Again the genius of Gary Lutz

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“You don’t want to go over it again, how you go from being a part to being apart.”

But Lutz does go over it again and again, in masterful detail and brevity, from one sad sack to the next Lutz examines what we are when we find ourselves apart and not a part.

Let’s be clear about this from the outset: Lutz can write a sentence, boy can he write a sentence. “Master prose stylist” gets thrown around a lot but in Lutz’z case it’s more than true. You can pretty much scan his work at random and find a snap of genius, some timely adjective assiduously plucked or something of his own invention, some Frankenstein adverb, something that welcomingly flares in the mind and forces you to nod your head in envy and admiration.

Take the exert below:

“The library stayed open later and later. The one I liked behind the circulation desk had lips dulled plumly, some final drifts of girlhood at peril in her voice. A becoming boniness to the fingers, and that hardening and seaming of the face achieved, I was certain, from having seen too soon the pleading in things.”

It’s the “at peril” which defines Lutz’z genius, a lesser writer would have been content with “final drifts of girlhood in her voice”, but Lutz teases and more importantly risks a greater edge to this description, this greater edge is coupled later on with the equally genius “from having seen too soon the pleading in things”, this implies a childhood trauma, likely the narrator projecting, but damn I love the weight of this closing sentence, the abstract notion of “the pleading in things”, brilliantly vague and specific, the abrupt and jarring finish of “in things”, the way the sentence and paragraph collapses with a peculiar authority on that harsh note, it’s these things that distinguish Lutz and writers like him from a writer simply going through the motions.

Lutz’z prose blends the highly lyrical and inventive with the lurid and grotesque, his work is like Wallace Stevens recited in a sweaty armpit, it’s visceral addictive stuff. His work and his characters move (or are stuck) in this high brow low brow world, where primal urges mix with deeper existential needs that are never wholly realized or reveled in by many of Lutz’z sad sacks. Often a black humour mixes with the lyrical invention and playfulness, phrases that just pop seductively in the mind, “He called me a man of pronenesses instead of convictions.” There’s a farcical edge to some of it “His body was just profuse foolery.” There’s a danger to his prose, but where there is danger there is something to behold.

It’s bleak stuff, as I’ve previously mentioned when discussing Lutz, after reading his work you feel you need to wash under your fingernails, hug a loved one, go marvel at a flower in the hope it might rekindle some faith that the largely inconsolable and seemingly random order of things in the world does have some beauty but it can not to align with one of Lutz’z narrator’s misanthropic conclusions.

“I don’t know which is finally sicker – specifics or engulfing abstractions.” For Lutz it seems to be both.

Lutz combines this mastery of language with a striking intimacy. For me, first person is a shady area, you have to balance the authenticity of a voice, an I, with something that is actual prose so that it doesn’t result in some glorified corny diary entry or just become tiresome altogether. And Lutz is a master of the I. Lutz expertly blends and balances brevity with detail, sincerity with dishonesty, confession with inconspicuousness, poetry with the putrid.

It feels like his narrators have sidled up to you in some vulnerable moment, they’re half-drunk and have sniffed a heavy line of thesaurus and are ready to tell all, or at least spin some sordid yarn. The confessional air loses a broader dimension to Lutz’z work, that’s his only downfall for me. But it’s a necessary sacrifice, as Lutz questions love and intimacy, finding it brief, confusing, messy, and kind of only ever minutely not seedy, often resulting in jaded revelations like “Everything she claimed to understand about people was no more than hazarded.” This nuggets of introspection and insight are littered throughout his work and allow it a heavier psychological edge.

“Then one who may have gone on to ape something wonderful.” Maybe Lutz considers himself akin to these sad sacks, I have no idea, but regardless, and judging by everything I’ve read by him, he is one who has gone on to ape something wonderful.

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Stories in the Worst Way – Gary Lutz

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Everything – my life – would be riding on what he would say, on the certainty that he would say something. (14)

This is it right here, life in parentheses, this is the tension Lutz’s “protagonists” find themselves in, they’re caught between “Everything” on one side and the overwhelming notions of certainty and inevitability on the other.

Admittedly this is pretty bleak stuff, Lutz is largely uncompromising. His characters often announce at the beginning of the stories how detached and alienated they are not just from the wider world but from their own bodies “She had nothing in common with her body anymore, was how she put it”. Stories generally begin in this vein, a stark pronouncement from the narrator regarding their own dire circumstance and mindset, with the stories themselves being littered with similar statements.

Human moments, yes, but then detached and alien.

Take this para for example:

Sometimes the girl cried all night as I drove. I would have to pull over every few hours and get in the back seat and put my arms around her. By this point, she was pronouncedly hump-bosomed. Where her tiny breasts had once reposed, there was the cyclopean, orbiculate business of the coming child instead. (94)

It starts with a moment of compassion and intimacy written in regular prose that could be from just about any homely piece of fiction. But then there’s a sudden shift into more a alien tone coupled with the arcane language “cyclopean, orbiculate”, the word “business” is crucial and implies a level of chore and coldness to the proceedings of birth, leveling the warmth of the earlier  sentiment. The story goes on to reveal that the narrator helps them with the birth in a typically obscene way and he admits that he “did his best to keep in touch with the kid and its mother” but that it quickly faded and that he repeated the process with another couple of women.

I had given consent for my life to keep being done to me (69)

“Human” moments are fleeting. Characters are detached from themselves and so how can they be meaningfully attached to others, they’re often having life “done to them” as opposed to participating in life, the parentheses aren’t merely passive lines or barriers, they seem to actively tighten and constrict.

Lutz stares through the idealistic view of life and refuses to blame a cynical entertainment network or some other cultural phenomenon for the existential ennui of contemporary times – it’s worth noting that this book arrived in 96 when writers were keen to offer up banalities about TV on “why we feel this way” and for the most part never really got close to the realizations that Lutz reaches here. His proclamations are trying, unforgiving sure, but to stare them down is better than trying to sidestep them and accept answers that don’t really get you anywhere.

There are convolutions in his work, an eeriness and a deliberate sense of disorientation, but then there are moments of ontological consideration that seem to offer clarity and a way forward, a means to live.

To get into the men’s room, you went through a door and immediately – no more than two feet in – discovered a second door, heavier, unpainted; and before you could get the thing open, you had to make room by reopening, by a good half-foot, the one you had already pushed through. (11)