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The Garden of Earthly Delights: Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood

By Daniel Felsenthal.

Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood (Grove Atlantic/And Other Stories, 2018)

Christine Schutt opens her new collection, Pure Hollywood, with a story about a modernist house. It may be puzzling that the jacket copy refers to this 39-page narrative as a novella. Yet in the compressed universe of Schutt, who writes short, the eponymous beginning seems as rambling and grand as the metropolis from which it takes its name. Wildfires have decimated Southern California, leaving a “matchstick aftermath” and “thready smoke.” A brother visits his sister in a property untouched by the carnage, “shaped like slung plates, no corners, different heights.” Schutt’s Los Angeles, replete with inextinguishable fires and gun-wielding children, reflects the content of today’s news stories, yet the prosody of her phrases, the sinuous assonance and the juxtapositions of images, points to her literary roots in twentieth century New York.

The sixty-nine-year-old novelist and short story writer and longtime Manhattanite was a student of the infamous editor Gordon Lish, who taught her in his grueling, apparently transcendent workshop. In Lish’s class, students were purportedly never allowed to leave to go to the bathroom. He published her first collection, Nightwork (1996), while he was an editor at Knopf. The intense focus Lish urged his authors to pay to the sound of their sentences plays out in Schutt’s nimble and voluble prose; or so says the critical line, which has always been eager to connect the editor with the varied, difficult cast of writers who came into contact with him. While Lish’s influence undoubtedly looms large over literature in the second half of the twentieth century, he is a suspiciously easy reference point for reviewers in a literary culture that has become increasingly allergic to difficulty. Using his style to explain away the style of his students seems convenient, particularly in the case of writers whose avant-garde impulses would be hard to categorise if not protected by an umbrella philosophy held up by a familiar twentieth-century-male-artist persona.

Schutt’s reputation has both benefited and suffered from her association with Lish. But this is not an association worth highlighting in 2018, after Schutt has published her sixth book and developed an unusually versatile arsenal of fictional tools. She has written two story collections using fascinatingly elliptical prose and modernist structure; a fragmented, impressionistic novel, Florida; and a couple of books, All Souls and Prosperous Friends, that employ nineteenth century storytelling conventions in the service of very modern situations. Even her early work, supposedly the most Lishian in its lingual content, drew many of its manoeuvres and rhythms not from her editor but rather from the all-but-forgotten Harold Brodkey, whose ability to write about childhood sexualities permitted numerous writers (such as Hilton Als and Edmund White) to tackle similar themes. Schutt herself has mentioned that she spent her time as an MFA candidate at Columbia University trying to write a Brodkey story. Thankfully, with Pure Hollywood, her admiration for the Brodkeys and Lishes of the twentieth century has dissolved into the mixture of qualities that comprise her own twenty-first-century craft. In this book, perhaps the best of her career, she has drawn together her various talents and methodologies into something singular.

Schutt reconciles her knack for conventional narrative structure with the fixations that have bred in her stranger fiction the need for experimental methods—incest, absentee parents, the spectre of violence, and the randomness of death. The opening story serves as a recap of Schutt’s sensibility: something is slightly unusual about the relationship between the brother and sister, Mimi and Stetson. Stetson asks Mimi to smell his armpit. She does. Schutt writes: “All the pleasure to be had in looking at Stetson, but Mimi had married Arnold Fine.”

Arnold, a famous comedian, has died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-nine. Now the two siblings are alone in the home he shared with Mimi, which she describes as, “like living in a great fucking painting.” A classically Schuttian conceit—full of indications of taboo sex, as well as verbal acrobatics—becomes something new, as the structure takes on the contours of the house in which it is set. It ends: “All [Mimi] had known of love and the end of love could be summoned and summed up in a ceiling pinked in sulphurous light.” Schutt’s flirtation with postmodernism is so moving and effective it may make the reader close Pure Hollywood and look at its sulphur-pink cover.

The narrative moves away from the David Hockney-referencing Los Angeles of its opening to Brooklin, Maine and Albany, New York or California, among other locales. Schutt has always had a subtle fixation on place which serves as an atmosphere for her characters’ meditations and an indication of their position in the American scene. The book, simultaneously, moves from the loveless, sleek and apparently carefree romance of Mimi and Arnie to romance that defines its participants, that becomes the walls and ceilings and lawns of their lives. Longing and its absence are the key themes here, as they are in much of Schutt’s work, but they manifest in a thrillingly varied set of experiences. In ‘The Hedges’, a young mother is capable only of seeing her husband as parental support for their child, who suffers an astounding accident at the end of the story. In ‘Species of Special Concern’, a long-time friend of a husband and wife muses on his romantic feelings for the wife while she suffers from an unnamed illness.  ‘The Duchess of Albany’ is about a widow with two adult daughters who pines for her dead husband while enduring both a prolific drinking habit and her daughters’ criticisms of her crapulence. The story, with its slow, mournful tone, the Brodkeysian swirl of dialogue partially remembered and psychologically nagging, seems like Pure Hollywood’s first dip into predictability. But suddenly, the narrator describes the experience of watching her late husband, an avid gardener, undress before he puts on his gardening clothes:

She liked to look at his secreted machinery from behind when he bent over or stood one-legged getting out of his shorts. There it was, the long, dark purse of him asway. The head of his cock was the color of putty. Its expression was aloof most of the time, a self-satisfied indifference. When he was seated in some other ablution, the head of his cock was rosy and large and also arousing. All she ever had to do was ask when what she liked to do was look.

Look!

“It’s yours,” he said, and with a flourish held out the bouquet of himself; “be my guest.”

Pure Hollywood is a violent collection, and here it seems to turn inside-out. Instead of the jolts of murder, suicide and random accident that punctuate its preceding stories, Schutt achieves a similar shock with a memory of eroticism. The author’s early works showed her to be a master of using language and voice for beautifully evasive ends while exploring disturbing realities. In Pure Hollywood, she approaches the same realities bluntly. However beautiful her evasion, the tactic is not missed.

Most of the stories in the second half of the collection are extremely brief. Many appeared in NOON, where Schutt and co-founder Diane Williams have honed the language and form of flash fiction using methods that are consciously post-Gordon Lish. They further the sense of Pure Hollywood as house. Its earlier, longer stories beckon the reader like a large entryway, a kitchen, a living room. After, it splits into small and intimate bedrooms, lavatories, closets.

Influences aside, Christine Schutt is a modernist, and she has spent the past two decades following the modernist maxim to “make it new” in a literary environment that has tried to fit her in with its surrounding architecture. Midway through Pure Hollywood’s ultimate story, ‘The Lady From Connecticut’, Schutt’s narrator wonders, “How dark and separate is the house next to the church behind its spiky hedge of arborvitae—who lives there?” The writer answers this question about a number of houses. Some are old and leafy, located in New England and New York, while others are tucked away in hills, possibly designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and occupied by celebrities. Whatever their surroundings, the inhabitants of Pure Hollywood are fascinatingly impure and always worth reading about.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Felsenthal writes fiction and nonfiction. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Village Voice, and L.A. Weekly. He was born and raised in Chicago and lives in New York City.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 12th, 2018.