By Gary Lutz
Calamari Press, 2011
120 pages / $13 Buy from SPD
It’s no wonder that someone who might be said to live in the sentence would apply its logic—and its subversions—to his lens on the higher-order structures of life. In Divorcer, Gary Lutz tinkers with each level of human-linguistic interaction, cascading from social power structures, to family dynamics, personal relationships, full-scale utterances, isolated sentences, words, morphemes and phonemes, with an eye to at-once humorous and devastating exposure of the failures of empathy and failures of semantic coherence echoing throughout.
I should say that in this short book of seven stories, things don’t happen as we are often compelled to construe them. Or rather, if an long-evolving heritage of popular consensus has led us modern humans to conceptualize our memory as an unbroken, fluid chain of causal events, then things do not “happen” in a traditional sense. Though the consciousness relating each story is differently inflected—and particularly the stories that are not broken up by roman numeral headings do not quite follow this trend—the telling rarely has a sense of “happening”, of an embodied character choosing to act and react in a series of moments.
Instead, in the place of a more expected, fluid narrative, there are gorgeous, estranged, crystalline moments occurring in frozen quanta of memory. It has the feeling of an arcane flip-book where each image ties only enough into the last that you can make some sense of it, but still most of the objects within are substituted or erased entirely from page to page. And yet, there is an underlying logic, both formal and narrative.
The work feels like a skeleton overgrown with weeds, a framework meticulously diagrammed and then grown: dipped in bacterial, geometric logic, so an L-grammar of activity could accumulate from distinct, plotted, impossible events. If the overgrowth—the playful, acrobatic infractions of story and language—is what makes it beautiful and exciting, it is the skeleton that keeps it grounded, heartbreaking at its core.
The geometer of the stories has become known in part for the attention he gives to sentence-level poetic operations in his writings. He gave a talk at Columbia a few years ago that I was fortunate enough to hear, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” (later published and available online at the Believer) in which he explicated the small-scale mechanics of a few chunks of prose in a considered way ordinarily confined to poetry. His examples were often beautiful, and his analysis cogent. Writers of both poetry and fiction were probably not very surprised by the approach, but might have been delighted to see such an eloquent representation of their combined interests. Sitting in the audience, I had a similar feeling to when I recently read the New York Times article about a study that offered proof that bisexuals do indeed exist—and found myself balking at the naivete of the questions implied by there ever being a doubt: is it really possible to love and identify with two different things so much? two things so historically balkanized? Indeed.
But like it or not, there is meaning generated in doing something—like combining the attentions of poesis and narrative—conspicuously different from the popular flow. In these stories, the meticulous, echoic structures of the sentence feel like therapy, or—given the general paucity of self-awareness in its characters—like studied avoidance. When the anagrammatical feel of the language is in full swing, the letters and sounds often feel cut and pasted from the sentences around them, as if viewed a nose-length from the page, so as not to see the accretion, the context, the emotional big picture—so as not to see the words-and-feelings-in-relationship, even if the author himself is keenly aware of the interlocking, larger structures of both the individual stories and the book entire. From moment to moment, the narrator-consciousness feels like someone left in the rubble of a blast, confined to a sad rectangle where the foundation of a home might have been, rearranging bodies, stones, and other debris into new, more pleasing structures—rearranging DNA and even atoms, so that identities are confused, blame is reassigned, and the big picture—the causes of and solutions to the destruction; things that may or may not have ever existed—is obscured. This sense of morbid play, the rearrangement of the mere materials of existence, operates at every level.
For instance, the language use of the characters themselves mirrors the distancing language play of this narrator-consciousness. In a particularly aching scene, a parent refers to her son as her daughter’s brother. In another scene, a teacher in a parent-teacher conference asks the narrator, “Do you push [your daughter] nearly enough?”
The first example is dramatic—humans do not typically refer to close familial relationships by taking longer walks through their family trees: this is pathology—a damaging construction, a construction that is an artifact of damage. The second example is merely infelicitous, a playful use of the scalar word “nearly”, which in similar usages has a negative polarity—that is, like “any”, certain uses tend to pose it to describe a quantity that is either barely or not present: as in Lutz’s “our privacy wasn’t having any of us.” (You couldn’t say, “our privacy was having any of us” for the same reason you couldn’t say “I’ll be having any more wine tonight.”) Generally, “nearly” is used to describe an infinitesimal approach to a quality or state, and a teacher would hardly be interested in splitting hairs with the narrator about whether he were pushing his daughter enough or “nearly enough.” Rather, the teacher would assert that he were doing neither. So the phrase is infelicitous, and consequently, the narrator’s report on the spoken language around him has to either be taken as at least somewhat false, or as a description of a world where everyone might be similarly distanced from their own language by small, disturbing edits on large and small scales—let alone the other, more intensely surreal events themselves that the narrator describes.
Roles themselves are also toyed with in the writing—it occurs to me that if an character’s action might be compared to a word in a sentence, then a character might be akin to an idiomatic phrase: some structure understood only as a holistic marker for a larger idea, unable to be analyzed as a combination of its constituent parts. For instance, when a character visits an abortion doctor with questions about an abortion:
The doctor violates something like a dictionary entry of his expected role. When he suggests the pregnant character avoid essentially all foods, she replies:
“You want me to starve”
to which he says,
violating his primary—almost lexical—operation as “doctor”, in ignoring his duty in keeping his patient alive. He wears the clothing of a doctor, and works in the same place—he is spelled the same way as any other doctor—but does not function semantically as one should.
In another example of the interplay between grammar, semantics, and character, Lutz has a passage where a character is described as:
This is another infelicitous application of a grammatical operation, applying to the verb “govern”—which may, in a pinch, be used to describe the management of ones hair—a nominalizing morpheme “-ment” that would ordinarily work, if the result were not already claimed by another, far more used word, “government.’ This destabilizes the language, and could be written off as merely clever, but at the same time functions as a metaphor, evoking the broader semantic framework of the word, while using a nontraditional—and therefore particularly focal—usage.
Here, the two grammatically altered words in the sentence work in tandem, metaphor upon metaphor: “overgrown” likening the excessive size of the man to an untended garden, and his hair to an ungoverned political body. The entire man then becomes semantically tied to a remorseless, nature without reason, without checks, and is at once victim and perpetrator of messy, invasive action.
There are many more examples of productive linguistic play in the book, from asymmetrical parallelisms:
to misuse of actual idioms and further—this time semantically infelicitous—play with nominalized parts of speech:
It would be fun to pull them all apart, these marvelous turns of phrase that run through nearly every sentence of the book, except that the actual joy of reading—or, I imagine, of writing—is not to realize the mechanics of this work, but to bask in the resonance of the product.
The success of the presented, broken sequence of events—the book en toto—is that it is tied together with a strict, even religious formal discipline that excises every pinch of fat, so only the most essential, the most eerily linked words remain. This is a powerful through-line, taking place on the formal level, which acts as counterpoint to the pleasantly unstable stories. It is this push and pull, the fractalized, formal and narrative coherence and deletions that make the work so fascinating, and so heartbreaking as a picture of divorce, and the divorce-like—what is ultimately a trauma so widespread that the subject might have otherwise faded into beige invisibility. Lutz renders it utterly.
Eric (AKA Careful) is one of America’s living makers-of-things. You can find his work in Fence, Joyland, and many other places, with a cursory google search.