Review: Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis


Lydia Davis is known for writing “flash fiction”, which is a general term used to refer to very short stories, usually only a couple of sentences long. This collection is a prime example of her flash fiction, but it also includes a number of longer pieces as well (which can throw you off because of the expectation of stories being no more than a page or two). There are also a few stories adapted from the dreams of Davis and her friends, and a couple of “stories from Flaubert”, created from the journals and letters of Gustave Flaubert.

With many of the stories being so short, we are left wondering: what does it mean? Why did Davis choose to make something out of such short, mundane experiences? This makes us look closer at the story with the view of deciphering exactly what it means. Meaning is a tricky thing, though. Is what we think it means what the author intended it to mean? Does it matter? I think that maybe there is no intentional or closely-contructed meaning behind many of the pieces: Davis just found something that she feels is meaningful and presents it to the reader to make what they will of it. If you know what I mean. It’s sort of like with dreams: they might not mean anything at first glance, but there’s something about them, and if you start digging and analysing, you might be able to find some sort of narrative or meaning. In a way, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.

The eponymous story “Can’t and Won’t” gives us a better understanding of Davis’ intent:

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.

She is said to use too many contractions in her work. The criticism can be seen as a meta-criticism against the seeming laziness of flash fiction. By its nature, flash fiction is minimalist: it shows more than it tells, and hints at more than it shows. In this way it is a contraction of a traditional story; it strips away the unnecessary and leaves us with just the essentials.

There are very few exciting scenes in these fragments. All the major events have passed and we are left in the limbo of everyday life. Many stories take place in trains or cars or planes: the characters are always going to some vague destination. They are on business trips, where they eat alone in restaurants (one gets used to eating alone in restaurants). But there is joy and wonder to be found in this boredom of life: if they had not done such and such seemingly inconsequential thing, they would not have witnessed this common yet special event. What follows is the thought of all these events occurring right now that one will never see or experience. It’s what life is made of, these little moments, and they should be cherished.

But reading these ephemeral moments might leave you feeling unsatisfied. The stories can pass through your mind and leave little to no impression, and you might find yourself reading through the book too quickly because of the length of the stories. Well, that’s how it was for me anyway. More attentive readers might find much more in this book than I could. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but maybe I need to read a bit more of Davis’ stuff to begin to fully appreciate her.

Recommended for those who enjoy: short short stories, minimalism, everyday insights.