A woman leaves town on business, phones her husband when the plane touches down. “How’s the cat?” she asks.
“The cat,” her husband says, “is dead.”
“You can’t break bad news like that!” the woman says. “Lead with something like, ‘The cat’s on the roof and I can’t get him down.’ Then ease into the bad news.”
The husband considers this.
“How is Mom taking it?” she asks.
“Well,” the husband says, “she’s on the roof and I can’t get her down.”
It’s an old bit about social norms and how they buffer against bad news made plain. In Gordon Lish’s roughly 17th work of roughly fiction, Death and So Forth, the narrator(s) take umbrage at those norms as well as the society that leans on them. They share the author’s hostility toward evasion of what he has elsewhere called “the incommensurable insult of death,” even when they themselves evade (they often do). They puppet his fussed-over diction as if they also have penned grammar textbooks. Most of them, not surprisingly, are named Gordon Lish.
The stories “told and retold” in this collection continue Lish’s line of obsessively recursive autofiction that took shape in 1986’s Peru. In it, a character named Gordon Lish, sharing much of the author’s own biography, recollects a murder he may or may not have committed during childhood. Lish’s subsequent writings have held a narrow but zealous gaze on a handful of subjects—mainly death, but also the various slow declines that ferry us toward it, marital politics, the tragedy of living with never-precise-enough thought and language—and techniques, most notably his placing tension not so much in the interplay of action and reaction as in the story’s acoustic architecture and narrative (un)reliability. In Death and So Forth, those druthers are once again trotted out in a series of circuitous monologues that have come to define the Lishian school of prosody.
The 21 stories here (13 republished, eight new) are word-forward and sentence-showy, commanding our full presence down to the level of individual phonemes—Lish-speak for sounds, or “the smallest spicule of the construct.” Underpinning the writer’s singular writing style is a series of tactics, or aesthetic guideposts, “to become hugely conscious of how language can be manipulated to produce maximum effects,” as Diane Williams, who studied under Lish, describes their aim. With gnomic names like “consecution,” “refactoring,” “swerve,” “torque,” “accretion,” and “implicative load,” these disruptive tactics become battering rams against passive reading, intending to assemble something we’ve never before heard in sound and sense. That is, at least, when the prose doesn’t batter us too hard.
For an example of when Lish’s grammar strikes a good balance between familiar and strange, see this erratic sentence from “Jawbone,” a story no more complicated than a speaker’s expiation of his smashing a bug on the bathroom floor: “Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was in there on duty on the nightbeat last night there in the crapper, right?”
Or this one from “Grief—2nd Pass,” a brief plumbing of the final stages of Lish’s second wife’s death to Lou Gehrig’s Disease: “It was onto her back that Barbara fell one of the times she was to fall before her falling into the earth to the depth we all of us hear about long before we’re all of us dead.”
Or this line from “In September,” one of the author’s most tender pieces, in which he describes a cottage he and his four children lived in and the various plantings they tended to: “It bestowed, bespoke, betokened grandeur on a deftly limited deliriously precious kind of scale.”
Those of us unaccustomed to Lish’s lavishment, and even some who are, will likely lurch through the deluge of prepositions, repetitions, and fricatives that come one sentence after the next in this collection. It’s nothing new for the notoriously prolix author, but he at least seems aware of the dulling effect his writing can have on us. In “Word in Front,” the collection’s opener-cum-foreword, he more or less says it out loud. “Whether you are a writer or a reader or, not unlikely, both, have some fun while you’re at it—until you can’t,” the piece’s last sentence advises.
Only in a few spots does the prose spiral beyond any recognizable attitude or sentiment. “Does This Mean Anythugng?” comes to mind, a meandering little diary entry that would find itself right at home among Beckett’s shorter prose pieces, wherein the speaker’s failing vision and dexterity cause most every word to come out misspelled. There’s also an entire paragraph in “June Thirty-Fourth” that is just a list of words the author admits he had previously decided not to use in the story, among them “saccadic,” “proleosis,” “vernissage,” and “hammam.” It comes off a little bumptious, even for Lish. Otherwise, Death and So Forth is filled with the same linguistic acrobatics we’ve come to expect from the author without his slipping too far over the edge into self-parody. Where the collection stands out in Lish’s oeuvre is instead how much of it skews toward the overtly autobiographical, despite the author’s insistence on keeping us at arm’s length.
