The re-issue of Gary Lutz’s 2003 story collection, I Looked Alive, has to be counted as one of the most exciting events of this season for all who are interested in words, in sentences, in writers who pierce through our habitual ways of seeing and present us with (give us presents of) sentences that show us something new about the darkest and most troubling parts of our lives. The collection was originally published by Four Walls Eight Windows, a small press whose Wikipedia page tells a sad story of being eaten by a larger publisher which was then itself eaten by a larger publisher, until, presumably, there was not room or attention for such an odd little book as Lutz’s. The result of all this was that used copies of I Looked Alive could rarely be found for less than $100 on Amazon. (That Lutz’s books can command prices such as these speaks, I think, to the potency of his writing. Once you read some of Lutz’s prose, once a sentence of his has gotten itself burrowed down into the crevices of your mind, you will, if you are anything like me, be hungry for more.) Fortunately, as of October 2010, I Looked Alive is in print once again, resurrected from the dead by The Brooklyn Rail and Black Square Editions. The experience of being, as Sven Bickerts put it in a 2003 appreciation of Lutz written for the Believer, “seduced, if inconclusively, into a way of seeing” by a stretch of Lutz’s prose is now no longer reserved only for those willing to hunt down those precious few first editions. This is cause for celebration.
Many of the stories in I Looked Alive take as their subject matter the puzzle of how one person stands in relation to one or (more often) two others. A man moves in with his girlfriend and embarks on a sexual relationship with the woman’s son; a woman whose husband is growing disinterested invites a stranger to their bedroom for a threesome. Partnerships in this collection are never just a matter of “me” and “you.” There is me and you, but there’s also the person I’m channeling through you, the person you’re using me to forget about, the person I’m imagining you to be. As the narrator of “I Crawl Back to People” says, “… people came to hand on other people or drifted up out of one another availably.” And, later in the same story: “It’s hard not to be standing in for people jokingly slow to show.” The marriages in these stories are bleak sites of mutual incomprehension: as a husband in “In Kind” puts it, “we were inaccurate in our passions.”
Lutz, a professional grammarian who teaches remedial composition to college students when he’s not writing spectacular stories, plays with verbs and prepositions to foreground his characters’ preoccupation with questions of where exactly they stand in relation to another person, or to a job, or to the hours of a day. A beautiful, shining example from the gorgeous story “I Was In Kilter With Him a Little”:
But if I say I felt something for her, would that make it sound as if I felt things in her stead, bypassing her completely?
Because that might too be true.
Or this, from “People Shouldn’t Have to Be the Ones to Tell You”:
From where they had him sitting, to see a thing through meant only to insist on the transparency within it, to regard it as done and gone.
Lutz’s characters are men and women struggling mightily to wrest some sort of coherent narrative out of the hours and days of their lives. As the narrator of “Carriers” says, “I knew the trouble it could take to get one hour jointed to another until you had an afternoon finishedly articulated.” The narrator of “Meltwater” strikes a similar note, explaining, “I began humbling down each day into heart-drowning dozes of roughly equal length.” Just as they often get lost trying to outline the complex shapes of their interpersonal relationships, Lutz’s narrators despair of solving the problem of how to make a day take on some sort of satisfying narrative shape. Hours are threatening in their formlessness, in their insistent demand that something meaningful be done with them.
In a 2009 interview with Michael Kimball, Lutz noted that “none of [his] narrators are blessed with a voice in the head that furnishes a running interpretation of human incident; they live outside psychology; the world comes through to them only in bursts, in blurts.” His narrators can often be found digging through trash or picking through carpet lint, searching for little scraps with which they might weave together some larger understanding that constantly eludes them. In “This Is Nice of You,” for example, a man pores over his girlfriend’s carpet when she is not there and begins arranging all of the bits of hair that he recovers from the carpet on a piece of paper, sorting them according to the body part the hair seems to have come from in hopes of “rais[ing] something semblable […] something equal in volume to the comprehensive girl herself.” The stories similarly dig through scraps, stringing words together in hopes of forming a larger, more meaningful whole. Lutz has spoken in various interviews about his interest in “the physicality, the materiality, the dimensionality, the inorganicity of words — words as things, as matter.” His narrators seem to know that all this stringing together of words is no more going to accurately convey the shape of their lived experience than the collecting of hair will bring to life the human being from whom the hair was shed. In “I Have to Feel Halved,” the narrator looks through a dictionary but notes that “when you poked your way to the definitions themselves, you were nowhere closer to things at all. Nothing was getting called what it was.” But these stories also insist (and you as reader grow to agree) that the act of taking up each relic (hair or word) and arranging these “off-fallings” in a shape of some sort is worthwhile. No matter that the resulting shape will fall short of verisimilitude. There are some things about the shape of lived experience that are mysterious and impossible to convey in words, just as there are some things about other people that remain forever unknowable. Yet every day we set ourselves the task of trying to collect what scraps we can of other people, and of trying to gather up enough words to form some sort of account of how things stand.