Book Supplement

Deconstruc-tion for the Masses

We Are Hungering for Something Else

Celebrity Is Never an Art

The Anatomy of Difficulty

Reviewers Who Love Too Much

New Pornographers' Manifesto

Record Label Turns to publishing

What Poetry is For

THE THRILL OF GRIEF

Charles Mudede on His Sister-In-Law

Plastiques

A Moment in the Park with Galaxy Craze

Poetry That Pushes

NO END TO TRYING

The World From Inside a Tiny Writing Group

Sex: Fiction's Hamburger Helper

Fame! I'm Going to live Forever!

What You Might at First Hate

MEET THE NARRATEMES

Bruce à la Bruce

To Get Famous, Punch Somebody

Rifficult Deading

LIGHTNING ON PAPER

J'Accuse!: An Argument About the Value of Conflict of Interest in Books Criticism

Scandinavian Sex

Bret Easton Ellis

The Year of Reading about Proust

THE JIMINY CRICKET INSIDE ME

Reviews

The Ether Sex

Stories in the Worst Way
by Gary Lutz
(Knopf, 1996. Out of print; partially available online at webdelsol.com/lutz/.)

The trouble with the discourse about intercourse is that it's a discourse of truth. Written sex is freighted with more truth-telling responsibility than it can bear. What's worse, everyone who "dares" to write about sex imagines that his or her daring is unique. You end up with dull writers who pride themselves on their searing honesty (an occupational hazard chiefly among journalists), or writers who weigh down some mildly enjoyable descriptions of transgressive sex acts with exaggerated claims for the liberating import of said acts (a failing common among writers of experimental fiction).

There are exceptions, though--writers who avoid both insufferable sincerity and overblown rhetoric by flattening rather than heightening their prose. You could call it the disaffected school: Sex is shown as merely one activity among others, and not always an appealing one. An example is this passage in Stacey Levine's forthcoming novel Frances Johnson. Here the title character Frances Johnson is lying in bed with her suitor, Ray: "'It doesn't make sense to me,' she said toward the window framing a dark, gelatinous sky. 'Two adults in the middle of the night... one lying on top of the other?' Frances felt out-of-sorts. 'Yes, it's strange,' Ray agreed."

Gary Lutz's Stories in the Worst Way share something of this "strangeness." One of Lutz's narrators, every bit as dismayed and disbelieving as Levine's Frances Johnson, asks, "What could be scarier than two people in a room with their nightstands and the things on their nightstands?"

At this point, though, I have to give up talking about a "school," as if one could classify books on the basis of how they "approach" sex (sidling? or head-on?). It's enough of a disservice to Levine; with Lutz it's a near impossibility, in part because it's so difficult to say where the depiction of intercourse begins or ends in Lutz's writing. There's an obliqueness to Lutz's stories, as if Lutz himself were speaking when one of his narrators says, "Under no circumstances should the body ever have to depict itself."

Not that Lutz doesn't write about sex or bodies; he does, sometimes in ways so unsentimental as to be off-putting: "I imagine I must have unbundled her, peeled off her underdressings, dipped my fingers into her, sopped and woggled them around, browsing, consulting what she had made of herself inside." But at other times, activities that could not really be called sex reach a weirdly compulsive pitch, as when a narrator finds that his daily habit of waving to a particular passerby has become obsessive: "a greeterly incontinence took hold of the two of us: our arms shivered away from our sides: even our wristfalls became communicational, summative." (One of the pleasures of Lutz's writing is the way he presses the unlikeliest words into service as other parts of speech: "summative," "shenaniganal," "ashtrayish," "yodelish.")

If it's difficult to say where sex begins or ends in Lutz's stories, in part it's because Lutz's narrators have such an acute, nuanced understanding of the subtle alienation involved in seemingly unproblematic phrases like "myself," "my life," or "my body." Lutz has a whole repertoire of ways to plumb the distance between "I" and "myself": "I was only loosely in the midst of myself." "Most nights, I was not so much living my life as roughing out loose, galling paraphrases of the lives being lived in the adjoining apartments and hallways." "All too often, though, my life came along and I joined up with it...." In addition to commanding this array of gestures of auto-disaffection, Lutz pays attention to the metaphorical in our habits of language, so that some of his narrators' sexual difficulties seem to be textual difficulties as well: "The trouble with coming was that I actually did arrive somewhere."

For all his attention to the surface of the text, Lutz is a realist. Lutz's characters find themselves in bureaucratized, routinized relations: Not only jobs but also spouses and friends are serial, fungible parts that tend toward obsolescence ("There was no marriageable surface left on him that I could see," is how one character puts it). They cannot pretend that sex will let them reach some intimate or ultimate truth about the other person in their bed: "People are full already. The most you can do is lay yourself out on top."