Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gary Lutz, _I Looked Alive_

SO WHY IS this book not even in print when it ought to be on every must-read list for contemporary fiction?  Used copies start at $46.49, according to Amazon.com, so some canny publisher ought to get on it right now.

Lutz advocates usually mention his sentences, and with unusually good reason.  You have never seen anything like them.   Precision veering into vagueness, confession overtaking evasion, clarity trying to wring its own neck...a Lutz sentence is often a story all by itself.  "For we were brother and younger sister, cobelligerents on the centerpiece of a pushed-apart sectional sofa, and I told her, naturally, that when it had happened to me, the 'friend' was a boy with a disadvantaging face, big and round, much of it still to be filled in, and before the day was out I had gone sick for the first venereal do-gooder to come my way."

Most of the stories here are written in the first person, with narrators that vary somewhat in age, gender, and circumstances, but the Lutz-sentence is not about capturing the way anyone talks ("She was a woman of punctual life-tides, ate right, had suffered at all the right  hands"). There is a lot of adapting a word from one part of speech to another in novel clusters of morphemes ("...one part of her would be arisen, pivotal, summonsy, awag -- a chancing hand, perhaps, or gleamed, unsecretful ankle").  There are the disjunctions and dislocations of modernism, but without the sense that all will sort itself out once we crack the code.

The collection, Lutz's second, is dedicated, as his first was as well, to Gordon Lish, which may be why I at times one thought of Raymond Carver.  Lutz's characters, like Carver's, tend to be at the end of their strings, long out of good options, which were never plentiful anyway.  As in Carver, a sadness too deep for tears rises off the page.  

But there is no other sad like Lutz's sad. Character after character at some imponderable distance from the other people in their lives, from the conditions of their existence, from their own bodies and those bodies' preposterous needs.  The wish to articulate the truth of this alienation struggles painfully with resentment at having to know it or name it at all.  The characters seem to be trying to get away from their stories in the process of telling them, handling the toxic stuff of their lives with the thick padded gloves of the Lutz-sentence, which somehow also manages to leave that stuff as naked and exposed as it could be.

Doesn't sound like much fun, I know, which perhaps answers the question of why the book is out of print.  But Gary Lutz is a writer we need.

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