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Literature : Interview

Juicy pips of language and the failed state of grammar.


Photo by Simon Chantasirivisal

Like many others, I have been glammed by Lutz's fictions to the extent that I confuse the writer with the writing. Any misconceptions we might have of Lutz, the person, perhaps lay (or is it lie?) in our own latent desires and insecurities—both big reasons to read fiction after all. The book page can be a warped mirror or sounding board to act out the unspeakable in the privacy of your own head. But when you read literature, especially Lutz, you shouldn't take anything at face value. Here you need to slow down and read into the virginal gluey space between the words and sentences. His collection Stories in the Worst Way was the first time I truly understood that it's not about what you say, but rather how you say it.

Each time I see Lutz, even if he is expecting me, he doesn't recognize me. He claims to suffer from prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” but could very well be making this up. One of the first times I encountered him in the flesh was at a reading in Midtown Manhattan. What shocked and bothered me was how much people were laughing. Until then I'd thought of his writing as mostly dark and sad, far from funny. But when accompanied by a laugh track, his writing changes somehow, and so does he. I've seen him read a number of times since, and each time the mood is different, contagiously crowd-sourced. I'm still left with a certain sadness every time, but I think this has more to do with the audience and who they expect Lutz to be. Without knowing it, people can be cruel in their expectations, especially publishers (myself included) and reading series hosts often try to pigeonhole writers into some sort of minstrel sideshow, or reduce them to a sound bite or a tweet. Ultimately, even in what might be discomfort, Lutz exudes a certain repose, and it is us who are left filling the awkward silence.

Although Gary cannot remember my face, we have shared cheap Mexican food on several occasions and, at times, I've felt like a surrogate marriage counselor. The last I saw of him, in late May 2013, he looked as if he had dropped thirty pounds and was intent on disappearance. I recently caught up with him over email.

Derek White Your latest book, Divorcer, is described simply as "a collection of seven harrowing and hyperprecise short stories about ruinous relationships and their aftershocks." Would you care to expand more on this? What I am interested in delving into is the way relationships, failed or not, play out in your work—not just at the story or even character level, but at a more granular sentence level, which is where your stories seem to work their magic.

Gary Lutz My fiction has always been full of ruptures, fractures, severances. From my first book onward, much of my work has been about collapsing marriages, and every story has had, for me, the feel and form of a fragmentating relationship. But Divorcer is my only book in which every story concerns a partnership gone kaput. Ending every sentence feels like a breakup to me, because the words have become so involved with each other and have tried out so many different positions on each other and have then eventually settled down into something so permanent and independent that I can feel the sentence physically breaking away from me, breaking off from me—dumping me altogether. My reaction is equal parts sadness, grief, and, I guess, a lust for revenge on behalf of the narrator. And it's in this rocky state that I try to get another sentence started, maybe just a "fuck off" lunge of a sentence, which I guess accounts for the lack of pillowy transitions in my fiction. There's no cradling anywhere. I'm often put in mind of that admonition "Get over yourself" as an encouragement to attempt a kind of gymnastic leap over the entire life that the narrator has pathetically piled up for himself in the previous sentence, so that he might land somewhere unexpected, a place where he just might have a chance at establishing a freshly sufficing verbal circumstance—until I, as the writer, get the heave-ho anew. It's always this way with me and my writing. The end of a paragraph is an even more traumatic separation, and the end of a segment is, to me, like the formality of divorce, an irreversible parting of ways.

I make occasional eye contact with sentences in magazines and books and often wonder what on earth the words see in each other, what on earth they’re doing together, because they don’t look as if they’ve found excitement in each other’s company. Shouldn’t writing be far more sexual than sex? Sex is messier and doesn't leave you with anything, unless you come out with a kid, and then the kid will likely as not grow up to be some brute vagrant anthology of your every ugliness—yours and the other party’s. Why is it that kids usually look like sick, sniggery parodies of their parents? Get your caricature done by some tank-topped street-fair charcoalist and be done with it already.

What keeps happening to me, though, is that in my stumbles through vocabulation (more often, these days, as a listener or an eavesdropper than as a reader), I cross paths with a word, even just some drudge of a noun, and start swooning over it and dancing attendance on the thing, trying to find a way to enter into its life and psyche, until it dawns on me anew that as a human being (and as a human being of the lesser, male variety [and what has my own writing been if not an ongoing demonstration of the misbegottenness of those of us chromosomally disadvantaged with the Y?]), I am no match for this now juicy-seeming pip of language and realize that it would be in the best interest of everything involved if I found some other word to introduce to this word, a word with which it might start a better life, with me entirely out of the picture. So I hand the word off to another, and a sentence gets going.

