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Showing 1-6 of 6 reviews(Critical). Show all reviews
on April 24, 2015
As a kind of master class in the art of sentence-writing, this book is remarkable. Gary Lutz is of the Gordon Lish school of writing that values voice, sentence-level inventiveness, and elliptical effects above all else. A few years back, The Believer published a transcription of a brilliant lecture Lutz gave, "The Sentence Is a Lonely Place." In it, he dissects with charming passion what he values most in prose, and the compact yet seemingly infinite space of a sentence can contain all that thrills him. He encourages practices like verbing nouns, adverbing nouns, coining new words (often onomatopoeic), adding all manner of -ic, -ish, -y, etc. to the ends of words, as well as chasing after an epigrammatic, "summational" effect in each sentence, so that within a story every sentence might almost seem to have the finality of, well, the final sentence.

The problem with this collection of not-quite-forty stories--the longest of which is ten pages, many of them only one or two--is that, time and time again, Gary out-Lutzes himself. Those techniques he offers in "The Sentence Is a Lonely Place" for enlivening sentences are present in most every sentence here--he certainly practices what he preaches--but after a while, it begins to seem less witty or inventive than programmatic. With every sentence striving for firework status, the paragraphs (and, by extension, the bizarro stories they construct) come to seem like cramped and joyless spaces, gummed up by all the fussy verbiage.

For instance, a brief, four-sentence paragraph from "Recessional":

"She had a strapping, hoydenish body. She maintained a sunlamped handsomeness. But she was hygienically delinquent. I wondered what my predecessors had made of the ashtrayish, perspiry nimbus she almost always hazed around herself."

That's not one but two -ish constructions ("hoydenish," "ashtrayish"), an -y construction ("perspiry"), another adjectived noun ("sunlamped"), and the verbed noun "hazed." The off-kilter adverb/adjective combo, also a stylistic hallmark of Lutz's, is there in "hygienically delinquent," a phrase designed, like all the rest, to arrest readerly attention. If this were a lone instance, the overdone cleverness might be cool--it often IS cool. But the stream of one anonymous narrator after another, each of them voicing Lutz sentences, does damage to the individual moments that succeed. The more stories you read, the less these narrators seem like attempts to represent human consciousness; they are the sad and anonymous delivery systems of Lutz's style. They are utterly indistinguishable from one another and thus totally forgettable. This is irritatingly brought home, above all, by the fact that they all utter another compulsive Lutzism, something you might call the crypto-postmodern koan of the self. Some examples:

"What I am saying is that through all this, all through this, I was only loosely in the midst of myself ..." (pg 70).

"Most nights, I was not so much living my life as roughing out loose, galling paraphrases of the lives being lived in the adjoining apartments and hallways." (pg. 17)

"What could be worse than having to be seen resorting to your own life?" (pg. 7)

"I was a great many far cries from myself." (pg. 80)

Again, taken individually, such epigrammatic sentences are gems. But nearly every one of thirty-odd stories has at least one such utterance, and some of the very short ones are comprised of basically nothing but them. Everything with Lutz is too much of a good thing and too little of many other good things (I start to take on his intonations when I describe his writing). The stories are effectively just streams of aphorisms about the self and its detachments, punctuated by odd, interesting, but not quite "telling" local details. The truly clever Lutz-a-riffic stuff--"his extracubicular life," and "she gave me a stay-thither look"--get lost in the relentless quest to make every sentence quirky and indelible.

Other writers of the Lish school--Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt (both writers Lutz reveres and writes about in "The Sentence Is a Lonely Place")--often achieve the kind of rigorously interesting sentences that Lutz writes but build narratives that are more than loosely hung-together streams of sentences. Lipsyte is a hilarious dark-comic writer, oddly sweet beneath his bleakness, while Schutt achieves a hypnotic, oneiric effect in virtually every story of her collection Nightwork. There is humor in Lutz, but of the driest and most mirthless variety. The stories feel disjointed and random without striking me as dream-like in a good way--none of the Freudian uncanny here.

I debated whether to give this book three stars or four. I finally settled on three because, for readers who are (or wish to be) writers, this book probably deserves a four--there is much to be learned about the integrity of word-by-word, comma-by-comma sentence crafting. For readers who are not and do not wish to someday be writers, I'd honestly discourage reading this book--a one- or two-star book for the laywoman or -man. The stories may not be in the worst way, but they are stories in the loosest way; narrative drive, character development--even character names--are the kind of old-hat literary equipage that Lutz would probably eye-rollingly dismiss, and several of these uniformly grim little ditties are straight-up repugnant (I'm thinking especially of "The Pavilion" and "Contractions").

For the interested, it's a book best taken in small doses. I like to read a story or two just before I write, or if I'm taking a break during a writing session. They can jumpstart one's sense of the possibilities of language, which is a valuable and admirable thing.
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on December 11, 2008
I suspect the only audience for "Stories in the Worst Way" will be other writers - no one else is likely to have heard of Lutz (or even Gordon Lish, for that matter) and his stories haven't and won't ever find an appreciative mainstream audience.

