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)

 

The Way of Florida – Russell Persson

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Faith is therefore no aesthetic emotion, but something far higher, exactly because it presupposes resignation; it is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence – Fear and Trembling –  Soren Kierkegaard

The best novels are never confined. They avoid simple reductionism or definition, they’re as amorphous as history itself. They can never really be known, although of course obscurantism for obscurantism’s sake is a loathsome goal and we must be wary. Criticism tries but is only ever a terse gesture towards themes or subjective readings, a celebration mostly, the proverbial bigging up. The best novels are about everything.

The Way of Florida is one of those novels. It elevates itself above its context, although it doesn’t use its context, it doesn’t simply rohypnol it and go for a quick fumble, and it never feels like a crutch or burden, there’s a respect and duty paid, it never loses sight or tries too hard to break away and be something more, this something more is achieved through Persson’s keen moral eye and spiritual concern and his assiduous handling of an now almost alien time in human history.

It’s as such we sail or drift us in this sea who calls our path. The maize in its own lessening. How could the sky in day see fit to spend us like it does? This in turn is answered. The gathered clouds. The wind who moves a bird against its usual wing into a tumble. The wave who begins to have a tip crested turned over into a brief witness the lip of what’s coming. A still wind over the tips enough to move the smell of what’s coming on to us and then a wind rises gusted at times and risen into the unwelcome.

The language is neither anachronistic or pastiche, maybe it’s a weird blend between the two I’m not sure, but it doesn’t feel like either, wholly the author’s own, a brilliant run-on hybrid that just when you feel Persson has lost it he snaps it back to his command like a ringmaster does his whip. There’s a delirium to the prose but also a sanity, a thoroughness and rich sincerity. It doesn’t sound like it’s from the past, in fact the total opposite, it’s a voice from the future and is all the better for it – the sort of prose Vollmann has occasionally managed but never sustained for a whole novel the way Persson does here.

But is it each his own read of what’s above? 

The sections are hypnotic at times and it can be easy to overlook much of the novel’s deeper and more profound ideas as they come nestled within each euphonious burst, stuff like “Men at arms do they come ready in this life for moving a fast arm against another man?” It raises the old questions of man’s inhumanity to man, the ideas of violence begetting violence, trust vs suspicion within the nature of man, whether consequence justifies certain amoral actions, but there’s a spiritual muscle at work, this is a conversation with God, with faith, with one’s own sins, with one’s own humanity “I find myself a marvel that I proceed at all though I marvel again at the enormity I carry and at the lands inside me yet to fold out”.

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At the start of the novel we’re introduced to this ship with 400 men and 80 horses and this is cut down throughout the book until we’re left with no horses and less than half a dozen men. This kind of weakening is important when considering the novel’s stance on human potentiality and when coupled with Heidegger’s view on potentiality. Heidegger’s reading of Paul embraces a weakness in the human condition, that what we move towards to become we cannot actually become, much in the same way that what the narrator and crew chase is not attained, importantly this arc occurs under the guise of faith – for me what you have then in this Heideggerian predicament is a powerlessness that becomes a kind of triumph or at least a revelation that helps us better understand our potentiality, the last sentence is crucially dealt callously as a way to question our intentions over a power we do possess and that we must confront.

There is a challenge within this book both for and against someone like John Gray’s naturalised and Darwinian re-description of original sin, the idea that we’re all just essentially killer apes, homo-rapiens as Gray calls us. But as this book demonstrates, we might be apes and capable of inhumanity for inhumanities sake given a certain context or none at all, but, crucially, we have a strong metaphysical longing, a suspicion about us of a deeper spiritual connection to what we call world – this novel is about a literal journey and period of discovery and colonisation but this serves as metaphor for the wider and more profound journey and discovery this book tackles, the journey of faith and the epiphanies there in.

Are we not the sons of trees? . . . Are we not the sons of almond and the sons of our home trees the nut elm and the leg oak we look back on to the trees of our home and they are bark and knee and bowl and canopy and we fasten us to them here to so live throughout the blow.

Just as a kind of addendum to this point and linking to the quote above, the idea of the Earth and “mother nature” and our place in the ecosystem is also interwoven within the narrative, it’s impossible to escape I guess in a novel featuring treacherous seas and burning sand but it’s an interesting aspect of the novel and again provides a deeper layer to the themes presented.

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As the narrator and his crew and the Indians suffer from every type of exhaustion imaginable the malnutrition comes through in the voice, and coupled with the inexorable evocations of God, you might think he’s speaking in tongues at some points, the whole body of the text is warped and vexed under the brutal conditions of narrator and crew as the text begins to resemble their makeshift rafts on those dubious seas.

So more ready to continue as if the weather and the sea waves had a mind and that mind was set to go on and its eyes were open and direct upon you unblinking almost in savour of the turmoil it hands out. Us gullied out on the worn maps of Him sunken down into the grooves cut deep by all who came before and augured into the sand of their own claim.

Do you believe that everything is random, do you believe like Bast in Gaddis’s JR that order is simply a thin perilous condition we impose on the true nature of chaos, that determinism itself is chaos and that chaos is deterministic, that we are all just matter and tiny particles (that’s basically pulsing light continually coming and going into and out of existence taken at the most minute level, some Planck scale) and that we’re all just this stuff playing itself out like pool balls flung across a table, seemingly chaotic but ultimately predictable and our paths defined – and if indeed it is all paved, our sins and all, do you believe that there is some meaning to it all at the end and what exactly is meaning given such a predicament?

The final sentence rocked me and helped refine much of what I’d read to that point. I won’t go into too much detail as I don’t want to muddy other people’s opinions or readings but I will say that there is suffering we can do little about and all we have is God and speculation for that, and mercy and sorrow and regret, but the true horror is horror we can do something about but condone or participate in anyway.

“Endings, instead, possess me . . .” – William Frederick Kohler