A World Made of Words

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A World Made of Words

Garielle Lutz is an author who makes at least part of her living writing and editing grammar textbooks. For 25 years she has published, as Gary Lutz, short stories with titles like “Sororally” and “Chaise Lozenge.” Her introduction to the Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference is unusually passionate, for that sort of thing. Her favorite unabridged dictionary is Merriam-Webster’s 1934 New International, and one gets the sense that it is always close at hand, turned to words that had not yet been deemed archaic. In her prose, lines like “As for the daughter: she was a dampered little dispatch already orderly in her dolors” have attracted an ardent audience, which over the years has raised her name into the oxymoronic echelon of “indie giant.” In truth, Lutz is a writer’s writer — and the closest thing to a cult figure in American literature, which, thanks to the top-down consolidation of contemporary publishing, is in desperate need of a little more cultishness.

In 1996, Lutz’s first collection, Stories in the Worst Way, was published at Knopf after being championed by Gordon Lish, the editor often credited with fashioning Raymond Carver’s work into essential American prose. The book was received with awed discomfort, and Lutz has since hewed to small presses without altering her strategy or style. The Complete Gary Lutz was published in 2019 by Tyrant Books, an anthology of five collections as well as some reworked errata from the early years. The next year, Lutz changed her name and pronouns and submitted a further collection of revised early work, under the title of Worsted, to Elizabeth Ellen at Short Flight/Long Drive. Discovering the manuscript in the micro-press’s slush pile, Ellen at first thought Garielle was a Gary Lutz impersonator.

It’s not hard to wonder why. Lutz’s style, though surely difficult to replicate, becomes immediately recognizable after just a few pages. One of the fascinations of her work is its uniformity, and the sense that it was fully wrought and unimprovable from the very first collection. It’s in this sense that Worsted finds its humor as a title, since many of the new stories are updated fragments chopped from Stories in the Worst Way, and seem to have grown outward in the same mordant direction. This makes Worsted difficult to critique as a discrete collection. Each of Lutz’s stories indexes the rest of her work, and maintains its steady posture. Like Giorgio Morandi, she teases out metaphysical subtleties by painting the same still lifes over and over again.

“My life reeks of other people, least of all me. As a boy, I’d been daughterish, dawdling — hardly the type to stay put in the lineage. Of my parents’ bedroom I remember mostly a bedside table that opened only from the back.” These sentences, situated somewhere in the middle of Worsted’s title story, are vintage Lutz: The alliteration, the non sequitur, the aphoristic disregard for “life.” Also the frightened, dissociative brush with identity, the strangely ambient fear of the familial.

Two lines of such compact discomfort can be potent; an entire book of it is devastating. Lutz first became known for stories that were sometimes only a few paragraphs long, but her late work, particularly when culled from fragments of earlier pieces, has been steadily distending. The story “Worsted” clocks in at 54 pages and consists of little more than fragmentary, indirect reference to an interminable series of lovers. Reading it in SD/LF’s pocket-sized format, I began to feel that it was less a narrative than a modernist catechism, full of nonanswers about what it’s like to have a history and a body, to live a life that touches others but may or may not be one’s own.

The blackest of humor pulls these stories forward like an undertow. Those who can stomach them will be rewarded by the smothered zeal of some of the most original sentences in modern English — and many have pointed out that Lutz’s linguistic specificity makes her virtually untranslatable, which adds a secret scarcity to the privilege of reading them. But there is more to her work than its oddity. Though only recently having come out publicly as a woman, Lutz has been writing, eloquently and achingly, about gender dysphoria and the ravages of an unchosen identity for decades now.

As a grammarian, she understands the ways gender intersects with language (beginning with but going far beyond the delicate matter of the pronoun), perhaps better than anyone else. With the publication of Worsted, Lutz officially shepherds her work into the realm of trans literature, in the same fell swoop as she playfully undoes the completeness of The Complete Gary Lutz. As revised fragments of her former life’s work, these stories are a reminder that the work of the self is unfinished too, and is as available for revision as the stuff that spouts from it.

Worsted by Garielle Lutz (2021) is published by Short Flight/Long Drive Books and is available online and in bookstores.

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