Now the Grammar of Our Discontent

The Complete Gary Lutz BY Gary Lutz. New York: Tyrant Books. 518 Pages. $20.

The cover of The Complete Gary Lutz

In 2008, Gary Lutz gave a lecture called “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” a transcript of which was later published in The Believer. The lecture outlined Lutz’s approach to short stories, specifically his punctilious focus on the sonic qualities of the sentence. He spoke in favor of “steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.” Interest in The Complete Gary Lutz, a five-hundred-page collection of the author’s work, might be gauged by one’s response to this sentiment, which is inextricable from the knotty phraseology used to express it. Most readers, I’d imagine, will politely pass, siding with my friend who suggested that Lutz’s work would be improved by its translation into English. But a passionate few—those of us known to recite his sentences as if they were song lyrics—will find cause to rejoice.

Lutz’s work has not always been easy to find. Knopf published his 1996 debut, Stories in the Worst Way, but his other books, as well as later editions of Stories, arrived in limited release from small publishers like 3rd Bed, Calamari Press, Black Square Editions, and Future Tense Books. Before its reissue in 2010, paperback copies of 2003’s I Looked Alive fetched upwards of $100 on eBay. A staple-bound first edition of 2007’s Partial List of People to Bleach still goes for $45. The Complete Gary Lutz collects the author’s five book-length works as well as nine previously uncollected “Stories Lost and Late.” Taken as a whole, the volume offers less an illustration of authorial evolution than one of remarkable artistic consistency.

Which is to say: Lutz emerged fully formed, style-markers and preoccupations intact. “What could be worse than having to be seen resorting to your own life?” begins “Sororally,” the first story here. “In my case, there was a fixed sum of experiences, of people, to or from which I could not yet add or subtract, but which I was skilled at coming to grief over, crucially, in broad daylight.” It’s a précis of the Lutz-ian condition, which is one of detached, algebraic, and dryly comic despair. As in all of Lutz’s work, alienation lives in the syntax itself; the layers of abstraction have a distancing effect, erecting a language wall between interior space and the concrete world.

The rest of The Complete Gary Lutz reads as a series of extrapolations on that opening. Over the course of more than ninety stories of varying length, Lutz trots out a succession of mostly unnamed and seemingly interchangeable characters almost universally beset by failed or failing marriages, taboo sexual compulsions, fatigue for the tedium of white-collar work, and a profound disconnect from other people and themselves.

Josh Sperling, Big Banger, 2019, acrylic on canvas, acrylic on panel, 107 × 98". Courtesy Sorry We’re Closed Gallery, Brussels
Josh Sperling, Big Banger, 2019, acrylic on canvas, acrylic on panel, 107 × 98". Courtesy Sorry We’re Closed Gallery, Brussels

Lutz’s stories are resistant to summary, not because nothing happens in them, but because it can be difficult to decipher what does. For Lutz, narrative is a by-product of language, not the other way around, and it unfolds musically rather than logically, resulting in sharp shifts and turns that are hard to track. I’m pretty sure, for example, that one story involves a man being fitted for dentures made in the molds of houses he lived in as a child, but I wouldn’t put money on it. I’m slightly more confident that another involves the use of a tennis racket in a backroom orchiectomy. The opacity is by design. These stories glory in language, but Lutz also seems to suggest that it’s an insufficient tool for representing experience. Characters constantly worry they’re not providing the right details or explaining things correctly. Their statements are subject to endless retractions and qualifications, and their cataloguing and quantifying never quite add up. The linguistic acrobatics can be read, in part, as a futile rebuff against the limits of expression.

Related themes are the instability of identity, and the unknowability of the self. One narrator feels like he’s “trespassing” on his life rather than inhabiting it. Another feels he’s “not so much living my life as roughing out loose, galling paraphrases” of his neighbors’ lives. The body is equally alien, “just the podium, the dais, from which a face had to speak.” The majority of these stories revolve around characters’ unsuccessful attempts to “pool their solitudes.” Marriage—“a fecal census of bodies”—is de rigueur, but so is divorce. Sexual encounters are gender-blind and often incestuous, and they occur with both a regularity and an emotional vacancy rarely seen outside of porn. As one narrator puts it, “The arms I put around people always met up again with each other.” If all this sounds bleak, well, yeah, that’s the point.

