Monday, October 3, 2016

On "Stories in the Worst Way" by Gary Lutz ***

All these pieces are short, and all have been, it feels like, edited down from something much larger. Lutz is one of those practitioners of the sentence, which means that every line counts--and virtually every line is something totally original. People don't just sit. They uncrack their bones into a repository. That sort of description, while beautiful (and actually, that's not a quote--it's just something akin to what Lutz would do), makes for difficult reading if one wants to go quickly. But it's worth slowing down and savoring the work.

Not that the stories themselves, beyond the language, always hold up something that original. Quite often, they're more or less slice of life pieces without much of a climax or epiphany. In "Sororally," a man goes out with a coworker, but a relationship doesn't work out. In "Waking Hours," a man stumbles through life at a job, spending time with the kid from his former marriage, and looking for gay lovers. In "Street Map of the Continent," a man deals with the fallout of a wife who leaves him (or dies). The latter story ends on a strange, seemingly unrelated tangent, as do many of Lutz's other pieces. In that sense, they remind me a bit of Lydia Davis's work, which has a fan base and its critical followers but of which I have not been one.

In "Slops," a man considers some events affected by his constant bouts with colitis. "Devotions" recounts marriages; "When You Got Back" involves a man in a relationship with a high school senior who goes out for a walk and meets another man with laundry that has been done but that doesn't look it (perhaps some kind of comment on the man's own behavior?).

"Esprit de L'Elevator" breaks what is already a short story up into even smaller pieces. The man at its heart meets four people in his apartment building each day. He begins writing a book for them--and then excerpts of said book are quoted. It's as if Lutz is just having fun with the little snippets here, whatever neat thing might strike his fancy.

In "Education," which seems vaguely set in some eighteenth-century world but also in our own, a man goes to "educate" a young miss for her mom and grandma. The story revolves around geography (learning town names) and, as one would sort of expect, sex and innocence.

"Certain Riddances" involves a man's life at an office and is full of fun and interesting asides--how names weigh us down with expectation. But like so many of the tales, it peters out with information that has seemingly little to do with anything that has gone before it, focusing on the man's life at home. The story could be about the way in which our relationships are in many ways anonymous, how we don't know people even when we do, and how what we do know impinges on our ability to connect. So taken in by words and occasional grand ideas is the writer, throughout this piece and others, that one rarely feels much for the characters or situations.

"Pavilion" is about marketing or public speaking or family relationships or all of them. A man speaks about forging families to others, forges one of his own sort of--and others. The last line here is memorable enough that it demands reading of the story itself to get to.

In "Recessional" a man lives with a divorced woman and her daughters. It's one of the longer stories in the collection, and as such, Lutz spreads out a bit, and that is in itself curious to see. A large amount of space is given over to the man emptying his pocket out on a dresser while his wife talks. I've never read so brilliant of a description for something so mundane.

"The Preventer of Sorrows" focuses on rooms--a woman's various rentals. Rooms with roommates and rooms alone, rooms with partners and husbands. Rooms in rowhouses and attic rooms. This manner of telling a story, not unlike Susan Minot's "Lust" is often compelling, but Lutz brings with it his own skewed vision such that the piece is something very different from anything Minot wrote. The piece ends with a profound line about how a place can overnight become something else. It makes you think about how we assign meaning to the places we go.

"Onesome" is about the struggle of staying in such relationships and how we in some ways subordinate our own lives in order to continue on with these others who have become part of us.

"Not the Hand but Where the Hand Has Been" covers much the same ground as many of the other stories, especially the early ones--a failing marriage, a set of jobs. Here, the focus becomes indexing, and the story itself features an index, and the narrator throws more and more of his life into categories (and into the jobs that he has).

The collection is full of so many stories, so many short ones, that it would be ponderous to recount all of them. Instead, one notices common themes and settings--offices, relationships, teaching, a kid. The pieces often feel as if part of a dream, given that the situations seem random and often the happenings go off on seemingly nonsensical tangents, even as they remain generally oh-so-commonplace. But Lutz's real strength in the sentence itself--so many beautiful lines. They get stacked up so much that his stories are probably better savored one at a time than read in a collection like this, where they tend to overwhelm and where the thread of the narratives gets lost.

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