Reading Gary Lutz can be an exhausting experience: his carefully rendered, off-centered constructions are so minutely prepared that they retain their architecture from word to sentence to paragraph to section to story. Lutz’s previous efforts—Stories in the Worst Way and I Looked Alive—are conventional-length collections, but even though his new work, Partial List of People to Bleach, is published pamphlet-style and contains only 7 stories in 56 pages, the prose-density is still so high that this thin, stapled collection honestly feels more satisfying than the earlier volumes. It’s sort of like the EPs that used to hold us between LPs.
“I kept waiting for someone to say something in a language that wasn’t shot.” Here, in brief, lies the primary aim of Lutz’s fictions. A sentence begins in one way and place, then ends in an entirely separate emotional universe, yet never gratuitously, never “incorrectly.” Lutz’s inventiveness with language is perhaps best seen in his near-genius ability to pare down connotations within a sentence, as in the line “Days were not so much finished as effaced” from “I Was in Kilter with Him a Little.” Throughout this collection, Lutz overtly battles cliché, in the process luring himself into fresh territory.
Partial List of People to Bleach is shockingly bereft of people, places, genders even—the things other stories typically take for granted. Lutz’s landscape is one of small cities, anonymous and gray. His view at most takes in three or four people at a time and most often two or less. With one exception, the entirety of this book is bereft of names, and even the one case of a named character—”Aisler”—isn’t a real name but only an invention of the narrator. All of the narrators (inevitably first-person) and most of the characters are pan-sexual. Even ages are uncertain: the age most cited is forty, as in the final, titular story: “Forty I was, then fortier.” The characters here are severely detached, attentive only to their private passions.
The only real landscape in this collection is the interior one. Such is the primacy of the interior that the narrator of “Home, School, Office” does not even disclose a gender; we are left with breadcrumbs of hints whose ambiguity nonetheless services the narrator’s emotional isolation. And at times the inner landscape is equally barren as the outer one. The narrator of “Years of Age” exemplifies this hopelessness, saying “Or was I already taking the long view—that the world we lived in stood in the way of another world, one where you need not keep going back into things with your eyes wide open?”
The longest story, “I Was in Kilter with Him a Little,” is also the most ambitious. In only 11 pages Lutz manages to contain the sweep of a life. Here the identifiably female narrator feints at emotional intimacy with a man time and again, only to come to the conclusion that “Things allowed me mostly lowered me.” Intimacy exists, if at all, only in retrospect. In the end she takes up with a girl who was “frank in her dreams, which she logged, but a liar in all other opportunities.” As in “I Was in Kilter,” the narrators of this collection inevitably settle for a modicum of comfort in a harrowingly inhospitable world of “plywooden hideaway housing.”
It’s worth noting that Lutz works mainly in succinct fiction, the opposite of Harold Brodkey, who believed that language reached rarefied emotional territory in long sentences, long books. Whereas Brodkey swoops and soars around and through, delimiting territory through paradoxically precise expansiveness, Lutz writes into the sentence, better achieving Musil’s dictum of “precision in matters of the soul” with enriched brevity. Still, he has managed to avoid the crutch of merely private language: the writing always remains accessible, and vulnerable.
In doing this, Lutz has mapped out his own territory somewhere amongst minimalism, postmodernism, metafiction, the avant-garde, and hysterical realism. You can try to place him among contemporaries such as David Foster Wallace and Ben Marcus, as Sven Birkerts does in his essay in The Believer, “A New Prose Signal,” rightly claiming that Lutz’s stories “map a most disconcerting loss of human certainty.” I mark another genesis: The Quarterly. I first encountered Lutz in the heady days of Gordon Lish’s publication, along with Greg Mulcahy, Darryl Scroggins, Cooper Esteban, Rick Bass, and John Dufresne. That was the last magazine I watched the mailbox for, and I miss that anticipation and sense of true discovery.
“I Was in Kilter with Him” ends with a line worthy of Beckett: “Then years had their say.” And so with Lutz, who publishes infrequently. Lutz bides his time with his publications, one senses, due to his high sensitivity to definition—both in terms of word-meanings and dimensions. In his fictions, when the reader double-takes on a sentence there’s a reward rather than confusion. If the human finds its uniqueness and origin in the place where language arises, then to reside in the human with enough patience and alertness to produce beautifully “kiltered” sentences is where Lutz pulls away from the crowd.
Daniel Whatley has published in Gulf Stream, The North Stone Review, and New Letters. He posts at Under the Big Black Sun.
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