Gary Lutz is a Master
His sentences are the singular reason to read his work
Gary Lutz has made it perfectly clear that the sentence is where words go to feast or famine. The sentence is the great morality of his style, constructed from a vision so perfect that nothing else in the story matters. His sentences are the singular reason to read his work.
“You don’t make Marlon Brando learn his lines, you don’t make Slayer play clean guitar parts, and you don’t make Gary Lutz write a plot.”
Lutz’s newest book, Assisted Living, is really short. This is great if you’re like me and couldn’t get through his previous book, Divorcer, despite liking the increased prickliness and instant-by-instant success of whatever it is happens when Lutz twists words around into a certain order.
Really, if you’ve been following Lutz’s career thus far, you’ll notice little change in the quality of work. He still has a need to sum up an entire length of existence for the sake of scope or melodrama. In this book alone there’s, “Life had harshened on her dearly,” and “All life aspires toward the sureness of erasure, you say?” and literally twenty other times the word “life” appears in nestled alongside various forms of distorted syntax or verbiage.
He also still eschews narrative in favor of how those great sentences sound and feel next to one another. When he writes, “So, true: She was somewhere there in the physical hooey that went with being human. The love itself she could laugh off,” our takeaway is exactly what he’d planned on it being: the assonance of “hooey” and “human” in the first sentence and “love” and “laugh” in the second. That leads to comparison within each respective sentence and then friction as those two sets of “content words” (Lutz’s phrase, not mine) either expand or cancel each other out sitting alongside one another, depending on how you look at it.
He’s doing his tricks. Again, nothing new, but not because he’s any sort of old dog. He’s known forever how he wants to write, and he’s done it yet again. Assisted Living isn’t a trotting out of the same show as always, the last season of The Office or the newest Led Zeppelin remasters. It’s the writer who does something better than everyone else yet again demonstrating why it continues to be true.
From “Nothing Clarion Came of Her, Either” —
In a marriage, the deathly custom goes, you have to choose sides — yours or your spouse’s. My side had all the wobbliness on it, the debt forgivenness, the gastrointestinal meds that came with printouts saying: “IF YOU MISS A DOSE. . . .”
Her side had backbone in the penmanship, dollars dulling in CDs. Everything had finishes on it. Her parents came over to pamper our furniture, spoiling it rotten with pillows that foamily remembered how they’d taken every jab of my elbows.
People usually couldn’t place me, but certain cushions always could.
I would have anywise settled for any old chain of events, other than morning revoking the night before, the night before revoking the day, and the day no horn of plenty, either.
Though I know Lutz makes his stories by constructing workon one end and having a fully-realized style once it’s complete, reading Lutz’s work still feels like a sort of magic. His stories are craft over creation to the point where the craft becomes the creation.
He has a spark of invention, but it isn’t a flow of words or momentum as much as it’s a pointed reconceptualization of both language and thought. It’s classical music, not jazz.
That being said, these stories shouldn’t work. They’re just information dumps about children and exes and parents. It’s not quite verbal porn or masturbation, but it is a sort of dark, linguistic circus. It’s like every story is a mental transcript of a person with nothing but time to let each and every word overwhelm the senses.
All of these stories work, but “You Are Logged In As Marie” is the clear winner of this new tetralogy. More importantly, it’s the most successful of his latter-day, increasingly grumpy work. It’s a solid third of this brief chapbook, but it’s been wisely “Hempelized” into short sections, some spaces in which to breathe and parse out thoughts about the aforementioned topics (“an ex only if we let ex equal extinct.”). It’s almost scenic at points, which is incredible considering that Lutz is the sort of writer who once spent about 500 words talking pointedly about a single Sam Lipsyte sentence with no context to the story whatsoever.
From “You Are Logged In As Marie” —
This later one came to me not quite figured out. She looked hurriedly lovely enough at first.
She was a day-shift aide at a nursing home and would return to me with dental floss of all colors threaded thoughtfully through her hair. A resident had done it, she’d say. She would not want to wash it out just yet.
“Things don’t always have to be miracles,” she’d say.
Like most of some kind, she had lived and loved spottily, with lonesome turns of mind and an unsporting heart.
I took my messes and eases with her, but she turned out to be a lot like the others, the pharmaceuts, the vasalvagals.
Sign-offs for e-mails shifted downward from “Best” to “Take care” to “Best to take care.”
Weeks would warp themselves away from the year.
To an inquirer, I described the apartment as three sickrooms, kitchen, and bath.
The neutral duplicity in his work — that is, a strictly observable density and a heartfelt disconnect all at once — and the idea of an assumed narrative don’t necessarily lend themselves well to longer stories. Assisted Living has only a bit of that slog going on, points where the verbosity and obtuse grammar just steamroll any comprehension no matter how short the section — or story itself — may be. On the whole, however, this is Lutz’s tightest, most enjoyable whole work since Partial List of People to Bleach.
I read slowly, I reread, and I took little breaks. For a 37 page book. Reading it wasn’t work, but I was expected to bring something to the table. It wasn’t a free meal, nor should it be. Like with anything else related to Lutz, happiness is earned and never guaranteed.
Moments are the takeaway. I won’t forget many of the ticks throughout Lutz’s career — a man searching the carpet for a pubic hair in “Home, School, Office” or the professor with colitis in “Slops” talking about shitting on campus — and there are more here in this book that will come to me time and again when my days briefly twitch as they do for these characters.
Or, as Lutz himself might say it: My life has become momentary, but what have the moments become?