by Gary Lutz
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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