EDITOR’S NOTE by John Oakes
If one regards Gordon Lish a standard bearer of the literary art, as I do, writing an introduction to his work is superfluous. But similarly, a close reading of his work suggests it is the product of someone who recognizes the superfluity of most of what we do, and in particular the superfluity of the exacting art of writing. So, in a Beckettian frame of mind, I shall embrace the excess, the uselessness of the moment and plunge right in.
A story by Lish presents itself as deceptively open, innocently restricted to quotidian language. Glaringly casual dialogue, direct references to the reader and narrator, a bit of chitchat — nothing more is here, but something much more is here. An evocation of René Magritte’s 1928 painting “The Treachery of Images,” a picture of a pipe with “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) written beneath it, is applicable to all his output, but in particular to the story now before us, “In the District, Into the Bargain.” The picture of the thing is not the thing, if you need it spelled out, and the description of the thing is not the thing. And in this story, right here, the situation is compounded; it’s a misinterpretation of falsity, is what it is. Someone call the cops! Howard’s pipe is not a pipe, or not the pipe narrator Gordon thinks it is, and then it is something much more, and it is also something much less: “the pipe” is finally, literally, a few smudges of ink, or agglomerations of electrons or photons or whatever they are, on the page or screen.
A story by Lish is anything but innocent. It is the precisely, even obsessively, crafted product of an all-knowing narrator who dazzles with asides and distractions. It is a celebration of loss, a poison gift from its creator dropped into the receptacle — you and I, miserable recipients of beautiful lies.
Co-Publisher, OR Books
In the District, Into the Bargain
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Here’s a bit for you. It’s an impressive one too. My bet is you are going to be really refreshingly impressed with it, or by it, which I have to tell you is what I myself was when the woman involved in the event disclosed her heart to me. First, as to setting — temporal, spatial, all that. So, fine, so the thing starts maybe all of an hour ago just a block from where I am sitting right this minute typing this up for you to read it and get out of it the same kick I did. She types too — the woman. She is always typing, is my understanding — or was, back when I used to see her somewhat, let us just fancy, social-wise. As a matter of fact, when I said to her, “What’s up? I mean what are you doing here in this neighborhood? Do you have a pass, were you issued a pass, a license maybe, any kind of a permit you can show me authorizing you to come up here into this restricted district of mine?” she laughed. I think she thought I was trying to be funny. Let me tell you something — that’s the one thing I never try to be — namely, funny. No, no, I was just doing what I could to maybe get away with having to snoggle for the usual sort of talk, lay on her a smart-aleck greeting of a sort, which apposition I only went to the bother of just now constructing so I could say sort and sorts, repeating and repeating stuff to stuff the insidious silence with insidious sound, however otiose or bootless or inutile dexterity appears (to be?) on the surface. You get what I’m getting at? — the stressing of the effect of there being something sly down beneath down under things as regards below the surface, see? But which surface, eh wot? Or, anyway, surface of exactly what, eh wot? (You see? Can’t help myself. It’s like this thing I’ve got which is like an irresistibly compulsive thing.) Oh, boy, I am all of a sudden so tired. I, Gordon, son of Reggie, am all of a sudden so suddenly utterly all in, just fucking pooped. Like, you know, like weary, wearied, ausgespielt if you’re German, right? Nap. But, hey, before I fall and hit my head, I’m just going to go ahead and take myself a little teensy tiny nap, fair enough? Be back in a shake, I promise.
