What could be worse than having to be seen resorting to your own life? In my case, there was a fixed sum of experiences … to or from which I could not yet add or subtract, but which I was skilled at coming to grief over, crucially, in broad daylight.
So opens Gary Lutz’s first story collection—though “open” is perhaps not the verb to use about a book that has mostly stayed closed, dropping in and out of print over the past decade and acquiring only a small if passionate cult. We have names for writers as forcefully original as Lutz, none of them flattering: at worst, he’s pretentious or inaccessible, while at best he’s experimental, a word that always makes the reader-in-waiting wonder if it’s her patience that’s to be experimented upon.
And yet the impulse to wrench English into something only tenuously related to straightforward grammar and syntax is historically a popular, not an elite, pursuit, from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll to Wodehouse on down to the best of our screenwriters and our comedians and our street kids playing “the dozens.” On this slender justification rests my hope that with this, its third sojourn into print, Lutz’s 1996 debut will stay there. This brilliant, thorny book should be a big deal for anyone interested in contemporary American fiction.
There’s a connection between the strangulated ingenuity of Lutz’s sentences and the stories of furtive, transgressive sex they give body to. He seduces words out of their typical usages, coaxes them into strange, unsustainable positions, and ends things before they can begin (36 stories in 160-odd pages); a sort of public-bathroom uneasiness hangs over the proceedings. Lutz’s sentence rhythms contract rather than cresting, and the stories generally end on a pinched note. “Slops” is fairly typical: a minor academic with colitis enjoys a highly ambiguous liaison with a student. Nothing about the story sounds promising, but Lutz manages both breathtaking stylistic accomplishment and humor in evoking a Comp 101 drone’s dark night of the soul:
There were no tests—just papers. … But I read them hard, expecting sentences to have been spitefully spatchcocked into the running gelatinization of barbarisms and typos to check up on me, to see if I was actually reading. For instance: “Dear ‘Professor’” You fucking stink. Try wiping yourself once and [sic] awhile [sic]. Or didn’t they teach that were [sic] you went to school? Bag it.” But I never found such interludings.
“Spatchcocked,” “interludings,” “the running gelatinization”—Lutz’s absolute control over the language is all the transcendence these stories achieve. Much of the time, that’s enough.
That said, Lutz’s genius is of the kind that involves many extensions of credit. Some of the titles—“SMTWTFS,” an airless portrait of joyless promiscuity; “Waking Hours,” the story of a “self-devastated” man’s visit to his “mothered-down” son and his daily, intentional mimicry of the motions that his apartment-dwelling neighbors put themselves through—convey the repetitiveness of these stories’ themes. Read too fast, Lutz’s book melds into one composite portrait of a hermaphroditic, amorphously miserable office worker, coming to grief in broad daylight.