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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Can't and Won't

Lydia Davis

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To purchase Can't and Won't

Title: Can't and Won't
Author: Lydia Davis
Genre: Stories
Written: 2014
Length: 283 pages
Availability: Can't and Won't - US
Can't and Won't - UK
Can't and Won't - Canada
Can't and Won't - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : satisfying, varied collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 9/5/2014 Claire Messud
The Guardian . 4/4/2014 Helen Oyeyemi
The Independent . 3/4/2014 James Kidd
London Rev. of Books . 17/4/2014 Adam Mars-Jones
The LA Times . 17/4/2014 David L. Ulin
New Statesman . 8/4/2014 Erica Wagner
The NY Times . 2/4/2014 Dwight Garner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/4/2014 Peter Orner
The Observer . 19/4/2014 William Skidelsky
San Francisco Chronicle . 18/4/2014 Rachel Hurn
The Spectator . 12/4/2014 Susan Hill
Sunday Times . 13/4/2014 Edmund Gordon
The Telegraph . 20/4/2014 Anthony Cummins
TLS . 11/4/2014 Josh Cohen
Wall Street Journal . 11/4/2014 Sam Sacks

  Review Consensus:

  Some minor reservations, but generally very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Canít and Wonít, Davis, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, offers us a range of experiences, including breezily delightful riffs." - Claire Messud, Financial Times

  • "Come to this one-book library for the mercurial gifts of its author; stay because the stories continually renew their invitation to be read inventively." - Helen Oyeyemi, The Guardian

  • "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." - James Kidd, The Independent

  • "What Davis is evoking is conditionality, which is the great theme of this collection, indeed of her entire oeuvre. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) their brevity, her stories ask existential questions, about us and the world. (...) In many ways, Can't and Won't is like a set of William Burroughs cut-ups, random moments juxtaposed, one against the other, until reality takes on the logic of a collage. Unlike Burroughs, though, Davis' intent is not to rub out the word. Rather, language is what gives shape to the chaos, allowing us to invest existence with a shape." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Reading Canít and Wonít, Davisís seventh collection, is a striking reminder of some of the work that judgement entails in the task of writing. Often in Davisís writing this requires paying very close attention to things most of us choose to pass over. (...) Canít and Wonít, like all of Davisís remarkable work, is an open invitation to look as closely as we can at both literature and the world." - Erica Wagner, New Statesman

  • "If her new book seems like a holding pattern, itís a pattern she has mindfully, and a bit statically, held since almost the start of her career. (...) Thereís a kind of genius in Ms. Davisís interstellar (to borrow Dan Chiassonís word) wit. I like many of her stories very much. But I donít quite share the outsize regard that James Wood and Jonathan Franzen, among others whose opinions are worth taking seriously, have for her work." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "To read Davis is to become a co-≠conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation. Our most routine habits can suddenly feel radically new. (...) Davisís books more fully mirror (and refract) the chaos of existence than safer, duller, more homogeneous collections precisely because the stories arenít consistent in tone, subject matter, length, depth or anything else. (...) Canít and Wonít is a more mournful and somber book than previous Davis collections." - Peter Orner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In this collection, the feelings are more to the fore. Another way of saying this is that Davis -- or at least her narrators -- appear less guarded than normal. There's an unexpectedly insistent sombreness of tone. (...) One disappointment -- though perhaps an inevitable one, given the overall tone of the collection -- is that the funny stories aren't quite as funny as I expected them to be." - William Skidelsky, The Observer

  • "Can't and Won't holds up to Davis' former works, maintaining a level of tragic comedy, introspection and poetry expected from her followers. (...) There is a quirky familiarity to Davis' characters, but one must be open to their own idiosyncrasies to feel it. Other critics have said that much of her work (even a third) should have been left unpublished." - Rachel Hurn, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A)lthough I am not generally in favour of banning books I would ban all students on creative writing courses from ever reading her books, or parts, or even single pages of her books. Davis breaks all the rules and then makes up a few of her own and breaks those as well. (...) Get any idea you have of what a short story is/is not/should be out of your head. Take these, er, writings, as they come, slowly. You will snort with derision sometimes, laugh at others, shake your head in bewilderment occasionally, see a sort of point here and there. You will go back to a little gem that has wormed its way into your mind and stuck there" - Susan Hill, The Spectator