Mmm, nice. Told you I’d be right back. So there. Good as my word. Plus, feeling ten thousand percent. Nothing like sleep, let me tell you. Anyway, as I was going to say to you, small talk, the ceremonial, it gets me jumpy and tongue-tied, see? — especially when there’s the blam of a city smashing the nuclei of your cochlea from all four sides of your brain. Or, okay, six. I mean, the street. Knocking yourself out to make a show of confecting coherent conversation on the street, okay? This was the street. Or, fine, on the street. Or in it — since as for on, we were, the scene was taking place, the one consisting in this woman and I — on the sidewalk. But I may have already said so, mayn’t I have? Anyway, I was aiming for home from marketing and here she was, the woman I am telling you about, making her way along the sidewalk, coming right dead-on at me, a woman I, Gordon, had not, I swear to you, laid eyes on in a shockingly long time. Some beauty too. A real knockout. But in her years, of course, not in the slightest other than I. That’s right — we’re old. Okay, so this woman laughs a little and she says to me, “I was at the school — went by for a used-book sale at the school.” “Really?” I say. “At the school, you say? Buy anything?” I say. “Oh, just these,” she says, spreading open the dainty shopping bag she’s hauling with her and giving me a peek inside. There’s two books in there. I finger them around, trying to get it to look as if I’m earnestly interested in getting a look, and see, yeah, yeah, just crap, more crap, writing, writing, etc. and so on. “Sophie, this is crap,” I says to her, and she says, abashed is the word, or embarrassed, “I know, I know.” So I says to her, “Sophie, will you please explain yourself? I am waiting to hear you make a forceful enough attempt to explain yourself,” which, you know, gets another laugh out of her, but she touches my arm, the way you do, and I do ditto to hers, and this part of it is really honestly terrific for me because, don’t make me have to say it to you again, this person is, old as she is, a really terrifically classy-type of a looker. “And you?” she says, “because I never see you on the street anymore — oh, but probably it’s me — always hatching up dreams at home by reason of beating my keyboard to death.”
“Um, not me,” I say. “Quit it all just after the wife died. It’s not for me anymore, all of that maddening shit, verbs and nouns and worse. What I do,” I says to her, “is I keep myself frantically busy fussing with the place.”
“Is that so?” the woman, tired and tiresomely, says.
“Seems to be,” I say, and can see this powwow half a lick from a ghastly stall, and, thus, high time for everybody’s sake to make all speed for a semi-graceful goodbye and let us please get going on our separate ways.
I touch her arm.
It’s nice. Like sleep.
“Got to giddyap,” I say. “Projects.”
“Oh?” she says. “Like what?” she says.
Well, you can see how it is — one, I don’t want to be outdone, take off with the question, with her question, still in charge of the verbal situation which had been developing on the street just more or less just moments ago, which would be, if I did it, did yield, did give way, did fail to return reply, it would be like my giving this person the, you know, the victory, you might not inappropriately say, yes — and, two — two, I all of a sudden figure there’s maybe more to be said for touching hastening on the way in the offing for me here, so sexily, you might say, I says to the woman, “Ah, you know, just puttering around with my place, keeping things up to grade — or is it code? — doing what I can so the wife does not have to rest in everlasting shame.”
“Barbara?” the woman says.
“That’s right,” I say. “Good of you to remember the name. And Howard?” hoping and praying it’s me who’s this time remembering right (unless it’s aright), that it’s not John or something, Alphonse or Gray. “Pretty tough still, is it, or are you actually getting yourself settled in with all of the adjustments and all?”
“Yes, Howard,” she says, and looks off up into the wild blue yonder and, still gazing away, says to me, “Projects you said? Such as what?” she says to me, saying to me, after her saying just that little bit to me, not one other word, not nought, by Christ — until I, Gordon, am standing there with her on the sidewalk with her all talked-out, not having shown this person up, I should certainly say, not having exhibited to this person just what fucking grief is all about, which is when the woman gives me a look and says to me, touching my arm again into the bargain, “Oh, Gordon, you are such a tease,” and keeps touching my arm, keeps her hand in noticeably secure touch with my arm, in the manner of somebody determined to hold a person stationed right there where the two of them, persons the pair of them, are — as in don’t leave, don’t leave, and, sighing, saying to me, she says to me, “I know, I know — it’s exactly the same with me.” And here it happens, I can tell it, I can tell it, this woman is going to come at me with a comeback, goddamnit — I took too stuporously long trying to think up some sort of a reportable project — the mattress, the bedskirt, the phone in the kitchen sticky with its locale in the vicinity of lots of lonely frying.
But it’s crazy how I remember it.
His pipe. The man’s pipe. Her husband’s pipe, which I, Gordon, first apprehends as a pipe, as just a fucking pipe, as just the prop like a man named Howard, isn’t it, type of chap for him to sport, a pipe, hah!
