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An Interview Without Gordon Lish

By Carrie Cooperider.

Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances, always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event. It has no favored material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into material for its own use. It is like a fire mastering whatever falls into it. A small flame would be extinguished but a bright fire rapidly claims as its own all that is heaped on it, devours it all, and leaps up yet higher in consequence.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4:1

On August 16, 2017, I met with the writer Gordon Lish to speak with him about his book, White Plains: Pieces and Witherlings. We sat in Drug Loft, a pharmacy near his apartment, on seats usually reserved for customers waiting for their prescriptions to be filled. It was he, mostly, who spoke, as I held the recording device that preserved not only our words, but murmurous exchanges between clients and clerks, the ringing of the phone, and the ding-dong of the door’s bell each time it was opened. That bell’s particular musical interval, a falling minor third—the one you no doubt heard as you read “ding-dong”—is the same as the familiar and universal childhood taunt: “nyah, nyah!” The pharmacy, with its burblings and balms, provided an apt sonic back-drop for a chat about a book whose stories are a catalogue of the noises people make at one another in an attempt to find communion, while also documenting the author’s hard-won credentials of old age.

Gordon had first suggested a café, Champignon, across the street from Drug Loft, and I arrived a bit before our appointment, expecting that he might already be there. To my surprise, I had a wait: he was merely on time, although he has often spoken of, and demonstrated, his need to be “aggressively” early. In his story “Make Night: Heidegger,” Lish blames words as well as individuals for being guilty of tardiness, writing, “… I despise those who fail to surrender themselves as slaves to the punctual; may this sentiment not be extended to words?”  In his terms, Gordon was late, but the man was ailing; I knew that. A bad cold, or maybe flu, had made him postpone the interview for a day, and although I had suggested putting it off further upon hearing his congested voice on the phone, Gordon insisted. Perhaps he just wanted it over with, and his being merely on time was an indication of his misgivings, but having committed ourselves, we pushed ahead. I remembered a lecture Gordon gave at Columbia when he was deeply under the weather, but adamant to fulfill his responsibility. I suppose that a lifetime of ailments, such as Gordon has had, conditions one to carry on no matter what, since waiting to feel better may mean a life full of waiting, to the exclusion of much else.

When he arrived, we agreed that Champignon was too noisy and left for “the yogurt place” Gordon thought of as an alternative, to see if it might be suitable. It wasn’t; through the plate glass storefront we could see the raucous assembly of spoon clackers and loud talkers. “Let’s try the pharmacy,” Gordon said, and we set off across the street.

What was he wearing? you want to know. I don’t remember. The usual Lishian mufti, I suppose: bewaxed and tattered khaki, as has been elsewhere advertised and photographed. Those boots, ditto. Was he wearing a hat? Oh, great question! Because of course a hat has also been elsewhere reported and described. But no, I don’t recall him searching for a place to put a hat once we reached our destination, so I’m saying no; no hat. Do you really need to know these inconsequential details, the ‘so on and so forths’ of the story? In “Make Night: Heidegger” Lish writes: “…The boy…lures into the basement a girl. Well, they (the boy and girl, as to age?—I don’t know—make it ‘that’ age, okay?)—like just about making it to that stage of ‘things’ when, okay—you ‘know’, you can work this out for yourself, the matter of age-wise and so on and so forth. Enough, as the poet said, says.”

But you want details. So: me, you wouldn’t have noticed as our cortège of two slowly forded the cross-currented avenue separating us from our destination, except, maybe, as an odd appendage to the “old man”—that person, had you not recognized him as Gordon Lish, whom you would have probably dismissed as an old man—with longish white hair (tied back, perhaps?), dressed in tan scruffment, and doddering, toddling, teetering his feverish, arthritic way across Park Avenue. Ah, yes—you see her now; that’s me—a woman much shorter than the man who has often commented on his lack of physical stature; a not-young, unexceptional-looking woman with dark hair, wondering, were I to take the old guy’s elbow, if it would be an offensive commandeering or a welcome help. In any case, we arrive, and once safely inside the pharmacy, permission is kindly given to loiter, and an adjustment graciously made to the volume level of the television set that is tuned to the disasters of the day. Gordon gets the “good” chair, with the arms, and the two seats we occupy are angled toward one another.  People come and go: Ding-dong! Ding-dong!

If they perceive us at all, it is because we have occupied those chairs; the absence of seating is what the customers of Drug Loft notice on this August morning, not the presence of two interlocutors hard at the business of false starts, misunderstandings, and evasions. Sure, there’s a third chair, but it’s too close to the two people deep in conversation. The three’s-a-crowd chair remains empty until we leave some two hours later.

