This review originally appeared in The Quarterly Conversation.
If, as Jonathan Sturgeon has suggested, we have entered an era dominated by “autofiction,” in which “the life of the author is now the novel’s organizing principle” (“2014: The Death of the Postmodern Novel and the Rise of Autofiction”), then in the search for progenitors of this literary phenomenon we might consider the fiction of Gordon Lish. Indeed, a common reaction to Lish’s books, at least since Peru (which may be his last work of fiction to predominantly feature a main character who can, to some degree at least, be separated from “Gordon Lish”) is to question whether Lish is writing fiction at all rather than some sort of free-form (some would say self-indulgent) autobiography. However, the wary reader would be just as mistaken to trust Lish’s writing to provide reliable accounts of the author’s actual experiences as to expect his “stories” to bear much resemblance to the traditional well-made short story.
That Lish’s fiction is not at all the sort of thing we would expect to emerge from most creative writing workshops, or most conventional short fiction anthologies, is perhaps surprising to readers, given Lish’s prominence as a creative writing teacher and as an editor of writers known for their short stories (most prominently, of course, Raymond Carver). It may in fact be the case that this gap between pre-established expectation and Lish’s own actual practice is wide enough to partly explain his relatively small audience, small even for avant-garde writers. Lish has published eight novels and seven collections of short fiction, in addition to his Collected Fictions (published in 2010 at a hefty 546 pages), but it is likely most readers are familiar only with Dear Mr. Capote (1983), his first novel, and Peru (1986), although occasionally reviewers have taken note of one or another of his subsequent books, mostly to remark upon their oddities, revisit the Ray Carver editing controversy, or rehearse gossip about Lish as a teacher and publishing figure. What this focus on Lish’s public persona obscures is that over the last 30 years few writers have as consistently challenged both the formal and stylistic assumptions that still govern American literary fiction.
Happily, for readers curious to at least sample Lish the experimental writer, his most recent book, White Plains, is one of his best and most adventurous collections of short fiction. Although Lish identifies the selections in the book as “pieces and witherlings,” taken together they are substantial fictions that now make the Collected Fictions seriously incomplete. Since 2014 Lish has in fact published, in addition to White Plains, two other books, the story collection Goings and Cess: A Spokening (a mostly indescribable hybrid of novel and a kind of verbal puzzle) that would seem to represent a late renaissance in Lish’s attention to and inspiration for writing fiction. They could certainly be identified as “late” in their concern with the hardships and limitations of old age, but they exhibit no diminution at all in the boldness of Lish’s repudiation of conventional form or the consistency with which he pursues his fundamental stylistic strategy, the strategy for which he has become well-known through its influence on many of his students, some of whom, such as Gary Lutz and Christine Schutt, have themselves become among the most accomplished current American writers in the way they have adapted the strategy for their own audacious purposes.
“Consecution” is a concept probably best known through its iteration in Lutz’s essay, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” Lutz quite cogently explicates the general principle behind the notion of consecution—that the writer’s philosophy of composition should begin with sentences and the consecutive effects to be created by the linking up of sentences throughout a work of fiction—and explains his own use of the strategy, primarily for its sonic effects. Lish as well is attuned to the sounds of his sentences, and views the consecution of sentences as the essential aesthetic precept of fiction, but as well takes consecution as the source of form and theme more broadly, arguably using it more comprehensively than most of his acolytes. In his fiction, consecution frequently prompts recursion and repetition, so that the story or situation (often the former never quite departs from the elaboration of the latter) seems to remain static or to encircle itself (Lish’s own favored description of his method). No doubt readers expecting “normal” narrative development are frustrated by what seems to be Lish’s refusal to get a story told through anything like a conventionally efficient narrative, but those readers are missing the alternative story he is telling: the story of the story’s own composition as it comes into being.
In “Unstory,” a dialogue set-piece included in White Plains, one of the speakers responds to the other speaker’s comment “I thought the idea of speech was to get something said” by replying: “God gave man speech to give him the means to get himself lost. Whereas you stay on track, you run smack into death.” Lish’s fiction has been death-haunted since his first novel narrated by a purported serial killer, but this caution against running “smack into death” perhaps reveals to us that Lish has not only depicted characters obsessing about or confronting death (Peru depicts a man convinced that when he was a child he killed another child), but the literary strategy Lish has long employed itself embodies the imperative to get “lost” as the way to avoid the “death” represented by conventional fiction. Thus what some critics have taken as indulgence or merely antic provocation in Lish’s fiction is actually a profoundly serious—though never solemn—project in which the artistic stakes could not be higher.
