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 a name and he’ll sink right into it, right into the hollows and the dips of the letters that spell out the whole insultingly reductive contraption, so that you have to pull him up and dance him out of it, take his attendance, and fuck some life into him if you expect to get any work out of him.
His speakers are vague and voyeuristic, incapable of fixing their coordinates in space and time. Lacking the volition and stability to be novelists, they work on the outskirts of literary culture as technical writers and temps, invisible, interchangeable, beleaguered by the alien encrustations and protuberances that others refer to as “the body.” When they have sex, which they frequently do, in threes and twos, it seems to take place on some metaphysical plane beyond the human. “I was…organizing myself within the dark of the body she was sticking up for herself inside,” observes the narrator of “Claims.” They drift in and out of peoples’ lives like lackadaisical ghosts, showing up only long enough, as Lutz might say, for their lovers to remember they’re not in the room alone.
Language seems to slough off on Lutz’s narrators, and they collect that language like the underside of a fingernail collects the skin and blood from an episode of brief, violent scratching—in sentences so attentively worked over, so operatically constructed, that the words themselves yearn to hold the excess energy of their erotic despair; to convert it into a charge, a current that shocks the reader. Lutz is known for his sentences, and for good reason. They are extravagant, weird, and intensely diagrammatic, the kind of sentences that would have made Gertrude Stein cry. He champions the sentence as the unit of sexual and emotional potency, a “vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude.” It is “the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy”—Lutz’s invented word for a supreme and unattainable closeness of thought, of mood, between reader and writer.
Consider, in his first collection, Stories in the Worst Way (1996), a sentence from “Contractions”: “Men wanted my toes in their mouths or my torso roped against a chair or my mouth lipsticked and wordless or my brain ligatured to whatever unknottable neural twist that in their own brains winched their rawing, blunted dicks into place.” It starts simply enough, with the acknowledgment of a common fetish (“Men wanted my toes in their mouths”), then builds momentum by raising the possibility of other common fetishes (“or my torso roped against a chair or my mouth lipsticked and wordless”), other ordinary permutations of wanting and having, possessing and objectifying. Imminently excitable, breathing down the neck of its next and final “or,” the sentence awaits its climactic fetish. But something seems to go wrong: “or my brain ligatured to whatever unknottable neural twist that in their own brains winched their rawing, blunted dicks into place.” The language has turned abstract, confusing, the meaning unclear. One must pause and reread for clarity. The men want what? And where? And how, exactly, is the narrator to go about giving them what they want?
What throws the reader is not just the crowding of words describing intractable or mechanical acts of twining: “ligatured,” “unknottable,” “twist,” “winched”—the last one sets my teeth grinding. It’s not the startlingly crude description of men’s penises as “rawing, blunted dicks.” It’s the unexpected appearance of brains; the suggestion that the hot secret of sex is buried in fissures and folds we can neither see nor touch; the banishment of desire from its exterior and anatomical structures to an organ whose innermost workings we barely understand; the invitation to conceive that desire as more immaterial than material, more phenomenal than physical. This, the sentence implies, is the height of sexual perversity, the most outrageous fetish of all: the idea that one mind can reach out and touch another with more precision and directness than one person’s mouth can suction up another person’s toes. Mind-fucking is the necessary stimulus for the dicks to stand to order, to fall in line. It’s a lot of pressure—too much, maybe—to place on the erotic. Hence the ED.
Maybe it is unfair of me to wrench sentences like these from the stories that house them, to expose and dissect, to indulge my muddled feelings of skepticism and attraction. But in Lutz’s stories, the middle ground of narrative, where one might expect to encounter a plot or an interestingly developed character or two, remains largely unoccupied, barren for commentary. And anyway, his vocabulary is so big and bendy, his talents so conspicuously on display, that I can’t help myself. Take two more examples, the first from Partial List of People to Bleach (2007), about a man’s reunion with the body of his “sweetly unpoised, impersonal” ex-wife:
She unbuttoned, unzipped. I had forgotten, I suppose, the finely hirsute earthliness of her, that vicious uneternal splendency. (The skelter of moles along the small of her back, the salmon-patch birthmark on the nape of her neck, the bubbly something near the groin—that droll, brazen sincerity of her body had always been a sticking point.)
