Partial List of People to Bleach, by Gary Lutz. Portland, Oregon: Future Tense Books. 116 pages. $25.00, hardcover.
“There’s nothing more to it than the fact that in every moment everything’s over all over again,” Gary Lutz tells Blake Butler in a recent interview. If you’ve read Gary Lutz before, you’ve probably just connected moments to sentences, which is quite keen. Nice work! Virtually every sentence in Partial List of People to Bleach reads like a kind of epithet, though one composed by somebody without the benefit of cultural and linguistic commonalities, somebody without much of anything really, save a fleeting sketch of how things were, and the ability to see it as some sort of microcosm.
Lutz’s sentences are quite often corralled, sometimes benevolently, sometimes wryly, into paragraphs. What’s more, the paragraphs (and lonely sentences that couldn’t find one) are housed under titles, much like stories. But stories these are not. Life, Lutz says in the same interview, is “irreducible to chains of cause and effect.” Stories are quite the opposite. We speak and think in stories, in connections of cause and effect, because Lutz is right. But he’s not interested in doing the same. Only in characters who can’t speak and think in stories, merely in essences and fates.
When I read Partial List of People to Bleach, I read it in David Berman’s soothingly weathered voice. Perhaps because of the strangeness of the sentences, the subtle shifts and plays in each, which slow my reading to a drawl. Or perhaps because untold sentences gain their complexity in the second half of their iteration, in sudden onslaughts of mistakable words, obscure usage, assonance or dissonance wound in like canned cinnamon roll dough: “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.” Maybe it’s that the sentences, though not visually fragmented, function that way in their encapsulation, instructing a sort of prayer afterwards, the way Berman’s do. The sentences don’t so much belong to each other, as they are each other.
The outcome evokes Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, an autobiography that refuses cause and effect by intoning statement after random statement, without paragraph breaks or titles. This is minimalism not in the literary sense, but a musical one, what Tony Conrad described as “ultrasimplistic formal structures, which dominate the surface of attention—only to vanish within the substance of the music as one enters.” Literary minimalism is curtailed like Lutz, sure, but like humor, relies on manipulating sequences of events for its force. Lutz has no sequence of events to manipulate—he loops.
This is not to say that Lutz’s writing is unskilled or uneventful. Describing what he calls “The Lutz Sentence Test,” Kevin Sampsell, Founder of Future Tense Books, says “close your eyes and point anywhere and be astounded by whatever sentence you land on.” And were they not so astounding, none of this would work. It’s not easy to jog in place and still be compelling, to satisfyingly compose with words, yet produce a negative capability. Rather than performing an idea, there’s performance seemingly without one. Many of the statements are optical illusions, or more pertinently, like phase shifts. “My fingers were soon in the pan of her palm,” goes one of my favorites.
Lutz’s unique minimalist effects come from a unified strangeness, a rhythm, not simple repetitions of phrases and the like. Lutz rarely reuses content words within a fiction. The reprisal across piece lines, however, of notions of relationships, time and place, is a different story. For instance, “We had just moved to one of the little cities that had been set out at intervals—they formed a kind of loose oblong, I imagine—in the upper tier of our state,” and in a later piece, “We had to move two towns to the left, which was west, westish, in this case.”
This is part of how Partial List provides a surface of repose that relaxes you, then teaches you its beauty. It enacts, I think, that a mechanical experience can produce an emotional response, for the way it alters time. Because it forces a prolonged exposure to an expiring moment. The loop-like experience allows you to go through the entire cycle of novelty/love/hate/knowledge over a very short period. Any of Lutz’s fictions can make you feel longing for itself before it’s even ended.
Alterations of the form are appropriately terribly simple. An entire piece (“People Won’t Keep”), save for its last sentence, is struckthrough. Were the strikethrough to be removed, the story would read like any of the others. It essentially does anyway. The prose doesn’t seem interested in adapting to create a more dynamic interaction with the strikethrough. It simply is, as the rest, though struckthrough. “I girled myself around the boys retiring behind guitars,” goes one that could be endlessly relocated, like most. Lutz is forever clued in to the mistakes the hurried mind makes. What else could explain the very next sentence, “I enjoyed their entertainment of their every doubt.” No matter how many times I read it, I stumble over the first their, thinking it should be the instead. Somehow, I couldn’t be happier about that.
Elsewhere (“Heartscald,” “Home, School, Office,” “Six Stories”) pieces are composed of titled fragments. Were you to be wrapped up in recognizing narratives, the use of punchlines might seem more prominent here, a difference. But these punchlines are only determined by the structure, that is, the fragmentation and titles giving us the illusion of many more endings, and thus, many more punchlines. Every Lutz sentence is a sort of punchline, you see, though usually stripped of punchline placement.
It occurs to me now that I’m overstating the sentence-to-sentence uncertainty of these fictions. There are, at times, whole measures tethered to a single subject. It’s just that they amount to a series of bullet points. They don’t revise or press forward, for me, don’t produce envision-able scenes or worlds. And if you expect them to do so, I suspect you’ll be terribly frustrated. There’s no need. The sentences are good enough to simply sex you one by one, never needing to produce a story to occupy. My advice is to let them.
Each of these fictions is so damn seductive, makes me want to try my hand at one because I feel like I could. But I’ve tried, and of course, I couldn’t. Even after failing, though, on rereading the feeling doesn’t go away.
I was tempted to write that this is Lutz’s most essential work, his most refined. Truth is, I feel that way about each of his books as I’m reading them. Why, only now, I thought Partial List contained his most simplistic diction, but then I read the word unamelioratingly, and had to erase half a page of musings.
What does set this collection apart is the inclusion of Lutz’s actually essential essay on composition, “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place.” You might be miffed at its inclusion for potentially reducing the artifactyness of the book. If so, a simple pair of scissors ought to do the trick. You could staple that shit and place it in your drifting writer friend’s coat pocket, all passive aggressive and whatnot. But maybe you should let it be. The essay will surely someday be behind a paywall over at The Believer. And you know your final read of it is nowhere in sight.
So buy this book! I will be pulling it off my shelf for inspiration the rest of my life. Buy it because you might do the same. Buy it for Gordon Lish’s crotchety, hilariously unhelpful intro. Buy it so you can lend it to people. Say, “Oh, I’ve got the most delicious little volume for you.” At 116 pages, that’s not even an exaggeration. And if you cut “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” out, maybe hold onto it. Maybe until you’re dead. Maybe be buried with it. After all, in the afterlife, there’ll be nothing to do but write, and nothing to write about.
Tanner Hadfield is an assistant editor at Caketrain. Recentest fictions appear in Washington Square Review, Heavy Feather Review, and Dreginald.