16 February 2015

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

At the center of this collection -- and by far the longest piece in it -- is a story called The Cows. It is a collection of notes that some observer has written about the creatures in a field. It is dry, largely mundane account. Nothing really happens. The descriptions are not especially vivid; the cows do not evoke philosophical contemplation, nor do they seem to have any symbolic meaning. The account goes on for an astonishing, absurd amount of time. Long enough that you pause at least three times to think, I can't believe this is still going. And yet, it is completely riveting.

Davis has a real gift for this kind of thing; these strange, acerbic little fragments that seem so rich with meaning yet so utterly, amazingly flat. The voice has an almost unpleasant detachment, at times seeming bemused and contemptuous, at others, lonely and eager for contact, though unsure how to initiate it. There is a definite kinship to an author she has a clear proclivity for, Flaubert, though their voices are distinct: this collection contains a series of what she calls 'stories from Flaubert' that brilliantly inhabit his worldview, yet stand apart from the other pieces, even if it is difficult to say exactly how.

The queer fragments and Flaubertian tales are the high points of this collection. Somewhat weaker is are texts bearing the subheading of "a dream." Perhaps because I am currently also making my way through The Dreams by Naguib Mahfouz, which seems to be a far more successful rendition of a similar idea, I did not find them particularly compelling. But it is when Davis writes about a character that seems, unfortunately, to be rather autobiographical, that I find her completely unbearable. I had this problem with an earlier novel of hers, and it nearly put me off her altogether. There is a middle-aged, neurotic, socially awkward writer and translator who occasionally crops up in her stories and whom I find totally unsympathetic and ungodly self-absorbed. Fortunately, she makes very few appearances in this collection.

Overall, an enjoyable read, one that certainly benefits from a slow, lengthy process of periodically dipping into it. But I think some of the other collections, such as Samuel Johnson is Indignant, are better.

No comments: