:: Article

Truth, Force, Composition

By David Winters.

Peru, Gordon Lish, Dalkey Archive, 2013 (E.P. Dutton, 1986)

Peru is true,” insists Gordon Lish in the introduction to this new edition of his masterpiece: “all too grievously true.” But empirical truth is irrelevant; the book achieves truth on terms of its own. Whether novels secrete a residual effet de réel (Barthes) or deploy the device of a false document (Swift, Defoe) they are defined by their formalisation of the force of truth; its rhetorical pressure, not its propositional content. As with wish-fulfilment, a book like Peru makes a bid to become true, in opposition to life, which is anyway worthless. Such a book is a black box, an object at odds with the world around it. Thus Peru’s truth lies not in its correspondence to reality, but in its consistency with itself. And this kind of consistency (a quality which Lish has called “consecution”) is what allows an artwork to stand alone, asserting its agṓn against all that is. Art authorises the impossible, and artistic truths are of the order of miracles.

For this reason, if Peru represents a “confession,” it is one carried out not in content (confessionalism as a literary genre) but in incantatory form: a performative speech-act addressed to God. The story’s specifics therefore matter less than the statement from which they stem: “there is nothing I will not tell you if I can think of it.” The thoughts that follow accrue truth through their telling. Gordon, 50, father and husband, catches a news clip of convicts fighting with knives under gunfire from guards. The struggle occurs, he later learns, on the roof of a prison in Peru. Subsequently, rushing his son to a bus bound for summer camp, he is struck on the head by the trunk lid of a taxi. Blunt force trauma triggers traumatic memory: reeling and bleeding, Gordon recalls how, aged six, he savagely killed an acquaintance while playing in a neighbour’s sandbox.

The act is portrayed with an objective coldness, which Peru’s early reviewers read in terms of narratorial psychopathology. Yet depth psychology is superfluous; personae in books are merely arrangements of surfaces, much like us. Peru’s apparent brutality results not from some folk-psychological category error, but only from art’s overriding imperative to present—to “make you see” (Conrad), to “incarnate the abstraction” (Pound on James), or to “characterise…an overall total experience” (Lish in Peru). Hence, “you have to imagine dents,” declares Gordon, urging us to envisage the murder: “like a trench—in his hair, in his head. Whereas with his face, it was more like a peach pit with some of the peach still left stuck to it.” The detail with which Lish describes the damage done to Steven Adinoff’s head by Gordon’s toy hoe—and even his callous play on Steven’s speech impediment (“nyou nyidn’t nyave nyoo nyill nyee!”) are crucial corollaries of the book’s pledge to tell all that is thought. Consistency of composition is extra-moral, beyond good and evil. In this respect, Peru proves Shklovsky’s dictum that “art is pitiless.” The final sentence of this passage, for instance, provides the sole reason for those that precede it:

I would have heard it if there had been screams. I heard the water sizzle. I heard the rubber bands. I saw everything—the big white buttons Steven Adinoff had, the blood which got on them, the dents in his hair, the dents which the hoe made in Steven Adinoff’s hair, the way the hoe bent Steven Adinoff’s hair down into them and how it stayed down there in the dents, got stuck there in them. Nothing is not seen, nothing is not heard.

Violence in Peru is compulsively visual—indeed, voyeuristic. Lish’s writing reflects a perceptual reflex; the narrative eye reacts as we would to graphic war footage, or to the car crash we want to but can’t look away from. When broken bodies open up to perception, injury yields ostranenie; the world’s deep structure disrupts our sensoria. In this sense, visions of violence can be visionary; ecstatic. From Gordon’s perspective, Adinoff appears to enjoy his death, as do the prisoners in Peru. Perhaps TV screen and sandbox alike are “evental sites,” as per Badiou—states of affairs which transform our access to truth:

Steven Adinoff knew the deepest thing of all, just like we all would probably prove we do if we suddenly ended up in the same setup as he did with me—plus as those men did with each other in Peru on the roof.

Within the world of the book, the word “Peru” points to a place of primordial wonder and horror, in which killing is innocently consensual, even erotic. Lish localises this liminal state in the sandbox, which we, eyes held open, are forced to behold. But the physical body is inside the soul, not vice versa; the sandbox itself is merely a memory, mediated by the mystery of infancy. This mystery is the true nucleus of Peru, a work which recounts what Nietzsche once called “the seriousness one had as a child at play”—or as Lish has lately put it, “homo ludens submitting himself… to the impressive sovereignty of his nature.”

