Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

May 10, 2014 


Can’t and Won’t

Lydia Davis, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 290 pages

“A fire does not need to be called warm or red,” Lydia Davis writes late in her sixth collection of short stories, “Can’t and Won’t.” “Remove many more adjectives.” Such a line can be read as both an observation and an artist statement, a writer’s call to arms. Davis’ work, after all, is about removing the unnecessary, the needlessly ornamental, about stripping narrative to its most essential form.

“Can’t and Won’t” features 121 fictions, some as brief as a single sentence; “105 years old: she wouldn’t be alive today even if she hadn’t died,” reads “Birthday” in its entirety. On the one hand, that’s the most literal sort of one-liner, an ironic existential joke. But even more, it asks us to reconsider what we think we know about the story, how it operates, what it does. Davis is an author who takes nothing for granted, even the form of the writing itself. Can a sentence be more than a sentence? How does experience reveal itself?

In many ways, “Can’t and Won’t” is like a set of William Burroughs cut-ups, random moments juxtaposed, one against the other, until reality takes on the logic of a collage. Unlike Burroughs, though, Davis’ intent is not to rub out the word. Rather, language is what gives shape to the chaos, allowing us to invest existence with a shape. That this shape is of our making, our invention is the point precisely; “We have a wild hope,” Davis writes in “The Dog,” which details a couple’s efforts to pick up the hairs left by a dead pet – “if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog together again.”

Los Angeles Times

Family Life

Akhil Sharma, W.W. Norton & Co., 218 pages

Akhil Sharma’s new novel, “Family Life,” should come with a warning sticker: Heartbreak ahead. This slender book, hardly more than 200 pages, follows 8-year-old Ajay Mishra and his family from India to Queens, where Ajay’s older brother, Birju, fulfills his parents’ immigrant hopes by gaining acceptance to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Then, their world is shattered when a swimming pool accident leaves Birju severely brain-damaged – puffing spit, unable to speak and completely dependent on others to feed and bathe him.

“Family Life” is narrated by Ajay, who witnesses these events from a child’s perceptive yet bewildered point of view. (Ajay’s first reaction to the accident is envy: “I was irritated. Birju had gotten into the Bronx High School of Science, and now he was going to get to be in a hospital.”) Like Sharma’s 2000 novel, “An Obedient Father” – about an Indian civil servant who has sexually abused his daughter – “Family Life” tackles a difficult subject, here with unblinking attention to odd detail and flashes of dark humor.

“Family Life” – which the author has said is largely autobiographical – is written in undecorated, almost flattened prose, but the story lingers, hauntingly, in the mind – a minimalist coming-of-age novel that carefully traces the contours of a scar that will never fully heal.


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