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Just a Diphthong AwayAnge Mlinko
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Vol. 42 No. 9 · 7 May 2020

Just a Diphthong Away

Ange Mlinko

2922 words
The Complete Gary Lutz 
by Gary Lutz.
Tyrant, 500 pp., £15, December 2019, 978 1 7335359 1 5
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After​ reading five hundred pages of Gary Lutz, I opened Google Maps and took a long, hard look at the state where he was born: Pennsylvania, the ‘Keystone State’, although it’s shaped more like a ticket stub fished from a back pocket, is entirely recognisable in his descriptions. ‘I lived in a town that had sourceless light falling over it at all hours.’ ‘You pictured the address numerals of the houses having been painted over by accident again and again, and people not giving their backyard gardens a chance.’ ‘Every afternoon, I walked the girl to the centre of town. There were eight streets that led to it, and for each approach to the two blocks of shops and vaguely public-looking buildings, I assigned the town a different name: Townville, Cityton, Burgborough, Townburgh, Boroville, Cityboro, Burghton and Town City.’ Lutz was born in Allentown, studied at nearby Kutztown State College and now lives in Greensburg, where he teaches at a satellite campus of the University of Pittsburgh. His faculty bio tells us that the 64-year-old assistant professor ‘teaches EngCmp 1150 (Grammar and Copyediting)’ with occasional workshops and independent study courses in short fiction. ‘This fall I have thus far graded 863 writing assignments,’ he told the Paris Review in 2011, ‘and if everybody turns in all of the remaining work, I will have graded 1026 by the end of the semester.’

Gary Lutz, doing the Lord’s work teaching composition to state university undergraduates in Townborocityburghton America, is also another kind of saint: the writer’s writer’s writer, known for crafting sentences that adhere to grammatical guidelines but swerve away from idiomatic usage. His descriptions range from Joycean-onomatopoeian (‘borborygmic high jinks’) to Nabokovian-synaesthetic (‘Her hair had gone gruff’) to stand-up humour (‘Men, women, were maybe not her type’). The Complete Gary Lutz collects five books of short fiction and nine new stories, beginning with Stories in the Worst Way, published in 1996 by Knopf and reprinted twice (in 2002 and 2009) by small presses for Lutz’s loyal fanbase.

His stories often have ingenious titles like ‘SMTWTFS’, ‘Onesome’, ‘Esprit de l’elevator’ or ‘Chaise Lozenge’. We are carried from hook to hook, like the insomniac narrator who ‘crossed each night by linking one minute securely to the next, building a bridge that swung through the dark’. The pleasurable surprises in these stories have little to do with plot or character. They are lexical, metaphorical and often very droll, which is enough to distract the reader from the spectacular denudation of the lives, couples and truncated families portrayed. Here, in this landlocked, hilly Pennsylvanian grisaille (which could well be an outpost of Central Europe, Moravia maybe), a narrator is interminably, indeterminately, in middle age: ‘I was just doing the weary thing of being in my forties’; ‘I was a man dropping already well through my forties, filthy with myself’; ‘Forty I was, and then fortier, fluking through my annual reviews’; ‘At the time of which I write, my middle forties, people were expected to provide their own transportation.’

Male and female narrators are interchangeable; sex or gender is no more than window-dressing on bodies that locate equally interchangeable objects of desire, men or women, girls or boys, almost always nameless, living in apartments together or alone, in wretched marriages or in the wake of vituperative divorces, commuting in cars that double as personal offices and trash receptacles, going to McDonald’s or anonymous coffee shops and diners and, most of all, going to work: ‘I was a flask-shaped man in a velour shirt sitting at long lunchroom tables in business schools, cosmetology schools, junior colleges, community colleges. My business was buying used textbooks and crating them off to a distributor.’ ‘I found work teaching Oral Business English.’ Most of these jobs are entry-level office jobs, temp jobs, jobs in oversurveilled cubicles under fluorescent lights and sprinkler fixtures, jobs that entail the heavy use of photocopiers – the only respite from sitting at desks that cut one’s upper body from the lower, and place one’s hands and forearms in permanent view. Pressed shirts and khakis are uniform. (‘Everything he now wore smelled rainily of the iron.’) Lutz’s narrators may be descendants of Bartleby the Scrivener, though incapable of his transcendent ‘I prefer not to.’

The sterile vocabulary of offices is subtly deployed to show how deeply it structures our perceptions: ‘I have probably got her features collated all wrong in memory anyway.’ Lutz deforms clichés and common idioms: ‘What could be worse than having to be seen resorting to your own life?’ ‘I’ve been within an inch of my life.’ ‘I hated them for beating me to what my life boiled down to.’ ‘I was a great many far cries from myself.’ Now that Microsoft Word (not to mention HR departments) has made it apparent how much of our communication is dependent on template and boilerplate, we may start to question the moral underpinnings of the entire concept of communication: ‘There were hidey-holes in whatever she said.’

