No Rings, No Bouquets
By David Winters.
Early on in Gary Lutz’s latest book, a nameless narrator makes a typically ‘Lutzian’ observation about the trickiness of linking language to lived experience; the difficulty of literary description:
‘You can’t generalize about divorce, and you can’t get too specific about it, either. The subject either clouds up or loves itself too much.’
Perhaps it’s not too much of a push to read this remark as ‘representing’ something about what arises after it. If so, it would seem to set up Divorcer’s seven short fictions as attempts to express a traumatic event (‘divorce’) in terms that retain some faith to its distressing resistance to utterance. After all, when we talk about trauma, our words are always quick to thicken over what we want to say. What’s more, for Lutz, an ordinary word like ‘divorce’ never cleanly or healthily means what we think it means. If these pieces possess, more than Lutz’s others, a collective sense of intentionality, an ‘aboutness’, that doesn’t mean that they’re simply, solely ‘about’ couples uncoupling. Instead, they’re better read as documents of a deeper procedure of separation; what we could call an ‘emotional complex’, albeit one that Lutz never lets float free of its textual enactments. Divorcer is the work of a technician, not a romantic.
So, it’s more as if divorce has seeped into the structure of these ‘stories’, like a rot in the grain of their language; something sweetly corrupt that can’t be cut out of them. It’s buried deep in their syntax, motivating the phrasing that estranges the opening of any errant sentence from its end. In each of the book’s seven entries, words are put to work on pulling something apart – a family, a body, a memory of bodies together – in ways that render how life’s breaking points really feel when reached. Shards of language are arranged into snapshots of how things are, as Lutz puts it, painfully ‘halved’.
Another way of saying this is that the book begins to articulate something like a grammar of divorce, or maybe even a mathematics of it. In this sense, it soon becomes clear that divorce has something to do with difference, the unbridgeable gulf that alienates two separated states or entities. As Lutz’s narrator says,
‘I’m sorry, but they had a different way of talking about subtraction back when I was in school. It wasn’t “Take this away from that”; it was never a matter of minus. It was “Find the difference of.” E.g., “Find the difference of 54 and 31.” So go ahead. Find the difference of her and me.’
Finding the difference becomes a recurrent figure for the book’s ‘operationalizing’ of divorce. In the third entry, Fathering, a son is sent home from school bearing two drawings of an everyday domestic scene, ‘identical except for six things… could he find all six?’ When only five are found the problem prolongs itself, taking on a tone that’s half-farce, half-nightmare. Father and son resort to ever more desperate measures together, straining their eyes to tease out the remaining discrepancy. In the end, it’s the wife who provides the solution, or dissolution, that captures divorce at its abstract core:
‘In the one on the left, it looks like the phone is just about to ring. But why should I always be the one calling?’
Fathering describes what a sociologist would call the ‘disembedding’ of a nuclear family; the way it lets itself get excavated, emptied out across an alien context. Here the family’s separation, or self-differentiation, takes place along several vectors: schooling and adultery are the two most obvious, but both branch off into fractal patterns; ever subtler gestures of estrangement. What matters most is that family and society seem to be structured by grammar, in the same way that sentences are. Divorce cuts through life and language alike, all at once, and at the same angle.
Another tool for slicing up what one of Lutz’s anti-characters calls ‘that baleful preposition with’ is to split a human body into singly fetishized sites, or partial objects. The intention here is to leave a person ‘suddenly pieced, unseeable as a heinous human whole’. Indeed, the bodily whole is habitually shunned by Lutz’s skulking narrators, who wheedle out ways of distracting us from it by focusing in on its less wholesome elements: a stray pubic hair; a scar; uneven teeth; a cheap tattoo. In this way a body is broken up, divorced from itself, parcelled into discrete morphemic units. A related technique involves the withholding of people’s names, in favour of a finicky detailing of those names’ phonetic properties (one is ‘richly hyphenous’; another ‘broke itself out of the alphabet… queered the mouth that pronounced it’). Here we enter the territory that Lutz has made so notably his own: the severance of a word or phrase from what we thought we knew of its semantics. Readers looking for Lutz’s now familiar brand of defamiliarization will not be disappointed by Divorcer, which yields, among other arresting examples, the following:
‘Couple… had for ages also meant “not necessarily two but a quantity constituting more than one and as many as a few.”’
‘Mrs., pronounced misses, to be construed as the conjugation meaning suffers the absence of.’
‘She had taken “brush with death” to mean “apply death smoothly and gently to your life.”’
‘If I say that we had sex, all I mean is that we possessed it one at a time while the other of us had to make do without.’
‘It is said, isn’t it, that you “make” love because it’s otherwise not really there?’
For theory-inclined critics, there’s a readymade rhetoric that tempts one to try to make sense of what a book like Divorcer wants from its words. Roland Barthes writes, in A Lover’s Discourse, about ‘touching’ language as if it were a ‘skin’, a fleshed out, eroticized surface with ‘words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of words’. But Lutz’s language makes such theories seem naively utopian. In Lutz, if something’s pressed against the nerves of a word, you can be sure it’s pursuing a much more questionable pleasure: a wayward taste or touch. These words aren’t served up for Epicurean textual enjoyment. They’re there to be interfered with; not so much savoured as guiltily binged and purged.
At one point, the narrator of Womanesque complains that words and feelings are forever being ‘fished out’ of themselves, or else unearthed from each other. I remember reading a news story once about mismade children’s toys that turned out to be stuffed full of needles, or soiled bandages or suchlike. This is more like what happens to words in Lutz; something perverse or unnerving gets conjured out of their innards, and doesn’t stop coming. Soon enough you can’t move for it.
What’s more, if Divorcer’s divorces suggest a generalized grammar, they may also add up to something like a mythology, or a symbology of divorce. Hence, each entry is threaded through with the same few archetypal moments: a lost lover packing his or her reclaimed belongings; the filing of taxes; the return of wedding presents ‘by the cheapest of mail’. Some stories sketch out uneasy ceremonies; there are, needless to say, ‘no rings, no bouquets.’ Another repeated pattern sees the parting partner’s personal effects, their wreckage, arranged and rearranged in their remembrance. The narrator of The Driving Dress, a husband who diets to fit into his second ex-wife’s clothes, notes that divorce is not the opposite of marriage, but of wedding: ‘what comes after divorce isn’t more and more of the divorce.’ But something in the guts of Lutz’s book implies otherwise: some redistributive urge that can’t help but go on ceaselessly sorting husbands from wives, wives from husbands, dressing each up as what’s left of the other. Understood in these terms, even the merest reshufflings are shot through with degrees of divorce:
‘To be sure, my wife left me those three times as practice, as exercise, and once in a demure, evermore sort of way that didn’t stick, and there was the time we went our separate ways but in intimate parallel, shoulder to shoulder and still under the same roof, and the time she put her things in storage by picking up each thing in the room where it lay and then setting it down again in the very same place, but with the understanding that it was merely stashed away there now, in holding for some later date.’
For all that, Divorcer is a book that deserves to be read with delicacy, and I can’t say for sure whether anything I’ve said should really be said of it. I want to say more, but can’t, or shouldn’t, about the book’s sorrow; about the frail beauty of bodies badly lived in, or lives intolerably embodied, and of words that sadly fail to span the gaps they’re spun across. It should be enough to say that every sentence briefly brings something true to new expression: some black shape moving underwater.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Winters writes fiction and criticism, and is a co-editor at 3:AM. His blog is called Why Not Burn Books?
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 3rd, 2011.