You may be wondering what reckless spasm of egotism made me ask Gordon Lish if I could speak with him about White Plains: Pieces & Witherlings. I am one of the hundreds—or, more likely, thousands—of his former students, and so, for a time, had a front-row seat to the exponderances and seedling fruiticles of Gordon’s mind as he stood before us executing his astonishing performance, every atom of the man determined to turn us into better writers. An aside: “fruiticle” is a Lish neologism I stole from “Invocation” in White Plains, proving that Lish is correct when he suspects, in another story, “Manifesto,” that “…the whole filthy rotten stinking gang of them have got nothing better for them to do but prepare themselves for their next fat chance to lift my terrific shit from me….” And Lish admits in “Make Night: Heidegger” that he in turn is “…stealing from the kidlinks, taking from the kidlach…” and getting “tasty words” from, for example, James Kelman or Joy Williams.

In addition to those Lishian fruiticles that had taken root, I had read Gordon’s work with enough attention to see—his frequent dismissals of his writing as mere noodlings aside—that his books were worth close consideration. “I am not a writer,” says Lish on his note to the reader that appears on the back cover of White Plains. “I don’t take myself seriously as a writer,” he tells David Winters in “An Interview with Gordon Lish,” in Critical Quarterly. I wasn’t buying it.

I also noted, in a book published before White Plains by another independent press, a number of errors, caused, no doubt, by the chronic shortage of staff in small publishing houses, and a general unwillingness to second-guess Gordon Lish. I offered to proofread White Plains so that it might actually be as its author intended.

Look: the man does not want help. I had to badger Gordon into allowing it—calling, writing, and practically begging until he accepted. But he is not kidding about the alien and alienating infirmities of old age he chronicles in White Plains: as he will tell you, he is increasingly blind and deaf, and psoriatic arthritis so encumbers his fingers that the keyboard’s once-familiar terrain is now an obstacle course, clumsily negotiated in the dark. The dismaying development of these disabilities—oh, you too are likely to find out just how dismaying, how disabling, if you live long enough!—made him acquiesce at last. For my part, it was a pleasure to undertake this task and to have the opportunity to consult with Gordon when I had questions about his text.

Proofreading White Plains meant that I read the book seven or so times; shouldn’t I therefore know it better than most anyone, and wouldn’t that—combined with my credentials as Gordon’s student and close reader—give me license to speak with him about it? I thought so, though I have to admit that there remained—that there remain—in accordance with “Muphry’s Law,” a few mistakes in the published book. Yes, “Muphry’s Law,” spelled (or ‘spelt,’ as Lish would sometimes have it in White Plains) THAT way, m-u-p-h-r-y—which dictates that whenever a proofreader is thanked by the author of a book in its credits, there are bound to be mistakes. The challenge, in White Plains, was that Lish aimed his aspirations to astonishing heights of shenanigannery in orthography, syntax, and voice.

I queried Gordon about a number of passages in White Plains because with so much deliberately wrong in the book, actual mistakes had plenty of places to hide. Many of the intentional errors are framed by the author’s admission that he was unequal to the task of making it right; those mistakes are correct. To point to just one instance, in “Does This Mean Anythugng?” we read, “That laat word, is it spelt right?”  But what about the unresolved parenthetical thoughts lacking end parens? Some of those were cleared up, and others left as evidence of the narrator’s getting lost, “all balled-up.” I corrected the spelling of one person’s name, but left another misspelled as a mark of the author’s disdain for that individual. At times, when I suggested an alternative to some bit that seemed out-of-whack, Gordon would reply, “No, I don’t mind that”; at other times, we would make a change. Some errors were glaringly apparent; others less so. ‘I, Gordon,’ the emphatic narrator of many of his fictions, was not always the same ‘Gordon.’ The vehemence with which Lish insists upon naming his various narrators ‘Gordon’ suggests an anxious gathering-together of a splintered identity, each iteration of whom were prone to different mistakes. They would be in command of syntax or not; disposed at times to British orthography; sometimes inclined to neologisms and clichés; flustered or blustering; and here fastidiously correct, there pretentiously wrong, depending on the voice and character of the particular ‘Gordon.’

