Gordon Lish, despite his pesky notoriety vis a vis Raymond Carver, bestrides the American literary scene like a colossus but not, you know, in an obvious way because he stands outside the non-tradition of the marketplace, that other colossus. He is a restlessly prolific author, editor and teacher; his influence seeps into the interstices of the culture. He has established a taste and a method (see Jason Lucarelli’s “The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence“). His ghostly signature lies on what a lot of readers and writers today think of as good writing. There are websites devoted to listing the writers he has touched. The last American prose writer who had this kind of impact on the minds of the best writers of her era was Gertrude Stein. Like Stein, Lish is in the ranks of the avant garde, the Modernists. Once he was known as Captain Fiction and edited fiction for Esquire and later books for Knopf. I always found that amazing, a disjunct. Because the first piece of Gordon Lish fiction I read was his 1989 novel Extravaganza, which was unlike any American fiction I had read before (and, I thought, completely NOT mainstream — how could this guy be working for Esquire?). Extravaganza is 200 pages of borscht-belt standup comedy, one Jewish joke after another. There is no story at all, but gradually the language of the jokes becomes infected with references to the Holocaust, the hoary old jokes are disrupted with references to whips and cattle cars. It is a beautiful, scary, maddeningly recursive adventure. The recursiveness, the throw of grammar, lulls the reader, defines expectation. Then Lish defies expectation; violence, depradation, sadism, mayhem explode into the sentences.
So, yes, when I think of Gordon Lish, I think of Gertrude Stein, I think of Flaubert (Extravaganza seems like an heir to Bouvard and Pécuchet). I think of the avant garde. I think of a writer super-conscious of the role of language in the shaping of reality. I think of a writer steeped in Continental philosophy (Deleuze, Kristeva — and I think how extremely small-minded and beside the point are the debates about his role in Raymond Carver’s career). I think of a writer who has an almost mystical appreciation for the relationship of words (type, text) and the white space, the frame. I interviewed Lish once (I have published the sound file on NC: Causing Damage — Captain Fiction Redivivus: DG Interview With Gordon Lish), and we spent some time talking about this, his idea of cutting words to expose the “mystery,” the word “mystery” having, yes, a technical armature, almost tangible for Lish. We are talking here not of a mere writer of stories, but of a man who self-dramatizes as being on the world’s rim, the space between language and not-language. He gets your blood up, does Gordon Lish. His sentences make you itch to write.
All this by way of introducing the following brief, shocking excerpt from Lish’s 1986 novel Peru, just republished by Dalkey Archive Press with an introduction by the author. Peru is a compulsively “spoken,” recursive, stylized monologue that circles around and around the moment in 1940, when, at the age of six, the narrator murdered another six-year-old boy with a toy hoe in a sandbox. I give you here one of the great death/murder scenes, bizarrely dispassionate, full of a kind of schizophrenic detail and a consciousness on the narrator’s part of wanting to tell you the story correctly. So, at the outset, the first detail he tells you about the murder is that he could hear water running for the garden spigot, a detail that seems irrelevant and then compelling. We see the pitted marks the hoe leaves on the victim’s face. We see the victim getting up from his dying and stumbling around, watching his own dying. Everything is strange, focused, and unexpected. Lish escapes the novelese of conventional expectation and launches us into a realm of language and horror.
In addition to the excerpt, I point you here to David Winters’ excellent essay on the novel in 3AM Magazine: “Truth, Force, Composition.” Also, as linked above, Jason Lucarelli’s essay on Lish’s compositional method, called consecution, and my interview with Lish. Finally, the photographer bill hayward, long an associate and friend of Gordon Lish, recently allowed NC to publish a series of Lish portraits: Gordon Lish: Photographs — bill hayward.
I’ll tell you one of the worst things in my life. This is one of the worst things in my life—a day when the nanny said that I couldn’t come over and play but one when she went ahead and changed her mind later on and said that I could actually do it—and then it started raining just a little bit after she’d said it, like just instants, just instants after she had given me her blessing—and then for the whole rest of the day, all the rest of that day after Andy Lieblich went in and the nanny went in with him, I sat down inside of our garage and kept feeling funny and out of the ordinary, like as if I was in some kind of trouble and that certain things which I did not exactly know about yet were probably dangerously unfinished, lying lopsided somewhere and being dangerous, and it made me feel a terrible wildness, this strange feeling, which I think, to my way of thinking as a child, was the worse one, the feeling before the feeling of wildness, the feeling of incompletion and of chaos, a feeling of things getting started and of never getting them over with, of parts of them being impossible for you to ever get them totally taken care of yourself.
