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Notes on Gary Lutz’s “Stories in the Worst Way”

A summary wouldn’t do this collection of varieties of domestic disturbance any justice, and of course a parody, as tempting as that might be, would be impossible to do right. To read Lutz is to enter an unfamiliar world tinged uncomfortably with the real. Or more prosaically, the other way around: a real world that’s just… off. Kinked, somehow.

How Lutz has his way with language: not by twisting the sentences by force, or taking them apart to see how they work. They’re not sentences where clauses flow to other clauses and end up as grand capillary assemblies of logic, as in a Javier Marias novel. Lutz’s sentences are plain in structure, perhaps deliberately unpoetic in diction, but demand the rereading associated with poetry, so one can savor the unfamiliar syllables.

One might for instance, focus on the adverbs. Writers are instructed to use adverbs sparingly, but Lutz squeezes them in; you can almost imagine the satisfying pop they make as they slide into the sentences. Here the adverbs are splayed out more conspicuously for consumption.

Lutz conjures similar magic on the level of the sentence, or clause, even. Cliches when you least expect it. Gerunds baked from thin air. Participial phrases that wait for subjects and are found wanting. There’s a faint oily undercurrent of humor running through it all, but none of it is found in, for instance, puns. Nothing so immediately obvious. The unsettling quality of the reader’s amusement lies in the juxtapositions: of situations with characters, of adjectives with nouns.

His fiction is drawn from two wells: a more mannered, experimental style of writing with a twist of absurdist fiction. The surrealism comes from the situations that arise from the most ordinary settings: offices, bedrooms, convenience stores, apartments. Lutz employs the vocabularies of the same, of the routines of work, but in conjunction with bodies, familial relations. Bodies, especially, with talk of undernesses and perpendicularities. Unlike in airport thrillers, where the reader races ahead, skimming details, one is forced to slow down the rhythm when reading Lutz, to keep an eye out for the lane changes.

 

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