The Cesspool: Cess by Gordon Lish

Now in his eighties, I’m not sure what there is to say about Gordon Lish that hasn’t already been said a dozen times over — and then some. Yes, we know that he’s famous for all the wrong reasons: He carved out Carver, championed Hempel and Ozick; he impishly borrowed the voice of Salinger and successfully delivered “the new fiction.” His legacy as a brilliant editor, first at Esquire and then at Knopf, as a brutal and influential teacher, is the stuff of legends. Less legendary, however, though no-less-deserving, is his legacy as a writer of extraordinary vision, a tireless innovator whose constant reinvention of the novel often goes unchecked, drowned out by the annual bell tolls of the form’s impending (always still-impending) demise.

Lish’s fiction output is perhaps best known for its sentence-level heroics, clever wordplay, and expansive vocabulary. How fitting, then, that the great majority of Cess: A Spokening, his latest book, consists of nothing more than a list of words. A less experienced writer — or let’s be real, a writer with less clout — might not be able to get away with this, but from Lish, such a stunt feels entirely natural, perhaps even overdue. It’s always been about the words, hasn’t it?

Cess is something of a mystery novel in disguise. After losing his job, the narrator (Gordon) reaches out to his beloved aunt Adele — who just so happens to work, in some obscured capacity, for the National Reconnaissance Office — seeking to procure employment. What he receives in return is an envelope that contains nothing but pages upon pages of words. “Okay, Sherlock,” writes Adele, “solve this and we’ll possibly — only possibly — talk.” We know, from earlier clues dropped by Gordon, that Adele and at least one of her sisters heavily favored double acrostics, that Adele’s work for the NRO involved cryptoanalysis, that she often enjoyed playing Anagrams. The central mystery, then, is what the hidden message contained within the list could possibly be. If all this sounds daunting, take heart — you’re not alone. “Words!” yells Gordon in a moment of frustration. “Jesus Christ Almighty, words!”

The book is organized into four sections: the “first of two notes,” which breathlessly sets up the core concept and introduces the narrative’s major players; then the list itself, or, as Lish fittingly refers to it, the “cesspool”; then the second note, which valiantly attempts to make sense of what, exactly, the goings-on of this book are; and finally, a cryptic postfix. I can’t say with any truthfulness that I read through the entire list, nor can I claim that the book’s back-cover copy, which states that “the alert reader will discover an accruing narrative involving… cryptography, love, poetry, and… the nature of language,” in any way accurately describes the experience I read while reading Cess.

I can say, however, that the mysteries of this book do unravel, if not in an entirely satisfying manner. But satisfaction isn’t the point here. This isn’t a book that seeks to entertain. “Because it’s like this — there is a way things are — and that’s it,” writes Lish. “The rest is metaphor.”

Toward the end of the book’s second note, Lish’s narrator dismisses those metaphors as irrelevancies. “Dressing,” he says. “Flights from fact. Just stinking filler. Jesus, shit, there’s no solving filler.” Leave it to Lish then, to construct a narrative that is almost exclusively filler, to bury any conventional meaning in the filler itself, and to make it all work. Sometimes the point of wading through the cesspool is the unknowingness, the fear buried in the back of one’s mind that language might not be doing what it’s supposed to be doing. That is, after all, where it all begins to come together.

Click here to read “In the District, Into the Bargain” in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. To purchase a copy of Cess, click here to be redirected to the publisher’s website.

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