AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Lydia Davis writes short stories - very short stories. They've been compared to prose poems, case studies, riddles, even pickles, for being so tiny and tart. Davis's latest collection is called "Can't and Won't." Here's New York Times editor Parul Sehgal with a review.
PARUL SEHGAL, BYLINE: Coming across a story by Lydia Davis is like watching a magic trick. She's holding a top hat. She tells you it's empty - shows you its empty - and then she pulls something out of it, something enormous and oddly shaped. Take the story "Collaboration With Fly." Here is the entire thing.
(Reading) I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe. She's a well-known translator and everywhere in this book is her obsession with the right word, the best word; whole stories hinge on whether the stolen meat was sausage or salami, whether the fish is called scrod or schrod. There's also a dash of surrealism. Some of the stories are written from her dreams or dreams she borrowed from friends. Simple, startling images like tarot cards come to life. And in between those little showers of text are long storms of prose. Like the story "The Seals," about the death of a beloved older sister. It's consumed with precision in language, as a character tries to pin down her grief. Davis writes...
(Reading) I'd like to just look at your cheeks, your shoulders, your arms, your wrist with the gold watchband on it. Just to have you there in person, in the flesh, for a while, pressing down on the mattress, making folds in the cover, the sun coming in behind you, would be very nice.
A lot of these stories are about death and aging, the breakdown of the body. Dead dogs pile up, there's the dead sister, a dead child, a dead cat named Molly. One story's made up of snippets from local obituaries. Alfred enjoyed his best friends, which were his two cats. Ed loved life and lived it to the fullest. You can see Davis' famous fussiness in a story called "I'm Pretty Comfortable, but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable." (Reading) My navel orange is a little dry. The cuff of my sweater is damp. The seam in the toe of my sock is twisted. The clock is ticking very loudly. The clock is ticking very loudly.
This, after all, is what the characters can't really accept or resist. The orange can be tossed away, the seam of the sock yanked back into place. But the ticking of the clock is horrid. And so the characters live in the present, with an embarrassed insistence on the right word - it's scrod not schrod, salamis not sausages - fragments shored up against their ruin.
CORNISH: The book by Lydia Davis is called "Can't and Won't." Our reviewer is Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times.
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