Sentenced to Life: A Garielle Lutz Roundtable by Sebastian Castillo, Tom Laplaige, Jon Lindsey & Crow Jonah Norlander

A discussion of her ongoing legacy as a writer people turn to.

Worsted by Garielle Lutz

There’s a saying about The Velvet Underground that not many people bought their records but everyone who did started a band. Garielle Lutz, whose work was recently compiled in The Complete Gari Lutz (Tyrant Books), occupies this place in the culture of contemporary writing. Her story collections are passed between reverent readers and hopeful writers like tatterdemalion maps to sublevels of the mind. It can be hard to say what a Garielle Lutz story is about, exactly, which is some indication of what makes her writing so peculiar, seductive, and beautiful. Below, four fawning writers discuss their relationship to her work, and the work itself by way of her new story collection, Worsted (Short Flight/Long Drive). If you are to take anything from their conversation it should be to buy one of Lutz’s books immediately and see where it may take you.

Jon LindseyI was introduced to Garielle Lutz through her indie-famous essay “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” which unlocked new ways of thinking about how to write a sentence. Where were you first exposed to Lutz and what reaction did her writing provoke?

Tom Laplaige Gari Lutz is the 9/11 of short story writers. Trumpet blast. I’ll never forget where I was. My friend and I were having lunch outside at a place called Westville which was dumbly on the East side of Manhattan. Somewhere over the course of the meal he handed me a brown paper bag with Stories in the Worst Way in it. It felt imbued with an odd, mystic juju. Had relic energy like a nip of Jesus’s foreskin in some off-path Italian monastery. I read the first few stories on the L train from Union Square to Brooklyn. Thinking about it now, I’m happy that my first time was below many metric tons of water going through a tunnel under the East River. Submerged. Murked.

Crow Jonah NorlanderInundation is right! Reading more than a few pages of Lutz in one go feels like being in a water park wave pool, gleefully launched up and down, aroused by the bashing together of strange bodies all around, fighting and failing to give my orifices access to air. Lutz was a recurring fixation of the late aughts lit blog set on sites like HTMLGIANT, but I didn’t get my hands on anything physical until Brian Evenson Facebooked about receiving the little Assisted Living pamphlet and I followed suit. So, like the internet version of the paperbagged dropoff but directly from my heroes, meaning I knew it’d be potent and I had to like it.  

Sebastian CastilloI remember, maybe ten or so years ago, Gigantic Magazine posted something about writing that they liked, and what kind of thing they were looking to publish. One of the things they listed was the first sentence to Garielle Lutz’s story, “Being Good In October,” which goes like this: “The wedding was curt and almost entirely without result.” Soon after, I picked up a copy of Stories In the Worst Way. I was drawn by its strange title (I would argue, in general, that Garielle Lutz’s books all have excellent titles). The writing struck me as something I had not encountered before. There are plenty of writers who have a terse, epigrammatic style (Diane Williams, for example), but none do it like Lutz does it. As I was reading Worsted (another great title), I was surprised to find how Lutzian it sounded—and that, in fact, “Lutzian” is a real thing, a category of writing she’s invented. Kind of impossible to either translate or imitate, in my opinion.    

JLHow did you consume Worsted, what was your experience like, and did it change how you physically inhabited the space?   

TL Tried reading a PDF of Worsted on a phone screen and that felt bad so I printed it out. Stopped to get a pen before I finished the first page. I mostly read the collection at night in my basement office after my wife went to sleep. Dark house. Dryer rolling with a night load of baby onesies. Also, in the morning while a hearing-impaired man named Israel pressure washed my house with bleach. Seeped in through the windows and the bleach high made for a nice pairing with the stories (while also providing some magic Lutz synchronicity vis-à-vis her collection Partial List of People to Bleach). When I read Lutz stories, I’m sent drifting. Her sentences have a way of spinning me into a succession of daydreams. I had mostly internal habitation effects when reading, odd fish finning through the brainwave.

SCLike Tom, I printed out the PDF. I loved it as much as I’ve loved Lutz’s writing in the past. Once, I was talking to a friend about W.G. Sebald—he said that his prose has a kind of amnesiatic quality—long, hypotactic sentences, and by the time you get to the end of a paragraph, you’re not really sure how you got there. I would say that Lutz has a similar effect on me, though Lutz’s sentences feel smashed, crammed in from above and below. She often stretches the “sayability” of certain concepts or sensations and sometimes uses words in totally new, inventive ways. I mean that literally: while you can be bested at something, like a game, I don’t really feel you can be worsted, as the title of the collection states. At least I’ve never heard it used that way before. I suppose now you can.  

