I have an ideological commitment to a somewhat unpopular theory of prose fiction: that features like “character”, “plot,” and “setting” are epiphenomena that arise after the fact, more or less by accident; that writers write sentences, then go back and see what characters, plot, and setting the sentences add up to, then revise the sentences to avoid any obvious incongruities.
But when someone states the claim as starkly, and argues for it as forcefully, as Gary Lutz does in “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” I start to doubt my own belief in it. Hard to get the sense of Lutz’s approach from a short excerpt, so here’s a long one:
A sentence that I have spent an almost pathological amount of time gaping at since the turn of the century, a sentence that always leaves me agog, is the opening sentence in Sam Lipsyte’s story “I’m Slavering,” in Venus Drive: “Everybody wanted everything to be gleaming again, or maybe they just wanted their evening back.” The paraphrasal content of the statement informs us that high hopes for a return to a previous wealth of life or feeling are inevitably going to have to be scaled back and revised immediately and unconsolingly downward. If you tweak the verb tense from the past to the present, the sentence is even more self-containedly epigrammatic in its encompassing of our shared predicament of disappointments. It’s a richly summational sentence, not the sort of sentence you might expect to find at the very outset of a story—but there are writers whose mission is sometimes to deliver us from conclusion to conclusion instead of necessarily bogging us down in the facts, the data, the sorry particulars leading to each conclusion.
Lipsyte’s sentence is composed of words that, in ordinary hands, are among the most humdrum and pedestrian in our language: in the first half of the sentence alone, the words filling the subject slots in the independent clause and in the infinitive clause are the bland, heavily used indefinite pronouns everybody and everything. And the entire sentence is in fact completely lacking in specificity and so-called literary or elevated language: there is no load of detail, no verbal knickknackery whatsoever—there are no big-ticket words. The only standout word, the participle gleaming, most likely was called up into the sentence out of bits and pieces of the words preceding it—the ruling vowel of the entire utterance (the long e) and the -ing of everything. Yet this opening flourish of the story not only has both sweep and circumference in its stated meaning, but it has a swing and a lilt to it as well. The first half of the sentence is buoyant, upfloating. The entire sentence has the chiming, soaring, C-chord long e’s in everybody and be and gleaming and maybe and evening; it has the alliterative ballast of the b’s in everybody and be and maybe and back, and of the g’s in gleaming and again; and the only really closed word in the mix is the final word, the adverb back, which is shut off with harsh consonants at either end, especially the cruelly abrupt, terminal k, which finishes off the sentence and pushes it rudely down to earth. The last vowel in the sentence is the minor-key short a in back—the only appearance in the sentence of the disappointed, dejected ahhh of crap and alas.
I read and admired Lipsyte’s sour, hilarious Home Land, a kind of investigation of the high school reunion as a literary form. So I read Venus Drive, or I started to. Lutz’s praise was accurate but the book was hard to read. Every sentence a pleasure but the whole effect too rich to take in, like fudge. Yes, per Lutz, one is to read it slowly. But even when eating fudge slowly you only want to eat so much. I think Lipsyte is nowadays less firmly gripped by the ideology that Lutz and I believe in, and I think his books are better. Troubling.
Lipsyte’s new book, The Ask, is in places very funny, though not as funny as Home Land, and throughout very sour, even more so than Home Land. It’s a chronicle of a ruined and ruinous sad sack, in the tradition of A Fan’s Notes. A.O. Scott wrote a very strange piece in the NYTimes which assigned to the book a claim of generational representation: “These are the ruminations of Milo Burke in the novel “The Ask,” summing up the formative experiences of his generation in a voice seemingly characteristic of that overeducated, insecure demographic cohort, who came of age in the late ’80s and early ’90s.” But this is badly wrong — Burke is to be read as abnormal, off-track, a creature on whom education and privilege are wasted, the butt of his own sharp jokes and everyone else’s duller ones. Burke’s generation moves on, while Burke degenerates. The book would be a much better data point for Katie Roiphe’s today’s-male-writers-are-inwardly-twisted-weaklings-who-hate-sex claim, which is also badly wrong, but which as a description of this novel is sort of OK.
Let’s say it: my ambivalence about The Ask comes down to the fact that the sentences in it are the kind of sentences I know how to write. So I root for them, and feel gloomy when they don’t succeed. Maybe because I know how to write these sentences I’m not reading the book fairly. I think I see pretty clearly the decisions Lipsyte is making, in between the words. I can’t read the dialogue as words spoken aloud by people, only as words put on the page by Lipsyte. This is, I think, how Gary Lutz wants me to read The Ask, and prose fiction more generally, but here our ideology diverges. Writers have to count consonants and shuttle vowels from place to place and to make sure a word used in one place correctly echoes a word that appeared a hundred pages earlier; but for the reader it should all be invisible.
Very good interview between Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart at Loggernaut. Helen DeWitt has good stuff on The Ask and what Lipsyte learned from Gordon Lish. According to the Scott piece, The Ask has sold only 7,000 copies. That’s too bad.