DW The sentence as a sentence, till death do us part? As you've uttered before, I also "came to language only late and only peculiarly." My pubescent fascinations lay in the field of physics, in particular the subatomic variety; and what struck me then, when you get down to such geeky nitty-gritty, is that it all amounts to not just particles, but their interactions. When people think of particle physics, they think of pedestalled particles, but the interactions between them are where sparks fly—this is where energy gets off. Otherwise particles are benign clones of themselves, like a word in a dictionary, or alone on a page. To me, your writing conjures one of those bubble-chamber images—a snapshot capturing various put-together particles interacting, a blind-dated orgy, bodies colliding, and near misses where your trajectory gets warped by another's magnetic attraction, and in the process spitting off sub-particles, peculiar particulates.

Yes, normally the results (for straight-up human collisions) are off-putting offspring, "sniggering parodies," but the beauty of writing it, as you say, rather than doing it, is that you don't have to deal with diaper-cleanup duty. Instead, the energy emitted from these wordy collisions is purely textual, platonic, spun from consensual discombobulations, ephemeral bits that serve no other practical purpose, not even necessarily to engage us in a dramatic "story." But the invisibly inked warp and weave spewing from the rigidly typed faces gets blurted out as something abstract, that you can't touch, bumbling pointillistic mash-ups that leave fleeting traces of characters we might recognize or identify with, but in the end the beauty lies in the way the words somehow ended up together in bed, jelling on the page, in the fading-before-your-eyes residual white space between the characters and lines. Which is not to say it's anything goes—although your stories do manage to embody and embed all the various permutations of gender combinatorics and role reversals—but there is a strict code you follow that stays true to all the accepted formalities and pleasantries. And that is grammar. If particles are morphemes, then grammatology is the glue, the (perhaps necessary?) physical laws that govern the allowable and acceptable ways for morphemes to interact constructively in these sentences we've been handed down. While some eschew grammar in their swaggering quest for novel poetic contrivances, you've embraced it, to your advantage—you've made it your bitch, so to speak.

GL Grammar is important to me. As someone who has written fiction that might be considered unconventional, I have always wanted my writing to be grammatically and punctuationally conventional and conservative. Grammar is a stabilizing, civilizing force. I find it soothing and steadying and solacing.

I wish that more publishers still cared about it. I wish that some editor at The New Yorker had done right by John Updike, one of the few great literary stylists of the last half-century, and brought to his attention the dangling participial phrase at the beginning of this sentence from “My Father’s Tears,” one of Updike’s final short stories: “Flying from Boston to New York, my habit is to take a seat on the right-hand side of the plane. . . .” The editorial staff at Knopf, which later published My Father’s Tears: And Other Stories, a collection in which the story is reprinted, didn’t fix the error, either. Why does the Goings On About Town department of The New Yorker keep publishing sentences in which a collective noun naming a rock band is simultaneously treated both singularly (in the choice of verb) and plurally (in the choice of pronoun)? The inconsistency is ungrammatical, illogical, and slovenly. Here are three examples: “The Liverpudlian electronic ensemble Ladytron returns with a new album, ‘Gravity the Seducer,’ a work full of the lush keyboard and synthesizer arrangements they are known for.” “The semi-obscure opening act, Vaz, is a muscular trio with roots stretching back to the early-nineties Minneapolis underground; they may be one of the most exciting low-profile groups in New York.” “The five-piece folk-country band performs music as moody and dark as their name suggests, playing the banjo, ukulele, and fiddle with a rock-and-roll edge.” We can’t even count on The New Yorker to get simple matters of subject-verb agreement right anymore: “Stark’s new show of sculpturally collaged works on paper, mostly white but splashed with plumage-like color, explore a vanishing pink-collar world.” In his book How Fiction Works, James Wood, a reviewer at The New Yorker, has trouble with subject-verb agreement, too: “The Nazi Captain Blicero in Gravity’s Rainbow, or the ruthless financier Scarsdale Vibe in Against the Day, are not truly frightening figures, because they are not true figures.” That little book was published by an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a publisher once known for excellence. In the introduction to another FSG book, Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, the editor fouls up subject-verb agreement twice: “In their surviving letters neither Moss nor Bishop discuss their personal lives” (the plural pronoun in that sentence is incorrect as well) and “He wrote a letter saying he was enclosing a photocopy of the proof with the change in Bishop’s handwriting, but neither the copy nor the original appear to survive.” (I have found, in my experiences as a teacher of remedial writing, that most students are capable of learning and applying the rule stating that in a sentence whose subject takes the form neither A nor B, the singularity or plurality of the B element determines the singularity or plurality of the verb.) The Atlantic and The New Republic don’t trouble themselves all that much about grammar anymore, either. The Atlantic manages to bollix up both the subject-verb agreement and the punctuation of the end of a parenthetical element in this sentence about the Rodgers and Hart song “Where or When”: “Surely that rendition, along with the versions by Artie Shaw, Clifford Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins, Sinatra with Count Basie, and, more recently, the too-often unnoticed Tierney Sutton have earned the song an important place in the jazz repertoire.” The grammar in the book reviews in The New Republic is often atrocious, as in this sentence enfeebled by a dangling introductory participial phrase: “Confronted with a corpse whose death she is arguably responsible for, her response is to poke at its cheeks with a ‘manicured toe’ and feel for a pulse with her foot.”

