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Editor’s Choice: ‘can’t and won’t’ by the unique Lydia Davis

Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 290 pages ($26). Here, in totality, is the front dustflap of this book, lower-case letters and all: “… 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.” On the next line, it says “(stories).” And then, with proper capital letters “Lydia Davis” on the final line.

When you search out the actual story on Page 46, you find that to indeed be the full text of the story “Can’t and Won’t” minus its rather crucial first seven words “I was recently denied a writing prize (because etc. etc. etc.).”

Here from Page 23, in its entirety is a “story” I like rather a lot called “The Bad Novel.” “This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on my trip – I keep trying to read it. I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend. My old friend, the bad novel.”

When, in the March 17 issue of the New Yorker, Dana Goodyear wrote about Davis, there was, apparently, no way to avoid leading off with Davis’ story “Letter to a Frozen Pea Manufacturer” which began with an actual Lydia Davis letter to General Mills’ subsidiary Cascadian Farm: “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright green. We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing.… We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.”

Lydia Davis is a writer who thoroughly considers her art. It is unique – a singularly appetizing casserole of fragments reminiscent of poetry, e-mails, social media tweets and variations on French writers from Flaubert to Maurice Blanchot. What never ceases to astound her readers is that taken as a whole in a new collection like this – or, for certain, in her “Collected Stories” – there is nothing the slightest bit small. It’s her way of examining Blake’s “Infinity in a Grain of Sand.” – Jeff Simon