Private Parts of Speech

A painting by Philip Guston
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Philip Guston: Legend, 1977

Over the last year, little by little, I have grown suspicious of the erotics of art. It’s not just that I object to the opposition, famously asserted by Susan Sontag, between interpretation and sensuality. It’s that any overeager commitment to producing or consuming art as an erotic experience often results in some very inexpert writing about both aesthetics and sex—rhapsodic, humorless, self-aggrandizing prose that gets off on the most basic category errors. When asked by an interviewer what the most interesting thing was that she had learned from a book recently, the actress and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge replied, “That orgasms can be brought on by art, and vice versa.” I found this idea distressing. Practical considerations aside, what kind of sick person wants her orgasms to come from art? A person more concerned with receiving pleasure than giving it is one answer; a person who prefers her pleasure depersonalized, disembodied, and safely contained by representation is another. Art, after all, doesn’t demand reciprocity or reality.

Reading the aggrieved, heart-dragging short stories of Gary Lutz complicates these doubts. Grungy-haired and lantern-jawed, unnerved by sustained eye contact, and self-conscious of his middle age, Lutz is not ashamed to admit in interviews that he suffers from “ED”: “Experience Deficit.” He presents himself as a man who has lived a singularly unremarkable life of dejection, a man to whom nothing exciting has happened and who is incapable of exciting himself or anyone else—except through writing. Writing, he tells us, is where one word can draw other words toward it, tentatively at first, then with a violent resolve. Writing is where one sentence can “overcome its aloofness or diffidence and begin to make overtures to another sentence,” each rubbing the other the right or wrong way—more often wrong than right—before settling into a jittery, strained alliance. Writing is where withdrawing paragraphs can gaze upon each other with agony and longing, for they know that the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the next announces a traumatic rupture, “an irreversible parting of ways.” “Yes, I think there might be some fetishizing of language going on,” Lutz admits. “Shouldn’t writing be far more sexual than sex?”

The answer, the ninety-one stories in The Complete Gary Lutz insist, is yes; ninety-one times, yes, though it’s not long before one starts to crave an occasional and ruthless no. Nearly all of Lutz’s stories voice the ordinary miseries of marriage, infidelity, and divorce. Often, his stories are told in the first person, though “telling” is too deliberate and too dramatic an activity to convey his narrators’ passivity, their anonymity, their conviction that the individual is little more than a husk for the existential condition of alienation. Lutz likes his “I” unnameable. As the narrator of “Certain Riddances” snarls:

Give a person…


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