  • "The delight is not only in the detail but in the dogged audacity: how long can Davis string out her conceit this time ? (...) If Iím over-reading, these stories can make you do that: their plain, patient style puts the brakes on our senses and invites us to take a closer look." - Anthony Cummins, The Telegraph

  • "If Davis's prose has the limpid simplicity of Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver, its effect is very different, tending to amplify rather than strip away the intrusions of human perception. (...) Davis's exploration of writing and absence doesn't diminish the psychological richness and frequent poignancy in her stories." - Josh Cohen, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ms. Davis's book is a light, humorous compendium of anecdotes and annotations to daily living, like a prose version of Billy Collins. (...) The most amusing pieces are arch letters of complaint sent to various companies. The most skippable are the series of Ms. Davis's dreams." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Can't and Won't collects well over a hundred pieces. Most are very short, with only a couple over ten or twenty pages. There are a few recurring specific types of stories here: short dream-accounts ("composed from actual night dreams and dreamlike waking experiences of my own; and the dreams, waking dream experiences, and letters of family and friends"); stories (and one 'rant') from Flaubert, adapted from his letters; a variety of letters (generally of some sort of complaint -- "I am writing to point out to you that the word 'scrod' has been misspelled on your restaurant menu", etc.). Quite a few of the pieces deal with death and mortality, from 'Local Obits' (one or a few lines taken from obituaries, for ten pages) to a Roland Barthes anecdote (of sorts) of 'Two Undertakers', and thoughts of mortality figure quite prominently throughout.
       The Flaubert- and dream-sequences make for an interesting contrast to most of the rest of the material, though the dream-pieces are the weakest of the lot. Davis' succinct style perhaps lends itself to recounting dreams better than most, but she doesn't get far enough away from the usual 'dreamy' exposition to make these any more interesting than most dream-retellings are; still, carefully dosed as they are here they aren't too much of an irritant.
       Many of the Flaubert-pieces come with an emphatic final (if not exactly punch-)line, such as:

     Oh, we writers may think we invent too much -- but reality is worse every time !
     What a strange thing it is -- the human brain !
     How insolent nature is !
       Again, these at least work in contrast to the other pieces, as Davis hereself rarely relies on the exclamatory, and her pieces tend to be ... all of a piece, without need for such a final point.
       Many of the pieces verge on the anecdotal, and yet in Davis' hands they are more than that. There are personal pieces that range from 'How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through my Back Issues of the TLS' -- in which she quickly checks off reviews of what kinds of books she does and doesn't want to read about -- to short meditations on writing and reading ... and cows. Mortality often figures in these stories, centrally and peripherally, as well as a sense of the limits of time left, and what is important. The piece on what in the Times Literary Supplement is skippable is probably a familiar exercise to many TLS-readers, but Davis' approach extends to more of her reading, and writing, too. In 'Not Interested' Davis also finds herself "less and less interested in reading any of the books I have, though they are reasonably good, I suppose" -- while in 'Writing' she goes so far as to say: "Life is too serious for me to go on writing".
       In 'Not Interested' Davis explains:
     I'm not tired of all good books, I'm just tired of novels and stories, even good ones, or ones that are supposed to be good. These days, I prefer books that contain something real, or something the author at least believes to be real. I don't want to be bored by someone else's imagination. Most people's imagination just isn't very interesting -- you can guess where the author got this idea and that idea. You can predict what will come next before reading one sentence. It all seems so arbitrary.
       Davis' observational pieces, whether essentially lists (as in 'I'm Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable') or the simplest, almost poetic summing-up (as in 'Housekeeping Observation', which reads in its entirety: "Under all this dirt/the floor is really very clean.") don't rely on imagination (or at least what is generally considered writerly imagination), and it works for her: she has a keen sense for just what, and how much to express. She doesn't have to pare down her stories to the absolute minimum -- quite a few are traditionally expansive -- but she has a great feel for exactly what is sufficient; Davis never overwrites, or tries to make more of her stories than the material allows for (a common failing of the good books (or the: "ones that are supposed to be good" ...) she is bored by).
       The focus on mortality -- and, often, death directly -- makes this a darker, slightly downbeat collection, but it's still quite dazzling. Much -- most of it -- impresses, and quite a bit lingers. A fine collection.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 April 2014

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Can't and Won't: Reviews: Lydia Davis: Other books by Lydia Davis under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author and translator Lydia Davis was born in 1947.

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© 2014-2022 the complete review

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