Some of the changes we made were subtle adjustments to the way a page or a word looked. With the exception of Latin, we eliminated italics for all non-English words to emphasize, as Lish writes in “Make Night: Heidegger,” “…the grip foreigners have succeeded in seizing with respect to their perpetuating tranches of petty victories in their incessant pursuit of pummeling us into our observing, or knuckling under to, particular shows of ceremonial hospitality to their covert incessance to get more and more, or greater and greater, control of our idiom….”

Because full justification was used in setting the text, there were places where that setting seemed too loose to Gordon. Where that couldn’t be managed by altering a line break, we made small changes in the text, such as, in “Mr. Dictaphone,” turning “round-wise and round-wise” into “round-wise and rounder-wise,” a change Gordon considered an improvement over the original.

Is this uninteresting to you, the report of these fiddlings? Are you beginning to wonder when I will get to the interview, with or without Gordon Lish?

We did talk for nearly two hours in Drug Loft, during most of which time Gordon, hoarse of voice even at the beginning of our enterprise, had his eyes closed to gain relief from the visual bedlam that constitutes the sense of sight for him these days. However, I did try to warn you with the title of this essay, “An Interview without Gordon Lish,” that his voice would be missing in this account. A condition of securing the interview was that Gordon would have the right to veto its publication, and veto it he did.  Nonetheless, in a letter to me dated August 27, 2017, in which he let me know of his decision, Gordon suggested that:

“…the work thus far accrued …might be made into a crackerjack piece for you—namely, a composition signed by yourself, but with you at liberty to use my name and to refer freely to the exchanges, which, at times…got me laughing. What I recommend is that you assemble a piece opening with your introducing the aim to talk with me with a microphone between us and with respect to concerns raised by your reading of WP. That is to say, you’ll continue on into our search for a site where a recording might be made, you remark my coping with a chest cold and the infirmity of age, taking your reader into Drug Loft and into your introduction as it now stands in the transcript, pointing to various highlights in the event (e.g., the “Heidegger” piece, the word own, its superfluity, the conjunct interpersonal psychoanalysis, indicating to your reader how matters went until the draining of voice brought the thing to an end, then taking up your production of a transcript and your creation of a letter suggesting how the transcript might be manipulated, you furnishing the subject with earphones, instructions…and getting, for your trouble, the best (that is, the worst) the old codger could do. You then give the reader to know the senex at hand mounted the diversion, the piece that you are writing is the instantiation of, placing yourself, as you go, in the position of the author of what is lately remarked as a meta-fiction, or what-not.”

There you have it. You’ve been reading my attempt to approximate Gordon’s suggestions as best I can. It isn’t “meta-fiction,” however, or any kind of fiction at all, except that my observations may be false—honest mistakes, to be sure, but nonetheless wrong. I’m worried, though, that you will feel cheated out of hearing the man’s contributions as faithfully captured by the recording device I had with me, so here’s an excerpt, extruded verbatim from that part of our conversation having to do with the resolve of the character ‘Gordon,’ in the story “Begging the Question,” to deny his neighbor, Mrs. Dalsimer, entry to his place as she repeatedly attempts to wangle a glimpse of the bathroom tiles Gordon has had installed in his apartment—and the sympathy of the real-life Gordon Lish with this exclusionary desire:

GL:      Well, it’s very true. Really. I will go to great lengths to keep people out [of my apartment].

CC:      Yes, hence our doing this interview in a pharmacy.

(Ding-dong!)

Here’s another little taste:

GL:      … I was very fussy about this [the visual aspect of a page of text] when acting as an editor. As you know, for many years I made my living as an editor—

CC:      I’ve heard that.

(Ding-dong! Ding-dong!)

Do you begin to understand that in not being privy to our interview you haven’t missed much?

Concerning the superfluity of the word “own,” which subject Gordon asked in his letter that I address here, allow me briefly to explain Gordon’s long and righteous feud concerning its overuse, which I recall hearing about as his student: YOU DON’T NEED IT. Why would you willy-nilly fling about extraneous words that add nothing to your text? I recall Gordon reporting that his friend Don DeLillo (“Don Himself,” as he is referred to in “Make Night: Heidegger”) advocated for its occasional use for emphasis, but Gordon’s position hadn’t softened. In the interview, however, when pressed, he allowed that “To thine own self be true” might contain a rhythmic rightness that outweighed the wrong—still, please, everyone! look long and hard (or short and sharp) at your own use of the word; you will see Gordon’s point. Prefer to make up your own mind on the subject? Of course—but, of whose mind but yours would you be sovereign? As with so many wrongs rubbed to a shiny lustre by common use, it almost defies refute, as Gordon noted at this point in the interview:

GL:      … But really, to say, “She drowned her own son;” what’s wrong with, “She drowned her son”?