The second from Assisted Living (2017), a description of a “third party” dragged into “an open marriage that leaked from both ends”:
The moods amassing in her eyes (greenish eyes adrowse, though evidently truthful), relevant moles on the left arm, hair begloomed and aptly directed sideward (then later mostly hatcheted away), knees arranged buxomly, accentual acne on expanses of her back, all of these parts carnalized only in retrospect: she was a brightly miserable and unperspirant physical therapist out of keeping with herself.
Once the initial shock of reading Lutz had subsided, I started to remember that not all sex is good sex. Unlike the sublime stories of his contemporary Diane Williams, whose writing seizes and intensifies the experience of mind-bending fucking, of how yearning and surrender can converge to suspend time and prick the senses, Lutz’s stories bog down in their desperate attempts to please, their sweating, strenuous verbal gymnastics, their reluctance to let moments of rapture vibrate or expand, so anxiously does the next sentence intrude with its “‘fuck off’ lunge,” as Lutz describes his refusal to cushion the reader with “pillowy transitions.” His stories are exhausting. I find it impossible to read more than two in a single sitting. My mind cramps with strain more often than it tingles with pleasure. Frequent water and bathroom breaks are needed. The imagined presence of the reader is, if not irrelevant to his performance of virtuosity, then certainly an afterthought. (His stories are “nearly too good to read,” writes Ben Marcus, in what strikes me as a very diplomatic back-handed compliment.) The effect isn’t onanistic; one doesn’t get the sense that Lutz is getting off on his sentences any more than you are. Rather, there’s a shared feeling of blundering misery. Everyone is working too hard, no one is having as much fun as they think they should be having, and someone—probably one of Lutz’s narrators—is going to end up soft and shriveled and sobbing in the bath.
The refusal of transcendence is the point of Lutz’s backbreakingly cultivated mannerism, his association with that most wretched and alienated of contemporary literary figures, “a writer’s writer,” or worse yet, “our own little Beckett” (as one reviewer put it). The mannerism is also, obviously, a form of self-disclosure, the only form available to a man who prides himself on his self-effacement. The sexual dramas that Lutz orchestrates between words and sentences, the compulsiveness with which he flouts lexical fidelity and syntactical propriety—these are strategies for speaking one’s pain through the excessive and idiosyncratic markings of style. He can avoid recourse to scantily clad autobiography. When asked whether his stories about marriage and divorce draw inspiration from his marriages and divorces, he can exercise not just plausible deniability but dismay that one would even broach the question.
This goes some way toward explaining why his former teacher, Gordon Lish, once compared Lutz’s short stories favorably to the novels of Philip Roth, another writer who transforms sexual desire into a sad, annihilating thing, but who also insists on brandishing his “reputation as a crazed penis” on and off the page. “There’s more truth in one sentence of my student Gary Lutz than in all of Roth,” boasted Lish in an interview. “Lutz gives himself away.” He does so in fragments and bits, extending himself to the reader as a despondent, free-floating voice, an assembler of strange words, an intruder on strangers’ thoughts, rather than a character with any solidity or coherence or sense of purpose.
Disembodying and depersonalizing narration are well-worn techniques for getting us closer to the essential, unutterable, universally traumatic condition of being human. “There was in fact less and less talk, and when she did speak, it was as if the words were issuing not from her mouth but from some rent in the murk of her being,” the narrator says about his sister in “Loo.” But Lutz’s fiction does not tend to silence or austerity. His language can’t help but throw its weight around, staging noisy gatherings of adverbs and violent pileups of adjectives, running clauses into one another with a manic fascination. “This did not sound all that much like ordinary utterancy,” the narrator of “Loo” continues. “It came crashing out of the vocabulary she kept crashing herself against.” The tension one feels in all of Lutz’s stories is between the aggressive eccentricity of his prose and his narrators’ claims to invisibility. One expects a little bit of quiet, but it rarely comes. On impatient days, I hear in his stories the pleas of a man who plays up his meekness, his powerlessness, to distract from the grandiosity he’s going to ask you to put up with.
On patient days, I forgive all this futzing around with words. I forgive it because, above all else, Lutz is the best contemporary American writer and theorist of loneliness. The last great theorist was the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, for whom the sense of loneliness testified to the “unsatisfied longing for an understanding without words.” She saw loneliness as a perpetually elegiac condition: a lament for the irretrievable loss of “the most complete experience of being understood” in infancy and the “yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state” that predated the bruising indiscretions of language. Loneliness could not be grieved or mourned. There was no getting over it, or past it. We were, all of us, lonely—we would always be lonely—because we were, invariably, creatures of language who were estranged by language, incapable of clearing the static, the lag, that muffled the utterances we dispatched to one another. “The longing to understand oneself is also bound up with the need to be understood,” Klein wrote. But understanding—either of others, or through others of ourselves—would always prove elusive.
