The OF Blog: Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't

The dog is gone.  We miss him.  When the doorbell rings, no one barks.  When we come home late, there is no one waiting for us.  We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes.  We pick them up.  We should throw them away.  But they are all we have left of him.  We don't throw them away.  We have a wild hope – if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again. 

– "The Dog Hair," (p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)

On Thanksgiving Day 2011, my family lost our dog, Ally.  Nearly 14.5 years old, she was a mixed-breed with extremely thick black fur that would turn brown during the summer.  It took months for her to shed this coat and clumps of fur would be found all around the perimeter of the house (she was strictly an outdoors dog who hated the thought of ever being inside).  I remember seeing her really ill that November day, laboring to breathe, much less move, when I left for an aunt's house for Thanksgiving celebration.  Three hours later, I was the first to arrive back home.  She had limped over to her favorite hollow and she was stretched out, as if she were sunning herself (I remember it was a partly cloudy, relatively warm day).  I called her name, several times, then I went over to where she was.  Her mouth was slightly open, as if in a half-pant, half-smile, eyes glazed over.  I called my brother and told him that she had passed.  He and my parents left the family gathering then and we gathered around her (I have an aversion for touching dead bodies and wouldn't pick her up).  We got an old shower curtain and wrapped her in it and then we dug a shallow grave underneath a pine tree, near the fence where she used to lie down and bark at the cows. 

Yet for months later, it was like she had never left, as we would find well into the spring clumps of her fur sticking to a stick near the detached garage or trapped under a pile of leaves being raked for spring cleaning.  In reading "The Dog Hair" from Lydia Davis's latest collection, Can't and Won't, I was reminded of that feeling of nearness in loss, of a semi-presence of the dearly departed.  It was the first of her dozens of short, sometimes flash fictions and poems that I bookmarked, because it encapsulates so well in one short paragraph the emotions that I felt during the half-year after my dog's death.  It also serves as a good example of the sorts of stories Davis narrates.

If the stories of our lives were to be made into fictions, almost invariably they would be tales of moments, of choices made or abandoned, with the uncanny mixing with the quotidian with reckless abandon.  In stories like "A Woman, Thirty," we might find ourselves thinking of people we know that are similar to this woman who doesn't want to leave her childhood home, doesn't want to risk being in an unloving relationship, and yet who also yearns for some man, any man, to at least regard her in some fashion.  Davis has that rare talent of capturing in just a few lines the conflicted emotions that we feel everyday.  Sometimes, the stories, such as "The Execution," turn a dark mirror toward us, forcing us to confront the more violent, sordid feelings that we collectively possess.  We so often are, as she states here, charlatans, hiding the worst (and sometimes best) of ourselves from others, attempting to make all blind to what has just occurred.

Some books demand thousands of words for its depths to be plumbed.  Can't and Won't, however, is not one of those works.  It is such a quotable, memorable collection that a judicious quoting, followed by noting that Davis utilizes short, penetrating passages to explore facets of humanity, is sufficient.  After all, these stories are short because like ourselves, they are bundles of moments in which we later unpack, deriving meanings that may or may not be independent from how we interpret the world around us.

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