A New Prose Signal

Kenosis, Getting Comfy, Airships, Ashbery, Laterally Associative Progress, Black Humor, Tissue Samples, Strange Rituals, Disjunction, Deflation

A New Prose Signal

Sven Birkerts
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Gary Lutz. One tap of the tongue. And indeed, the assignment felt commensurately modest: to look at the work of a writer I had only heard of at that point—Gary Lutz—and to extrapolate from my reading a chunk of evaluative prose, a situating “think piece.” I took the bait. I enjoy these kinds of tasks, how they hold out the hope of surprises, departures from what can sometimes feel like the drone of the familiar.

I started, as always, with the reading ritual. First, kenosis: Empty out the self; look past the blurbs, the comparisons; try to purge the mind of everything but the immediacy of the sentences. Think only what the prose prescribes, and try to silence the judging voice.

You can picture the reader at work. In chair, feet squarely on floor, book held like a dowsing rod; in bed, shoes off; on couch, feet higher than head, book now folded back on itself, adjusted constantly as the search for optimum comfort level continues. Always the pencil gripped by the back teeth. Removed—the tick mark, the vertical line beside a certain passage, the notation of a phrase or a name inside the back cover—returned.

Gary Lutz. First just the plop of the pebble in a pond. Then, predictably, comes the sense of the widening gyre, ideas and connections breaking in on the “pure” act of reading. The secondary process begins, and with it the harder work of coaching the attention back to the page as more and more notions come to mind. Notions that gradually create a momentum, a thinking shape. And this time it really is a figure like a Yeatsian gyre, expanding outward and at the same time drawing inward toward a center.

I read the stories in Lutz’s collection, Stories in the Worst Way (reissued last year by 3rd Bed Press) over a period of days. “Over a period of days” because this is how my reading life breaks down—no more day-long immersions as I now fancy I used to have. But also over a period of days because the stories, while quite short (few longer than six or seven pages), have a disconcerting abstracted compactness that makes it hard to go from one to another to another. My usual pattern was to read two, do something else, read another; repeat as needed the next day, and the next.

I say all this because it somehow helps me recall the twofold process of my thinking, the first “fold” of which was, in part, associative, and found me noting one name after another on the white of the inside back page. Turning to that page now, I read: Aleksandar Hemon, David Foster Wallace, Girl With Curious Hair, Ben Marcus, George Saunders, John Ashbery, Barry Hannah… I could have added others—my bed is piled high right now with books by Rick Moody, Donald Antrim, Thomas Pynchon, Curtis White, Colson Whitehead, Lydia Davis, and the hefty journal mass of Conjunctions 34: American Fiction… The point is that I was reading and starting to pick up echo traces with great regularity, moving outward from the short pieces in question. But the other point—no less important—is that as these little jolts of connection came, I also began to narrow things down, to search for the source of those jolts. And soon enough I thought I had found it: It was in the sentence, in the paragraph, and intuitions were rapidly gathering toward a kind of insistence, a topical excitement. Which is to say (and I’m sorry, Gary Lutz), that there is more to discuss in the work of Gary Lutz than the edgy, accurate, and at the same time conscientiously off-plumb voice/vision that is testified to by his blurbistes. The sentences and paragraphs of Gary Lutz disclose to us—as could those of Saunders, Marcus, Moody, or any of a number of others I have mentioned—something seemingly new and well worth pondering in the evolution (or maybe simply transformation) of American literary prose. All of which is to say that what follows will only minimally take on Lutz’s situations and subject matters (in a sense the sentences are the situation and subject matter), and will try to suggest what this transformation amounts to—and, perhaps, signifies.


First, then, a few words about this prose. And, of course, subject matter cannot be entirely ignored. But the more I think on it, the more I see that in Lutz’s short fictions—and for once the term seems preferable to, or more accurate than, “stories”—subject matter is addressed in such a way that it essentially vanishes into, or is captured by, the telling style, and that this, in turn, has everything to do with the peculiarity, the displacing abstractedness of his sentence-making. A more subjective way to say this is that at the end of one of Lutz’s pieces I find it very difficult to offer up the traditional account of what has transpired—what tensions or conflicts have been introduced and what resolutions have been achieved. I experience, rather, the feeling that I so often have after reading a John Ashbery poem, a feeling of having been drawn, attentive, through a cloudy tonality. My responses are neither emotional nor intellectual. It is more that I have been seduced, if inconclusively, into a way of seeing. I have been tapped in my interstices, all those awareness zones that are neither fully felt nor fully thought, but that have everything to do with the elusive linkages between perception and consciousness. I am aware of my own indeterminacy here, but in my defense I will argue that it is mimetic, that it is prompted by, and descriptive of, the intangibility of Lutz’s pieces.