“I came to language only late and only peculiarly,” opens Lutz’s essay “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” first delivered as a lecture to MFA students at Columbia University in September 2008. He recalls a childhood eked out in a house with no books, save the telephone book and the occasional magazine, and parents who were more likely to announce their presence by slamming doors than by speaking. He grew up a mumbler, a chronic mispronouncer of words, an expressive misfit. He was a bookish kid, but not a literary one. “I had started to gravitate toward books only because a book was a kind of steadying accessory, a prop, something to grip, a simple occupation for my hands,” he writes. He liked how the loose ends of life collected in the pages of a book—pretzel crumbs, fingernail peelings, the hair and skin that comes off when one holds onto anything too tight. Years later, his characters would cling with desperation to objects that preserved the extrusions of others: bars of soap covered with unclaimed hairs; “little scrips of newspaper” that strangers had spat into; currency with “beseechments and pleas” scrawled in the margins.
Loneliness became Lutz’s whetting stone. Against its unyielding weight, he started to shape his “narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language.” He learned that written words, gracefully and forcefully arranged, could be made to stay together, to fit just right. In adolescence and early adulthood, he’d seen the people around him use language in misjudgment, erring and flat. “A word that I remember coming out of my parents’ mouths a lot was imagine—as in ‘I imagine we’re going to have rain,’” he writes. “I soon succumbed to the notion that to imagine was to claim to know in advance an entirely forgettable outcome.” The words he inherited from them, the words he invented for himself, were the waste products of intimate communication, guttered into the sentence, which received and held them in a separate, autonomous, fictional form. The sentence neither compensated nor consoled him for the loss of understanding in real life. It was the unit that gave him the ability to speak, to exist, in a place apart from that life.
“The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” hazards all the cloying metaphors of sex and longing that we encounter in Lutz’s interviews and stories. Letters rub off on each other, the sentence descends with all “the force and feel of a climax,” words “seek out affinities” and learn that “they cannot live without each other.” But the lecture contains something else too, something more generous and genuinely exhilarating: Lutz’s close readings of other writers’ sentences as models of literary craft:
Press one part of speech into service as another, as Don DeLillo does in “She was always maybeing” (an adverb has been recruited for duty as a verb) and as Barry Hannah does in “Westy is colding off like the planet” (an adjective has been enlisted for verbified purpose as well).
More than the arms and moles of ex-wives, syntax and grammar excite him. The possibilities for what one can do with language start to multiply. “Or rescue an ordinary, overtasked verb from its usual drab business and find a fresh, bright, and startling context for it,” he proposes, “as Don DeLillo manages with speaks in ‘You will hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches’ and Barry Hannah does with the almost always lackluster word occurred in ‘…a single white wild blossom occurred under the forever stunted fig tree.’” He pauses to admire Elizabeth Smart’s epigrammatic sentence “God likes a good frolic” for “the identical consonantic shells of God and good” and “the shared vowel of God and frolic.” He finds himself encouraged by Elizabeth Hardwick’s l’s in “Another day she arrived as wild and florid and thickly brilliant as a bird.” He reads, appreciates, thinks, teaches. (He even manages to make DeLillo’s late prose seem less boring.)
The sentence is a lonely place, the essay cries, but then exposes that cry for the half-truth it is. The sentence can be raucous, crowded, energetic, joyful. It can be a place of proximity without intimacy, or intimacy with its sentimentality kept in check. It is a place I can imagine myself dwelling in forever, never growing tired or bored or overtasked, always awaiting the next word, the next thought.
The appeal of Lutz’s stories is not their erotics of art, but the friendly rapport of reading others’ work respectfully and intently, getting close to a single letter, a single sound, without wringing from it a claustrophobic pantomime of sexual or emotional intimacy. His most unforgettable stories are the ones that set his mannerism against literary forms that stress the essentially social nature of language: the index, the aphorism, the commonplace book, the interview, the e-mail. These forms, which he has turned to with increasing frequency as his career progresses, grant a temporary reprieve from despair and isolation. They show loneliness to be a prerequisite for other voices to gather in—the state in which one can most accurately and respectfully register the vibrations of these voices. His tone becomes lighter, funnier, less labored. (One can imagine hearing these pieces read aloud, Lutz pausing for laughter.)