When I pay good money for a book or a magazine, I expect the thing to have been edited, copyedited, and proofread. These days, I usually wait until the used-copy prices on Amazon drop below a dollar and then place my order for a book. “Creative writers” (the phrase cracks me up) often write deliriously illiterate contributors’ notes. Many of them take addlepated boilerplate form: “An associate professor at Potemkin Village College, his poems have or will appear in The Gurry Review and Gardyloo. He is the author of the collection, Eye Contact with the Dead.” (That note is a three-way disgrace.)

One of my pleasures is sitting in the local Burger King (the chain has only one outlet left in town) and eating value-menu hamburgers and reading newspaper reviews of fancy restaurants I have neither occasion nor cash to visit. The restaurant reviewer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (an ever-thinning daily that declares itself, in the banner at the top of the front page, “One of America’s Great Newspapers”) writes sentences like this: “Each pie is served uncut with a special pizza knife, a transition Mr. Molinare made a few months ago, once he could find them.” I have been writing a book about the sorts of grammatical and punctuational blunders committed by even the most brilliant writers.

DW I'm sure I'm making subject-verb agreement blunders left and right here. Any idea when we can expect to see this grammar book? Are you working on anything else? It seems you often need to be prompted to write, or you write in response to something, whether it be a divorce or magazine article. Can you talk some about your writing process, what inspires you to write? Do you consider your work to be fiction, in the traditional sense of making up a story? And do you think you could ever write a novel?

GL My book about grammar is a work-in-progress; the word count right now is about 110,000. I doubt that the thing will ever see print. I am not working on anything else; I no longer have the time. I’ve never enjoyed writing, but that doesn’t mean I might not come out with something every now and then. I was always too slow a writer to consider ever writing a novel. I rarely even read novels. The things I’ve written have almost always started from a mood and were intended to serve as a private memorial to that mood. I situated words in arrangements that amounted to a cryptic chronicle of the tossings and turnings of my inner life. My fiction has never arisen from incidents in outer life. From my first book onward, much of my writing could be said to be about divorce in one way or another. It was a kind of default subject matter, maybe because divorce has always seemed purer to me than its opposite number. Marriage is the least elevated of the forms that loneliness can take, but I'd definitely recommend it to anyone up for some emotional slumming after one has worn out one's love on others.

DW I'll take your word for it! I'm quite happy to experience divorce vicariously through your writings. And I thank you for any suffering and distress you have endured personally in the name of your art. It's true people are usually not interested in reading about when things are going well. Disruption usually leads to better results, a cleavage from everyday life. For me, the disruption I tend to seek out (in the name of art) is geographic and cultural displacement—removing oneself from the familiar comforts of home. One thing I liked about your most recent story, "You're Welcome," is that we see a fish-out-of-water side to your writing. So I'd reciprocate your divorce recommendation with a motion to displace. There's a question/prompt in here somewhere about location and your sense of "home." And the other thing I'm wondering about, being that you call your writings "private memorials," is your, or your writings’, relationship to the reader, as you see it. And can the number or quality of readers dilute or tarnish the writing in the same way as, say, someone with multiple sexual partners?

GL I guess that any distress or suffering in my life has been merely personal, predictable, ordinary, and fit only for punch lines. It has been relevant to my writing as no more than the source of moods to which I’ve tried to give only indefinite expression, because I've never much cared to get anything verifiable or autobiographied onto my pages. (I’m quite talkative, though, or so I've been told, in my sleep, and it’s maybe only as a shrieking somniloquist that I seem to come right out with things.) I've lived in metropolitan Pittsburgh for most of my adult life, but my being here has always smacked of the temporary and the experimental. (After more than thirty years I have yet to finish unpacking, because the place, and my place in it, has never felt to me like anything but the flimsiest of situations.)

I will take your recommendation to uproot my narrators the next time I ever feel lexically beset. My writing has all along been darted nervously toward the thinnest sliver of the readerly demographic—that tiniest of subpopulations of depressively specialized women and men far-driven from even the like-hearted few who might, one day, hold them at less than arms' length for an instantly regretted second or two. I love my readers, I really do—whoever they are and however far along they might now be in their self-cruelties, their blissless promiscuities of misdirected affection, their unfaceable but (I'm quite certain of this) sharp-cut beauty.

Derek White runs Calamari Press and blogs at 5cense.com.

Tags:
Writing process
Experimental writing
Short stories
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