The first time I read Gary Lutz, I went slower and slower as the pages progressed. Each sentence seemed to want to grab me by the wrists—they kept bending inward on themselves and then opening backward onto whatever was to come next, like an Escher drawing made out of language. Lutz is one of those talents who can write about anything he wants—office supplies, men’s rooms, skin—and still be able to keep you ruminating on any single phrase or set of phrases for hours at a time, figuring out the different ramifications buried in its face.
In short, a new Lutz book is something to take pause for, and now happens to be one of those times for pause, as Future Tense Books has just re-released, in paperback form, 2007’s Partial List of People to Bleach, a collection of a dozen of Lutz’s previously uncollected fictions. Also included in the new version is his now-seminal essay on the mechanics of language, “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” and a rather insane and babbling two-page introduction from the ever-ridiculous Gordon Lish, who published some of Lutz’s earliest work. It’s a nice little package of worlds, and like every Lutz release, something you should own.
Gary was kind enough to answer some questions via email in regards to his general practice of making sentences.
Gary Lutz and a cat. Photo via vwalive
VICE: I remember you saying once that you only write one story a year, during the summer. Is that still true? If so, do you have the urge to write during the time you are not writing, or is it more of an incubation thing?
Lutz: I cannot recall ever having felt the urge to write. My stock of urges has always been awfully small—eating, trying to sleep, and walking as far away as possible from everything are the big three. I'm not what you would call a writerish type. Writing is something I have done to make big bad time go away when there is too much of it coming down upon me at once, as there often is in warmer weathers. Nothing of a verbal nature is incubating in me during the rest of the year, when I am not writing. Nothing wells up. My writing doesn't come to me organically or bodily. It's not a thing of the mind, either. Writing is mostly a reason to get out of the house. I'll drive to one place for lunch and then right afterward to another place for another, more cholesterolly fortifying lunch, then pick up some lousy croissants-manque at a doughnut dump and arrive finally at a windowless office where I situate myself at a work station with the lousy croissants and start loading words in 24-point type up onto the screen. This is a slow and drowsy approach that usually yields one low-word-count stretch of fictionesque sentences by late August. But my last couple of summers have been different. Time began battering me in ways I wasn’t accustomed to.
Why do you particularly like 24-point type? And is the windowlessness important?
From my way of looking at things—and I have never been much of a looker—a word, enlarged to 24-point type (though I sometimes allow myself to go far larger, and I’m partial to the rondures of the Cambria font), presents itself to the eye as something hulky, just another lump of matter. The more colossal you get a word, the easier the meaning can seep out of the hollows and bowls and dimples of the letters. Sometimes, though, you have to scoop it out, and that can slow you down a bit. You’re left, ultimately, with something bony-looking and gutted, and you listen to the air whistling through the cavities, and something eventually comes over you: you want to fill those holes, pack them full, with something else, usually the plentisome slops and slimes from your own psyche. You’ve got to get something discrepant going on inside of the word. Then that word, with a louche sort of air about it now, and with a shifted import to it, can present itself to another word and start something swackingly unnatural.
As for the windowlessness, the tiny portion of the local world I mess my way through during daily stumbles to and from fast-food concerns and dollar stores and work sites and my slummy sleeping quarters (decades into adulthood, I still, for the life of me, take my slumbers on the shaggy floor) is rife with little bits of everything ungorgeous, so am I to be blamed for preferring that things in the main be kept as unbeholdable as possible? A vista would do me no good out here.
Can you say at all where, when you do begin writing, what it is that strikes you to start a sentence, or, even before there's a sentence, the first word or words?
I might be reading a newspaper or a magazine, and sometimes in an article about this or that setback (because I usually head straight for the business section), a word pokes out at me from its curbed circumstance on the page and seems aching to throw off its burden of journalistic accuracy and factitude. I’m not talking about unusual words or vogue words and abbreviatory formations like “selfie”or “IRL,” but just some verbal ordinaria, like “crass” or “minder.” Sometimes I just seem to sense when a word like that is asking to be excused from its newsy duties and be taken out for some exercise and freshening stimulations. So that word might become the start of a sentence of my own, the goading word of what eventually gets going syntactically, and I’ll stare rather unmercifully into it and take the measure of its features, its frame, its lineaments, until the thing starts looking less like just another unimpeachable piece of the public vocabulary and more like just a façade of something else, as if it has all along been a sort of sham bit of language, and the meanings that had been forced into the thing start trickling out little by little and I’m left with mostly just a shell that begins filling up with the mood I might be feeling, the mood having gone fluid, and the mood, more often than not, being one in which I’m trying to get a jump on some loss to come, a mood of anticipatory bereavement, which is what life usually feels like on the least ugly days of a person my age. By this point, the vowels seem to be pealing purely, and the consonants are straight up and unpuckered, and the word feels ready to attract others to it in the sickness of having to get something unheartily, unfalsifiedly, said.
Are plots, or things that stand in as plots in your texts, completely incidental products of language, or is there an underlying scaffolding at any point?
Life is plotproof, muddled, desultory, irreducible to chains of cause and effect. It’s sweaty and rampantly sad. It’s a motion of moments. There’s no line of any kind other than the one that runs from birth to thwarting to death. As a reader, I drop out of a novel or even a short story as soon as I sense that the writer has a scheme and is overarranging things. I’ve had it with the masterminded. That’s just my own prejudice, obviously, but I’m the same way about humor: I don’t want to wait through a setup for the punch line: I want one one-liner after another: I want the upshot, I want everything to feel final from the first, I want the conclusion. I don’t need to know what it took to get there; I only need to know that there’s nowhere else to go. In my fiction, life sweeps over people as they sum themselves up on the fly. There’s no backstory for them to take shelter in. They can’t luxuriate in ancestry and hand-me-down handicaps. They’ve never once felt as if their bodies were earmarked for life. It’s all they can do to just view each other’s ruins and blurt out their apercus in nothing flat. There’s nothing more to it than the fact that in every moment everything’s over all over again. It’s not as if there were something to be had from life. And there isn’t one thing to lead to another, because there’s only ever just one thing—maybe it’s a man rubbing a woman’s feet every night, often for hours on end, the woman keeping her socks on while he rubs, thick socks, happily and athletically striped and reaching almost to the knee, and the man not minding having something to do with his hands, which otherwise would only be falling asleep, because he’s over in Japan teaching business writing to homesick Americans, even though he doesn’t know the first thing about business writing, and the woman is just another American, of appealingly clouded mind and projective hair, nothing else going on between the two of them except for the foot-rubbing, though she is growing on him, but only as if she is literally appending herself to him, and what she’s screaming about at the top of her lungs is either only the fact that she’s in a faraway place but doesn’t feel far away or the fact that just because she means something doesn’t mean anything other than that with any luck she will one day probably get away with calling the man a friend.
Previously by Blake Butler - The Permutating Brain of Stephen Dixon