Gordon at six is an alien entity, as we all were at that age. His amorphous mind is immersed in magical thinking. His reason for killing his rival arises from “rhyme,” and specifically his fantasy that he can “rhyme every word there is”—starting, in the sandbox, with the word “hoe.” The results approach religious glossolalia, and are the closest, he claims, “you ever get to feel to the fact that you yourself are God.” As an adult, watching two Peruvian prisoners bleed to death by an airduct, he likewise imagines that “maybe one of them in his mind was going like this… airduct, airduck, airluck, chairlug.” Here it becomes clear that the concept of rhyme, with its etymological root of “series” or “sequence,” is continuous with Lish’s credo of “consecution.” And Peru implicitly posits this principle—the practice of creation as recursion—not as an arbitrary artistic technique, but as a force of nature. For Lish, poïesis is intensely linked to instinct, just as it is for his key critical influences, Julia Kristeva and Harold Bloom. As spoken in the sandbox, and by the prisoners on the rooftop, poetic language is derived from a prior grammar of drives, of killing and dying and rising again—it is, as put in Peru, “the language of Peru.

Peru itself is structured in strict accordance with this grammar; as always with Lish, a book is an object built up brick by brick. The section titles signal this explicitly: Peru is presented not as a novel but as a “property,” split into a “cellar” and “roof.” The book’s building blocks could even be parsed into classes. Firstly, objects, or fetishes: this class would include all humans and animals (there are no “subjects” in Peru, apart from the formal subjectivity of the work, which subsumes its contents) as well as recurring keywords such as “hoe,” “shoe,” “buick,” “gossamer,” “rake,” “sandbox” and so on. Secondly, sense-impressions: the sound of sprinklers spraying the lawns; the heat of the sidewalk; “the smell of citronella.” And then there is the associational logic that yokes these components together. Here, as in psychoanalysis, there is no such thing as “free” association. When the description “wet and pink-looking” proliferates across Adinoff’s harelip, a girl’s genitals (glimpsed during a game of “show me yours”) and a disfigured foot, the chain is tightly constrained by consecution—or what we might call, with Gordon, “rhyme,” by which “I don’t mean rhymes as we in general mean them. What I mean is like with like.”

Linking like with like means weaving a world; so while some readers would regard Peru’s narrator as solipsistic, the truth of his situation is that he is God. “I was just like God was,” Gordon recalls, since “I was the one who had to watch things for people, who had to see things… if I didn’t then it wouldn’t be.” For Lish as for Berkeley and Beckett, esse est percipi, and worlds and artworks alike require relentless attention. Gordon again: “when I was six, I thought that I had to keep everything, but everything, in my mind…to keep it all going.” These echoes of Beckett become more precise if Peru is compared to the latter’s late novella, Ill Seen Ill Said. In each, a deliberately limited lexical pool provides the “atoms” of a textual world—as it were, the grains of sand in the sandbox. These are then combined and recombined, raked over and over, in a recursive process whereby an artwork emerges from chaos into composition. In this way, the work is revealed as a world of its own; one whose language is its limit.

Accordingly, we cannot comprehend Lish’s contribution to literature without an awareness that composition cuts across ontology, not only aesthetics. For example, Jason Lucarelli has expertly essayed “consecution” as a writerly toolkit. But a more complete reconstruction of this concept would call for the following thought: consecution may be less a methodology than a metaphysic; a miraculating agent; an instance of spirit or pneuma submerged in the world. In Lucretius, the force of composition is described as a clinamen—our world is born from a “swerving” of atoms in their fall from heaven. Such is the purpose served by Peru’s perpetual swerving, rhyming and recursion. Each consecutive swerve steps closer toward a total curvature, an arc that delimits the work as a world apart. Peru is a paradigm of the artwork as a formally closed system. Hence, what has been called “consecution” is not a matter of mere wordplay; it is the way in which such a system defines its horizon.

What lies inside the horizon imposed by a hyperdense work of art? Peru’s consecutional poetry draws and then redraws a graph which is populated with more points at each pass. In so doing, it mirrors the temporal structure of traumatic memory—circling back on each of its objects again and again, in an eternal return of the same. This obsessive pressure, which the narrator declares has “turned me looking rearward for keeps,” has rightly been likened to Thomas Bernhard’s urge to “go back over everything.” In books by both of these authors, every event that occurs lasts as long as language is in motion: a text could be cut open at any point and disclose the same set of objects and forces; the same composition. But Bernhard’s fractal consecution differs from that of Lish, in that the latter exactingly brackets out “culture,” at least at the level of external reference.

For my part, I would side with an even more forceful extinction, in which each work of art is newly tasked with eradicating the existing tradition. Consistency overcomes history, exposing not a contingent set of experiences, but what Ashbery has called “the experience of experience”—or, as in Peru’s epigraph, attributed to Agamben, “the memory of memory itself.” When such revolutions are reached within works of art, they only endure in the time opened up by the work—briefly, but in that briefness forever. So, in poetry as in Peru, “the way you felt when you were six is the way you still feel now… it is always suffocating, the weather is always August.”

David Winters is a literary critic and theorist, and a co-editor at 3:AM. He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Radical Philosophy and others. Links to his work are collected at Why Not Burn BooksTwitter: @davidcwinters.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 7th, 2013.