My first encounter with the writing of short story writer Gary Lutz was when I attempted to purchase I-don’t-remember-what at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, Calif. The salesperson handed me an early iteration of Stories in the Worst Way, and informed me that I wanted that instead. Not one to trust my own judgement, I bought it. Years later, I still recall my first reading, and that knowing: this is what writing can do; this is what it should do. An autodidact, I didn’t know what to make of the book, so I simply read it over and over, hoping to absorb whatever it held for me.
Lutz’s latest book, Assisted Living, was released earlier this year from Future Tense books. Gary Lutz is also the author of Divorcer, Partial List of People to Bleach, The Gotham Grammarian, I Looked Alive, and Stories in the Worst Way.
Below, we talk a bit about the new book, writing, and of course, the sentence.
The Rumpus: As compared to some of your earlier books (for example, A Partial List of People to Bleach and Divorcer), these stories are more muscular, fraught. They also demand very close attention on the part of the reader: mental flex, filling in, active assaying. Do you see yourself shifting stylistically?
Gary Lutz: In truth, there was no muscling involved in getting the words shoved together in these pieces. If anything, I felt a sickliness about the entire enterprise. The entries in this vest-pocket collection were pressed out in narrowing lengths of language in rare, unexpected accesses of energy and feeling—spells, really—during involuntary withdrawals from fatiguing swirls of oncoming, incoming experience. I thought these pieces were more ghostly, more spectral, more elliptical and oblique than my earlier fictions. These were written in little seizures of grief. I don’t see my style going anywhere. It’s housebound by this point, a shut-in.
Rumpus: In the title story, we learn what we do about the narrator through his report on the unnamed “she” of the story. Talk a bit about showing how a character sees, as opposed to what is seen.
Lutz: Well, I wouldn’t know the first thing about technique, point of view, characterization (flatsomeness vs. rondure, if I have the distinction right), “show, don’t tell,” or any of the writing workshop etiquette. If I believe in anything when it comes to writing, and I can’t stress enough that I detest writing, it’s something that sticks with me not from any English class but from some awfully recondite driver’s ed. seminars I had the privilege to audit during my mid-teens, and to this day I probably misunderstand it anyway. It’s the term “right of way.” The writer, as I see it, has the right of way, so it’s up to the reader to look out. Come to think of it, there’s something else I remember from those driver’s ed. séances (I’ve got it memorized), and it bears tremendously and weightedly on that “Assisted Living” piece: “Always drive at a speed at which you can stop within the distance lit by your headlights.”
Rumpus: Many of your pieces are studies in the ways humans can be, and about the myriad of ways they can fall short. I can’t help but notice that you write about the shortcomings of your characters using language that is far more magnificent than they could ever hope to be. Do you feel that if the language is perfection, one can write the mundane into a revelation?
Lutz: Well, the narrators get into trouble and make fools of themselves with their perversely impulsive fondlings of the language. They trip up in vivid, self-deluding ways—saying “home,” for instance, when the sorry truth is that it’s just a house they’re talking about (page 7), or not having a clue as to why, in the home stretch of the sentence, “[l]ike most of some kind, she had lived and loved spottily, with lonesome turns of mind and an unsporting heart” (page 13), they’ve completely bollixed things up by not transposing the phrases “lonesome turns of mind” and “an unsporting heart”—a maneuver crucial for any number of the most rudimentary of aesthetic reasons. These people have retreated from the world, in which they keep falling short, and into language, where they fall even shorter. The narrators aggrandize their every plaint and lurid insight into verbal formations that betray their fatuity as speakers and even as hosts of their own bodies and souls. They love going for broke in dandy-esque streamers of language and fail at even that. Count on them to ruin whatever should have been a rune. They’re probably better off—and safer—the more opaque they make themselves anyway.
Rumpus: At the end of “Assisted Living” comes this damning line: “I said that at my age, you start to realize you might have loved only once, if that.” Besides being a devious turn, it feels massively like the end. Like, THE END. What do you have to say about breaking the reader’s heart so early in the collection?
Lutz: I had intended that piece to be the last one in the sequence, but Kevin Sampsell, the editor and publisher, thought it belonged up front, and he was right. I guess the reasoning was that any reader who makes it through that piece will be sufficiently inconsolable and torn apart to not put up any remaining resistance to whatever is coming next.
Rumpus: Physically, Assisted Living is an adorable object. Pocket-sized, tiny print, clean graphics, charming green staples. I love the idea of packaging these stories in such a sleek and handy booklet. It sets up a weird aesthetic tension, because the experience of reading them is maximalist. What do you think about the form of the book as compared to these stories?
Lutz: Am I awfully wrong to say that it looks like an ampler version of those bookletty tracts slid into your hand by sidewalk evangelists in the business districts of middle-size cities high on the misery index? Because that in part is what attracted me to the format—that such a crisply crafted and innocent-looking, colorfully stapled thing could be housing such downers, such concentrated doses of moping prose. So there was that, and there was also the luxury of the thirty-two-page constraint—the luxury, I mean, of having to oust phrases, sentences, and entire segments from the versions of the pieces as they had been laid out in journals. The pleasure of doing away with parts of pieces that no longer could fit was entirely mine.
