Review of Gary Lutz’s I Looked Alive

I Looked Alive By Gary Lutz. Brooklyn, NY: Black Square Editions/Brooklyn Rail, 2010. 190 pp. $17.00, paper.

Gary Lutz chronicles the ever so common disjunctive American household with alliterative, vibrant sentences. The opening one of “People Shouldn’t Have to be the Ones to Tell You” serving as the perfect introduction to this unwonderful world: “He had a couple of grown daughters, disappointers, with regretted curiosities and the heavy venture of having once looked alive.” (29) This sonorous wave of consonance (first h’s, then d’s, then h’s again) tells one there is a man and that’s it — what he has produced is negligible, his failed daughters a long way from happiness.

Indeed, the description “looked alive” that becomes the title to his book, I Looked Alive, serves to introduce the wildly putrid sense of self and things sapping the characters in the book again and again. They may have little or nothing but whatever it is they have they nestle and try to pull inside of them, plugging their bodies with something that might make everything a little better.

Though the book was originally published in 2004, this edition by Black Square Editons/Brooklyn Rail adds three more stories, including edits to the previous stories, including changing “Coca-cola” to “soda” — further placing Lutz’s characters in alternative America with no place or brand names and indeed few character names — “he” and “she” simply serving to define these beaten down, bewailing narrators.

Lutz’s stories are micro histories and sometimes outline the micro-bacterial particles of the characters. Often the man, woman or hermaphroditic narrator’s splurge of regrets centers on the accumulated gruel on their or other people’s skin — a bodily focal point to examine what went wrong:

There was a bar of soap he had used a couple of times, a woman’s soap, with womanly incurvature…I would draw it unwetted along my cheek, the distance of my arm. I would try to bring a little back, however much of him might still be sticking to the thing, because I understood the molecules of soap to be especially grasping and retentive, and the skin of a man to be not all that loyal to the body. (157)

Unlike most people’s stories that appear clean and remedial in their telling, Lutz’s have already been lived in, occupied for a long time, and they have a stifling air similar to the curmudgeon’s den in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, where no one dusts or keeps house — the whole enterprise stinking with the ancient odor of paper and page. Their minds ragged and rugged from overburn, Lutz’s unloved, unlived, destitute narrators squawk their findings: “It is said, isn’t it, that you “make” love because it’s otherwise not really there?” (45)

There are no mysteries or manners (impressing others is the last thing on these character’s minds), people are wracked, retched, and live under heavy blankets of ruination. Plot in Lutz is episodic, but the language is of the highest order. Lutz’s sweet music is an English language of vertiginous combinations and recombinations — his linguistic tool belt fitted with Shakespearean inversions and antiquated words. When aiming to verbally fit a triangle in a square peg, Lutz succeeds every time.

In “I Was in Kilter with Him a Little” it is a woman recounts her past loves:

When you are no good at what you do, it does you no good to triumph at whatever you might come home to, either. My husband was in fact my second one. I should be making a case for the first, for the avenues of feeling I must have taken with him, though he mostly just roved from room to room between charley horses, was studious in his insults, twidged a slowpoke finger into where I still trickled against my will. (70)

In these three sentences, Lutz uses repetition of sounds (the rhyming “twidged” and “trickled,” “roved” and “room”) and words (using “you,” “good,” and “room” each twice) to create a blustery showcase. This invective against the “first” husband is the only mention of him in the story, but one sentence is enough to cast him as an appalling thing, a mean groaner, mostly concerned with sexual satisfaction. With her despair at life’s futility, at the seeming impossible of true connection, the narrator’s bankrupt philosophy of life echoes Edgar’s words in King Lear: “…the worst is not, so long as we can say, This is the worst.”

Lutz is tremendously concerned with how one moves through life, indeed how one moves through the world with everyone around, and how they come across to people, how they seem to appear, if and when they do: “Tall for a girl, but she managed to stay out of much of her height and put herself across as someone backward, or behind,” (169) and “…people shaded into each other pretty easily.” (119) Like Beckett, Lutz’s main interest is how one deals, what one does to survive, how one keeps on when so cripplingly crippled. Sometimes they turn for help: “Prescription oblivials gave her an assist with her moods, veered her toward a slow-spoken sociability sometimes, sometimes made her meaner,” (72) but help often backfires — the medical breakthroughs cannot be counted on to correct and the gap gets uglier.

One masterpiece among many (and one of the new stories added) is “I Have to Feel Halved,” first published in the literary journal NOON, where many of these stories first appeared. Inside this tale two men — one young, one old — dance around each other sexually, selecting and spinning out whatever they might have left for the other. The older man, a crotchety toad in a long line of Lutzian fuss-pot narrators, relates how the nubile Adonis comes into his life, rocks him, and finally falls away — too tortured to be tethered. Here, after a brief portrait of the younger’s toiletries, the elder describes the fundament of the lusted-after:

The frontiers of this sink held toners and tinters vesselled pricily, effervescers by the jugful, cologne in a bullet-shaped bottle that I feared, had I brought the thing to my nose, would stink bitterly and forgivably of his ass, because his ass could hold its own among the presented openings of the world. (43)

In Lutz’s work, people do really live inside each other until they have to leave, drifting and dripping in and out of any openings — the “halving” sensation of the title. Emotional wounds rear and flare and the story stumbles, the narrator knowing what he had already known despite protests: “…you could enter into people only so far and then had to come out the same way. There was never a way clear through. You were always back to where you started.” (52)

Yet this story, the most recent in the book, progresses by degrees, building more traditionally. It is a glimmering of something new for Lutz — the loss is more real, but the ending is no less painful and symptomatic of the pervading human disconnection as the elder sees the younger off at the airport, gone for life: “We kissed quickly and shrinkingly, in the manner of foreigners. He left me leaving him.” (52)

Lutz’s stories are frightening and fraught with a putrid sense of humor, as a cologne bottle stinking “forgivably” of a beloved’s ass. The ne’er do well’s in the book create their own circus of futility and despair but these people don’t want to be in the circus, they can’t. They don’t have the belly for society and stay away, estranged in their quiet homes. At the same time Lutz’s sentences, his word choice and deployment of parts of speech therein surprise and stun. The rhymes, repetitions and alliteration — these work on the reader like a carefully wrought music, dynamic and challenging. The reader gets halved in the experience of reading, but so much the better.

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