Wednesday 18 December 2019

The only untranslatable American writer

 About a decade ago, I was in Paris with a gathering of French translators and editors, talking about Gary Lutz’s work. Several of them had, at one time or another, tried to translate him, and all of them—some after months of trying—had found this to be impossible. Lutz’s work was too deftly sewn into the English language to be picked free of it. Each story is so much about the specific tonal, sonic, and rhythmic relationships within English, and so much about torquing a given historical moment of that language by injecting it with archaisms and oddity, that to reproduce it in French just didn’t work. It was, one translator told me, more exacting than poetry, and infinitely more complex. “Technically I could translate it,” he told me. “I did translate several pages of it. But, then, rereading it, I realized it had, somehow, when I wasn’t looking, escaped. Then I retranslated those pages a different way. Still it was gone. I could try again, but no. Lutz will always escape.”

These were translators who relished a challenge. They had, between them, translated the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, Mark Z. Danielewski, William H. Gass, and David Foster Wallace. One of them had translated a story of mine that contained a list of more than a hundred varieties of barbed wire, arranged to create certain sonic patterns. “What other American writers are untranslatable?” I asked. They shrugged. “Just him,” one of them finally replied.

So when I say that Lutz is unique, I mean this in a much more serious way than how the term is usually applied to writers.


Gary Lutz is unique. He is perhaps best known for his first book, Stories in the Worst Way (1996), which rapidly acquired a cult following. These are stories possessed of a great surface clarity, and yet there is a certain evasiveness on the part of their narrators. The stories often conclude suddenly, surprisingly, even gnomically. They are not exactly stories in the usual sense. The plots, when they have them, are extremely attenuated. Characters from one story seem to be echoes or doubles of characters from another story, and doubling proliferates within the stories as well. All the narrators, whether third person or first, whether male or female (and in some stories a great deal of time may go by before one can say with any degree of certainty if they are one or the other), seem to have a penchant for a certain sort of language play, a delicate manipulation of syntax.

There’s also a love of unexpected word combinations: the “fruitful botch of a girl,” for instance, that appears on the first page of the first story, “Sororally” (a title that suggests Lutz’s love of the arcane or uncommon word, and his deftness in bringing forgotten words back to life). “What could be worse,” begins that story, “than having to be seen resorting to your own life?” Yet, in story after story, throughout Lutz’s work, we see narrators who seem to be resisting being ensconced in their life at all, narrators who use language as a defense and as a form of evasion while at the same time, through language, they fall more thoroughly into the trap of a muted and incomplete existence. These are stories about relationships without relation (sexual or otherwise), with characters possessed of an unrealizable impulse to reach out to touch—and even pass through—another person so as to move into another life. Under such terms, sex becomes a kind of frustration: “The trouble with coming was that I actually did arrive somewhere. I arrived at the place my body had already left. I got there just in time to get a good look at what had happened where things were.”

Lutz’s early stories are also often mordantly funny. The narrators stumble through situations saying things that are sometimes off, sometimes just odd. Sometimes they seem to address the reader directly: “When I wrote this originally, it was a piece on walking as a disorder of the body: walking as affliction, not function. I am relieved that no one will ever get to see it.” Indeed, a great many of these stories might be seen as cleaned-up versions of stories told in a bar by, say, a former professor of literature once he has had enough drinks to be in a confessional mood, but not so many as to be completely indiscreet. He, or sometimes she—or sometimes that distinction isn’t important—will tell you their secrets, but they’ll tell them murkily. It will be up to you to figure out exactly what is being said, and why.


I speak of Stories in the Worst Way for as long as I do because all the gestures found in it are gestures to be found in Lutz’s later work as well—though their modulation decidedly changes from book to book. Stories in the Worst Way remains strong and original upon rereading. But it also feels like a younger man’s book, a book by a person who, despite the manifold struggles of the characters within it, has not yet been thoroughly beaten up by life in the way we increasingly are as we age. The language and gestures are spectacular, even spooky, but there’s a certain lightness (in Calvino’s sense of the term) buoying them up.