CC:      Well, for one thing, it’s illegal.

“Interpersonal psychoanalysis” is another instance of redundancy skewered by Gordon. How else, other than between people, would psychoanalysis be conducted? Isn’t the “interpersonal” nature of psychoanalysis the very exchange whereby it operates? Even if we speak metonymically of “the couch,” we do understand that the person who occupies the couch and the person listening to the person on the couch enact the analysis, not the interior décor.

I think that I have now completed most of my assignment, with the exception of highlighting the “Heidegger” story; I’ve referred to it several times before now in this text, but I’m not sure what aspect of “Make Night: Heidegger” Gordon wanted me to point to. In the course of our Drug Loft conversation, I recapped the story for him when he said he didn’t remember it, reading a bit out loud. Here is a brief synopsis: We are taken on a domestic journey around ‘Gordon’s’ childhood home. We begin in Mother and Father’s bedroom, and are made aware of an ornate and delicate lamp (“…a fine old porcelain handmade in a faraway place”) on Mother’s side of the bed, whose fragility and sinister decoration make young ‘Gordon’ uneasy. From the bedroom, we go to the ‘en-suite toilet,’ which, we are told, lacks a washbasin: “…a builder’s incomprehensible error….” Through the bathroom window, we glimpse a fishpond that is too shallow for the fish in it to survive the freeze of winter. Father decides that they should be all right until the thaw in a tank in the basement, but they all die anyway, causing an ineradicable stench. Stored in the basement also are cartons of Cousin Eugene’s war memorabilia. Then, “…a boy (I, son of Reggie and Phil) lures into the basement a girl…” promising to show her Cousin Eugene’s stuff. ‘Gordon’ asks her if she isn’t “… pretty plenty scared” of these mementos of war, and she agrees that they’re awful. ‘Gordon’s’ pretended worldliness about the horrors of war and death is a cover for his attempt to finagle a feel of the girl’s “heinie,” and both of them cluelessly fumble with fledgling conceptions of sexuality and mortality. (I haven’t conveyed the humor inherent in their situation that Lish makes evident; for that, you will have to read the story.)

The manner of its telling, however, is more significant than either its plot or characters. “Make Night: Heidegger” begins in failure. “What I meant to do,” Lish writes in his inaugural sentence, “was first to fasten your attention on the base of the lamp that stood on my mother’s (Mother’s) night table.” He’s telling the reader what he might have done had conditions been more favorable, but either his will or his circumstances have let him down. And yet: he has first fastened our attention on the lamp.

My attention wanders, however, as it always does when I read, and in the coming paragraphs I will describe some of the excursions I made as I read “Make Night: Heidegger.” Feel free to skip ahead: I’m going to talk about a painter whose work is unknown to Lish—and perhaps of no interest to you—and I will posit a connection between Lish’s writing and some thoughts of Giorgio Agamben, a philosopher he often cites. Then, there will be some discussion of Martin Heidegger, and “thing theory,” and more about the story “Make Night: Heidegger.” You can meet up with me at the final paragraph or just quietly leave altogether if this threatens to bore you or if you find digression annoying.

The conditional nature of a work of art voiced in Lish’s regret—what he meant to do—is known to anyone who creates: very rarely are we not beset with contingencies, interruptions, and limitations that prevent untrammeled expression of our original intent. If we’re very lucky, the ‘something else’ that happens instead is an improvement over what we imagined we would make. Lish’s direct expression of that provisional aspect of art reminded me of a painting by the Argentine artist León Ferrari, titled Cuadro escrito [Written Painting], 1964. In looping calligraphy that expands and contracts to form textual strata of varied densities across the page it covers, Cuadro escrito describes a potential painting, the one Ferrari might have made “Si yo supiera pintar [If I knew how to paint]…” As with Lish, the action of proclaiming the intended work of art as already lost before it’s begun causes its appearance. In another of Ferrari’s works, his 1963 Letter to a General, individual words are decipherable—“general,” for instance—but the text retains an encrypted quality. Living in an oppressive regime, the threat of censorship was real for Ferrari, but evasion wasn’t his primary aim. “What I did,” Ferrari said in a video made on the occasion of an exhibition of his work at the University of Essex in 2002 called the Architecture of Madness, “was an imitation of a letter, or a hidden letter, which might make one wonder, ‘Does this mean something or not?’” In Lish’s story “Does This Mean Anythugng?”, failing eyesight and arthritic fingers cause a proliferation of typos that nearly make the text unintelligible. Both men are engaged, through their art, with philosophical questions: how do we construct meaning? What are the dynamics of poiesis and praxis in a work of art?

