This review was written in 2007 for the now defunct literary journal Small Spiral Notebook. I think it was the first time I tried to review a more expThis review was written in 2007 for the now defunct literary journal Small Spiral Notebook. I think it was the first time I tried to review a more experimental book of fiction.
It’s easy enough to categorize Gary Lutz with that faint bit of praise “a writers’ writer,” but doing so takes the easy way out of engaging his unique, complex stories. And the easy route is something Lutz doesn’t allow himself, his fiction, or the language he uses. His work displays a rare unity in which each word and sentence reflect the larger story and its characters, weaving together form and function, art and craft to reward thoughtful reading and rereading.
As in his earlier collections, the stories in Lutz’ latest book, Partial List of People to Bleach, are plotted in only the most tangential ways and are deceptive in their brevity. Each story greets the reader like a puzzle, composed from elements never obvious or expected. The fleeting, hazy moments of Lutz’ fiction are seldom long enough to create a false sense of clarity, because as one character says, “The only way to ruin your eyes is to keep looking at people.” They are just the right length to be read quickly, irresistibly read again, and reconsidered for hours and days afterward. Though the collection is only a slim fifty-six pages, it’s a slow read because the mind gets so caught up making sense of and savoring what has been read. Moving from one story on to the next is harder than with more conventional, familiar writing, or with language that hasn’t been challenged to offer more than easy descriptions.
Most of Lutz’ stories concern down-and-out, outcast, and often disturbing characters with awkward obsessions and kinks. The protagonist of the opening story, “Home, School, Office” is a college professor who admits to, even revels in, being disliked by his students and largely incompetent in his profession. There are incestuous families, damaged children, and men and women as coldly distant from the world and each other as the narrator in “I Was in Kilter with Him a Little,” who describes her former husband as “largely a passerby.” She goes on to say that
He had an unconsoling side, this husband, and a mean streak, and a pain that gadded about in his mouth, his jaw, and there was a bumble of blond hair all over him, and he couldn’t count on sleep, on dreams, to get a done day butchered improvingly.
He drove a mutt of a car and was the lone typewriter mechanic left in the territory, a servicer of devastated platens, a releaser of stuck keys.
I would let him go broadly and unwitnessed into his day.
So much of what makes Lutz’ stories distinctive and difficult and worthwhile is in this passage: the characters seeing each other only from a distance, reflected in the language of “this husband” with no hint of possession or closeness; the descriptions of lives assembled from disjointed, apparently unrelated details, relying on the reader to put them together; and sentences built the same way, out of phrases like “get a done day butchered improvingly,” insisting on genuine effort to work out exactly what’s meant despite each word being familiar in isolation. The stories of this collection are studded with details that jar and jab the reader in the same way the wife mentioned above goes on to relate how she “thumbed out most of the teeth from a comb of his, stuck them upright in rough tufts of our carpet--whatever it took to get a barefoot person hurt revolutionarily.” These stories bare not our feet, but our preconceptions about fiction and how it functions, then they hurt us as revolutionarily as the hidden teeth of a comb.
In “Six Stories,” a series of ambiguously connected vignettes, the narrator waits “for someone to say something in a language that wasn’t shot.” Gary Lutz offers just such a language, uniting his characters and his readers in a challenge to make sense of the world through details ordinary enough on their own but brought together in unexpected, puzzling ways, and the world is made new in the process. Whereas other authors rely on fantasy to achieve this recreation, Lutz turns the supposedly banal and mundane into anything but, and reminds us of the constant negotiations of confusion and construction that life—and, at its best, literature—demands. It isn’t always, or often, pleasant, but it is as rich with possibility as an observation made by the child narrator of “Tic Douloureux”:
That day I began to develop an appreciation for how things upstairs sounded to people underneath. From every footfall, every stride, came a creak that rippled outward until it overspread the entire ceiling of the room. The effect was one of resounding activity, of achievements far and wide.
