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Fiction Lydia Davis’ new collection of brief fiction is designed to make us think

  • Published Sunday, June 22, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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“Can’t and Won’t: Stories” by Lydia Davis (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 289 pages, $26)

Here’s the final story – called “Ph.D.” – in Lydia Davis’ new collection: “All those years I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D.”

That’s the entire story, and it’s not even the shortest story in the book. I read it and thought, What? What’s the point of this? Its brevity made me think about it. Finally, I decided that it’s about consciousness, becoming aware. So many of her stories reflect paying attention to what is around us, to things we normally ignore.

Davis is a highly regarded writer who’s been called one of the most original minds in American fiction today. A year ago, she won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Her “Collected Stories” (2009) received wide acclaim.

Jonathan Franzen has called her “the shorter Proust among us.” (In fact, she’s translated many works, including Proust’s “Swann’s Way.”) Her subjects are often mundane: lost socks, dog hair, cooked cornmeal. Yet they leave a resonance that makes us think again about the experiences that fill our lives but that we fail to think about.

Davis’ stories are often humorous and show a concern about how we name things, the language we use. In the opening story, “A Story of Stolen Salamis,” the owner of the salamis is less upset by the theft than by the fact that the magazine that reported it called them “sausages.”

“Idea for a Sign” shows how labels cannot capture the complexity of human experience, while “A Note from the Paperboy” displays a concern for bad grammar.

One of the funniest stories in the book is “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in which a man and woman named Davis, though not married to each other and not related by blood, are neighbors and indecisive. The woman puts a rug up for sale but keeps changing her mind about whether or not to sell it. The man comes by and wants to buy the rug, but then changes his mind. They go back and forth for five pages, which makes it longer than most stories in the book.

Another funny piece is “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” in which the writer complains that “the peas illustrated on your package of frozen peas are a most unattractive color.”

There are several long stories (long for Davis) in the book. In one, “The Cows,” she describes several black cows in a field in winter. “Their bodies are entirely black, but they have white on their faces.” Later, she writes: “Against the snow, in the distance, coming head-on this way, separately, spaced far apart, they are like wide black strokes of a pen.” And with that metaphor, we are made aware that we are reading a work of imagination, the result of strokes of a pen.

In one of the collection’s longest and most moving stories, “The Seals,” a woman has lost her father and her older sister in a short period. Davis captures the rhythms of grief perfectly. She writes: “After the dramas of the deaths themselves, those complicated dramas that went on for days, for both of them, there was the quieter and simpler fact of missing them.”

Months later, the narrator is still dealing with the loss, having difficulty accepting that her sister and father are dead: “It was as though not being alive did not have to mean she was dead, as though there were some third possibility.”

In “The Letter to the Foundation,” a shy, self-effacing writer describes a scene she witnessed, then reflects on the fact that she could have easily not witnessed it. She writes: “Not only was I not necessary to those scenes, and not necessary to those lives that continued to go on without me, but in fact, I was not necessary at all. I didn’t have to exist.”

Here we see the influence of Samuel Beckett, to whom Davis has also been compared.

Many of the stories are called “dream pieces,” and others are called “stories from Flaubert.” In notes at the end of the book, Davis explains that some stories “were composed from actual night dreams and dreamlike waking experiences of my own; and the dreams, waking experiences and letters of family and friends.”

The 13 “stories from Flaubert” and the one “rant from Flaubert,” she writes, “were formed from material found in letters written by Gustave Flaubert ... during the period in which he was working on Madame Bovary.”

Davis has published poetry, and many of her stories are like poems. Because they are so tightly written and are usually so brief, they demand that we think about them and reflect on what they may want to say to us.

Usually there is little if any narrative in these stories. Instead they are observations of our world. They teach us to observe better what’s around us and think about its impact on us. In that way, “Can’t and Won’t” can be picked up and paged through at random, until we find something that strikes us in that moment.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.

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