Lish makes the facture of his story integral to its telling in “Make Night: Heidegger,” clouding the boundaries between poiesis and praxis. Speaking about those two branches of human activity in his book The Man Without Content­, Giorgio Agamben writes that in Western cultural tradition, the clear difference made by the Greeks between “…poiesis (poiein, ‘to pro-duce’ in the sense of bringing into being) and praxis (prattein, ‘to do’ in the sense of acting)” has been erased, and that “…all attempts to transcend aesthetics and to give a new status to artistic pro-duction have started from the blurring of the distinction between poiesis and praxis, that is, from the interpretation of art as a mode of praxis and of praxis as the expression of a will and a creative force.” Agamben explains further:

“The central experience of poiesis, pro-duction into presence, is replaced by the question of the ‘how,’ that is, of the process through which the object has been produced. In terms of the work of art, this means that the emphasis shifts away from what the Greeks considered the essence of the work—the fact that in it something passed from non-being into being, thus opening the space of truth (aletheia) and building a world for man’s dwelling on earth—and to the operari of the artist, that is, to the creative genius and the particular characteristics of the creative process in which it finds expression.”

By narrating his writerly process in “Make Night: Heidegger,” Lish makes that process as much the subject of the story as the events and characters.  He searches for the right word or phrase on the page as if giving a live performance of writing. As he proceeds—or, more accurately, as he sidesteps and stalls—he reports that “…words like ferrier, and so on, come to mind, etc., etc.)” or that the figures on the lamp are “…a little too lively perhaps, unsettling, sure, I can live with that….” imbuing one’s reading of the text with an as-it-happens, no-going-back immediacy of watching the writer as he works. Regarding a carpet covering the floor of his parents’ bedroom, Lish tells us,

“I happen to prefer the expression just developing in my consideration of the tableau, ‘baseboard to baseboard’. But will stick to (keep to) ‘wall to wall’ by reason of the latter utterance arriving belatedly, so, you know, too pitiably bad for it, for tardiness, okay?”

Lish can imagine the reader’s impatience with his on-the-record stammerings, digressions, revisions, and superfluities. He writes, “Sure, sure, I get it—where’s the progress, has there been a progress, a progression, one shred (shred?) of anything getting anywhere?” There is an echo of Hamm, in Beckett’s Endgame, who “gets on” with his story, but “not very far,” as he is reluctant to arrive at its conclusion. “Will it not soon be the end?” Clov asks, and Hamm says, “I’m afraid it will.” The idea that a story should go somewhere is a sticky one, well-adhered to most writers’ and readers’ basic expectations of narrative, but since our ultimate human destination is death, Lish is in no more hurry than Hamm to get to its terminus. In “Unstory”—which Lish tells us is “…not a story [but]…a listicle of statements uttered consecutively by two persons”—we have the following exchange:

“I thought the idea of speech was to get something said.”

“There’s where you’re wrong.”

“You’re certainly not saying the proper aim is to get lost.”

“That’s what I’m saying, yes.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Wrong again. God gave man speech to give him the means to get himself lost. Whereas you stay on track, you run smack into death.”

The theme and variations of getting lost—the disappearance of familiar landmarks and objects, the death of loved ones and cronies, the erosion of language, shifting customs, failing abilities—are played out and mourned in White Plains. An ubi sunt plangency permeates many of these stories as Lish records a world that is already gone or fizzing out as he tries to recollect it on the page. In “At Table: A Recessional,” his words gesture toward the loss of that world but are inadequate to describe it: “Oh, let me tell you something,” he writes, “—no kidding, let me tell you—oh, when it was all of us who lived!” The subtitle of this collection, Pieces and Witherlings, suggests fragmentation and loss, and White Plains is a compensatory re-collection of bits and pieces of a life.

Both lifelong and temporary influences on Lish’s deployment of language crop up throughout the book to be collected there, the most recent being Britishisms picked up through his association with White Plains’ publisher in Great Britain, Little Island Press, and the most durable being that primal, Yiddish-inflected idiolect of family and tribal speech that Lish notably employs in “At Table: A Recessional.” That story is an account of the Lish household’s family romance: Philip “Acropolis” Lish is the patriarch in whose temple the gods dwell; Reggie “Electrolux” Lish is the matriarch whose middle name—a vacuum cleaner brand that draws on Latinate roots for an aura of long tradition—situates her in a domestic Roman Empire where she reigns; Natalie “Staircase” Lish, ‘Gordon’s’ sister, is a liminal figure who hovers between the landings of childhood and adulthood in this narrative’s moment; and the youngest member of those assembled at the “sanctum sanctorum of the dinner table,” Gordon “Cartilege” Lish, is a mere lad whose soft, unformed tissue is not yet hardened to bone.