Consider the astonishingly titled “Heartscald,” divided into twenty-nine allusive epigrams, any one of which nudges us across time and space and into the company of other literary minds: “Like the Lady in the Play: I have always depended on the strangeness of my kind.” Or take “You Are Logged in as Marie,” about a man guessing his ex-wife’s answers to her account’s security questions. Imagining his way into her mind, voicing her words as faithfully as he can, he finds his imagination repelled by what he cannot know of her. When asked to type in a new account security question, he writes, “We were a pair of unpairing. Her emails always started: All,.”
The paradoxes of loneliness brush up against each other everywhere in Lutz’s work, but my favorite example of it is a story titled “Not the Hand but Where the Hand Has Been.” Arms and hands, Lutz has said, get “short shrift in fiction, even though they’re the place where the trouble between people usually gets its start.” We are asked to start the trouble by “putting our finger” on the narrator: a middle-aged man justly abandoned by his grown daughter, plodding along in a marriage of no extraordinary significance or satisfaction. “Littlenesses, piled high, do not suddenly amount to anything immense,” the narrator observes. He begins to work as an indexer for a university press, a private, soothing job. It requires only that he bear in mind the order of the alphabet and elaborate a logic for creating and nesting subheadings under headings: “The trick is to push your way into the society, or coterie, of facts that the author has pushed his way into first, and then it’s a matter of making up your mind to cooperate with what you read.” Yet the better he gets at cooperating, indexing with fervor in bed, in the bath, the more he finds himself itching to intrude, to press the particulate grime of his life into the book.
The index, for which he is criticized by his editor, reads in parts as follows:
kindergarten experiences of (having been told to bring in something from home to exhaust a couple of minutes in show-and-tell; having brought in the only toy she ever cared for—a toy drive-in theater [tiny cars, a tiny projector that beamed film-stripped cartoons onto a tiny screen]; not speaking up when a boy in the class claimed the toy was his or when the teacher naturally took his part; how, that quickly, there was a way for her to go about not rising in the world), 00; kitchen of, lit by pilot light, 00;…laxity, 00; on “learning to live without yourself,” 00; legs gone out from under, 00; libraries, behavior in, referring to spines of books as “snouts,” 00; life briefly coming to a head on, 00; “lifelikelessness” and, 00;…
The littlenesses of the entries, piled high, do amount to something immense. There is life here, thick with people, chancy with encounters, burnished with memories of childhood injustices and injuries, with body parts that faithlessly disappear (“legs gone out from under”) and books that grow companionate body parts (“referring to spines of books as ‘snouts’”). Yet in the form of the index, it is life slivered into “lifelikelessness”—distilled, detached, frozen; quoted and paraphrased until it seems to have taken place somewhere beyond the reach of the person who lived it. Shot through someone else’s words, smuggled in through someone else’s book, the index refuses to let life add up to anything continuous or whole or graspable.
The narrator reflects on the lifelikelessness of language at the end of the index:
verification that “it starts when you discover that you can keep yourself at arm’s length: you practice conducting your life at farther and farther reaches from the body—except you do not want to be allowed any longer to get away with calling it a body (which would be an arrogance) and insist instead on being required to regard it at most as a steadiment: the station, that is, which the heart, the mouth, the eyes, etc., can be said (variously) to occupy, to be the ‘guest’ of, or to trespass upon,” 00; visitor book discovered, 00; voice of, said to “desert” the mouth, 00;…
What the index lacks in inhabitability, it gains in hospitality, however brief or surreptitious. As a “steadiment,” it is an instrument, an extra appendage to settle one’s rocking, wavering self. As a “visitor book discovered,” it is a textual form that invites its reader to “trespass upon” a heart that has fled an uninhabitable body, a voice that has deserted a speechless mouth—not the hand, but where the never-quite-living, never-quite-dead marks traced by the hand now reside. It makes the life of language, a life apart from life, available to anyone who might take the book into her hands and place her finger on the vein of fiction. She will feel the lifelikeness that courses underneath, pulsed to the arrhythmic beat of the “00s.”