Lutz's prose is really interesting, the way that he invents and re-invents words and constructs sentences in bizarre fragments. After reading "Stories ..." I was honestly inspired to start playing with language and taking risks with my own writing. Unfortunately, Lutz's characters and stories are poorly developed and dreadfully boring. Every narrator is a repellant, self-loathing neurotic. Every story just sort of starts, meanders around for awhile and then ends. Nothing happens. The man can really write prose but his stories frankly suck.

I'm giving this three stars only because Lutz approach to language is so different and fresh, but that is the only reason to read "Stories in the Worst Way."
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on June 10, 2013
I found this book to be mostly off-putting. Whenever I tried to understand what repelled me, all I could come up with was how cold the writing is. At some point I recalled something Jayne Anne Phillips once said: "The writer's only obligation is to be compassionate." Compassion, I realized, is completely lacking in Lutz's pieces. His characters (if you can call them that) are about as warm as chrome-plated mannequins. Their faces, which he rarely describes--and even when he does only in the broadest terms ("she had a face like a planet")--might as well be the featureless head of a dressmaker's dummy.(The book is dedicated, by the way, to Gordon Lish, whose writing has the same bloodless quality coincidentally enough.)

That's at the visceral level.

At the sentence level, he tries very hard and often to be clever, but only about one of every four or five attempts actually succeeds. It is simply not worth reading three or four badly done sentences or phrases to get to the good one. I appreciate the care he has taken with the writing, the drive to write as few banal or unoriginal sentences as possible, but I think he would do much better employing this method in poetry, particularly since these are not stories--they are more like test tubes for words. Indeed, the way they work is closer to poetry than to fiction--not through plot or character development or action or choices the characters make but almost entirely through wordplay. Consequently, I never have the sense of being in a story; I never have the sense I am anywhere but in a sticky language web; that is, I am always aware that "this is writing" because it is so self-conscious and often slips into pretentiousness. One really does not need to say "sororally" when the word "sisterly" already exists. It's just unnecessary ostentation. (Ostentation does come in handy from time to time.)

I really think Lutz missed his calling. All of these words twisted into uncomfortable positions, all of these neologisms, all of these odd syntactical constructions he labors on to dubious effect would be much more appreciated in poetry. I'm not seeing I would enjoy it if it were poetry--I don't think I would--but it would make much more sense.

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on February 9, 2016
At first the style was off-putting. Gradually Lutz's rhythms insinuated themselves into my brain, like Gertrude Stein's prose sometimes can. Then I began to see actual method in his madness... the sentence structures and the themes reinforce intriguingly.

NOTE TO AMAZON: Please get rid of the ridiculous 'buttons' you require be clicked by reviewers of stories and novels. You make us choose from three characterizations ("predictable" , "some twists" or "full of surprise") that are fairly irrelevant to anything but thrillers and mysteries. I don't enjoy being compelled to evaluate literary fiction as if plot mattered more than everything else. I'm sure you don't mean to express either philistinism, or contempt for those of us who enjoy non-genre fiction, but that's the implicit message
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on March 19, 2003
There's really not alot for me to say here, except that clearly some people relate differently to different styles of writing. I didn't like this book at all. It didn't make me "feel" anything as I read the stories. Most often, I was like "huh"? Please know that I am not one who needs a "point" to a story in order to appreciate it. I can find alot of pleasure in one or two sentences, depending on how they are written. I very much prefer the styles of writing found in "Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories" and "In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction".
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on December 16, 2003
I guess this is the type of writing you would expect from a writer more focused on language games than actual story telling. Since he doesn't have the talent to engage the reader in a narrative, he instead resorts to abstract high falutin syntax to try and get the job done, trying to mask over his mediocrity with (sometimes witty, most times awful) aphoristic nonsense. This kind of intellectual masturbation is the last refuge for writers with little talent but tons of ego. The people who believe that Lutz tells the "dark truths about our lives" are people who haven't read more than five books in the last ten years; they are people weaned on television, DVDs, and Charles Bukowski, the people who wear their ignorant nihilism as a badge of honor; they are those young people you've probably overheard in a bar saying things like "yeah man, life is so disgusting." Yes, life is disgusting, but no need to employ an even more disgusting prose style that symbolizes nothing but your own mental vacuity. And for those who believe that Lutz is not embraced by the establishment because he's too truthful, well that's just idiotic. He's not accepted by the so-called evil establishment because his writing is awful, plain and simple. He can tell his dark, cliched, postmodern truths all he wants, but as long as he continues to write with one hand on the keyboard and the other on his wang then his words will never be worth more than the paper they're printed on. Five stars for this guy? Yeah right.
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