TLYes, on the subject of sayability, these stories strike me as very “inside the mind” reading. It’s strange to imagine them inhabiting the realm of aloudness. Like albinos on the beach.  

CJNI kinda like the awkward pinky splay required when reading paper pages, but Worsted went down well on my e-book reader. There’s something subterfugey about having Lutz on such an unassuming device; my family couldn’t begin to guess at what potency was lurking on it. The portable velocity contributed to the feeling of urgency that accompanies an advance reader copy, and while the collection is as densely Lutzian and savorable as ever, it felt—dare I say it—accessible and warm.    

JLI love this. Feels almost pornographic.

TLFavorite new word(s) you found in the collection? 

SCI was surprised to find the word tatterdemalion here; I learned that word earlier this year (via the excellent Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Machado de Assis), and thought it was a kind of old-fashioned, long-out-of-use thing you would never find in a modern text. Now that I’ve seen Garielle use it, I want to use it, too, somewhere.  

JLI highlighted tatterdemalion too. A heartbeat away in the same sentence the reader runs into éclat, the placement of which evokes the very definition of that word: a brilliant display or effect. 

CJNFamiliar words stretched into something strange and yet completely comprehensible are fun: marmaladen, lacklustrously, batchlet, shackliness, venerealizing, soilures. They make me feel a kind of complicit cleverness as I stumble into understanding.

Gary Inside Goodwill

Photo of Garielle Lutz inside Goodwill by David Nutt.

CJNBefore I read it, Worsted suggested multiple meanings in its woolen connotation. (Maybe my reading is colored by mental images of thrifting.) Traditional literary “description” isn’t especially emphasized in it, but do any materials/textures/tactilities strike you as somehow essential to this book?  

JLWorsted is such a slick double entendre. At least the way Lutz takes liberties. The literal definition has to do with a type of wool yarn, and fabric. The Lutzian usage has a tint of defeat, or inferiority, which feels on-brand. So much of the book is tied to the fraying fabric of relationships: marital, bodily, even words and meaning. I love the tension between the two uses of worsted. You don’t get much lower than worst; yet, worsted wool is high-quality.  

TLI just love the idea of worsting someone. One-upping them with badness, and winning.    

JLWorsted could even be a one-up of her other collection, Stories in the Worst Way.  

JLLutz’s stories rarely seem interested in telling a story; instead they use surprising language to evoke emotion. What “stories” or lines did that for you?    

CJNThe agony of bureaucracy and mounting mundanity stuff really hit me hard, like:

[…] one too many incidents at work, not enough pecans to pick out of a compeer’s brownie, lie after lie in an annual performance review that gets printed out and stapled back-to-front by design.  

JLYeah, Lutz gets a lot of juice from the mundane. It’s easy to relate to the lines like: “Sometimes I go right back to work after lunch. Other times, I drive to the mall for some straightforward unease among the crap.” The ennui is exquisite.  

SCI’m always surprised by how causality functions in Lutz’s work. In a simple sentence (“It was raining, so I brought my umbrella”), the cause and effect are transparent. Garielle’s sentences often interfere with this kind of causality; I know she’s mentioned in interviews how influenced she was by Gordon Lish’s concept of “consecution”—how one sentence relates to the one that’s preceded it.  

Here are two sentences from “I’m Not Family”: “I might have been thirty-four, thirty-five. There was never the right amount of me left after a night of sleep.” The latter sentence might seem like a straightforward, somewhat metaphoric description at first brush, but the longer you linger with it, the more it opens up. “Not feeling good after a bad night of sleep” is simple enough, but not having the right amount of yourself left? That seems to go further—playfully stretching the concept of personhood, and one’s relationship to the fullness (or lack of) in their own person. If you take any Garielle Lutz story, this happens multiple times; it’s both a task and a pleasure to measure them all.  

TLAgreed, Sebastian. Juicing the mundane. I find Lutz’s voicings seem to actively work against velocity. Her sentences are their own humming ecosystems. My favorite tidbits typically fall into one of two categories: the uniquely adjectivated description of a stranger (i.e.: “petulant lollipop of a kid”), or the koan of personal disintegration (“Listen long enough to other people talk and all you’ll hear is the story you just stopped telling yourself”). Here’s something I highlighted from I’m Not Family.

