Again the genius of Gary Lutz


“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.


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”.


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.


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

Actress in the House – Joseph McElroy (Prose #24)

When you’ve heard one you find you’ve heard others, addressing you at length or so low you froze – not unequal to it but plunged in the midst of your own unknown gift you’ve made too little of or too much of, its alleged existence, which is probably just rerunning events, not from guilt long ago buried or from the not-guilt of extreme clarity, but to take a good look at what’s going on behind you in the so-to-speak vehicle that you’re driving. Belly of the beast speaking when you listen, if you yourself are not it.

The Public Burning – Robert Coover (Prose #23)

But wherever they go, sooner or later they will come to Times Square. Today, of course, this is required of them, even the locals will be here tonight, but even without the public electrocutions, they would gather here. Partly because of the sex: this is the home of the G-string, the curate hustler, the dirty book and the naughty record, the bedroom comedy and cheap condom, and the American tourist is well-known – and far beyond his own shores – as the horniest creature this side of the Bronx Zoo. Whatever he needs, he can find here, from an orchestra view of famous move stars onstage in their skivvies to a quick blow job in a subway john but this is not in the main why he is drawn here. For if sex is dirty, it is also, at its dirtiest, cleansing; if it defiles, it also sanctifies: the principal reason for the traffic into Time Square – this place of feasts, spectacle, and magic – is that it is the ritual center of the Western World.

Mao II – Don DeLillo



This book is easily one of my favourite from DeLillo’s oeuvre, the prose is on point, the ideas are thick and fast and genuinely interesting and DeLillo doesn’t drag it out too long. I’ve always felt he works best in the somewhat shorter form, the 150-400 page range, something like Underworld just didn’t work for me, there were a few sections I enjoyed but the book suffered from an undercooked and soggy middle, but in Mao II Don’s prose never wavers and he gets out just in time before the whole thing burns away.

In the dust-jacket’s blurb it says the story is an intimate story about faith, longing, and redemption. I didn’t feel a sense of redemption about this book, or even much of a discussion about faith or longing. There are overt themes about the nature of art and the artist’s role in a society “reduced to blur and glut”, the isolated nature of the artist, and whether art is mere entertainment or something deeper and more profound. DeLillo has crammed a lot in here, there are multiple POV’s where all these themes and questions are streamed through and I think for the most part it works, DeLillo’s prose rarely drops a beat and the whole time you’re aware you’re in the hands of a master at the top of his game, and even though the plot is a mostly failure I’d rather read a beautiful failure like this than just about anything that gets lauded nowadays.

The opening section is worth the price of entry alone, a brilliant account of a mass Moonie wedding which is then followed by the young bride’s (Karen’s) nascent religious journey through tough urban streets. This idea of giving yourself away to something and self-sacrifice is obviously brought up early in the book and runs throughout it in various contexts. And I do think that the idea of faith to an ideal, whether it be art or some wider political struggle, is one of the stronger elements of the book and one of the more interesting concepts it wrestles with.

Of course you don’t read DeLillo for the plot but as I mentioned before the plot really doesn’t go anywhere, the whole thing just falls apart and DeLillo is left awkwardly tying bows, as in the end Bill Gray dies somewhat peacefully and abruptly, the poet held by the terrorist cell essentially disappears and is rumoured to be changing hands across various organisations, the photographer Brita moves on to documenting terrorist leaders and the books ends as it started with the scene of a wedding.

They way they live in the shadows, live willingly with death. The way they hate many of the things you hate. Their discipline and cunning. The coherence of their lives. The way they excite, they excite admiration. In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There’s too much everything, more things and messages and meanings than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed. The artist is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and incorporated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn’t figured out how to assimilate him.

Throughout DeLillo’s career he seems to have had a fascination with the terrorist outsider, that Beeb documentary he did was largely about the questions raised in this book and also Libra, and his work post-Libra seems dotted here or there with terrorist acts and a particular curiosity with the media’s portrayal of these acts and the cultural significance of these atrocities – the parallels between these preoccupations and his fascination with death are also worth noting.

In some ways DeLillo’s take of the terrorist as the outsider and not assimilated by culture seems kind of dated now with the rise of the religious fundamentalist terrorist in culture in recent years, particularly in mainstream media culture where the terrorist, while still horrific, is almost a caricature and more a political tool than some fascinating martyr.

Obviously the terrorist’s acts are still outside the cultural ideals of The West and this gives them their power “terror is the only meaningful act”, and I guess art in this regard is somewhat impotent in the face of what the terrorist can do and how they can come to dominate culture, and there is little doubt that the terrorist “dominates the rush of endless streaming images” as DeLillo describes,  but indiscriminate murder will always have a degree of shock and power regardless of how it’s framed. The novel seems to bask in this self-deprecation and this is its weakness, DeLillo doesn’t seem to make a case for art and how much it has over terrorism – just to add to this train of thought, the German composer Stockhausen famously suggested that the attacks of 9/11 were the greatest work of art ever made and that art couldn’t touch them in terms of magnitude and impact (remarks that he later retracted).

Art moves in ways beyond simply horror or bafflement or even awe, the fact that art manages to move and stun and change you without relying on the nefarious tactics of terror is what makes it art and not just barbarism or some grave use of force. Art has a dignity and grace and humanity terror doesn’t have, this is art’s power.

Mao II – Don DeLillo (Prose #22)

She watched him surrender his crisp gaze to a softening, a bright-eyed fear that seemed to tunnel out of childhood. It had the starkness of a last prayer. She worked to get at it. His face was drained and slack, coming into flatness, into black and white, cracked lips and flaring brows, age lines that hinge the chin, old bafflements and regrets. She moved in closer and refocused, she shot and shot, and he stood there looking into the lens, soft eyes shining.