In his acknowledgments to this book, Lutz proclaims: ‘To Gordon Lish I owe everything.’ Asked about Lish’s influence on his work in a 2006 interview, Lutz recalled ‘nosing about in bookstores in the mid-1980s’ and being ‘struck by certain slim books of prose fiction in which the sentences all but protruded from the page’:

I eventually came to learn that all of the books I had been admiring had been edited by Gordon Lish. When I found out who he was, and where he was (ensconced at Knopf, in New York City, but venturing, come summertime, in a freelance professorial capacity to the Midwest and elsewhere), I jumped at the chance to study under him. I took his class for five straight summers in Bloomington, Indiana, and then once in Chicago.

Lish, now in his eighties, is a shadowy editorial presence in the background of a host of American writers, some commercially successful and some, like Lutz, cult figures, who came of age in the late 1970s and 1980s, including Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Barry Hannah, Diane Williams and Mary Robison.

One of the best accounts of Lish’s influence is in David Leavitt’s roman à clef Martin Bauman; Or, a Sure Thing. He appears in the first paragraph of the first chapter disguised as Stanley Flint, a creative writing teacher and human resources nightmare:

Wild rumours circulated about this seminar. It was said that at the beginning of the term he made his students write down their deepest, darkest, dirtiest secrets and then read them aloud one by one. It was said that he asked if they would be willing to give up a limb in order to write a line as good as the opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was said that he carried a pistol and shot it off every time a student read what he considered to be a formidable sentence.

Within a few pages, a student Flint has peremptorily thrown out of class lodges a spurious complaint of racism ‘phrased in the acid, impersonal language of lawsuits’. Yet we are also told that ‘You’ll never meet anyone who takes writing more seriously than I do.’ Leavitt, who took Lish’s class as a 19-year-old at Yale and wrote the novel twenty years later, admits through his alter ego: ‘He was right. I never have.’

Flint/Lish has a first principle: ‘Get on with it.’ By that he means: ‘Remember that when you ask someone to read a story you’ve written, you’re asking that person to give you a piece of his life. Minutes – hours – of his life.’ The second principle is ‘the belief that all human experiences, no matter how different they might seem on the surface, shared a common grounding’. Lutz takes both principles to heart: he has never written a novel, preferring stories that are usually just a few pages long and in which individual sentences, as he puts it, have ‘the force and feel of a climax’. But any sentence must also ‘sound as if it has always existed, as if cribbed from everyone else’s inner history ever’. In his work, there are none of the markers of privilege beloved of other middle-class American fiction writers – no Brooklyn brownstones, sojourns to Europe or octopus-eating. Nor are there clichés of maudits – addiction or recovery, prison or church membership. The semi-anonymity of the narrators, the gender fluidity, the middling nature of the lives lived, seems to be an attempt to approximate common denominators.

Lutz’s most expansive statement on his work comes in a lecture he gave to students at Columbia in 2008, published in the Believer under the noirish title ‘The Sentence Is a Lonely Place’. He credits Lish again and amplifies a couple of concepts – ‘consecution’ and recursion – that drive his style:

You might come to realise that a single vowel already present in the sentence should be released to run through the consonantal frameworks of certain other prominent words in the sentence, or you might realise that the consonantal infrastructure of one word should be duplicated in another word, but with a different vowel impounded in each structure. You might wonder what would become of a word at one end of a sentence if an affix were thrust upon it from a word at the other end, or what might happen if the syntactical function of a word were shifted from its present part of speech to some other. And as the words reconstitute themselves and metamorphose, your sentence may begin to make a series of departures from what you may have intended to express; the language may start taking on, as they say, a life of its own, a life that contests or trumps the life you had sponsored to live on the page. But it was you who incited these words to shimmer and mutate and reconfigure even further – and what they now are saying may well be much more acute and more crucial than what you had thought you wanted to say.

Poets, especially poets who use rhyme and other constraints, are given to this sort of ‘craft talk’: language as matrix, or generatrix, is pregnant with itself – you just have to devise ways to midwife it. Thus, when Lutz writes ‘I was a man dropping already well through my forties, filthy with myself,’ the word ‘filthy’ is just a diphthong away from ‘fifty’ or ‘fifties’ (following on ‘forties’). Or take ‘secretaries and paralegals and telemarketers … in their toyish cars’. ‘Toyish’ is perfect, though we suspect that it began as the more prosaic ‘Toyotas’.

Lutz​ often invokes the phrase ‘consummated language’, a rhyme with ‘consummated marriage’, as when one sentence ‘begin[s] to make overtures to another sentence’. This idea of the writer orchestrating a mating dance is particularly interesting in the light of his characters’ sex lives. Heterosexual marriage is pretty awful in Lutz’s universe. In ‘That Which Is Husbander Than Anything Prior’, the narrator remarks: ‘In bed, I kept my nose stuck in a book that listed pairs of words people often confused. It was something the husband had brought into the house early on, in a violent bout of furnishing. For instance: intimidation versus intimation. Only, I did not necessarily see where the versus came in.’ Even when the characters, in the ultra-modern way, attempt to ‘open up’ their marriages, as in ‘Carriers’ or ‘Pulls’, the results are squalid. The sex writing is the most untitillating – utilitarian – I have ever read.