All are regarded and remembered, along with the rest of the family, as Lish records the rhythms and syntax of the familial argot they spoke at home. The simple melody of the admonishment to ‘Gordon,’ “Be glad you got what to eat,” uttered by Father at the story’s beginning, is improvised upon and embellished by the senior members of the Lish family as they take turns cajoling young ‘Gordon’ to eat, until the rebuke becomes comically baroque. In an elaboration of his first reprimand, Lish pater invokes God and enumerates the ways in which his son is an ungrateful, spoiled, good-for-nothing, possibly mentally unbalanced boy with a superiority complex because he refuses to eat the calf’s liver “brought by tumbrel to table with its entire repertoire of veins raging inhumanely in it.” His sister says, “…I, your sister, am begging you will you please before we all plotz learn what it means for a member of this family to grow up for their mother and father’s benefit and get up off the floor and eat what’s on your plate and which is going to waste when people you haven’t even studied in school yet are starving and dying for lack of decent nourishment.”

In addition to this formative familial language, “foreign” words and phrases, clichés, and vernacular syntax form accretions on the page, with language arriving, like a miles-wide raft of plastic adrift on the ocean, from all shores. White Plains also acts as a word-hoard, with an anxiously gathered lexicon shepherded into its pages:

“I’m absolutely convinced I had the word ‘compline’ in the original version of this…” (“Invocation”)

“…[I] would be particularly felicitated if I could just get us all to hang around for a sec while I see to it, at this late stage of the game, that I get the word asseveration incorporated somewhere in this book…” (“At Table: A Recessional”)

“That’s it. There! I’ve done it! Said ‘eidolon.’ Rescued the word from the fate of the unsaid.” (“The Deed”).

Lish gathers writers and thinkers, too, in this book. Most, but not all, are included as a mark of high regard. He cites Cormac McCarthy in White Plains’ dedication, and Heidegger, Agamben, DeLillo, Harold Bloom, and Joy Williams, among others, are preserved in this collection. Williams, along with Elaine Scarry and Wallace Stevens, are quoted in epigraphs to the book, and the cartoonist Wayne Hogan provides a visual epigraph with his drawing of “The 12 Signs of Old Age”, a pun depicting a grid of 12 staked signs with “Old Age” written on them. T.S. Eliot is directly and indirectly quoted so often that I wondered if Lish had been re-reading the poet while writing White Plains: one story is titled “Up the White Road,” Eliot’s “I can hear the mermaids singing…” is quoted in “Joke-Time or That Other Word, Jape,” and “…the guy in the poem who’s leaning out of the window in his shirtsleeves…” appears in “Jelly Apple.”

Perhaps it’s only because I know that Lish admires James Joyce’s short story “Araby” (not that he wouldn’t make some edits to it) that I sense its ghost in “Jelly Apple.” As happens in “Araby,” in “Jelly Apple” a boy goes to a fair where only disillusionment awaits. Joyce’s unnamed protagonist recounts a specific remembered period in his adolescence, but Lish’s ‘Gordon’ ages during the course of “Jelly Apple;” he’s young enough at the story’s start for a dripping ice cream cone, its mess ministered to by female chaperones, to be a source of deep dismay and humiliation, and old enough at its end to have suffered the more profound injustice of the long bereavement of his wife in a cruelly protracted illness. Joyce was in his early twenties when he wrote Araby; Lish, in his eighties as he wrote “Jelly Apple,” and it’s as though the older writer is saying to the younger: Just wait – it gets worse.

