Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gary Lutz and Postmodern Sentence Poetics

The ideal writing does not necessarily make for ideal reading. At first blush, this can be the effect of a Gary Lutz story. The immediate, visceral appeal of his stories, with their emphasis on the dynamics of word sounds and affinities, suggests an objective beyond  storytelling. Traditionally, the fiction writer deploys a series of hooks or leads or clues--items that convince the reader that something is being gained (or learned, deciphered, comprehended, gathered, earned, etc.). It usually is not enough to be beautiful (though it can be) or unusual (though it can be), but in the standard approach, the reader can fashion certain objectives from the work. The motivation for understanding implies that the writing supplies objectives.
In practice, the goals of fiction are often geared toward the writer’s construction of a prose puzzle, something from a complicated and unquantifiable internal dialogue, which can encompass more than the traditional signposts. This is how I read Lutz’s stories.
I began to think about form and the gymnastics of sentences in reading Gary Lutz’s essay about writing in The Believer “The Sentence is a Lonely Place”. Lutz, a student and proponent of Gordon Lish, discusses his preoccupation with words and sentences; Lutz doesn’t even consider story, in fact. It’s all about language. But in reading this piece, with its extreme emphasis on technique, I kept thinking, “balance.” There is the inevitable question of where, when and how much? We’ve all read prose that’s too wound into its own self-consciousness to be readable, which returns the ball to the reader. Most folks will check out if they don’t “get” it. Beyond the verbal endspiel, the reader’s experience can go by the wayside. But is it even necessary to think about this? I ‘d guess Lutz would say this is what his work does. But for its often cryptic seeming effect, he creates something almost esoteric in the form of a short story. At least this approach forces a writer to become more attentive to the words. Is that ever a bad thing?
I suspect a lot of these processes Lutz talks about in the essay happen as much accidentally, through careful and religious editing, as they would when they are consciously deliberated. In other words, much of his method could be achieved by a writer’s paying careful and systematic attention to the sentences’ and words’ deployment.          
There might be a common line here between poetry and storytelling. Lutz clearly revels in the formality of sentences. But it also feels like his writing has a strong influence from poetry. The process of writing poetry--to oversimplify far too much--is often grouping sympathetic words before a sentence is declared; this is also a Lutz technique. Lutz’s writing reminds me of my experience at Goddard studying under Carla Harryman--and trying to understand her process--and some of the investigations with writing that I undertook at her behest. Which sent me to the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry for a refresher course.
Regarding post-modern poetry, the writing is often a preoccupation with form, of process versus a final product; finding a form that fulfills the promise of the language. Not to oversimplify, but understanding some of this work can enact its toll on even a patient, attentive reader. This does not make it good or bad-- insularity is always somewhat inaccessible.
The following is a sampling from several of Lutz’s stories:

                “The house was mostly beaverboard and ungroomed carpet and concerted backdate appliances.” (1)
                “The youngest, a boy, was a little loose and unfortified in what he knew. He called the floor “the ground” and did not so much walk as trifle his legs forward: there were negligences, even criticisms of the filled world, in his lawless progress toward the table where supper could no longer wait.” (2)
“It was a period, understand, of rationed, grating embraces, and then one day she came out with a baby, sprang it on me in a bassinet upstairs. I know I must have eventually confused the thing with mock holidays, and lonely toilet drills, and homemade cereals that just sank in the milk, and I know I must have stood the kid up in front of uncles and ball-rolling aunts, and then she vanished with it into her vague-faced, waiting family.” (3)
“Afternoons, the sky volunteered its birds and its sun-showers. We would be out on the patio again, each with a rubble of white chocolate in a ruffled paper baking cup. The one skymark was a radio tower, laddery and ablink.
Anything, she kept demanding, is the seat of passion.” (4)
(1) and (2) “Fingerache”; (3)“Femme”; (4) “Uncle”: Gary Lutz, I Looked Alive, 2008 Black Square Editions & The Brooklyn Rail, 2010

I don’t always comprehend Lutz’s work, which is perhaps, naively, what I find so compelling about it. Or I get it insofar as I get the process by which he creates it, and I can derive my own understanding of it. In an interview in New York Tyrant, Lutz says this about his work: “[...] I like writing that’s capsular, conclusional--writing that gives you the precipitate of experience and not the experience itself. For me, the residue is usually more interesting than whichever person, place or thing the residue might be residual of.”
                That what Lutz writes are nominally stories with their words’ careful rubbing together, tend to enlarge their writer’s status in a sea of traditional expressions of the form. A reader might get the impression that this language work is somehow saying more. It could be. It is definitely saying it differently. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, it is impossible to put words together without sense. Why shouldn’t a writer aspire to deploy words in such an interesting, intensive manner?

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