The stories in Gary Lutz’s first three collections often derive their linguistic energy from a narrator’s imprisonment in an ill-fated marriage, a soul-crushing job, or a body that causes more anxiety than joy. His most recent collection, Divorcer, continues to worry at the subject of confinement. Narrators make frequent reference to the inescapable dictates of their DNA: “I wasn’t foremost even in my body,” one says, “where my parents spoke themselves up out of my disposition.” Time, too, seems to resemble a cage: “One day got chocked into the next: there was a blockiness to time, like a month’s evident rectangulation on a calendar tacked fast to a wall.” (“I Have to Feel Halved”) Hours get “razored into ever keener minutes that [can] barely cut anything away.” (“Middleton”) Evenings are “narrowing”; sleep is “unramifying” (“To Whom Might I Have Concerned?”). Lutz’s stories have the urgency of a phone call made just before a plane crash. His narrators live in existences that, claustrophobic to begin with, are now closing in on them even more. They have no time for small talk or pleasantries.
The narrator of “Womanesque,” the collection’s final story, could be speaking for all of Divorcer’s protagonists when he says “I was all but incarcerated in my particularings, the unglazy allhood of me.” That “allhood,” that summational, finished self, is the cage against which Lutz’s characters struggle. His narrators seem uniformly wary of names, and in fact are only likely to provide a name for a character when that character is held in some contempt. The narrator of “Womanesque” devotes a stark single-sentence paragraph to the following statement about his ex-wife: “Denise, I guess, would be just about the word for her.” For these characters, names – not just people’s names but also diagnoses, job titles, or names that we give to activities (e.g., “having sex” or “moving on with your life”) – serve to narrow our vision. Names keep us beholden to ways of seeing that were established by the other people who got here before us. They are the jailer’s key that we hear turning as we take stock of our incarceration in this set of “particularings.”
Some of Lutz’s funniest moments arise from his narrators’ interrogations of received linguistic bundles. My favorite comes from “I Was in Kilter with Him a Little,” in the 2003 collection I Looked Alive. The narrator says of her various lovers,
“… it was true a few of them might have been cautioning me all along to look out for myself, but I took that to mean what? That I was the fittest object of my own suspicions?”
The problem with phrases such as “look out for yourself” seems, in these stories, to be largely that they are not our own: they are hand-me-down, someone else’s clothes into which we’re trying to jam our own odd, misshapen bodies. It’s worth noting Lutz’s characters are often found wearing other peoples’ clothes, for which the narrator of “This is Nice of You” (also in I Looked Alive) offers the following explanation: “One naturally fits whatever one has into whatever somebody else had first.” Like the title character in Being John Malkovich, Lutz’s characters are puppets, compelled to speak in pre-determined ways by forces larger than themselves. The few lines you will find in quotation marks in a Lutz story – that is, lines actually spoken by one of the characters – are more often than not an incantation of some sort, often a phrase that a parent or spouse taught the narrator to say long ago. In “Divorcer,” for example, the narrator says of his sister that she had three children “who had been taught to win people over by saying ‘You can tell me.’” In “In Kind” (from I Looked Alive), the narrator says of himself that “I had to answer every question with a question, and it had to be: What else might you miss?” And in “I Was in Kilter with Him a Little,” the narrator says of her husband, “Let me remember him, at least, for being the one to teach me that there was only one polite way left to say ‘yes,’ and that was ‘I’m afraid so.’”
These narrators are aware of the way cant and cliché push us towards patterns of thinking and living that are pre-formulated, ready-made. In “Womanesque,” for example, the narrator says:
“Waking, you sometimes find something already stated in the day, something already given way too much muggy caress, and it’s all you can do to keep yourself from repeating it…”
This could be the ur-complaint of the Lutzian narrator: it’s all you can do to keep yourself from repeating it. Ideas and images recur in these stories, not, I would submit, from any lack of authorial imagination, but rather from the nature of the linguistic problems Lutz foregrounds: the way using words is always a bit like wearing someone else’s clothes, fitting yourself to forms itchy and ill-fitting, one size fits nobody.
The question driving the stories in Divorcer is often that of escape. Is there an escape from these linguistic traps we can’t stop ourselves from falling into every time we open our mouths? Is there a way out of the limitations of self, the ways in which we’re trapped by our DNA, our names, our frail and ailing bodies? In Divorcer, not for very long. The closest Lutz’s characters come to satisfaction, in fact, seems to be when they are able to somehow dismember or fragment themselves (cf. the title of one of the stories: “I Have to Feel Halved”). They seek relief from their sense of the self as a prison through a determined focus on the smallest effluvia that a self can emit. They collect scraps of hair that their lovers throw in the garbage, or direct their gaze at the smudges of fingertips visible at the edges of a hastily photocopied document. At the end of Divorcer’s title story, the narrator crams himself under a desk with another man and offers the following observation:
“I had always been partial to the closest of quarters, whichever kind of proximity leaves the person you’re with looking suddenly pieced, unseeable as a heinous human whole.”
Escape from the confinement of being one of many “heinous human whole[s]” comes in Lutz’s stories from a focus on the most microscopic of particulars, the skin cells and morphemes that make up these larger imprisoning systems.
Because maybe the worst thing about the prisons in which we’re trapped – the confinements of self and of language that I’m trying to talk about here – is that we can never get far enough away to get a good look at them. As Wittgenstein noted in his Tractatus, the eye that sees is never included in a person’s field of vision. (Tractatus 69, 5.6333) I can’t get far enough away from myself to really see me. Same with anyone I get at all close to. They’re too close for me to make any sense of them. But. But. We can examine little scraps. The narrator of “To Whom Might I Have Concerned” says of his lover, “She was immured in a personality… and spoke to me only as if through fissures in it.” These fissures are the pivots on which Divorcer’s narratives turn, the little openings in which characters have the chance to smuggle something out between the bars of their cages. These smugglings must of necessity be small: a hair left on a bar of soap, skin cells shed on the pages of a book, a particular packet of words. Lutz’s often-noted preoccupation with arms begins to make more sense in this light: arms are the parts of ourselves best able to slip between the bars of a cage.
The narrator of “I Have to Feel Halved” complains of a younger lover that “I never got the truth out of him, only things peeled off from the truth, things the truth had shed.” This is the problem with all reviews: the book, if it is good, is probably smarter than its author, smarter than the reviewer, and an attempt to summarize it will inevitably fail. All I can offer are little sheddings, little things peeled off from the experience of reading Lutz. But this doesn’t stop people from trying to talk about books, about language, about the effects of particular groups of words on a reader’s consciousness. Which suggests, I think, that we’re not too different from Lutz’s narrators. We may have little hope of being able to break free from our personal restrictions – biology, personality, habits personal and linguistic. But we seem to believe, nonetheless, that we might every now and then be able to smuggle a little scrap of something meaningful out into the world – some crumbs left between the pages of a book; some collection of words put to new and unexpected use; some gift proffered by an arm stretched through the bars of its cage, as far as it can reach.