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)