The title of Leslie Fiedler’s No! in Thunder appears as a bit of dialogue in “My Napkin, it Fell.” The idea of refusing what is prior, both in what one has written and what one’s predecessors have created, is of central importance to Lish, as he has often noted. Fiedler says that “…the writer cannot afford to lose for an instant his sense of himself in opposition to the world….” It could be argued that Fiedler’s “Hard No” “…spoken when the writer seems a traitor to those whom he loves…” is echoed in Barbara Lish’s defiant “NO” in “Jelly Apple,” spelled out on the letterboard she uses after illness has robbed her of speech, a no that refuses the ministrations of others: “No! No concession granted, no easement entertained, the answer is no, goddamn it to hell, no this for that, no trade-off, no deal!” Fiedler’s “Hard No” has a correspondence with Harold Bloom’s theory of poetry, elaborated in The Anxiety of Influence—a book Lish often referred to in class—that traces the ways in which poets “clear imaginative space for themselves” through a creative refutation of their precursors, using a deliberate, and necessary, misconstruction of influential work as a springboard to proceed on a different trajectory.

Those of Lish’s literary and philosophical precursors and contemporaries who are “at table” with Lish throughout White Plains offer, along with their insights, quarrels and contradictions. In his interview with literary critic and Lish biographer David Winters, Lish said, “If I read a philosopher, and he’s not interested in what I’m interested in, I’ll revise what he’s said, and bend it to my uses…. If I were reading Schopenhauer, I would have to bend it and change it, to make it come out my way.”

That raises the question of how—or if—Lish has bent Heidegger to “come out his way” in “Make Night: Heidegger,” the story Lish assigned me in the letter I quoted earlier, so let’s return to that story to see what else may be discerned there. The first sentence suggests that “things” are the real protagonists here, and that the lamp, the conditional artifact we are told about in the beginning, is central. “Thing” is a word that Lish often hot-pockets between quotation marks in White Plains. His setting apart of that word is both a warning against our lazy capitulation to the indistinct white noise of “thing” that makes meaning indistinct, and an indication of the special status of the word “thing” as a gathering-point for some of philosophy’s concerns.

The lamp is already inferred in the story’s title: “Make night” is a phrase from the familial ideolect of Lish’s childhood, a phrase coined by his father to signal “lights out.” The lamp will be turned off, waiting—as the third chair in Drug Loft did—for its chance to be useful once more. To Mother, the lamp is an emblem of her aspirations and, perhaps, a nostalgic connection to another place and way of life; I have pictured it as Meissen porcelain, though that may be “wrong.” To ‘Gordon,’ it is an object too likely to be broken by him—thereby not only effecting the destruction of an heirloom cherished by Mother but also a betrayal of his trespass in the parental bedroom—and unsettlingly decorated with menacing, impish figures. These comforts and terrors will both be hidden in darkness while the family sleeps.

The second half of the title, swinging from the hinge of the colon, is the name Heidegger. This connection between the lamp that makes night and that philosopher hints at the reason for Lish’s invocation of him here: to take up Heidegger’s questions about the constitution of the “thingly” character of things—their essence, rather than their qualities—and the distinction to be made between objects and things: for example, a mass-produced item is an object, intelligible and static, but the handmade jug that Heidegger mentions in “The Origin of the Work of Art” is a thing. Things, Heidegger tells us, are revealed through their interdependence with human attitudes and procedures. We see this in operation in “Make Night: Heidegger” where the particularities of the lamp, the fish, and the war memorabilia shift according to the person apprehending them; the ways in which they are encountered.

“Thing theory” is a recently-invented field that explores the philosophical consideration of things: what are things? how do we apprehend them? In his article “Thing Theory and the Appeal of Literature,” the late philosopher Nicholas O. Pagan called Heidegger the grandfather of thing theory, and proposed “…that readers are attracted to literary narratives not just because these narratives are character- or plot-driven but also because they are thing-driven.”

Thing-driven narratives have existed for centuries; the so-called It-narratives of eighteenth-century England followed the adventures and circulation of non-human (but anthropomorphic) characters who commented, through a human amanuensis or editor, on their observation of human affairs, and the genre persisted into the twentieth century.

Marguerite Yourcenar’s A Coin in Nine Hands (1934) is a twentieth-century variation on the It-narrative, though in that novel, the ten-lira coin that passes from hand to hand is not the protagonist of the story but the means by which the novel’s human narrators are brought together. In José Saramago’s story “The Chair” (in The Lives of Things, 1978), the life and death of Portugal’s autocratic prime minister, António de Oliveira Salazar, is no more important than the life and decline of the chair that collapsed beneath him and indirectly caused his death. In the stories of the contemporary American writer Jason Schwartz, people recede even deeper into the wallpaper, as if seen in a Vuillard painting. In Schwartz’s “A Grammar,” from A German Picturesque (1998; reissued in 2017 by Little Island Press), things in a bedroom are seen from a child’s animistic perspective and flicker between a state of simple objecthood and complex thingness.