In 1978’s Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino envisions all the ways cities might be built or imagined, and the lives those cities could lead to. With a nIn 1978’s Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino envisions all the ways cities might be built or imagined, and the lives those cities could lead to. With a nod to Calvino, Angus Peter Campbell’s Invisible Islands asks the same question of an imagined Scottish archipelago. In doing so he counters head-on the bias that cities are where the world happens, and that rural communities — especially islands — are as isolated culturally and historically as they might be physically.
These islands occupy the same networks and webs as the rest of the world, connected by satellite, cellphone, and email. The dead on the island of Liursaigh are stirred by BBC broadcasts of their own voices and stories, recorded perhaps by folklorists bent on preserving indigenous cultures before they disappear. The island of Craolaigh hosts “The telecommunications mast which now dominates the island from the air… erected ten years ago by the BBC and Quadbandfon who uniquely combined to erect a bi-system, in direct competition with Murdoch and his allies,” placing this uninhabited “lump of molten rock” at the center rather than periphery of global media empires — and, if communication is king, at the center of the world’s cultural and current events. As anyone along that network already knows, a large percentage of that communication is junk, but rather than simply celebrate traditional knowledge over contemporary (as often happens in sentimentalized rural fiction), Campbell writes,
If analyzed, of course, the marvellous archive from the island of Clàraigh would reveal much the same fact: if the archive hadn’t been edited and chosen, the same human silt would have gathered, concerning itself with boils and hemorrhoids and lusts and desires and small hopes and failures — with the things which the vast majority of our daily lives. If there are great songs and poems and stories and tales and myths and legends and beliefs in the annals, they are there because fortune happened to gather them, in the shape of a passing collector, or a travelling scholar sponsored by a university or a government momentarily distracted from a war or from economic development.
Other nets enmesh these islands, too. The military installations on Armaigh link them to the world of war and destruction, as do incoming accounts and survivors of terrorism in London and the world’s other cities. Islanders are no more immune to the world’s ills and anxieties than their urban cousins — not only is no man an island, no island is either. Religion, too, and its centuries of conquests are mapped on these outposts, in particular empty St Eòinean’s:
But whether Eòinean ever actually stayed on the island more than a single prayerful night in a cartographic sense doesn’t matter. Following the formal expulsion of the Vikings after Largs in 1263 and the establishing of the Lordship of the Isles he became part of the great theological mapping of the late-13th century when Reginald, First Lord of the Isles accompanied the Bishop of Sodor on the great journey which saw so many ancient Celtic sites re-claimed and re-dedicated to the indigenous saints.
The bareness of the island today is, therefore, full of substance: the tiny gap between the finger of Adam and the finger of God is filled with the awesome history of the whole world and the grand plan which Michelangelo Buonarrotti mapped out for the Sistine Chapel….
The awesome glory of Rome is brought to full life on the bare rock of St Eòinean’s which no one ever visits…
Like radio waves and cartographically inclined bishops, islanders are constantly coming and going, and emigration creates problems and possibilities of its own, as on Colathaigh, where elders urging the young to study history are met with arguments in favor of “of the tremendously successful system in the United States of Amnesia where the more you forgot the further you progressed and were rewarded.” Such tension between past and present, tradition and innovation is reflected in geography, in history, and also in language as on Labhraigh, where each word and gesture expresses past, present, and future at once. Perhaps most of all, it is present in the misleading name of Cumanta:
the Island of the Commonplace or, if you prefer, Ordinary Island.
Here is where nothing extraordinary ever happens: an island chock-full of ordinary people, some happy, some sad, some old, some young, some male, some female, some drunk, some sober, some employed, some unemployed. It has all the things that other ordinary islands have, though none of the things that other ordinary islands have….
The difficulty is to know where the lie originated — when did the most extraordinary thing that ever happened become ordinary?… Who gave Cumanta its name, and defined its history and mythology and has given this people this definition of themselves and their place as ordinary and common, making them citizens of a falsehood?
In charting his twenty-one islands, Campbell reveals the lie of the ordinary time after time. In doing so, he also reveals the lie of drab, distant places far from the cities where “everything happens,” replacing that outdated myth with a vaster universe than we might imagine could fit on a single archipelago in the northern Atlantic. ...more