In 2008, I attended a lecture Gary Lutz delivered to a packed room at Columbia University. We were there to hear the consummate wordsmith and student of Gordon Lish say something memorable about the primacy of sentences. And he did. He spoke of words “behaving” as if they were destined to be together. He spoke of combinations of words that were so worked over by the author that they could not be improved on and were preparing themselves for “infinity.” But when it came to stories overall, Lutz had only this to say: “I almost never start with even a glimmer of a situation or a plot.”
Lutz is a master prose stylist. Yet to say that he privileges sentences over plot somewhat misses the point—the equivalent of saying that Seurat privileged brushstrokes over park scenes. Impressionists took a fragmentary approach to painting in an attempt to mirror the actual experience of seeing light fall on trees. In Divorcer, Lutz uses form—on both the sentence and narrative level—to enable the reader to experience directly the grim and unstable perspective of his characters.
With slight syntactical alteration—adding suffixes, using verbs as adjectives, blurring lexical categories—Lutz likes to dislocate a word from its familiar associations. In the title story, he writes: “. . . These were quelled girls with queering glowers, older young women unpetted and inexpert in dress, sideburned boys who were uglifiers of their one good feature . . .” Consistently, Lutz takes familiar language (“queer,” “ugly,” “petted”) and makes it less specific, but the resulting sensibility is unmistakably bleak, heavy with repression, abandonment, and self-loathing. Through suggestive leaps, Lutz suffuses the characters and physical objects of this shadowy world with an aura of ineffable yearning, a gloominess more sharply felt through his mordant implications than it would be if he were to use the conventional words of literature. This indefiniteness approximates the effect of music, creating a dirgelike mood permeated with an air of postcoital melancholy, in which all action feels incidental.
Like most of Lutz’s work, the seven stories in Divorcer feature somewhat recognizable characters, most of them lonely, middle-aged men and women, living in faceless cities and working dead-end jobs. And there is, at times, a semblance of a theme, particularly around the titular “divorce.” The characters enter into shaky unions (“I’d thought of marriage as a gateway to other people.”), split apart from each other (“So, in brief, we were not so much a couple as a twofold loneliness”), and engage in joyless sex (“If I say that we had sex, all I mean is that we possessed it one at a time while the other of us had to make do without”). But there is almost no linear narrative to speak of. Rather, odd episodes of these characters’ lives accumulate and jar against each other, forming an unnerving compendium of lost time.
If you were to flatten Lutz’s sentences—attempted, that is, to translate them into more straightforward statements—the story lines would still shirk rational explanation. Their strangeness is buried deep in their DNA. Take “Fathering,” in which the narrator assists his daughter with one of her homework projects. Because he’s spending so much time with her, he brings in other men to “tend” to his wife. What ensues is a deranged tale with passage after passage of logic-defying progression. The daughter writes a story of a gruesome murder. Instead of showing concern, the teacher asks the girl to develop the grisly fantasy even further. The content, as well as the syntax, discomfits, relentlessly threatening to estrange, even divorce, the reader. And yet his control of the language and the tone exerts a strange power, his characters acting less as individuals than as the raw tonal material of a sad polyphonic symphony.
As we see in Divorcer, character and interiority can be prosperously realized by virtue of surface manipulation of the text. Yet Lutz succeeds where so many other language-obsessed writers fail, because his narratives rise beyond the lexical tricks of which they’re composed. Give yourself over to the contorted logic of this book and you come away lugubrious yet exuberant, having lived for a time in a reality at once shattered and inspired. Lutz, one of the more important writers of the short story, may excel at suggesting despair, but in doing so his work gathers a remarkable strength, allowing him to battle convention and win.