Both Dear Mr. Capote and Peru effectively integrate Lish’s focus on the literal proximity of death and its representation in their formal and stylistic methods. In each case, the narrator-protagonist both wants to tell his tale (in the former he wants to sell it), but also simultaneously wants to withhold the story, to circle around the important events, to retreat and advance. In each as well we can’t ultimately be certain that the deadly events around which the narrators’ confessions are organized actually happened: the unnamed killer may be imagining, or just fabricating, his crimes, while the narrator of Peru is convinced that at age six he did indeed kill a neighbor child while the two were playing in a sandbox, but there is sufficient ambiguity in his account that we can finally doubt the extent of its accuracy. Still, if these two narrators could be called potentially unreliable, this effect cannot be attributed to the ease with which they relate to us a story that is too transparently suspicious. Indeed, both of them struggle to bring their stories together in a way that prefigures Lish’s later work, as they pause and backtrack, caught up in their own semantic webs, not in an apparent effort to conceal but to find the right language to express their experiences.
The narrator of Peru is named “Gordon,” but this character is not so obviously a version of Lish himself as we find in the later fiction. By 1991’s My Romance, the narrative voice has been turned over fully to a persona that seems as closely identical to the novel’s author as it is finally possible to be while still making a claim on the readers as a fictional device, the means to creating a work of fiction. One of Lish’s most unfortunately neglected works, My Romance announces itself as a transcription of a reading given by Gordon Lish, who begins by noting, “What a difficulty it must be for us all that it was destined to be such a long walk and, as you can now hear, applauseless walk for me to make it up here at the lectern.” The difficulties invoked certainly don’t end with this initial perception of some tension in the room as the narrator begins his presentation. Indeed, this will not at all be the kind of reading his audience no doubt expects, despite the books that he has carried with him to the lectern, as almost immediately Gordon begins to divert attention from the literary matters at hand and to relate a series of his own personal travails, starting with his drinking problem but focusing mostly on his father’s death (for which Gordon believes he is responsible), his wife’s crippling illness, and, most centrally, his lifelong struggle with psoriasis, and the extreme measures he must take to protect his skin.
Although we can see even in the brief passage quoted Lish’s sensitivity to the sonic, sensory qualities of language—the assonance of “applauseless walk,” the alliteration of “difficulty” and “destined, the homophonous rhyme of “hear” and “here,” not to mention the additional repetition “up here to here”), the effects of consecution are much broader in a work like My Romance. The underlying conceit, that this is a novel in the form of a spontaneously composed lecture, of course allows Lish great latitude for digression, but the digressiveness is not random but associative, united most immediately by a set of brief cues Gordon tells us he has written down on four business cards, while also cogently braided together through a few in-common images or motifs, illness in particular connecting many of the episodes. Thus Lish’s method of correlative seriality determines not only the character of Lish’s prose—how things are said—but also the content of his fictions—what ultimately gets said. Such is the artistic strategy at work in most of Lish’s stories, before and after My Romance, and the reader encountering Lish’s fiction for the first time with White Plains will find a very worthy representation of the strategy. Although in many ways this book has the same sort of coherence we find in a book like My Romance, in its focus on the life circumstances of “Gordon Lish” White Plains does offer more variety in its realization of the strategy, and some readers might prefer to try Lish in somewhat briefer samples.
Such variety is provided, for example, by the several stories composed mostly or entirely in dialogue, stories in which it might seem that the sort of consecution possible in conventional prose would be less achievable or apparent. Yet in a story such as “Naugahyde” presenting a series of phone conversations between a man and a woman, the conversation that unfolds seems unmistakably Lishian:
He said, ‘You know what I think of when I think of us?’
She said, ‘Tell me.’
He said, ‘The chair.’
She said, ‘Us in the chair.’
‘You with your leg up,’ he said.
‘My left leg,’ she said.
He said, ‘Right. I mean your left leg—right.’
She said, ‘I’ll think about this tonight.’
‘The chair,’ he said. ‘Our time in the chair?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘The way you said it,’ she said.
He said, ‘How I said it was how it came to me to say.’
She said, ‘Nothing just comes. It’s all rehearsed.’
Because of the relative brevity of the talk, the chain of associations animating this conversation are clear enough: After the repletion of “think”/“think of us,” echoed in the woman’s second comment, we move through the introduction of the chair and the woman’s leg, the two dominant images in this initial part of the exchange, the counterpoint of left and right, and the final ostinato flourish on “said” (with the fortuitous rhyme of “right” and “tonight” as a bonus). Both of these voices emerge from this story as belonging to separable characters with distinct personalities, but at the same time they both speak in recognizable Gordon Lish prose.
