Going Crazy With Pencil and Paper : MOURNER AT THE DOOR Stories<i> by Gordon Lish (Viking: $16.95; 162 pp.) </i>
By all evidence, Gordon Lish is a remarkable person. He is better known as an editor than as a fiction writer. For a number of years, he was the fiction editor of Esquire; more recently he has been an editor at Alfred A. Knopf and the founder and editor of The Quarterly, a magazine which has sought to bring the work of younger, often experimental American writers to the attention of a wider public. He has taught in various universities, and was at one time the director of linguistic studies at a research laboratory. As if this weren’t enough, he is the author of two novels and a previous volume of stories, “What I Know So Far.”
The first sentence of the first story in this present book is, “I wanted to be amazing.” It is about a boy’s summer experience in camp, but Lish writes it with a heartfelt emphasis; there can be no doubt that it is a wish he shares with his character. In fact, his talent is a special one. His fiction has a keen transparency to it, the polished surface of a simple and perfectly designed machine, yet one with something slightly fey or odd to it. Some of these pieces are not stories at all; they are just collections of clever language. But they are very clever. He is good at monologues, and in “Mourner at the Door,” it becomes clear that his real specialty is something he himself invented, the obsessive monologue of cliches addressed to a silent listener. “The Merry Chase” consists of seven pages of stereotyped formulas for putting people down. It ends, “You think I am talking just to hear myself talk?” “Spell Bereavement” is a variation on the technique; the narrator’s sister and mother alternate on the telephone, upbraiding him for not feeling anything for his father’s death and brow-beating him about coming home for the funeral. He doesn’t speak a word. At the end, it turns out that the reason for his silence is that he is “going crazy with a pencil and paper,” getting down all these wonderful insults to put them in a story.
These pieces are not for the lazy or slow reader; they are in a kind of telegraphese, an intricate and repetitive post-modern style located somewhere near the intersection of Gertrude Stein and Donald Barthelme. One consists almost entirely of women’s names, culminating with that of his own wife, and another of place-names from an atlas, including several sites of Nazi death camps. They are not exactly suitable for your old Aunt Harriet; one of them is entirely about vomiting, and another about excretion, although Lish doesn’t call it that. There is a smart-aleck, know-it-all quality about all of them that you can find amusing or annoying, according to your taste. “Behold the Incredible Revenge of the Shifted P.O.V.” is a long ramble about a grandmother clock, and it shifts point of view at the end, thus the title. If you haven’t been hanging around writing schools, you don’t know that P.O.V. is shorthand for point of view. You may not even know what point of view means; so much the worse for you. Lish gives you no help at all, and he seems to delight in your discomfort. In short, he puts you down.
While you are still staggering, or annoyed, you come to “Fish Story,” a fish story in which the narrator tells you how, as a boy, he caught 12 fish with a fence picket, a length of Venetian blind cord, and no hook. Then he smirks, “He’ll bite on any fool thing, your silly blowfish will. But so for that matter, will your friendly reader--hook, line and sinker. I mean, since it is all the same in the end, and if it is all the same to you, give me human nature every time--and the equally hideous fishing of men.” Is he comparing himself to Jesus? No, probably he means just that he is a clever writer.
It’s impossible to give the full effect of these pieces by quoting short fragments of them, because they depend for their effect on the very weight and monotony of iteration. This is a style that Lish experimented with in his 1984 collection, “What I Know So Far,” and in this book, he brings it to a high and refined pitch. “Mourner at the Door” has a beautiful unity of style, 27 stories in the same mode, with slight variations as though they were a musical composition; it is more like the “Goldberg Variations” than it is like the latest rock album. The jacket copy suggests that after reading it, the reader will “know why it is that Gordon Lish has so powerfully and indelibly entered the literary history of this century.” That’s a little strong, but it can be said that he certainly does not write like an editor. He writes like a writer who has trouble with editors, who want to change his writing all around and make it more normal and grammatical and less personal than it is. Luckily, Lish has enough clout in the publishing world so they can’t do that to him.