Pieces and Witherlings
by Grant Maierhofer
by Gordon Lish,
Little Island Press, 288 pp.
A briefer requisite primer:
Gordon Lish is one of few living American writers about whom an occasional patter will erupt. Mostly this is because he took some stories by a writer praised for cunning insight into domestic life who once beat his wife with a wine bottle and sent her to the ER, he took the stories of this person and made them different, and smaller, and—the argument goes—arguably better. Lish did this with a small pod of avid scribblers and this has resulted in a range of texts that collude philosophy and everyday literature into something often sublime. He told The Paris Review that he has no stake in his being thought a writer, and yet these late years have been pretty prolific all the same. He published his Collected Fictions, which is a tome that is as experimental and important—I’ll argue—as Gertrude Stein’s collected work. He published Goings, some newer stories that were trying and engaging to read. And most recently Lish published Cess, which is an unfortunate experiment that amounts to an excuse to fill two paperback covers with favorite words of Lish lining nearly every page, sparingly and with the majority left blank. Cess is on par with some recent conceptual writings, to its credit, but on the whole it failed to live up to the headachey technique and mania of his past books.
Now we have White Plains, out from Little Island Press, who are also, thankfully, reissuing Jason Schwartz’ masterpiece A German Picturesque. To start, White Plains is a collection of work that works nicely alongside Collected Fictions or Goings, or rather works nicely between these, a bit thinner than the tome and meatier than Goings, there’s a good deal to mine here that’s worth mining, and worth forgetting Cess and the disengenuousness at our discouragement from thinking Lish a writer.
Lish refers to the writings herein as “pieces and witherlings,” and they’re referred to elsewhere as “Fictions,” as was the case with Collected Fictions. This is only important insofar as one is interested in Lish’s methods from a compositional as well as readerly standpoint. Like Stein, who lectured on Composition, Lish has established an entire operative mode of creating texts known as “consecution,” and discussed variously by Lish himself in interviews, as well as essays by his followers—Gary Lutz’s The Sentence is a Lonely Place is free, and perhaps the best place to start.
Anyway, this matters regarding White Plains because Lish’s method is particularly effective as applied to short, persona-driven pieces. The pieces in White Plains vary in structure, some, like the longer “Naugahyde,” are made largely of dialogue—a feat worth noting. Lish makes dialogue weird and interesting and feasible when others have let it echo the dull blur of contemporary speech a bit too readily—and others often function as rants, monologues by Lish’s self or Gordon(!) his frequent narrator-persona that parse the nature of family moments, language itself, or real figures in the world Lish the man juts up against between writings. It’s a bit as if Beckett had chosen to attempt his life’s work solely in fictive prose, rather than expanding to drama and real bodies to express his ideas. Or perhaps Lish is American fiction’s Wallace Shawn, an angry, self-reflexive genius responsive at once to his chosen mode of art making and the world beyond thereafter.
Whatever one’s take, it seems fair to say Lish’s own execution of his theories is best suited to the short prose form. Novels like Dear Mr. Capote or Extravaganza are nutty attempts to pin down the process for one book’s length, but they wind up feeling in transmission like shaggy dogs, or given Lish’s typical tenor as narrator, like drug-addled halfshorn dogs chasing their barbers nipping at their ankles and drooling language.
Where some writers—especially of short fiction—seem interested in stringing together signifiers hoping they’ll evoke something “true to life” or “deeply felt” enough to put a reader somewhere close to in the story, Lish, and writers like him, are content to repeat phrases and overwhelm the reader with particular words so as to transmit some effect. It’s like the difference between a moody film about a murder, and coverage of this murder on the news or in an average documentary. Both forms have their place, but Lish is more, far more to the experiential, moody, transmission-based approach. In “Naugahyde,” for instance, a story largely made of dialogue, “he said” and “she said” occur an obscene amount of times, often separating the same sentence uttered by a particular he or she. The effect is an odd mixture of hyper-awareness of attributive tags, and a monotonous hum beside the story that adds to an overall musicality.
Some examples of this contained, linguistic oddity:
“I miss you,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ she said,’ so much missing, so much missing, so much missing.’
He said, ‘Don’t worry, there’s plenty more where that came from.”
