Charlotte Wirth offers us her interpretation of a few short stories from Lydia Davis’s collection Can’t and Won’t. Charlotte will be spending a year in St Andrews doing an MLitt in Cultural Identity Studies. The Tribe are delighted to take on Charlotte as a regular contributor to our new creative writing section. To read more of Charlotte’s diverse work check out her blog –

There are authors who do not need many words in order to write stories that are thought-provoking and remain on the reader’s mind for a long time. Hemingway for instance was able to create sadness, grief and gravity out of six words: ‘For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.’

Lydia Davies’ short stories have this quality as well, and in her collection Can’t and Won’t she forms lasting meaning with stories, poems, musings and thoughts that are sometimes not even a page long.

For example, in ‘The Dog Hair’ she creates deep sadness and nostalgia by suggesting that by keeping the hair of the dog ‘who is gone’ the memory of it can be preserved and his presence felt, as the narrator is unable to accept the disappearance of the pet: ‘if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.’ (p.4) Similarly, in only five lines, the story ‘Contingency (vs. Necessity) 2: On Vacation’ conveys emotions such as sadness and emptiness through a ‘what if’ scenario in which the narrator imagines that a man she is watching is her husband and would then be taking pictures of her instead of his actual wife. By making this allusion, Lydia Davis is able to stimulate the reader to think about the narrator’s life and feelings: is she unhappy and alone, longing for more? Is she dissatisfied with her life and yearns to be someone else? Or is she just daydreaming?

The short stories in Can’t and Won’t are very diverse and contain deep, moving and amusing observations about life and humanity even though they largely focus on insignificant details. While some stories are sad, others are sarcastic but nonetheless very thought-provoking. ‘Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer’ for instance is deeply ironic. In a letter, the narrator addresses a pea manufacturer and complains that the peas she bought look more appetizing in reality than on the picture and asks them to ‘reconsider their art’. By subverting the common practice of depicting the food as more delicious on the packaging than it is in reality, the story calls for reflection about the farce and lies of food marketing and highlights how much we are influenced by the marketing techniques of the food industry.

Davis also experiments with style and form and uses word play a lot. Reversible Story, for example, tells the same story twice, preserving its meaning even though the order of the sentences is reverted and the same story is recounted from back to front.

While most of the stories lingered in my mind long after reading the final sentence, two of them where particularly impressive. ‘The Letter to the Foundation’ tells the story of a woman unhappily trapped in the routine of her daily life, forced to take on jobs that she dislikes or even fears, such as teaching, in order to fund her research. One day, she receives a grant by ‘the Foundation’ which allows her to give up the jobs she hates and permits her ‘not only to stop teaching but at last to leave [her] study and enter public life.’ (p.190) Yet, she completely over thinks the situation, finally not availing herself of this opportunity at all. She continues her life as if nothing happened and dreams about escaping the daily routine but does not to act. Thus, she remains trapped, regularly sitting on the bus to her teaching job and ‘wishing that something would come and rescue [her], or that there would be a minor accident’ preventing her from teaching the class. (p.183)

The story is deeply emotive in a way that it reminds us to get up and pursue our dreams. There is no external force that will rescue us if we do not dare to change our lives ourselves. If we are unhappy with our lives, it is us who need to get up and take action in order to escape the monotony in which we are trapped. In order to realise our dreams and escape unhappiness and monotony, we have to take risks. Change may be uncomfortable or scary but it is even worse to allow fear to stop us from growing, evolving and progressing in life.

Can’t and Won’t closes with Local Obits which is made up of a recital of death notices such as:

‘Tammy enjoyed reading and bowling. She bowled in the Mixed League at the Barbecue Recreation Lanes.’ (p.271)

‘Margret, 88, church member and Yankees fan, loved traveling with her late husband to engine and tractor shows all over the nation.’ (p.277)

‘Edwin, 94, left one daughter.’ (p.278)

Local Orbits shows how the deceased are remembered by the ones they left behind. What deeds, qualities and character traits are deemed important enough to be mentioned in the death notice? Who decides which one of their qualities is worth being written down? What achievement of theirs was most important? Once deceased, the only thing left behind of our personality is the memory people have of us and the way we were viewed by other people. What is depicted as ‘real me’ behind these notices and behind the memories? Lydia Davis shows that the ‘real me’ has died with us and invites readers to think of Ionesco’s Exit of the King (1962) in which Ionesco writes: ‘Ma mort est innombrable. Tant d’univers s’éteignent en moi’ (My death is innumerable. So many universes extinguish within me.)

All in all, Can’t and Won’t contains deeply moving and thought-provoking stories that prompt the reader to reflect not only on life in general but also on their own life and place in society.


Charlotte Wirth