There is no getting through this without illustration, I know that. But given the resistance of this work to summary of any meaningful sort, I can only do one of a few things. I can sample from a longer “story,” letting the part stand for the whole, or I can cite and then comment upon one of Lutz’s very short pieces. Both approaches have their problems. The first gives short-shrift to the cumulative effect of Lutz’s perceptions and narrative compressions as they move from start to finish; the second assumes that the more prose-poem-like pieces are similar enough to the longer ones to be representative. But in view of my contention that Lutz’s work is finally about the sentence—the sentence as both conveyor of, and container for, particular kinds of disembodied awareness—it might not matter so very much. I will choose the middle path.

“Street Map of the Continent,” in Lutz’s collection Stories in the Worst Way, is three pages long, and is as representative of his stylistic approach and his way of moving forward narratively as any piece in the book. The narrative is, in the most rudimentary sense, about the end of a relationship, about how a man deals with the continued absence of a woman he had lived with.

“Some days,” Lutz begins, “his work took him into people’s houses. He would enter a room, part the air, odor things differently, then come out with whatever it was.” This is all that we learn about his “work.”

The next paragraph informs us that: “He lived with a woman who volunteered at the library and brought home a different book every night.” But not, it would seem, to read. “She would sit with it open on her lap and work the tip of an uncrooked paper clip into the gutter where the facing pages met, prying things loose…” And: “Anything on the plane of the page itself—the immediate heedless presence of the previous reader in the form of abundances of shed hair, perhaps, or gray powderings of scalp—she swept onto the floor.”

“The man,” we read, “had his own chair and watched her like a hawk.”

There follows a description of their declining intimacy over a period of years; then comes the abrupt announcement that she has one day taken her things and left. So much for that intimacy. “He called in sick,” writes Lutz. The man then sits in his chair “watching the kitchen from the hour when the table was a breakfast table to the hour it was a supper table.” He buys newspapers, tears out menus. One day he discovers display cases in the back of the grocery store where he buys his papers and—again, no preamble—begins bringing items left by the woman to add: shoes, stockings… “He practiced removing her absence from one place and parking it somewhere else.”

Then comes a shift, a change of time-frame and vantage. “The town,” writes Lutz, “was one whose name the citizens had never had to spell out on the envelope when paying a bill or sending a card locally.” But with the passing of time, the coming up of a new generation, the simple certainty of address begins to erode. “These people were less sure of where they lived and spent too much time deciding whether the shadows that fell across sidewalks and playgrounds were either too big or too little for whatever the shadows were supposed to be shadows of.” And: “Depending on which authorities the man read, he could be counted as part of either generation.”

Lutz wraps the piece up by telling how when the man goes in one day for his annual car inspection, the mechanic, after stickering him, remarks on his brakes and tires, asking what kind of driving he does. “Is it mostly around here, or highway?” Highway, the man tells him. Last line: “Weeks went by before he thought to stop.”

“Street Map of the Continent,” like so many of Lutz’s other fictions, stakes out a deliberately abstracted terrain, where the characters move about as unspecified pronouns; where their actions, reported in even, uninflected tones, have no stated motives (though attributing motives is part of the guesswork of reading); where those actions form what appears to be a tenuous sequence, again requiring the reader to conjure up a larger logic that would meaningfully contain them all (for, of course, whenever we are presented with what appears to be “story,” we reflexively set about interpreting, never mind what our aesthetic theories might be); and concluding in a way that has nothing at all conclusive about it. Indeed, all of these strategies and procedures combine in such a way that the reader, after a half-hearted testing of hypotheses (Is this a piece about the psychological and emotional constructs of home? Our ways of externalizing the pain of loss? Is this yet another underlining of the gulf between outer and inner, between the noun-configuration of our lives and the slippery resistance of the “be” verb?) is finally thrown back upon the language of the piece. Where the intuitive process of sense-making is so stymied, subjected to distancings of all descriptions, we almost inevitably feel pushed up against the constructedness of the piece, and made aware of the fine line between what seems intentional and what seems arbitrary. It is not, for me, any real stretch to imagine this work as a product resulting from whimsically generated sentences that have been fished out of a hat and taped together with minimal strictures.

