the simply beautiful. The aforementioned cows “are not grazing but only standing still and staring, or, now and then, walking here and there.” The effect is a lithium-scape where, we realize, the boredom is the point. This fact dawns on the reader slowly. Davis’ aim is not to collect an assortment of amusements but rather to recreate the creeping mental and spiritual desolation of the suburban house-bound.

Soon, the concept begins to make sense, and the book’s images feel as though they’re being viewed and described from behind a kitchen window in a quiet, near-empty house, a grandfather clock ticking audibly.

Eventually we realize that despite their formal differences they are the fruits of the same authorial mind, a mind that refers to itself as Lydia Davis. In the section titled Not Interested she writes: “…The other day, when I went out to the backyard, planning to gather up some sticks and branches and carry them to the pile in the far corner of the meadow, I suddenly became so deeply bored by the thought of picking up those sticks and carrying them, yet again, to that pile, and then coming back through the high meadow grass for more, that I did not even begin, and simply went inside.”

There is one big problem with this project, of course, and that is that even the most brilliant fictional treatment of boredom must by necessity be fairly boring itself. There’s a fine line between boredom and enlightenment, however, and Davis walks it beguilingly.

Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.

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