By Lutz’s own contention, his characters aren’t people, but “syntactic commotions,” and what happens in these stories is ultimately incidental to the language with which those events are conveyed. All is rendered in a similar Lutz-speak. Sentences are piled with clauses. Clauses are piled with modifiers. Words are bent and plied, commandeered to perform as other than their intended parts of speech. He’s especially fond of turning nouns into adverbs. A cigarette is “slanted apostrophically.” A hand opens “receptacularly.” Pimples “belt across her face zodiacally.”

This kind of prose is impressionistic rather than informational. The distinction is important. The hysterical realists—David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen—who came to prominence around the same time that Lutz’s stories began appearing in journals, were a different breed of maximalist, more interested in capturing something of the modern world’s totality of moving parts, the byte-by-byte behaviors of its operating systems. In the hysterical-realist novel, a character can’t ride a train without its author including a history of train travel and a primer on the way an engine works. Lutz is also a maximalist, but his long, recursive sentences tend to move away from specificity rather than toward it. The result is a kind of intensified vagueness. Lutz doesn’t want to explain the world, but to represent the often muddled sensation of being an animal that processes stimuli linguistically.

Lutz, of course, is not the first person to suggest that the fiction writer borrow something of the poet’s attention to language, nor the first to so consciously incorporate elements of poetry into his prose. Nabokov was an alliterator par excellence, Woolf’s and Bellow’s novels are wonderfully prosodic, and Kafka wrote with the near-tautological feel of aphorism. Lutz himself was a protégé of the writer and editor Gordon Lish, who is best known for his heavy editorial hand in the work of Raymond Carver, though his influence extends far beyond. As a teacher, Lish pushed an approach he called “consecution,” which I understand as an associative process in which the acoustics of one word lead the writer to the next, and of which Lutz would seem to be the ultimate practitioner.

Carver and Lutz occupy polar ends of the Lish spectrum. In the 1980s, Carver became the poster boy for a minimalist prose style that emerged in response to the previous era’s heady postmodernism. Lutz’s insular maximalism, by contrast, would seem to have arisen in opposition to a culture steeped in advertising lingo and corporate-speak, a culture in which language was in the process of being codified and commodified by corporations. And if Carver was a working-class hero, then Lutz is the bard of middle management, a chronicler of white-collar misery in the dour vein of the British Office, but if Ricky Gervais had spent half that series performing oral sex on strangers in public toilets.

For a writer like Lutz, the omnibus is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, one can’t help but feel awe at the sheer quantity of pristinely ornamented sentences collected here. On the other, these stories are not meant for rapid consumption. By his own admission, Lutz is after the “page-hugging, rather than page-turning reader.” Taken in succession, the prose begins to lose luster. “Fruitful botch of a girl” is a beautiful description, but sixty-odd pages and many similarly constructed sentences later, “tasseled toss-up of a woman” feels like a weaker facsimile. Diction that felt fresh and disruptive can start to seem precious. At one point I found myself wanting to scream “dude, just say mealtime!” when mealtide was offered instead.

Further, one gets worn down by the relentless bleakness of Lutz’s worldview and the tonal homogeneity of his stories. His characters are great collectors of detail, but all seem to be missing the “voice in the head that furnished a running interpretation of human incident”; they lack the capacity for reflection. It’s not that trauma is rendered flatly so much that when every sentence is given main-event status, a collective flattening occurs. To describe mourning a spouse in the same spirit that one describes doing laundry feels glib. Ultimately, this volume is best experienced piecemeal, placed on the shelf between other doorstoppers like Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet and Kafka’s letters, there for when you need a tonic for the dull verbiage of everyday life.

I’ve taught “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” a number of times. The result is always the same. Nine out of ten students are either uninterested, confounded, or mildly annoyed. But that tenth student will approach me after class, thrilled at the new ways of writing and seeing that the essay has opened. That tenth student will go on to read Lutz’s fiction. That student will try, as I did, and many others have done, to write sentences that sing like Lutz’s. And even if these imitations are destined to fail—mine certainly did—I’d like to think that the attempt is instructive. With a newfound attention to the rhythms of language, that student’s own unique style may begin to emerge.

Adam Wilson is the author of three books, including the forthcoming novel Sensation Machines (Soho Press, 2020).