I could go on in this vein of speculation for many pages, and in a way nothing intrigues me more than following out these limit questions, using them to try to make sense of our expectations of the genre. But finally this seems less important than pursuing my earlier flash: that what is important here is not just the particular way in which the sentences are made and joined, but also that Lutz’s prose is illustrative of a new aesthetic among certain American stylists, which needs to be identified and commented on. My hope is that tracking the traces of this aesthetic in a more general way will bring us to a sharpened understanding of what this one writer is after.


I’m not sure when I first noticed this new tendency, this approach to things in certain “younger” writers. Certainly I’d noted it early on, in a less insistent, less deliberate form in the sentences of writers as different from one another as Thomas Pynchon and Barry Hannah.

In “Deaf and Dumb,” from Hannah’s Airships, I read: “She drove her Nova around town, delaying her arrival at home, though she was suffering from the heat. The children were out in the garage with a hammer, sharing it. They were using the hammer to smash the pictures she’d hung in the garage. It had been her idea to dress up the garage. To her mind there was no reason the garage need be an ugly slot to park your car.” I offer this just to point to something kindred in the tonality, both the narrative distance and the way of offering seemingly peripheral information in a manner that elevates its importance. Reading Hannah, I was long ago struck by a particular looseness in the sentence connections—not discontinuity exactly, but a kind of laterally associative progress that acts as if it were sequential logic.

Pynchon, even early on, practiced something similar, moving forward by way of precise sentences laterally connected, creating through that rejection of conventionally ordered narrative information a strange, ambient atmosphere that reinforces the spacey mind-states of his various eccentrics. Here, in The Crying of Lot 49, he writes: “But Roseman had also spent a sleepless night, brooding over the Perry Mason television program the evening before, which his wife was fond of but toward which Roseman cherished a fierce ambivalence, wanting at once to be a successful trial lawyer like Perry Mason and, since this was impossible, to destroy Perry Mason by undermining him. Oedipa walked in more or less by surprise to catch her trusted family lawyer stuffing with guilty haste a wad of different-sized and colored papers into a desk drawer.” It’s not that what is offered is so very odd in itself—it is, I think, faithful enough to the eccentric movements of the thought process—but the fact that in the presentation all is foreground. The page-screen, as it were, is dominated by the sequence of focused close-ups, and what is cut away is any larger idea of situating context. We follow the turns of action this way and that—as we follow the movements of the woman cleaning the books in the Lutz story, or the man selectively placing her things in a display case—but we are not given the explicit emotional setting in which we can judge their mattering.

I am not going to argue that Lutz or his contemporaries are channeling Pynchon and Hannah or anyone else—literary lineages are very slippery, and never literal—but I do want to point to a certain tonality and mode of presentation among a group of so-called “younger writers” and to post a reminder that these aesthetic, stylistic shifts do not come out of nowhere. If the writers I will cite did not directly imbibe the influence of predecessor figures like Pynchon and Hannah (who were, I will note, in their late twenties and early thirties, respectively, when they wrote the works in question), then they certainly draw upon the legacy of postmodernism and black-humor that has been so influential in post-Seventies American literary culture, and which Hannah and Pynchon helped to shape. Postmodernism may be—who will say for sure?—in eclipse, but there is certainly no returning to a prelapsarian world. In the vein of progressive writing, any new “post-” development will carry irony and tonal displacement as part of its DNA.

Let me offer some (as I call them in writing classes) “tissue samples.”

  1. “Eighty people waited in a darkened meeting room at the Hyatt, wearing mass-produced paper hats. The White Hats were Beginning to Begin. The Pink Hats were Moving Ahead in Beginning. The Green Hats were Very Firmly Beginning, all the way up to the Gold Hats, who had Mastered Living and were standing in a group around the Snack Table, whispering and conferring and elbowing one another whenever someone in a lesser hat walked by.”

    —George Saunders, from “Winky” in Pastoralia

  2. “The Women’s National Pantomime group gathers on an athletic field in Dull’s Falls, Wisconsin, for their largest event since their inception in 1946. Fifteen new gestures are introduced by the group leader, a slender teenager named Jane Dark, and so many women suffer seizures and vomiting after performing the difficult new movements that the local hospitals cannot contain them and Ms. Dark is forced into hiding.”