Rumpus: I wonder which is more critical, the actual what’s-going-on of the story versus the state we find ourselves in at the end. So, say, I’m devastated, or euphoric, or weirded-out, but I don’t know why. Where do you place the greatest weight, with the impact or the facts? Or the language?
Lutz: I guess on the impact, the thud, of the words on the mind and the outskirts of the mind, the whole of the body the mind is still stuck in, but mostly the most troublesome parts of that body, and the troubles they’ve yet to cause.
Rumpus: In “This Is Not a Bill,” the story roils through a life, that of the narrator’s daughter, in a speedy two pages. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on finding the places to touch down in a flash piece that has such a long timeline.
Lutz: I don’t like to read or write about life in its tiring entirety. Most days, months, even years are just filler between those few moments of modest but decisive catastrophe, misfortunes so fittingly flimsy they’re almost welcome. The heart doesn’t storm that often on its own, so you have to wait for something outside of yourself to get the wrecking ball rolling, and then you’re set: you’ve finally got an impression to make on others—you’re in the world distinctly and distinguishable now. It’s only by our ravages that we’re recognizable to each other at last.
Rumpus: There’s a great line in “This Is Not a Bill,” that ends “…somewhere there in the physical hooey that went with being human.” I wonder if this isn’t what all your stories are about? Assuming that they have to be about anything at all, I get the sense that your characters would rather concern themselves with bigger things, like love and being known to each other, but then the day-to-day of the corporeal gets in the way.
Lutz: I’m not sure there are any bigger things for these people. Nobody will even go to the bother of taunting them with “always a bridegroom, never a bride.” If there are things even a little on the biggish side, they’re nothing more than maybe whimsical triumphs with a razor way off the regular razoral routes, ELF makeup, two-can-eat-for-the price-of-one coupon specials engorged in companionless conspicuity at an out-of-town Burger King because to have everything bagged to-go would be even worse—because where is there to go? It’s a long slog from birth till the rigmarole of old age, all those undimmable apartments and pre-owned cars filling up with things bought in caprices at thrift stores and not worth dragging up the stairs and into the apartments. And those self-checkout lines at the supermarkets nowadays? They had those put in so you won’t have to be looked at, so there’s no chance you’ll get touched when any change is due you.
Rumpus: Your lecture “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” is an homage to the sentence, as well as to precision. I found it a great comfort, and return to it whenever I suspect I my standards may have drooped or wondering if messing with a single sentence for days might not be a worthy tactic. You talk about this idea that the sentence must be worked until it feels “foredained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon, and had finished readying itself for infinity.” I’d love to hear more about the various qualities that are in effect.
Lutz: A sentence has to sound as if it has always existed, as if cribbed from everyone else’s inner history ever—from everything you were never to be privy to. It should hit you not as news but as a reminder of what you now wish you never knew.
Rumpus: Linguistically, you’re all control, but also a sort of mad scientist of language. When I read your work, I feel like you elevate every word as if each had to earn their place in one of your stories. I also think about necessity of mastering the rules in order to break them. Am I getting close to any of the forces that drove you to write The Gotham Grammarian (Calamari 2015)? Feel free to provide a better description, but for the reader who is unlucky enough to not have encountered this book, it’s a detailed, side-angled, example-laden investigation into a certain group of grammar rules. That sounds awful, but it’s exceptional (if mini-fronted).
Lutz: I have never felt at ease in language. I did not grow up among books or among people who read them. I heard words emerge from mouths but didn’t get the hang of how people hung the things out as if on lines to get their gripes and recreational distempers yowlingly known. I remember a childhood visit to some side-street relations and having to play a word game, and all my words were wrong. “Soupcase” and “capicity” are two I remember. Those drew laughter from a couple of cousins faddishly wearing their fathers’ church-going shirts in lieu of dresses. I remember being asked to fetch a grandwoman’s “pocketbook” and then rummaging through unfamiliar rooms in befuddlement and panic. I learned to read but not to comprehend, and that might well have stood me in good stead, because what’s there to understand, really? Everything I later learned to understand was unspeakably ugly anyway. In time, I bought some rulebooks and squeezed my way onto the honor roll, but, decades later, I’ve been pointed toward people described as “actively dying” who only now and then seemed to be going about it friskily.There was mostly no hustle I could notice.
Rumpus: What are your thoughts on abutment? You do a fair amount of this, unlikely word couplings that become a new beast. I’m also thinking about sentence abutment, where each of these units, totalities in themselves, maybe already perfect on their own, are necessarily changed by the presence of another. There were quite a few places in Assisted Living where I would have felt satisfied with a single sentence on a page: “Her name still had its run of the growlier vowel sounds.” and “Then it’s settled, I thought. I’ll let my life live me.” (“You Are Logged in as Marie”). Also,“She had me beat with her pirated culture and that unjust élan of the validly but modestly depressed.” (“Assisted Living”)” as well as “She was nothing if not downright either of ours, finally.” (“Nothing Clarion Came of Her, Either”).
Lutz: I prefer the sorts of words that go their own way and are very choosy about where they end up. They don’t fall for the first frillily syllabled thing to come along. There’s much too much mismating in the Microsofted phrasery of our day. And I like sentences that are societies unto themselves and shun any need for paragraphic shelter and fellowship. But I don’t like seeing paper going to waste, either. I just like a loaded page, I guess.
Photograph provided courtesy of author.