In a halfway sense, I think I can say that the day I killed Steven Adinoff, that is, that that particular day—but only in this halfway sense of things which I have mentioned—was a day like that. On the other hand, now that I have said that, I think it is only fair for me to say that I have the feeling that I am making too much out of the thing, that I am probably not really remembering anything.
I should be skipping the feelings and be sticking to other things, anyway. To what I remember because I actually heard it or saw it or so forth and so on—I should be sticking to things like this before things start getting too mixed up.
I heard the water going.
The whole time I was killing him I heard the water getting out of where the colored man had it hooked up to the Lieblich’s spigot—the water he was using for the Buick, the whole time the other thing was happening, the water for the fit between the hose, on the one hand, and the spigot, on the other, was a little bit loose, even though it was the colored man who had it hooked up and who—next to me, next to me—was the world’s most watchful human being in the whole wide world.
Even afterwards, even when I was going home, it was still going then, the tiny hissing was, like a sizzle, like the way a frying pan with some drops of water in it will sizzle, or make a sizzle, or sound like it’s sizzling.
The nanny saw it. Andy Lieblich saw it. So did Steven Adinoff himself. We all saw it. We all watched. Steven Adinoff watched just as much as anybody else.
That’s the thing about it—you watch.
That’s the unbelievable thing about it—that you watch it even if it’s you yourself that’s getting killed.
He watched himself get chopped up.
To me it looked like he was interested in just lying there and watching it. Because isn’t it interesting to watch it even if it’s happening to you? That you’re the one who’s getting it doesn’t make any difference. Actually, if my own personal experience can be counted for anything, that part of it—my opinion is that that part of it is the part of it which just makes you al the more interested in it.
But maybe he did not understand what was going on anymore, what connection there was between him getting killed and the hoe anymore, between what was happening to him and what I myself was doing to him with the hoe anymore. Maybe the thing was that Steven Adinoff was probably thinking of something else.
I don’t know. Maybe that’s what you do—you think of something else. Maybe you can’t even help it. Maybe you can’t even stop yourself from just going ahead and thinking of something which doesn’t have anything to do with the thing that is happening to you, except I myself don’t think that’s it, that that explains it, no.
But I don’t know what does, what would. I can’t even begin to guess, except for the fact that I think it’s got something to do with a nice feeling, with having a nice dreamy sleepy very special, very sleepy now feeling.
Or else I am overdoing it or am anyway just wrong. Maybe he just wanted to see how getting killed looked. Maybe it didn’t matter to him who was getting killed. Because for a lot of the time he just lay there watching instead of trying to get up and fight back and try to kill me back—and then he finally did, finally did get up—except that by then he was almost dead, except by then I think he was almost dead, even though he wasn’t actually acting dead, even though he just got up and started acting baffled and shocked instead of being sorrowful or mad at me. But I don’t think it was so much on account of someone having almost killed him as it was on account of his realizing how he’d missed the boat on this thing by getting distracted, by letting himself get distracted, and by not paying enough attention to it, or at least not to the part of it which really counted, until it was just too late and you felt silly for more or less being the center of attention of what’s going on but the last one to be informed as to what it is all about and means. I mean, I’ll bet it’s like finding out that you are the last one to get in on a secret which turns out to have been much more about you than you ever dreamed it was, ever could have, in your wildest dreams, dreamed of or thought of anything.
To my mind, Steven Adinoff was just woolgathering and then caught himself at it and went ahead and woke himself up and then noticed he was almost dead.
Except that it was just probably only a gesture by then.
There were pieces of his face—there were all of these cuts which were deep in his head.
Not that he couldn’t actually get up when he tried. He got right back up on his feet again and went and got the rake again and then he walked around for a while, then he walked in and out of the sandbox for a while, stepping up to get in it and then stepping down to get out of it, and meanwhile saying these different things and looking in his pockets almost all of this time, but some of it, some of the time, looking at me again and trying to get me with the rake again before I myself got ready to really buckle down to business again and kill him again and then he fell over again almost as soon as I got busy on him again and really dug in.
Anybody could tell that this time it was for good. It didn’t matter if you were just a six-year-old boy.
Any six-year-old could have killed Steven Adinoff.