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Writers: welcome. Others: stay away.
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.