The philosophy of contractions

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First Posted: 5/12/2014

Since Catholic secondary school, my teachers, in condemning fashion, advised students to avoid contractions as though their function were the devil himself, luring us into a world of apathy. Fast forward to college — the contraction rule remained. Unless you were a masochist and enjoyed seeing considerable amounts of red pen, contractions were only pardoned in dialogue and creative meanderings.

However, in Lydia Davis’s latest collection of short stories, “Can’t and Won’t,” she proves contrary, particularly, that rules are meant to be broken. On the cover, Davis unveils the radical sentiment against contractions “because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.”

When Davis is not translating the works of Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust, she returns to the genres of short fiction, essay, and novel. While her literary works have gained recognition throughout the years, her short story collections, such as the case with her latest, remain exemplary. Davis’s prose style of writing allows for easy readability as the five sections of stories complete in a flash. Whether funny, thoughtful, or similarly reflective to our own life, Davis’s pieces “Idea for a Sign” (I), “Eating Fish Alone” (II), “Notes During Long Conversation with Mother” (III), “Learning Medieval History” (IV), and “The Woman Next to Me on the Airplane” (V) shout out among the collection.

In a bittersweet story from the first section, “Dog Hair,” Davis showcases how powerful loss can be with even the smallest remnants left behind. The aspects we do not often think about initially, but more often than not, become the most important. “The dog is gone. We miss him. […] 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 have wild hope — if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.”

Throughout much of the collection, Davis employs quick wit and crisp humor, giving readers a sweet kick to our senses. While each piece varies in size, ranging from a few sentences to a few pages, Davis expresses how the most mundane of experiences (riding the train, cleaning, and going to the bank) develop into imaginative and multifaceted discussions within ourselves. All the while, Davis makes use of contractions and expansions to her satisfaction — proving that the best philosophies in life come from making our own rules.

‘Can’t and Won’t’ by Lydia Davis Rating: W W W W V