Too distracted by technology, lack of sleep, or your kids to focus on anything longer than a list? Here’s one of Lydia Davis’s stories, “Bloomington,” from her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, in its entirety. Feel free to tweet it when you’re done.
Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.
(107 characters, counting spaces)
Or another, “The Results of One Statistical Study,” that’s even shorter:
People who were more conscientious
(60 characters, with spaces)
If you ran @Horse_ebooks through The New Yorker’s fiction and fact-check departments, it might come out sounding something like this.
Of course, Davis does not just turn dada doodads into text with grammatical coherence. She produces stories that are inevitably compared to poetry, not only because of their concision and appearance on the page, but because of their obvious care of construction. “A fire does not need to be called warm or red,” she writes in one of the stories, “Revise: 1,” included in her new collection; “Remove many more adjectives.” I haven’t counted the adjectives in Can’t and Won’t, but I’m certain the total would be paltry. Most of the stories in Can’t and Won’t are just a page or two; the longest—“The Seals,” a poignant reflection on the loss of an older sister and a father—is just over 20 pages, and it feels like a marathon.
Davis is perhaps the sparest contemporary fiction writer we have—breathtakingly bold in the limits she imposes on herself. Not only are there no extra adjectives, there are very few adverbs, no extra clauses, no scene-setting, no tiresome realist blather detailing the subway route from Bushwick to Broome Street. There is no roughage in her writing—there is nowhere to hide. There are only the words—stark and striking, an experiment in just how little it takes to make a story. Her work can sometimes read like a test of discipline or the brilliant product of a dare: You thought I couldn’t do it, didn’t you? I broke your heart in one paragraph or less.
But while Davis’s brevity seems suited to our aphorism-friendly age, she owes more to nineteenth-century literature than the stripped-down speech that text messages or emoticons inspire. This influence is not obscure. Davis has said that she’d prefer to be remembered for her translations (which include a well-regarded version of Madame Bovary—a novel that was called a “prose poem” by none other than Nabokov) than for her stories. And in Can’t and Won’t, she openly borrows, even steals, from the French nineteenth-century tradition. Thirteen of her stories are printed with “stories from Flaubert” as a coda, and they are, as she writes in her acknowledgements, “from material found in letters, mostly from Gustave Flaubert to his lover Louise Colet.”
These fragments might as well be taken from Flaubert’s novels, though, so precisely do they tell their stories. As James Wood writes in his essay “Half Against Flaubert,” the French writer’s style was a function of his restraint: “The pressure of the prose is the pressure of the thought that preceded it but which does not lie on the page.” This is, of course, true of Davis, as well, and doubly true of her translations of Flaubert. “I went to Pouchet’s wife’s funeral yesterday,” begins a fragment included in Can’t and Won’t:
As I watched poor Pouchet, who stood there bending and swaying with grief like a stalk of grass in the wind, some fellows near me began talking about their orchards: they were comparing the girths of the young fruit trees. Then a man next to me asked about the Middle East. He wanted to know whether there were any museums in Egypt.
Apart from that “poor,” which Flaubert might have eliminated had this letter been translated into a novel, the scene achieves emotional resonance primarily through its reticence. Banality sidles up to tragedy through the description of mundane things: some guys talking about trees while another buries his wife. Such an approach stifles sentimentality by avoiding the obvious emotional terrain. In another “story from Flaubert,” titled “The Execution,” which describes a gathering around the guillotine, Davis writes “There were such crowds that the bakeries ran out of bread.” Instead of blood, we get bread.1
Will Davis’s work amount to more, ultimately, than an experiment with how much can be done with how little? It seems important to note that the experiment, while on the whole astoundingly successful, yields an occasional dud—a story that doesn’t sing just by virtue of being short. Many of the stories in this new collection that are labeled “dream” read this way to me. The prose is as elegant and unencumbered as ever, but these stories lacked the tightness of her totally conscious creations. (Turns out, Lydia Davis’s dreams are just as boring as your roommate’s.) And some readers of fiction will never find in her work any semblance of what, ostensibly, fiction should do. The writer Ben Marcus has said that Lydia Davis has “a nearly autistic failure to acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter.” Davis responded by saying that she “is simply not interested … in creating narrative scenes between characters.” Some of the stories in Can’t and Won’t take this to extremes: “The Cows” is essentially a play-by-play of bovine activity, with just the slightest hint of humanity on its periphery.
But I think that Davis’s stories in Can’t and Won’t show more than just the work of a stunning technical talent taken to extremes. (See what I can do with cows!?) These short stories, read as a whole, could be a novel of manners, albeit one that has passed through a very precise prism and has broken into many, many pieces. Take “On the Train,” a story that captures the rapid fluidity of relations between strangers forced to sit thigh-to-thigh.
We are united, he and I, though strangers, against the two women in front of us talking so steadily and audibly across the aisle to each other. Bad manners. We frown.
Later in the journey I look over at him (across the aisle) and he is picking his nose. As for me, I am dripping tomato from my sandwich onto my newspaper. Bad habits.
There’s a bit more to this story: The narrator states that she “would not report this if I was the one picking my nose,” and the women in front, at the end of the story, are “clean and tidy … Blameless.” But what “happens” hardly matters—liking Davis amounts to an acceptance of limitations, an acceptance that the full story will never be told in some fully fleshed out narrative sense. There are some books you wish would never end. The entire appeal of Can’t and Won’t is in its finitude. In that finitude lies immense possibility.
If Davis openly pays homage to Flaubert, Can’t and Won’t pays implicit tribute to Baudelaire. Line up two pages from Paris Spleen next to Can’t and Won’t and there’s more than a slight resemblance. But there is more to their similarity than appearances. For “the depiction of bourgeois life and the pageant of fashion,” Baudelaire wrote in “The Sketch of Manners,” “the technical means that is the most expeditious and the least costly will obviously be the best.” This—just like “Remove many more adjectives”—could be Davis’s motto.
Chloe Schama is a story editor at The New Republic.