Until recently, his craziness has been turned into some amazing writing. My first exposure to him was Dear Mr. Capote, a brilliantly mad book about a man who intends to kill 47 women and have Truman Capote serialize his serial kills. The book, published in '83, displayed a style that Lish nearly perfected in his early work--elaborate first sentences and a systematic use of recurring ideas or words to produce a reading experience akin to motion sickness. Anyone who liked the bawdy humor or groping urgency of Lish's stories in books such as What I Know So Far and Mourner at the Door may have felt alienated by the ruthless torque of "novels" such as Dear Mr. Capote, My Romance (which was actually a looong speech he gave at a writer's conference, transcribed), or Zimzum (a folly infatuated with a vibrator). However, fans of fiction depicting madness were always eager to read anything new by Lish.
Now, after parting ways with a number of publishers through the years, Lish has found a home at Four Walls Eight Windows. His new publisher seems to be enthusiastic about his work, even reissuing Lish's past books and putting out a collection of Selected Stories. But with Self-Imitation of Myself and Arcade, his previous two collections, Lish has settled into a puzzling modus operandi. The recurring ideas and repetition of certain words that threatened to grow annoying in his past work have been given free range. The results are an aggravating mess.
Lish has always had lofty aspirations. In 1994, I took his infamous fiction class. It was $600 for five days, eight hours each day, with nine other students. It was almost worth it for Lish's slightly humorous/ slightly intimidating habits. He wore the same outfit each day (a tan-colored jumpsuit, the same kind he is wearing on all his recent book jackets). He didn't give us (or himself) a break for lunch--and he never went to the bathroom. The students merely listened and took notes while he talked non-stop. He called himself "the best (teacher) in the world." He told us that being an accepted mediocre writer was "no big trick," and that we should not write a novel unless we "intend it to be the best novel in the world." I still look over my book of notes from time to time, despite not always agreeing with him. I see bold and admirable statements like "Decide if you'll embrace cruelty or the normal life," and "Possession, not communication." And although Lish warned us about being influenced, he constantly touted other authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Katherine Dunn, Jack Gilbert, and Don DeLillo. On the flip side, he called the writing of Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison "bullshit."
The only time we wrote was when we crafted one sentence as a homework assignment. The next day, when we read our sentences, he tore us new assholes, even bringing one student to tears. Still, it was fun, and most writing students need to be blasted occasionally. Lish was someone with history, passion, and respect. He had won awards, he had taught many great writers (my three favorite ex-students of his are Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, and Brian Evenson), and from his recollections of being in an institution, we all knew he had seen something beyond our grasp. Nowadays, Lish is faltering. In 1994, I could have forgiven him for a mistake like Krupp's Lulu. But now it's been three books in a row. Books where Lish's strong sense of odd story structure has succumbed to merely odd structure. No story. I'm starting to wonder how stories like "The Test," about some children with plastic sporks, can seem publishable. Or how about the merits of "Another Felonious Discharge," which is 14 blank pages?
It's alarming that someone who, in the past, had such a great way of unfurling a story can't seem to hack one out anymore. It was Lish who helped write many of Raymond Carver's early stories, wasn't it? When that story broke a couple of years ago it was hard to believe, but if you look at Carver's first books you can see Lish's "rules" at work--great first sentences, strange sudden endings. But if Carver ever wrote something as dumb as Krupp's Lulu, his fans would've burned his books in embarrassment. One of the things Lish said in his writing class was that "a great writer struggles and stammers with his language," and Lish did pull off that effect for a long time to hilarious and sometimes disturbing heights. Now, it almost seems that the struggle is too much for him. It doesn't seem real. It's like he's putting us on. A master wearing a perplexing clown suit.