    —Ben Marcus, from Notable American Women

  3. “In the summer of 1963, I lived with my mother in a single room at the Nassau Trauma Center. The center had as its intended function the emergency care of those who had suffered some heavy—and ‘traumatic’—physical wound. In Nassau, more often than not, this involved heavy bite marks, occasionally the entire removal of a muscle group—like the thigh, its tendons and tensors—from the bodies of those people who ignored the universally posted warnings not to penetrate beneath the water’s surface.”

    —Curtis White, from Memories of My Father Watching TV

  4. “Lia Mae has one friend in the Department and his name is Chuck. Chuck’s red hair is chopped and coaxed into a prim Safety, which helps him fit in with the younger inspectors in the Department. According to Chuck, the haircut is mandatory at the Midwestern Institute for Vertical Transport, his alma mater as of last spring.”

    —Colson Whitehead, from The Intuitionist

  5. “A limbo bar festooned with streamers, by the bathhouse entrance. Tuna on shish kebab and pineapple slices in large stainless-steel serving cisterns arranged on a buffet table. At the edge of the snack bar, the undergrad who gave golf lessons, in chef’s hat and lei, carving a roast pig. The carcass had menaced the staff from the walk-in kitchen fridge for upwards of five days. The Olson kid, chaperoned on either side by his parents, in the moment of asking if they had cooked, you know, the pig on a spit. Logical inquiry under the circumstances, on Hawaiian Night.”

    —Rick Moody, from “Hawaiian Night”

  6. “The LordAloft pilot, a Polynesian in a just bitching three-piece and mirrored glasses, wouldn’t allow Mark’s disassembled bow or quiver on the helicopter. The twelve shuttle passengers all sit together in a big plastic bubble: all luggage on LordAloft is accessible in-flight. Target arrows are deadly weapons, after all. There are FAA regulations that even the deregulated might not make, but must obey, koniki?”

    —David Foster Wallace, from “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”

  7. “Suppose there is a Point A and a Point B and that, if you want to get from point A to point B, you have to pass through an open space clearly visible to a skillful sniper. You have to run from Point A to Point B and the faster you run, the more likely you are to reach Point B alive. The space between Point A and Point B is littered with things that sprinting citizens dropped along the way. A black leather wallet, probably empty.”

    —Aleksandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno

  8. “I came up with a new angle on how to start a family, an entirely new way of going about the business of it, and went from place to place—parking lots and boardwalks, mainly—to talk up the talking points. I had pass-outs, outgivings—‘literature’ was the word people liked. There was a fifteen-minute presentation and a forty-five-minute presentation, and, for some reason, the longer one always went over better. People wanted to stand through such things.”

    —Gary Lutz, from “The Pavilion”

Any such culling of examples is naturally a skewed business, for of course the selecting eye already knows what evidence it seeks. Even so, I will say that the search operation was not an arduous one—a matter, really, of a few flipped pages in each of these authors. And the bench behind them is deep—Donald Antrim, Mary Robison, Mary Caponegro…

So, with half-hearted apologies to all who might disagree, I will assert, without being too rigid or dogmatic about it, that the Lutz trail leads quite directly to what I would identify as a kind of generational sound, a mode, an approach, an aesthetic, and that this might be characterized in several ways.

For starters, the prose is governed (often) by a kind of black-humorous, quasi-absurdist removal, featuring (often) strange rituals or events (Saunders, Marcus, Whitehead, Moody, Wallace), or else threatening or horrific situations (White, Wallace, Hemon) offered up in cool, slightly bemused tones. Detachment is extreme, the better to showcase whatever odd scenario is being presented. Indeed, the detachment is achieved by way of ritualized formality—descriptive precision—that is almost mechanical, a hair’s breadth, if that, from outright parody. That any of the characters in these settings should express genuine emotion, or what Wallace in a well-known essay (“E Unibus Pluram”) called “single entendre values,” is unthinkable.

