Stories In The Worst Way by Gary Lutz
While browsing the bookstore last week my eye happened upon the title Stories in the Worst Way by Gary Lutz. Naturally, I love a good train wreck, and it would be fairly simple, I thought, to write my first Donnybrook review of a book called Stories in the Worst Way considering the author has practically told me himself in the title how to feel about his book. See, I’m an incredibly busy man and these jobs cut into my croquet practice. I tossed the book to my valet Clifford for him to glean an opinion of the thing, but the following day he came back to me shaking with excitement, extolling Lutz’s book, ordering me to read it for it was such a delight that Clifford had read it in a day. Naturally I trust my faithful valet, so I did turn a few pages in the small paperback.
I’ll begin by mentioning the first thing a reader of the book would notice: the reader is never given a very clear picture of who tells the stories, each being told by an elusive first-person narrator. Often one would wonder upon reading whether the narrator is male or female, or perhaps even something in between in these trying liberal times, as narrators bounce back and forth between sexual partners of both genders without ever fitting within binary gender roles. Likewise, plotlines are also unclear and meander, composed of thoughts colliding with one another within the narrators’ heads, creating dreamlike sequences, experiencing their neuroses.
Lutz shines in what we in the business call “short shorts,” which are more “in” today than their fashion counterparts. These are stories that are barely above or below one page in length; they are consumed like a shot of good gin, quick and mostly painless with a punch in the end. In one story, “Susceptibility,” Lutz opens with: “This is about two people. It should not matter which two.” The story runs a few fast graphs explaining how one person wants to know from the other where he can find “some of those rubber squares you stick under the feet of furniture.” A sentence or two later we do not find the answer to this question but are rather told that the asker is the narrator’s father. “The other one’s me,” he says. And that is that!
There is no traditional plot here, nor in many of the stories in this collection, just exposition. A great deal of the book sets up situations for the reader, but quickly abandons them in favor of new conflicts. But an ending rarely feels incomplete; they rather feel like Buddhist koans, fables to study for a mysterious truth we may never grasp.
It should be noted, then, that Lutz is quite a master of structure. In a lecture titled “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” delivered to the students of Columbia University’s writing program and printed in the January 2009 issue of the Believer, Lutz explained his goal in writing “narratives of steep verbal typography … the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.”
Lutz manages by introducing to the reader a menagerie of made-up words, or by assigning clever new definitions to them. We would swat his hand away from the pen upon doing so had not Shakespeare done similarly. A sample of words found in the book: “situationary,” “vocabularily,” “curricularly,” and a great many salvaged adverbial odds-and-ends. It’s rather daring of him when you find that Lutz is very much a grammarian of our times, taking such an unorthodox descriptive approach in his fiction.
Though most interesting is not the “verbal typography” of Lutz’s sentences as much as the spatial, geographical quality of the scenes in his stories. A hilarious gem is when the narrator in “Devotions” explains how he is sure that the tenant upstairs matches his every movement and action above:
… It dawned upon me that this person had divined how things were laid out in my rooms, had rearranged the furniture and belongings and outsweepings upstairs to correspond to my own—so that if, during a passage from room to room, I abruptly stopped (lowered myself to a region of the floor where a tossed magazine had landed in a rumply heap) … there would be, at the very same spot twelve feet or so above me, a parallel distraction for this person, a consuming project of his or her own.
I’ll pause to let the image sit with you. Perhaps take a break and watch the Royksopp music video “Remind Me,” and then reread the paragraph above, visualizing it in a similar way.
I typically keep my short story reading habits strictly within the New Yorker but, you know, if Clifford says it’s good, it’s at least tolerable. So I in turn recommend Stories in the Worst Way to you, my dear reader, but please, wait until after properly sloshed from cocktail time before cracking open the thing. You will thank me for that, at least!