After receiving Partial List of People to Bleach, I thought that Gary Lutz was probably experimenting with some kind of Fluxus version of vanity publishing, deconstructing the book as a material object, pushing the text’s tactility to further limits. And when a button fell out of the book I thought of “Street Map of the Continent,” from Lutz’s collection Stories in the Worst Way, where a woman, sitting with a book in her lap, worked
the tip of an uncrooked paper clip into the gutter where the facing pages met, prying things loose: fingernail peelings, eyebrow hairs, pickings and outbursts and face-scrapings. 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. She evacuated the books, then ran the vacuum cleaner. In the morning, the book went back to the library.
And, in a kind of reverse echo, Lutz in his lecture “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” describes how, as a kid, a book was, for him, “a kind of steadying accessory, a prop, something to grip, a simple occupation for [his] hands” and how—a book splayed before him—he enjoyed “beholding the comfortingly justified lineups and amassments of words…liked seeing words on parade on the pages.” While he “never got in step with them…never entered into the processions,” he became fascinated with the book as an object, as a receptacle, and
liked how anything small (a pretzel crumb, perhaps) that fell into the gutter of the book—that troughlike place where facing pages meet—stayed in there and was preserved. A book was…an acquisitive thing, absorbing, accepting, taking into itself whatever was dropped into it. An opened book even seemed…an invitation to practice hygiene over it—to peel off the rim of a fingernail, say, and let the thing find its way down onto a page. The book became a repository of the body’s off-trickles, extrusions, biological rubbish and remains; it became a reliquary of sorts.
If we trust Gaston Bachelard’s dictum that a word is the “germ of a dream,” and that a sentence is, as Lutz asserts, “a lonely place,” then what of a paragraph, and, in turn, a book? William Gass would answer that written language, whether a sentence or a book, is a “container of consciousness.” Is a book also a machine of flows and interruptions? Can we apply practices like “architecture” and “engineering” to the idea of a book? What about book as an organism? Doesn’t the word “book,” as the OED states, come from “a Germanic base usually taken to be relative to BEECH, as the wood of rune-tablets?” Doesn’t the Latin word liber for “book” come from a word meaning the inner-rind of a tree? Lutz’s chapbook in hand, my mind was aswirl with binding structures, margins, borders, graphic design, typography, etc. Notwithstanding Keith Smith, and countless other “artist’s books” makers, these are the kinds of thoughts that only a book by Gary Lutz could provoke in a reader.
Partial List of People to Bleach is peopled by conveyor belt automatons, bubble-headed bureaucrats, cubicle drones, button-pressers, paper-chasers, and pencil pushers. They “heap all alone,” as Lutz writes, into their “nerveless” thirties, or lumber along into their forties: an “era of untidying succors, foiled overhauls.” Lutz’s indelible portraits, achieved through telling details and deadpan delivery, are always a highlight. In “Home, School, Office,” we discover the first of this theater of the deferred’s cast: a teacher, who marvels at the “frictionless, rubber-limbed sleep” of one of his students, who scours his office carpet obsessively for “an elaborately coiled pubic hair.” A woman in “I Was in Kilter with Him a Little” has “skewy eyes, a dump of dulled hair. A sparge of moles on the neck, the shoulder.” And another has “a squall of dark hair, eyes a slubby brown” who “spoke through prim, petite teeth of favors she was owed.” A detailed study could be done of Lutz’s fascination with arms and forearms. One woman has “sweepy arms” while another’s “upper arm was pale and asquish.” We find one more thinking of “an unblunt arm unsleeved in late autumn and within esteeming reach, though [she] had come to believe miserably in seeing arms not as the pathway to a person but as the route the body took to get as far afield of itself as it could.” Ironically, these characters, though reduced by Lutz to mundane, even clinical details, still come vividly to life.