It is also true that Gordon Lish’s prose frequently sounds like someone speaking (and not just when used as a trope as in My Romance), especially when Lish’s narrator seems to be obsessing about his present circumstances: “Okay, granted, granted, I’m sitting here horsing around a little bit. Guilty. I’m pleading guilty—so sue me. Because, buster, I’m leveling with you. I’m taking you into my fucken confidence as a person I can go ahead and open my heart to. . . ” (“Jelly Apple”). Still there are times when this “spokening” effect is possible only in Lish’s version of expository prose, not actual dialogue:
So Father (the father in the unwriteable—unwritable?—piece), he, the man, decides (in his mind) the fish shall be taken from their habitat and placed indoors, this in a tank (a pretty biggish ‘object’) brought into the house for said purpose, conveyed (the fish, that is—or, viz. the fish) thereto or therein, as it would turn out, if it were, or was, to turn out, by means of many family-sized mayonnaise jars, or by one such jar, several trips (circuits?), from the far reaches of the backyard (back yard? yard out back? rear-yard?) to inside the house, therefore required. (“Make Night: Heidegger”)
If such a passage does evoke a process of thinking aloud, of going over a memory in the presence of a listener, the full impact of its radical digressions, diversions, and asides can really only be registered as writing, as words read. Certainly this is not a conventionally lucid prose style, but Lish writes prose that resembles the writing of no one else, and it is not as frivolous or capricious as its surface eccentricities might make it seem.
In my view Lish’s critics overlook the extent to which he is attempting to create a certain sort of comedy, a particularly outrageous sort that burlesques the very notion of linearity and unity that ordinarily predicate our expectations of fiction. Readers who are impatient with this element of Lish’s work ultimately are rejecting the implication that these expectations should be held in abeyance, that works of fiction can offer aesthetic satisfactions that do not depend on previously fixed conceptions of narrative continuity or formal unity. Yet if Lish’s fictions are often funny, and can simply be appreciated for the audacity of their execution, there is also something very earnest about Lish’s compositions, an impression that all the hesitations, reiterations, sudden reversals, and insistent clarifications are a sincere attempt to get it right, to find the words and formulations that will signify what his narrators seek to express. Of course, in the end they don’t quite know what they want to express, sure only of the need to express it and an ineluctable sense they can’t elude what’s already been said.
As if to underscore the slippage between speech and writing characteristic of Lish’s work, “Mr. Dictaphone” purports to be the testimony of one of these machines, but of course the dictaphone is surely the voice of the author of the story in the process of creating it (Mr. Dictaphone calls him “Georgie”). The story is relatively brief (as are many of stories in White Plains), and so we are able to enjoy the humor of the conceit before it perhaps wears out its welcome, although the story also affords us the opportunity to consider explicitly the fundamental assumptions behind Lish’s strategies, as the story essentially records Mr. Dictaphone’s reflections on the conditions of his own existence (“One is trapped in the trap of the trap,” he says near the end of the story, “lest one not speak.”) “Levitation, or, My Career as a Pensioner” is one of several stories that seem straightforwardly autobiographical, in this case relating the particulars of Lish’s firing from Esquire magazine, but like the others, it finally serves more to reinforce an overarching contemplation of decline and old age, a theme that emerges from White Plains with a clarity and consistency (beginning with a Wayne Hogan cartoon included in the book’s front matter) that could presumably satisfy the most traditional of readerly expectations. The longest story in the book, “Begging the Question,” shares with “Levitation” a depiction of the circumstances of Lish’s life as an elderly man living alone—in the latter case, the streetwork going on outside his building, in the former, conflict with his neighbors—again a palpable setting that ought to act as a kind of perceptual anchor for readers who might feel lost amid the stylistic eccentricities of the stories in this book.
In other stories we learn more about Lish’s stays in mental hospitals (brought on by the powerful medications he takes), as well as details about his wife’s illness and death. The final story in the book, “Afterword,” is a surprisingly touching (if not without some of those eccentricities) tribute of sorts to his first writing teacher, whose influence set “Gordon Lish” onto his journey in literature. Lish even gives the man the book’s final words, quoting from his short story that, we are told, is the only work of fiction to ever make Lish cry. Suffice it to say that if the more accessible elements of tone, setting, character, and subject in White Plains were to be found in a book more easily identified as “literary fiction,” most readers would likely find it altogether familiar. It is the singular and, in retrospect, revolutionary departure from the norms of prose style in fiction that makes Lish’s work seem, to some, alien and peculiar. But without the alien and peculiar, fiction as a form would stagnate and die.