University of Chicago professor and author Bill Brown, in “Thing Theory,” proposes that “…we look through objects…but we only catch glimpses of things…” and adds that, “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow… has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of changed relation to the human subject…”

I want to look more closely at the “things” in the thing-driven narrative of “Make Night: Heidegger” but I’m afraid that you may still be wondering about that interview, and feeling cheated in getting Cooperider when Lish is far to be preferred. Here’s one last morsel of it, then; but be warned that I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here:

CC:      Were there? Were there times?

GL:      What?

(Ding-dong!

Ding-dong!

Ding-dong!)

Ding an sich: the thing-in-itself; according to Kant, the object as it exists independently of human perception and therefore the “thing” we can’t know. Unlike Kant, however, and like Heidegger, Lish begins with the commonplace objects of our lives, and places those objects within a larger human context.

What can we know about things? Bill Brown’s words about how the thingness of objects becomes manifest when they stop working in the manner intended, or when their routes of circulation cease, is illustrated in “Make Night” where “things” end up relegated to the basement of the Lish household: the doomed goldfish, and Cousin Eugene’s war memorabilia. Even the lamp ends up in the cellar, if only implicitly, through being thought of while the narrator ‘Gordon’ is in the basement where “…we are so far from that lamp with its vicious grinning daimons…”—a negative construction that puts us positively in mind of the lamp again. The fish are dead, the war memorabilia no longer glorify the valor of their owner, and the lamp is already positioned, conditionally, as a relic. But they regain currency, they are renewed, in two ways: in the writer’s recollection and their use in his story, and in the interchange that takes place between ‘Gordon,’ the girl he has enticed to see the war loot, and the “foul, fucky treasures” he has promised her will be revealed. The children are at play in the basement, and employ these things to create a world specific to their situation. To them, discarded, forgotten, and devalued things are the catalyst for invention. Because of their inexperience with the world, they have fewer predetermined interpretations of their perceptions. The odor of the dead fish is mistakenly, but aptly and imaginatively, reassigned to the war memorabilia:  “’…oh my God, the smell of it…it’s so awful, just awful…it’s terrible, my darling Gordon—it stinks!’ ‘Yeah,’ I’d say, ‘it’s death,’ I’d say. ‘That’s death for you, sweetheart…It’s all this thing of this thing of death, you know?’” The use of the phrase “this thing of this thing” is part of the boy’s faux swagger: the word “thing” here refers to that which is dimly perceived and can be spoken of with only the shakiest authority.

The story that began in failure thus ends in failure, but in both instances it is a failure that succeeds. What Lish meant to do, he did. The “things” in the story, though played out and finished in the adult world, gain a new context and re-occupy a position in space and time for the next generation. Lish makes us look at the lamp, and at Heidegger, as was his intention, to consider the conversation or argument Lish might have with him, and he furthered the overall aim of White Plains to preserve something of the author’s life and world.

I have not, in this piece, set out to offer a forensic explanation of White Plains. E.B. White’s famous observation “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process” pertains to a work of literature, too.

(Another one out the Drug Loft door:

Ding-dong!

Nyah, nyah!)

The “nyah” sound as speech impediment appears in a joke in White Plains in the story “Joke Time, or That Other Word, Jape.” It also occurs in Lish’s short story “The Lesson Which Is Sufficient unto the Day Thereof” (“It scared me silly…somebody nyalking nyike nyis”) and notably, it is how hare-lipped Steven Adinoff speaks. Steven Adinoff is the young victim of little ‘Gordon’s’ murderous sandbox rage in Lish’s novel Peru. As Steven perishes, he says to ‘Gordon,’ “Nyou nyidn’t nyave nyoo nyill nyee,”—you didn’t have to kill me.

I hope I didn’t kill White Plains. What I meant to do was to open it up; to accomplish a small feat of disclosure of the work that may be expanded upon by other readers who take the time to meet with its merits and inventions, to be with the author in its pages as he asks. Original, funny, and fearless; a distinctive voice in profound dialogue with literature and philosophy who pummels away at the boundaries of received literary conventions, Gordon Lish is a writer at core—and for every claim that he makes to the contrary, his writing issues a resounding counter-claim.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carrie Cooperider is an artist and writer living in New York City. Her fiction and essays have been published, or are forthcoming, in Egress, NY Tyrant, Antioch Review, The Southampton Review, Ploughshares, Best Small Fictions 2017 guest-edited by Amy Hempel, and elsewhere.

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 9th, 2018.