“Oh,” she murmurs to me getting herself right in close to my face, “but isn’t one forever thinking of it — Howard’s favorite pipe?”
Me, I told her about some stuff I couldn’t seem to shut up about — the mattress, the bedskirt, the kitchen telephone. “Oh,” she says, “isn’t it what always so heartbreakingly happens when you don’t buy bedding at a department store where if you don’t, then you don’t have any, not the least, latitude as to any recourse of return, or last resort to it, or for credit? Gordon,” the woman says to me, admonishing me, and not at all soothingly, “don’t tell me Barbara never advised you to keep yourself well out of the reach of the specialty shops!”
I think I said, “Latitude?”
I think I may have said, “Latitude?”
You can lose the thread, you know.
You can lose it even if it’s your own textile you’re weaving.
Jesus, I am so goddamn tired again. Oh, man, am I … beat! Do you ever get to feel like this? You know what I mean? But maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re different from me. But maybe you’re not like her, either. I mean, I’m thinking a pipe pipe — like a briar pipe, right? But you know what in just mere minutes from then I’m willing to grant? And, hey, listen, I’m prepared to insist it’s a sign of growth in me, isn’t it? — this recent willingness I just mentioned to you where I’m willing to grant somebody a little something by way of exoneration — as in maybe a little benefit of the doubt.
“Sophie,” I says to her, tap-tapping the handier of her elbows with my two happy fingers working in synchrony. Still, doing this pretty consolingly, you do, I trust, understand — tap, tap, tap, gently, gently. I says to her, “Sophie, do you actually mean for me to interpret your meaning as meaning like a pipe in the basement or something — not something like a Meerschaum, right? But, you know, instead — instead an overhead pipe, industrial and all that?”
“Well,” she says (Sophie says to me, Gordon, you do continue to see), “dear Howard, dearest Howard, he had, I have to tell you, the man had picked out a big green heating pipe he felt very protective about.”
Or of, I, for the record, corrected — but, uncharacteristically, keeping my annoyance to myself.
Fuck it. You probably know how it goes from here — her getting me, with a touch and a half, to go with her over to her place to see it down there in her building’s basement — some superintendent’s gardener’s glossy high-class green. Then I, of course, got her to come hurry right over with me to my place and, you guessed it, showed her, I showed her, absolutely — well, yes — every dazzling detail.
Which is to say the sole project left to me.
Oh hell, the one, to be fair, left to the legion of both of us, I suppose it’s, inescapably, only virtuous for me to allow.
About the Author
Gordon Lish, born in 1934 in Hewlett, New York, is the author of numerous works of fiction, which together with his activities as a teacher and editor have placed him at the forefront of the American literary scene. Fiction editor at Esquire magazine from 1969 to 1976, in 1977 he became an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, where he worked until 1995. Among the writers he is credited with championing are Harold Brodkey, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, Jack Gilbert, Amy Hempel, Jason Schwartz, Noy Holland, Sam Lipsyte, Anne Carson, Ben Marcus, Gary Lutz, Cynthia Ozick, Christine Schutt, Dawn Raffel, and Will Eno. From 1987 to 1995, Lish was the publisher and editor of The Quarterly, a literary journal that showcased the work of contemporary writers. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984), and in the same year won the O. Henry Award for his story “For Jeromé — with Love and Kisses,” a parody of J. D. Salinger’s story “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor.” Among his seven novels are Dear Mr. Capote (1983) and Peru (1986). He lives in New York City.
About the Guest Editor
OR Books is a publisher dedicated to “progressive change in politics, culture, and the way we do business.” Founded in 2009 by publishing veterans John Oakes and Colin Robinson, the company’s focus is on selling direct to consumers via the web. All books are published as both print and ebooks. Among its authors are Julian Assange, Eileen Myles, Yoko Ono, Douglas Rushkoff, Jason Schwartz and, of course, Gordon Lish.
“In the District, Into the Bargain” is excerpted from Goings: In Thirteen Sittings and is reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2013 Gordon Lish