Everything Starts With Language: Gary Lutz’s divorcer
A Review by Jason DeYoung
Gary Lutz’s seven stories in divorcer are preposterous—in the best possible way. They disobey logic, scorn common storytelling technique, and frolic with destabilizing off-plot descriptions that are at once powerful and confounding. Yet Lutz never loses sight of his character’s emotions and how they squirm to “get around to” their lives. He respects his characters—despite the grim maze of humiliations he puts them through—by giving them some of the best writing out there to take breath in. Built from an intense, ferocious vocabulary, Lutz’s fiction decries the mere functionality of language. Each unnerving story uproots expectations and delights with showing the reader the sun of a new approach in sentences that range from the overgrown to the monosyllabic to the fill-in-the-blank.
divorcer is Gary Lutz’s third full-length collection of stories (Stories in the Worst Way from Calamari Press and I Looked Alive from The Brooklyn Rail/Black Square are the two others, and A Partial List of People to Bleach is fourth collection, which was published as a pamphlet from Future Tense Books). Lutz lists Barry Hannah, Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, and F. Scott Fizgerald as influences, and he is a former student of Gordon Lish, who published many of Lutz’s early stories in the legendary The Quarterly, the avant-garde journal Lish ran between 1987 and 1995 (publishing (and introducing) such writers as Don Delillo, Nancy Lemann, Thomas Lynch, Tim O’Brien and Numéro Cinq’s Capo di tutti capi Douglas Glover).
The first person perceptive dominates divorcer. Within each story you are secluded with the bent and ruptured interiority of its narrator. Most of the characters are in their middle years, living in unspecified cities or towns, and in relationships at some variant degree of fizzle. They are all lonely. The shorter stories in divorcer arrive packaged neatly with linear narratives. The longer stories, however, are delivered disassembled and without the benefit of a cohesive and easily recognizable plot to follow. Of course, this is no burden for Lutz who doesn’t seem all that interested in plot anyway, as he writes this in his essay “The Sentence is a Lonely Place”: “I almost never start with even a glimmer of a situation or a plot.” He likes conclusions, not the humdrumery of characters playing out scenes, as his narrator says in “Womanesque”: “We naturally went to movies, shrines, boat shows, anyplace open, but must I go over any of that?”
Instead, as Lutz declares in a recent Paris Review interview, “almost everything starts with language” when he begins a story. And what language! Lutz wants to write fiction 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” (“The Sentence is a Lonely Place”).
So, let’s liberate a few sentences:
“Life, he preferred to boast, came direct to him and not, as to her, through curtains, screens, thickenings.” (“Womenesque”)
“There was the one [co-worker] I’d surprised, sinkside, shampooing his eyebrows—eyebrows whose bristles he kept snipped suchwise that they shot out at you as vulgar perpendiculars.” (“Divorcer”)
“I preferred brochures of things over the things brouchured.” (“Middleton”)
“To cut things short: she was mortally thirty and was drawn now to the uncomely, the miscurved, the dodged-looking and otherwise unpreferred, so my body must have naturally been a find—breasts barely risen, putty-colored legs scrimping on sinew, knees that looked a little loose, teeth provocative and unimproved.” (“To Whom Might I Have Concerned?”)
“They looked me over for signs that a life by my side would not mean years lopped off his future.” (“I Have to Feel Halved”)
“He had on a loose shirt of daft, demanding plaid.” (“Divorcer”)
This is an unsatisfactory list of quotations because much of the book is made up of these inspired, “portable” exuberances of words. Sentences that replicate what they are describing, as in the first example with its curtains, screens, thickenings—the end of the sentence fogging as much as her own perceptive. Sentences that abound with surprising new word constructions such as in “sinkside” which complements “suchwise” and brilliantly refreshes the all too easy sibilant alliteration. And of course the handy trick of tweaking nouns into verbs, or verbs into nouns. I don’t want to bog us down too much in heavy-duty textual criticism here, but just take some time to look at the other sentences. Notice their syntactical contortions, how Lutz dislocated words from there commonplace-ness, how he takes the familiar down the rabbit’s hole. Look at how their playful constructions give way to strange yet clear and original characterization. There’s something so damn awful about the gag of a sounds in “daft, demanding plaid.”
All these extraordinary sentences juddering together create astonishing and unusual stories. Lutz is a writer not so interested in what happened, but in what could happen. In “Fathering” a man is met with the challenge of knowing his “daughter was in the grade where you have to prove that the school can’t go on without you.” The young girl is given a series of absurd assignments with the final one to describe a “local male.” The father, in an effort to keep his daughter in this school, swallows what’s left of his pride and tells her about one of the lovers he has hired to “tend” to his wife (the daughter’s mother). Reported back to the teacher, this salacious tale keeps the daughter enrolled. In “Middleton” a man goes looking for a reincarnated “version” of his wife at a small-business carnival, and he finds her in a young man whom he takes home and disastrously dresses him in the deceased wife’s “cocktail thing.” And in “The Driving Dress,” Lutz revisits the cross-dressing theme with a jilted husband dieting so that he can wear his wife’s clothes: “I knocked off the weight by eating the sort of things she had eaten and in much the same niggled portions, as best I could remember, and all of the food was innovatively unmeated and noodled over, not agreeable to me at all.”
As I mentioned, some of the other stories simply do not have conflict-driven plots. What Lutz might give you is something like this: “Whatever it was between us that wasn’t of a sort that should have warranted marriage: I hit back how?… My penis might have reach, maybe, but it never increased itself for her.” This bit of anguish is from the title story, which starts with the couple’s initial coming together, but never explores what separates them. The reader is carried along by the power of Lutz’s polyphonic sentences and the narrator’s insights regarding divorce. It concludes without any ultimate confrontation but with the comforting words of a tax preparer, who is convinced the narrator will come out of “this” the innocent one. Alas tax preparation is as muddied as the reasons for marriage and divorce.
The great Montreal-born writer, Mavis Gallant, in the introduction to her massive Selected Short Stories, advises that “stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” I’ve never felt the need to repeat this advice, let alone to follow it until reading divorcer. But I think Gallant’s admonition is spot on. Lutz’s rich, off-center, hyper-articulate style doesn’t lend itself well to gluttonous reading—these stories aren’t to be gulped down in a single sitting. His sentences and his stories want you to take the time to puzzle them. So, the stories are best when read slowly, savored individually, one per day, like pricey candy that’s worth the cost.
Jason DeYoung lives in Washington, DC. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiddleback, Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Harpur Palate, and Numéro Cinq, among others. He is a Numéro Cinq staff contributor.