For me, Lutz’s second book, I Looked Alive (2003), is even better. It is grimmer, more confessional, less madcap. It is more deeply suffused with loneliness and longing and loss. Its characters flail to sort out their sexual identity and feel like they might have missed the boat: “For too long a time I lived in the trouble between women and men without taking anywhere nearly enough of it for my own.” Characters here seem to fall into relationships without really understanding why, and spouses tend to matchmake for their other halves until their relationships flinder away and are gone. People seem to be wandering dazedly through their own lives—or through someone’s life, anyway. A strand of hair or a crumpled receipt, disjecta of some kind, is something that a narrator might cling to more than to the person who discarded it. The language is slightly thicker, in the same way that one’s body thickens as one gets older, and the syntax a little more gnarled. The stories overall are slightly longer and as a result the reader is steeped more thoroughly in each life. The frequency of Lutz’s use of archaisms and unlikely word combinations has accelerated slightly—an acceleration that will continue in his later work.

In other words, in I Looked Alive Lutz has fallen even more deeply into the sentence and its dynamics. Whereas his earlier narrators still often acted as if they had an escape route, these narrators seem more aware of their own trappedness. The attenuated plots of the first book are even more attenuated here. Instead each story offers a series of situations with large gaps between, brief moments or encounters strung like beads along the whole length of a desperate, thwarted life.


Lutz followed I Looked Alive with three shorter offerings: Partial List of People to Bleach (2007, revised 2013), Divorcer (2011), and Assisted Living (2017). Partial List contains both stories written in the years directly before its publication and some of the earliest stories that Lutz published, originally in The Quarterly under the pseudonym Lee Stone. Elsewhere I have called it “at once cruelly honest, precisely painful, and beautifully rendered.”

Divorcer, the longest of these three later books, is perhaps the most thematically focused of all of Lutz’s books, with its seven stories revolving around both the pain and inevitability of divorce and separation. The title story is one of Lutz’s longest stories, and two others are quite long as well; he’s beginning to elbow more space out for his characters, to heighten the density of his exploration of their damaged lives. These stories are, like most of Lutz’s other stories, oblique, but at the same time there’s more interest in mapping a discrete period: the particulars of a breakup and its aftermath. There’s a sense of struggle and hopelessness, and also weary recognition: “We were not so much a couple as a twofold loneliness.”

Assisted Living is four stories, fairly concise, and continues in the path of Divorcer. Breakup, aftermath, and struggling with a sense of self are prevalent in many of these stories, with faint glimmers of perhaps false hope. “All roads led to the one road that wasn’t going where you wanted to go,” says one character, summing up her life. But then goes on to qualify: “Except now and then people make a show of themselves, make themselves fathomable in something cap-sleeved, and jam the small talk with wherefores vast and mattery.”

The final section of The Complete Gary Lutz, “Stories Lost and Late,” consists of two long stories and seven very short ones, none of which have been previously collected. “My Bloodbaths,” which opens the section, is the longest story Lutz has ever published. It was based on earlier unpublished writings but transformed and repurposed. I place it among his very best work. “Am I Keeping You?,” which closes the section, is also long and similarly strong. The shorter stories come from pieces started in the nineties but finished and reworked only recently, and they present an intriguing mix of old and new. The longer stories present a narrator’s slow and careful self-evisceration in exquisite detail. They are wonderfully and terribly painful in a way that provides less respite than the shorter pieces, but also greater insight.

The drama of Lutz’s work is in the language—in the sentence as a unit in particular. He crafts each part of his sentence carefully enough that there are subdramas in the relationships of the words themselves, in the productive tensions between them. If you are looking for story and plot, you have come to the wrong place. If your idea of character involves epiphany and obvious change, then look elsewhere. But if you are interested in seeing what language can really do when deftly manipulated to give it great flexibility, in seeing how the subtleties of struggling minds might be expressed, and in learning a new way of reading, welcome.

(Source: The Paris Review)

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