These nowhere men and women on the verge with invented names like Elek, Floke, and Aisler, if named at all, are characterized by their ennui, despair, and indifference, and their homes and communities reflect their feelings. They live in bland, vacant spaces and places, like the man in “I Was in Kilter with Him a Little” whose “city was a recent thing built in pious mimicry of someplace else. The streets were named after other streets.” These are anonymous, claustrophobic, and emotionally stifling spaces, where the overall cast is gray. It’s a wonder these characters don’t have the lyrics “We got to get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do,” ringing in their heads.
Sex is always a desultory affair in Lutz’s fiction. It is usually leaden, perfunctory, with acts much like performing a chore, a routine. One woman bemoans the time a lover “twidged a slowpoke finger into where [she] still trickled against [her] will.” In “Years of Age,” a man offers men “the luxury of witnessed private conduct.” Sex is often a proof of distance rather than intimacy. Doubts curtail connection, forcing one character to ask, “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?”
If Gary Lutz were a songwriter he would be Bob Dylan, the young acerbic rascal of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, etc. Here’s “Ballad in Plain D,” from Another Side of Bob Dylan:
Of the two sisters, I loved the young.
With sensitive instincts, she was the creative one.
The constant scapegoat, she was easily undone
By the jealousy of others around her.
For her parasite sister, I had no respect,
Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect.
Countless visions of the other she’d reflect
As a crutch for her scenes and her society.
And here in “Years of Age” is one of Lutz’s characters also talking about two sisters:
My sisters had turned out to be women who wore their hair speculatively, lavishing it forward into swells, or loading it again with clips, barrettes. The younger worked for a store that still had a notions department, a dry-goods department, a toilet with a coin slot on the door. Her affections raced in undaring ovals around co-workers.
The other lived on her own in a safehold of foldaways and one-player card games with crueler and crueler rules. She had a couple of dogs that she wanted to see something of the world.
Like Dylan, Lutz is a master of the putdown. In a kind of warped sleight-of-hand, Lutz, with a few deft strokes, builds his characters up as he tears them down. One character “smelled like the exhaust fumes of a bus” while another has a “headful of unmastered mathematics and specialty of jests.” And the husband in “I Was in Kilter with Him a Little” was “largely a passerby, minutely berserk in his bearing,” who “had an unconsoling side…and couldn’t count on sleep, on dreams, to get a done day butchered improvingly.”
There are many ways to approach Lutz’s Partial List of People to Bleach. One may read it for its concise catalogue of obsessions, revel in its archaism- and neologism- filled lexicon (“roomth”? “alcoholature”? “bloodbeat”? “vegetabular?” Deciding which is which is only part of the fun), and savor every bit of exposition and scrap of dialogue. One could cherry pick sentences imagining Steven Wright delivering them. Sure Wright has lines like: “I have an existential map. It has ‘You are here’ written all over it,” and “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it,” but Lutz has “I might have kept going through life repeating: Consider the source,” and “When you are no good at what you do, it does you no good to triumph at whatever you might come home to, either.” Wright has: “I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering,” but Lutz has: “Days were not so much finished as effaced. You caught sight of new, roomy hours looming through the old. Then months more: months of fudging forward unfamished.” Wright has: “In school, every period ends with a bell. Every sentence ends with a period. Every crime ends with a sentence,” but Lutz has: “What at first doesn’t sit right might eventually stand at least to reason.”
Or one could place Lutz’s fictions within the context of Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of “minor literature,” that is, the subversion of language within a language, or as Lutz describes it in “Six Stories,” as “saying something in a language that wasn’t shot.” I’m sure a whole PhD thesis could be written on how Lutz’s fictions express “the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation” described in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. It must be understood, however, that Lutz is not working with a “private” language of indecipherability or inaccessibility. Instead Lutz, always looking alive, tinkers with word kernels, allowing them to suggest movement, direction, etc., careful to avoid the hackneyed, inexact, sentimental, and imbues every sentence with texture, with a kind of vividness and intelligence that imprints itself on one’s consciousness. Partial List of People to Bleach is certainly a book of stories this reader needs in the worst way.
About the author:
John Madera is a writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in elimae, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, New Pages, and forthcoming in The Diagram. You may find him at hitherandthithering waters and My Pet Earworm.