But these scenarios are not psychologically eventless. To read Wallace, or Marcus, or Antrim—or Lutz—can be, in some hard to pin down way, harrowing. And this, I venture, is the point—this is what the prose signal is about. In the peculiar disjunctive dynamic between subject and tone, cumulatively anyway, we register a peculiar lower-case bleakness. It is a bleakness that finds its sources in the assaultive reality of the ordinary, the domestic. It is a bleakness in search of a correlative, a pretext, a crisis or revelation worthy of the author’s sense that existence is somehow fraudulent—entropic, barren of larger sustaining meanings. But where Beckett, Bernhard, Burroughs, Céline, and other predecessors had the fresh insult of civilization in collapse to stoke their darkly comic rage, these younger writers have only the lingering resonance of that. They have the late-modern drift and scatter, information-age anomie. And where there is no chance to rev into a more exalted despair, one available default is this painstakingly executed, willfully inorganic—almost brittle—tonality. If there is anything marking the difference between this presentation and that of the more standard-issue postmodernism—and I don’t know if there is enough to warrant much theorizing—it would be this subtle tightening, this self-conscious sclerosis. Where prose is so aware of itself, the artifice of spontaneity, of natural expression collapses; even playfulness feels programmatic. We find affect in lockdown mode.

Along with the refusal to engage at the level of naive sincerity (the “single entendre” is the kiss of death) comes a necessarily formalized, almost documentary relation to subject matter. Since stories cannot be told—not easily, anyway—without the shape-conferring momentum of emotion gathering toward discharge (cf. Freytag’s by now tiresome triangle), the immediate consequence is that events and situations are constructed, built up piece by piece, rather than grown toward their often concealed inner imperatives. This is not, I agree, universally binding, but the impression from reading these various writers is strong nonetheless. Read the prose of Curtis White and Ben Marcus—read Gary Lutz—and you will see what I mean. The fictions unfold as much in their gaps—through the vibrations that start up at the seam between one narration and the next—as they do in the narrations themselves.

Here the Lutz piece cited serves as illustration. The felt continuities are sketchy, almost cartoon-like in their simplicity. The man and woman are described as drifting apart, the woman moves out, the man tries to deal with the objects left behind… None of this is made dramatically interesting or purposeful—that’s not the point. But the control of the deadpan sentences, and the highly calibrated arrangement of perceptions and narrative bits—engages us instead. And here, at the level of the sentence, we react. We give greater heed than we otherwise might to the flattened affect, the deliberated, slightly off-center word-choices, the jumps from one assertion to the next.

“These people were less sure of where they lived,” writes Lutz, “and spent too much time deciding whether the shadows that fell across sidewalks and playgrounds were either too big or too little for whatever the shadows were supposed to be shadows of.” What a lonesome, unsettling sentence—in its logic and syntax, as well as in its unemphatic deployment of generalities. We almost don’t notice the abstract qualifications and adjustments—“less sure,” “too much time,” “either too big or too little,” “supposed to be”—yet in accumulation they map a most disconcerting loss of human certainty, never mind the idea itself: that our sense of placement in the world somehow depends on a perceived correlation between the thing and the shadow it throws. We could bat this around until we got all the way to Plato’s cave, but we won’t.

The overall effect of a Lutz piece is not unlike what we experience reading a John Ashbery poem, and for a similar reason. For Ashbery uses the heightened expectancy that attends the poetic event to intensify our awareness of his dreamy non-sequences, their language and their a-logical shifts. Looking for a poem, we give the words on the page extra weight, and in the resulting disequilibrium we encounter the peculiar and deeply familiar sensations of our ambient late-modernity. Lutz makes comparably cunning use of the expectations we bring to the story form and the movement of narrative to crisis and resolution. His is a similarly deflationary aesthetic.

This writer deserves better than I have given him, of course. He deserves to be more than an instance or a pointer. His narrations haunt in specific ways and steadily prod our complacencies, but they are calculated onto the page by way of such subtle tonal displacements, and are at the same time so cumulative in effect—and summary resistant—that they are very hard to represent. He differs from some of the other stylists I have cited in that he puts more weight on the nuances of tone than on situation; for Lutz situation—plot premise—is mainly a way of creating occasion for the shifting about of weight and emphasis in the sentence. He cannot be gotten at quickly or skimmed for sense. Quite the reverse. He is a writer who must be given the chance to stage his fine disruptions of the prose surface—that his undercurrents can exert their moody pressure. Read him, and then give a look, if you haven’t already, to these other writers, his milieu. They are—separately, together—telling us something.

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