For the lover of language, or its recursion, it’s the intercourse between like and like that rejuvenates, whether it’s between men in toilets (there’s a lot of that), or father/uncle and daughter/niece, or brother and sister. Incestuousness, in other words, is a running theme, and rather than arising from realism it seems to arise from linguistic confluence – or rather, consecution. In ‘Eminence’, a catamite narrator tells us: ‘There was a father, for instance, who wanted me to help save his daughter from him, or else he wanted to be saved from her –’ The story ends with a description of freewheeling genitalia: ‘We let the things shy off from ourselves, boggle out the way they always did, twitch and dodge and stickle a little, until they were kissing unassisted.’

In ‘Divorcer’, the narrator wants to say one thing about marriage but blurts out another:

I’d assumed that my sister – a candid shambles of a blonde, four years my superior, and my only sibling, though sibling is so mewling a word, so petty-sounding and resentful – would give up the ghost in some awfully silly, sexually freakened way or another … but then the wedding came along and pulled these words toward it instead, tugged them into vowlike paragraphs. They became little wrecking articles of wedlock.

Sex and sounds are wedded in their recursion. There is a metaliterary layer to this. It can’t be a coincidence that one daughter’s breasts are ‘limited, unloaded’. That someone has a sister named ‘Loo’. Or that in ‘Onesome’ a put-upon man soliloquises:

Let me ask myself something else: should a father and his daughter have to fear each other tit for tat? Did I not make sure the door to her room was open when I made polite bedtime conversation with her? There was a prolixity of purple-blue veins legible beneath her skin, and on her face I could see my own features garbled, corrected, redressed. Childhood had cumulated in her and was getting ready to sour into something far worse. She had her own secret life and a circlet of friends who all had nearly the same name – Loren, Lorene, Lorena, I could never get all of them straight.

Could that name be Lolita?

In ‘Meltwater’ we get the neologisms ‘girlettes’ and ‘feminatrices’. In ‘Daught’ we’re told a daughter is ‘a person, pushedly female, who daughts’. If you remain unconvinced of the Nabokovesque, consider the pungent sensuality on offer in ‘The Daughter’:

She was in bed, asleep. He looked down at her face, into her ears. He looked up her nostrils. In the left one he saw a stalactite of dried mucus. He left it alone. He sniffed at her underarms. He sniffed the entire length of one leg. He smelled her mouth. He gave it a spitful, plunging kiss.

This gives way to a nightmarish vertigo that ends the short tale:

A city was steeply taking shape around the daughter. The voluminosity of it made the man want to give up. He felt he had to see. He threw his head back and, clinching his tongue between his teeth to keep from swallowing it in fright, watched skyscrapers stunting overhead, crooking and curling, blousing out.

Both Lolita and Ada echo throughout and, via the forensics of female bodies, there’s an echo of that other Pennsylvanian who wanted to be Nabokov: John Updike. Deservedly famous among Lutz aficionados is the tour de force index that comes at the climax of the final story in his first collection, ‘Not the Hand but Where the Hand Has Been’:

Daughter: approaches to the body of, 00; as baby of the family, 00; on ‘being fallen asleep upon’, 00; on ‘being low on people and places’, 00; … discovery that one’s pulse can be felt down around the ankle (‘How many hearts does that give me now?’), 00; … on forgetting whether it was an alderman or a magistrate who served the papers (‘It looked like legerdemain’), 00; … high-school career of (‘girling herself around the boys retiring behind their guitars’), 00; … insistence that ‘all the words available to me have already gone through too many mouths – all come out meaning the same thing’, 00

It continues in this vein for half a dozen pages, a thorough mix of morbid fixation and linguistic bravado. The typesetter’s double zeroes stand in for those unloaded breasts.

Lutz’s prose is licentious in the archaic sense – a double libertinism. But I shouldn’t give the impression that his Nabokovian flights lift this overcast world into jouissance. Quite the opposite: with Lutz, the materiality of words is not all downy lip and butterflies: it’s as likely – think of the stalactite in the girl’s nostril – to be nauseating. He has a vivid description of the detritus that gets stuck in the pages of books, by a narrator married to a librarian, and for him those traces of food and bodies are no more disgusting than language itself – ‘all the words available to me have already gone through too many mouths.’ And if words comprise a kinship network, it’s not necessarily an improvement on human ones, as the ‘-ton-town-boro-burgh’ dweller understands: ‘The extended family was exactly that – a bloodline carried too far.’

Take the butterflies that make their appearance in the story ‘Contractions’: ‘I would occasionally let an unlipped, falsetto ‘‘hi’’ butterfly out of my throat and into the nets that the women’s squeeching hear aids unreeled into the dead air.’ Nothing could be less lovely. Nabokov, who inscribed his own name where he could, as Van Veen in Ada for instance, would appreciate that a ‘lutz’ is ‘a jump in skating with a backward take-off from the backward outside edge of one skate to the backward outside edge of the other, with one or more full turns in the air’. I take this definition from my Apple dictionary, whose wording, so much more awkward than the OED’s, perfectly describes the backward-outside-and-reverse athletics that Gary Lutz performs on the page.

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