Lish does a wonderful job throughout of undoing things in subtle ways. Reading “so much missing,” for instance, repeated as it is, we can’t help but feel that by the last iteration the meaning has changed. It starts as a response to the “he” character’s missing. He misses her, and she, perhaps, is tired of expressions of this. The second one might be taken as further indication of her unhappiness, but it’s started to change into a pure expression of this. By the third utterance, it seems to feel we’re far enough away from the first that it’s become a pure statement: so much missing. So much missing from life. So much missing from this correspondence. So much missing.
This kind of thing occurs while reading because everywhere else we’re being bombarded by such linguistic virtuosity that it feels calming, like reaching a fuller understanding after nodding one’s head over and over while listening to La Monte Young.
The rest of the work, typically, features Gordon(!) as narrator carrying us through minor and major scenarios wherein the focus, always, is on how words work. His short fiction hasn’t always functioned this way, but the majority of it seems to follow the method established with My Romance, a novel constructed from a speech that Lish gave to some university audience or other, utilizing the monologue to exhaust all potentialities. Lynne Tillman comes to mind as another who has utilized complete immersion into the consciousness of a manic monologuist for effect. Jarret Kobek, too, recently discussed the influence of standup routines on his I Hate the Internet. I can see that, Lish as the ultimate, incomprehensible standup, taking Louis CK’s riff on vile words and pushing it to absolute insanity.
His strength lies in recursion, with this endless return to the idea established by the previous utterance, and those before it, likely echoing back to the womb and Lish’s childhood to which he’s constantly returning in his subject matter. “Jelly Apple” provides a wonderful example of this approach:
Losing tone here, not retaining purchase on stance here, falling all to pieces with the coward’s frolic among the phraseological here.
Mountainous composition commencing to succumb to the science of things in the (now both) hands of the eager but, what else, inexperienced initiate.
So the work is self-reflexive and strange, self-referential and meta- in its concern for building, for creation in writing stories as fundamental to their final state. The great strength here, then, isn’t so much that Lish has tapped into an entirely new mode of telling—Robert Coover’s mania stands out as similar, as do the aforementioned—but in his relentless pursuit of his mode, Lish’s mode, to mine it for all potential buried there. We’re content to praise Gertrude Stein for something similar, for the amount of people able to rattle off “a rose is a rose is a rose” compared to those who’ll actually read The Making of Americans in their lifetime, and yet nothing is lost, Gertrude Stein is Gertrude Stein and the Library of America will continue to print her regardless of how often she’s actually read. Something similar happens with Lish, I think, but the work carries such emotional and intellectual and simple craft potential that this seems a great shame—again, similar to Stein.
Perhaps the oddest story in the collection is “Declaration of Dependence,” which begins as a challenge to the author to persist in writing as long as he might, but promises halfway through to give Lish’s home phone number if read to completion. The number is given, and I’m ashamed to say I was not above giving it a try. I called Gordon Lish and briefly spoke with him about the state of things, some troubles, and my fondness for the work. I’ll admit that maintaining something like objectivity now feels unlikely, but I’m happy for this extended, performative aspect to the stories. I have not read a book wherein such a thing took place, and it’s just one further example of why Lish remains of concern even after all his years of working in language. Later in the book, in “What’s Wrong With This Book,” Lish speaks directly to his identity as a writer, to his son, Atticus’s, career as a novelist, and to the work we’re almost finished with. It’s a touching, vulnerable story that rounds out a touching, vulnerable, meandering collection of work that challenges what contemporary writing, fiction or otherwise, can and should be. Like all of his works, it is largely without precedent, and it’s in the books themselves that some knowledge of his praxis comes together. These are stories for the neurotic state of our times, stories for insomnia, stories for those who wake in discontent. There will never be another like Gordon Lish, and this collection solidifies that fact while furthering, warping, and expanding the previous writings.
About the Author:
Grant Maierhofer is the author of ODE TO A VINCENT GALLO NIGHTINGALE (Black Coffee Press/Drunk Uncle Chapbooks), and The Persistence of Crows (Tiny TOE Press). His work has appeared in Gesture, Brawler Lit, Bright Stupid Confetti, The Open End, We Feel Pretty, HTMLGIANT and elsewhere. He lives in Wisconsin.