The only orderly who was a woman was kept around mostly because she shed light. The light came off her not in a fixed, steady beam but in sloppy gushes she had no real control over. It spattered all over the place. Off the lobby was a display case housing jars of nursily preserved gherkins of stool, all said to be the posterity of the founding surgeon.

Messy light and tidy shit. Beautiful.    

Garielle Lutz is funny. That’s just a statement. I don’t know that enough is said about the humor in her writing. Do you find these stories funny? Any lines from Worsted that got you in particular?  

SCI absolutely agree. There’s a strangeness to the comedy, too. It’s hard to describe. The opening sentence of “The Water Table,” for example: “These were murderably tall, dry-skinned girls with yam-colored hair.” I laughed out loud when I read that, but I then had to ask myself: what exactly about it is so funny? I think the first thing I could point out is the phrase “dry-skinned girls”—it seems so flatly cruel, but also bizarre in its level of detail. Also, the narrator says “murderably tall,” not “murderously tall,” which somehow feels different: are they the ones susceptible to murder? Or is the ‘murderessness’ here attached to a quality of their tallness? I think the majority of Garielle’s stories produce this kind of comedy.  

TLI love that description as well. It’s just off-tick enough to make you laughish—that sharp-darted description of a stranger through the narrator’s eyes. Searingly specific associations from the narrators throughout the collection, but it never feels mean to me, or brazenly provocative. I think that’s a gift of Lutz’s too, that any cruelty that might be ascribed to her narrators is filtered through the lens with which they view themselves. Everything resonates from a subjective, peculiar frequency.  

JLLOL’d up and down the book. Lutz is a master of understatement, which is probably the best way to get a joke across on the page. “There’s an actress I like. I’ve studied the articles about her far too many times on my knees.” It’s funny to me because it’s so sly. If the speaker came right out and said they were jerking off it wouldn’t work. The understatement is the joke. Plus, ending the sentence on “knees” forces the reader to picture the speaker there, in the act, a type of prayer, caught in the paradox of sacred/profane.

Sort of along these lines, I love when Lutz pokes fun at conventional narratives. Like when it’s suggested that a character take a “workshop on how to punch up my obituary-in-progress.”      

JLWorking on this roundtable, I’ve noticed it’s been almost impossible for me to write about Lutz’s writing without attempting to mimic her pomp. How does Lutz influence your writing?        

TLThere can be no synthetic Lutz! I can imagine how one might get banana-peeled trying to mimic her style which feels so unique to the engine propelling it. I think that’s a real lesson right there. To find and explore the voice that is uniquely your own, and if you can be a genius that helps too. That sounds a bit basic but she’s an exemplar of the inimitable voice. And yes, this roundtable has made me a little more self-conscious than usual of sentence tending. Imagining Jakob Dylan playing Bob Dylan a Wallflowers track like, “What do you think, Dad?”. Awkward silence. Courteous pat on the back.  

CJNThat’s the wild thing about style, right? It’s infectious and obvious when others are biting. And yeah, after soaking in even the smallest dose of Lutz, I start spouting past-participled verbs and subject/object agency reversals with so many layers of obfuscating passivity I forget what I’m even trying to say. At best—and what I think Lutz has successfully taken from any scattershot influences she’s claimed—exposure inspires care for each word chosen and taking every opportunity to consider how to heighten drama through language in a way that accentuates the rest of whatever greater body of text to which it belongs.

SCAs Crow mentions, I feel like her influence has heightened my attention to how literature functions on a sentence-to-sentence level. I know that might seem obvious, but for me, Garielle Lutz’s stories represent how the cadence and construction of sentences offer an interpretation of the world in themselves. They have a certainty in their own existence that’s very admirable.
JLThe other day, I was talking to a writer in an MFA program whose professor took them aside after class and said, “Lutz is a terrible influence.” A statement that is, in its own way, a medal of honor. I wonder what Lutz would say on the subject of influence. I imagine something like this line from Worsted: “My life reeks of other people, least of all me.”

Worsted is available for purchase here.

Sebastian Castillo is the author of Not I (word west press) and 49 Venezuelan Novels (Bottlecap Press).

Tom Laplaige writes from the basement of a house with white shutters. He is at work on his debut collection of short stories.

Jon Lindsey is the author of the novel, Body High, available from House of Vlad. He lives in Los Angeles.

Crow Jonah Norlander is managing editor for X-R-A-Y, co-editor of HAD, and has recent work in Hobart and The Rumpus.

Gary Lutz by Derek White