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Lydia Davis is master of white space

Nicolas Pavlovich

April 30, 2014

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Can't and Won't

Lydia Davis

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

The latest collection of short stories by Lydia Davis creates full-scale worlds in a single sentence.

The End.

It would be appropriate-or at least tempting- to review her new collection, Can't and Won't (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), with that single sentence, hoping that, somehow, the magic she makes of white space might find its way here. Davis' writing forces us to think that there's a way to embody an entire world with the sparest details. Like, maybe if I just write something down, careful to pick a phrase here or there, the entire story might be told in the interstitial space between the words. I keep thinking it's possible. But maybe that's just her influence working on me-because it is impossible to read Davis without being infected by her viral prose.

Perhaps I should write the review as a letter:

Dear Mrs. Davis: (Ms. Davis? Lydia?) No, that won't do.

The fact is, Lydia Davis is not just some kind of arch-experimentalist; she is a great storyteller. Sure, many of her stories are short, some only 10 lines. But then again, these 10-liners can almost seem epic in comparison with others, which are even shorter, as is the case with the single sentence that makes up "The Language of the Telephone Company," where she writes, "the trouble you reported recently is now working properly."

We might expect such trimmed-down constructions in poetry, where single phrases find themselves placed somewhere on the page, or as fragments without punctuation, and in that context, it's not so surprising. But a single-line story defies convention and skews our very idea of what a story can or should do. It could, and should, seem like a gimmick, especially after several collections. But each of Davis' brief forays across the white space of the page continues to confound the confines of narrative and give it a new identity. She provides us with just enough information that our imaginations can do the rest.

Take "Housekeeping Observation," for instance: "Under all this dirt, the floor is really very clean." Again and again, Davis uses observations such as this to trigger sensory memory, so that with these quick perceptions, the reader is able to complete entire scenes and imagine full-bodied characters in spite of their obvious absence. Davis shows that our brains are story-making machines. We can't help but fill in the blanks. And the result is a weirdly extreme kind of minimalism that almost seems maximalist while simultaneously making Raymond Carver and company look like the loquacious Proust (whom Davis has translated).

The maximalist effect of her minimalism is apparent not only in the individual stories but especially in their variety. Davis repeatedly shows us that anything can become a story: a letter to a friend, a single sentence about a dog, a description of a particular location, a dilemma about keeping an old rug (and maybe even a book review). Each story of Davis' collection is a new tour de force, overwhelming us with the variety of invention.

In addition to the very short stories full of stark insights and wry wit, there are also more somber pieces that span pages, such as "The Letter to the Foundation," which follows a done-in, anxiety-ridden professor who receives a fairly generous research grant. Or "The Seals," which focuses on a young woman longing for her dead sister. In these stories, Davis doesn't hold back, filling in all the distressing silences with long-winded, nervy confessions.

As in her previous work, depression, pain, and loss frequently seep in around the edges of these stories. Davis' characters seek change, desperately fighting for a new beginning, while, in heartbreaking fashion, coming to that near-breakdown phase. She writes, "I had grown used to feeling two contradictory things: that everything in my life had changed; and that, really, nothing in my life had changed." Often, Davis pivots between these two worlds: the ever-changing and the seemingly never-changing, and, likewise, everything in between. But just when there's a moment in which her characters feel safe, perhaps relieved, presumably with their futures altered for the better, Davis throws them once more toward that horrible condition they are running from. But even in the worst situations, there is always that unexpected wit lurking close at hand, as if to say that agony and misery, if fully disclosed, can exploit the short distance between tragedy and comedy and reveal something new about what it means to be human.

Let's try again.

Dear Lydia Davis, do you create or change the world with the single sentences, do you?

No, that won't do either. As it turns out, it is as impossible to imitate Davis as it is to avoid her influence.