A Work of Distinctions: Can’t and Won’t

by |
05/07/2014 4:00 AM |

Can’t and Won’t
By Lydia Davis
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A typical review of a Lydia Davis book will focus on her brevity: it’ll note the ratio of stories to number of pages and rarely appreciate much more. Recently, one reviewer compared Davis’s newest collection to a Chinese buffet, which is at best not witty, at worst lazy, and stupid either way. To be fair, however, Davis’s fiction is difficult to characterize, if only because the common misconception that austerity is necessarily forbidding fails to account for the casual bounce of her sentences and the playfulness of her simple diction.

If you were to try to describe Davis’s preoccupations in Can’t and Won’t in a word, you might choose “distinction.” Take “Contingency (vs. Necessity),” in which the plot hinges on the distinction between two meanings of “could,” possibility itself circumscribed as the speaker notes the real finitude nesting within the false, hopeful breadth of grammar:

“He could be our dog.
But he is not our dog.
So he barks at us.”

In other stories, distinction is seen as the act of categorization, like “Wrong Thank You in Theater.” A woman says thank you while passing the narrator in a movie theater. The narrator acknowledges the thanks, but “No I meant her,” the grateful (to one and only one) woman clarifies. The narrator has been sorted into the appropriate group: non-recipients of the woman’s gratitude.

Distinction also appears as a decoration of excellence, as in the title story: “I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was 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.” This is Davis at her ironic best: the narrator has not been awarded the distinction because the award committee makes a distinction between forms of words that don’t even carry distinct meanings.

Sometimes, Davis’s characters become so attentive to minutiae that they might seem to be futzing, yet distinction itself emerges in Can’t and Won’t as the stuff of existence. There is one major distinction we can’t humanly conceive, that between life and death, but in all the minor distinctions—that between fish to avoid and fish to eat with caution, awards won and not won, commas kept or removed—something very human happens: characters delineate what they won’t. They can’t refuse death, but they can make very mortal distinctions.
And these add up to life.