66. ‘Can’t and Won’t’ by Lydia Davis

Can’t and Won’t isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever read. From a half-page story about salamis to a ten-page reflection on the moods of a herd of cows, you never know what you’re going to get when you turn the page.

Disclaimer: This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

can't and won't lydia davis

I chose to read this book after doing the Try a Story tag in the summer, and I went into it thinking that it would be a short story collection, but it isn’t really. Many of the ‘stories’ are more like half-page snapshots or prose poems about everyday life. There are accounts of (presumably real) dreams, and brief vignettes inspired by Flaubert. The writing style is usually quite simple, which belies the complex emotions that are being explored here.

Many of the stories deal with people who are struggling to cope or understand. I particularly enjoyed ‘Letter to the Foundation’, which is told from the perspective of a researcher and lecturer who is given a generous grant, but not quite enough to give up the teaching job she hates. ‘The Seals’ was incredibly moving. The narrator talks about a small charcoal seal given to her by a (now deceased) loved one; the seal lives in her fridge, not taking up much space but still inescapably there.

I wasn’t a fan of all the stories – I found ‘The Cows’ too long, too repetitive and just a bit too mundane – but some of them have stayed with me long after reading. One in particular, the name of which escapes me, is written in a list style and ‘translates’ common household noises such as dishes clattering in a sink into comprehensible words. I find myself listening out for word-noises now, as I go about my life.

Ultimately this collection feels like Davis has ‘curated’ the fleeting thoughts and ideas that most of us probably let slip through our heads, and that is a pretty inspiring thing. In some ways Can’t and Won’t has helped me to rethink what writing can be. I’m sure a lot of time, energy and thought went into each of these pieces, but there’s something very gratifying about reading such short stories; for a writer it feels so achieveable. Of course, that’s a testament to Davis’ incredible skill: she can draw out interest and emotion in just a few lines and make it look easy. I’d recommend this for anyone who can only read in short bursts, or writers who are struggling with the dreaded block.

“Please spare me your imagination, I’m so tired of your vivid imagination, let someone else enjoy it.” – ‘Not Interested’

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

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