Tim Silbaugh
As I write this, the first edition of Gary Lutz's Stories in the Worst Way is enjoying a fantastic price bubble, in anticipation of the new edition due this fall. Copies are fetching upwards of 80 dollars, more for one in "unread" condition. My own used copy came from a public library in Indiana; its frontispiece says, "The library relinquished this book because of," and there are three blank check-boxes: "newer holdings that supercede it," "out-of-date information," and "damage." This is a job Lutz might have written about, separating superceded books from out-of-date ones. In Lutz's stories, people, too, are both singular and replaceable: friends, spouses, employers, and object choices all tend toward obsolescence and substitution. "There was no marriageable surface left on him that I could see," is how one character puts it.

Damage accumulates amid all these substitutions: A son arrives for a weekly visit with his father, but he is already "a mothered-down version" of himself; the father has grown used to being "one of sleep's discards." Another character does not bother to throw away the bag his mattress came in, because the bag's warning label that it is "not a toy" reminds him that "everything was in lieu of everything else."

If this were all Lutz had to offer, these sharp sad portraits of people in routinized, serial relations with their spouses and bosses and mattresses, his book would already be worth reading, however negatively said reading might affect its exchange value on eBay. But Lutz writes the most remarkable sentences, at once torqued and shimmering. It's for these that you should flout the wisdom of that library in Indiana, and read every last damaged word.

I recently interviewed Lutz by e-mail.

Could you say something about the peculiar sentences of Stories in the Worst Way?

I didn't set out to overturn traditional grammar (I am a grammarian), and I wanted to avoid the gaudy novelty that limits certain kinds of experimental writing. I was aiming for a less obtrusive form of disturbance, getting one word to bear upon another in ways that depart from the relations obtaining between words in ordinary speech and that release emotion into the sentence.

I wanted to prevent syntax from automatically going through the usual motions. (Even as slight an adjustment as the substitution of one preposition for another can send a sentence over the line from mere reportage to the strange, the startling, the inevitable but overdue.) I became more aware of the physicality of words, and began setting them out, rubbing them against each other, in a process that had as much to do with their shapes and sonics, their vowelly centers and consonantal crusts, as with their meanings alone. The kind of sentence I envisioned--and I don't know whether I have ever managed to produce even a single one of the things--was an outcry combining the petite acoustical elegance of the aphorism with the force and utility of the load-bearing, tractional sentence of more or less conventional narrative.

How does being a grammarian affect your writing?

The courses I teach--remedial composition, business writing--have nothing to do with my own writing and in fact are a kind of escape from the peculiar demands and miseries of the writing I attempt. During the school year, I come close to forgetting about my writing entirely. I've always been tugged toward New York--I visit often, and am almost always longing for the place--but I've been living for quite some time in furnitureless small-town apartments with the blinds drawn at all hours. I've never learned the names of the streets. I guess it helps me to be far from the center of anything and uninfluenced by what goes on in the thicker populations.

Why do your narrators have such difficulty simply referring to themselves?

It's just that some of my narrators have such an overacquaintance with themselves, suffer from such an oppressive overintimacy with their bodies and the contents of their every minute, that on those rare occasions when they stumble upon a glimpse of the bigger picture of themselves, and actually get a look at the contours of their lives, they're practically undone--because the microscopic view and the larger perspective don't really fit together at all. There's very little overlap. So they're plunged into a disabling uncertainty that inevitably infects their speech and gives them a little trouble with the first-person pronouns, because the range of reference is now cloudy and baffling.

How do you answer critics who say that the writers you like are "too" experimental or intellectual?

When I'm in the mood for a story, when I feel like knowing who did what to whom, I'll watch Ghost World for the 40th time or some other wonderful movie. Movies are the perfect storytelling medium. I don't read fiction for the story; I read it for the acts of language, for the feelingful feats of syntax, and if I don't find any, I'll move on. The fiction that interests me, the fiction that does me in, isn't the kind that reports the world or embellishes it, but the kind that usurps the world entirely. The writers I like give me something I can't get from any other medium, something pretty miraculous, and the extent of their generosity blows me away. They're extreme writers.