Lish has always blurred the line between autobiography and mythology. His decades-old self-ascribed persona, Captain Fiction, is a deliberately messy chimera of the partly real and purely aggrandized. He’s the infamous editor whose profligate excisions vaulted Raymond Carver into literary apotheosis and helped jumpstart the career of countless writers including Amy Hempel, Garielle Lutz, Christine Schutt, Noy Holland, Mitchell S. Jackson, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Marcus. He is also the haranguing lecturer accused of emotional manipulation, racism, and abuse of power, the ringmaster of day-long lectures during which “men weep, women walk out, and thumbtacks are found lodged, points out, in the teacher’s chair,” Amy Hempel wrote back in 1984.
Captain Fiction, and many of Lish’s real-life friends, families, and foes make appearances in Death and So Forth. Reading the collection for its biographical insights would provide a novel peek into Lish’s backstory, especially considering the author’s slippery relation to truth-telling, his commitment to swashbuckling affectations. But the stories in Death and So Forth are, ultimately, self-referential to the point of frustration. Not because of how often the author mentions himself by name, but because of how unwilling he is to pull back the curtain more than an inch to give us the satisfaction of knowing who exactly is confiding in us.
From the first sentence in “Word in Front,” Lish delights in foregrounding the book’s de facto artifice, making a show to call into question the collection’s autobiographical elements and upbraiding us for taking the speaker at their word:
Ordinarily—hah, is there ever anything legit coming to you when the pitchman opens with Well, folks, uh, ordinarily. . .? You know, or should know, there’s every reason to expect there’s mostly malarkey on the way.
And quickly does the malarkey come. Mere sentences later, the speaker assures us that “this is really aulde Gordo sitting here at his really aulde Underwood speaking to you, and even if I slipped up and let the word ordinarily inaugurate my spiel, I ask that in the case of this ultra-particular swindle, you go along with me for a while, make believe I’m perfectly innocent of any intent to set you up for a fast one, any self-aggrandizing, or, say, some smarm of face-saving up my sleeve.”
To take aulde Gordo at his word would make a less-messy reading of Death and So Forth, so heavily does it pull from all corners and eras across Lish’s lifetime. Three wives and his four children; his parents and siblings; former colleagues from his time at both Esquire and Knopf; authors Ken Kesey, Nora Ephron, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Boom, and Denis Johnson—these are but a few of the people, or characters, that appear throughout the collection.
In “Jamie Gillis, His Letter,” the author republishes a handwritten letter given to him by a dying friend, the titular pornographuc actor whose note discloses his eventual terminal illness. Lish includes his own reply beside it, creating a dialogue that exists outside of time but firmly within the boundaries of “Real Life.” The tangibility of the handwritten note, the typewritten response, beckons us to meet him in his memoiristic exploration that is missing, downplayed, or ironicized in much of the author’s previous work.
“Hustlers All in the Rogue-Snown Night” continues in the same vein of self-reportage, his remembrance of the late Denis Johnson, whom Lish simultaneously reveres and resents for not having given him enough credit for pulling Johnson’s work from the slush pile during his ignominious exit from Esquire.
“Excelsior,” “Speakage,” “In September,” “Bloom Dies,” “Tale of a Horse,” “”Grace,” “Mr. Goldbaum,” and “Coup de Theatre” are also inextricably entwined with Lish’s biography, each elucidating some aspect of his adolescence or family or friendships in a prominent way. Yet despite elements of memoir, the book is labeled as fiction, and the author makes it a point several times to implicate himself in unabashed deception.
How closely can we be expected to allow the speaker to sidle up to us once doubt has been sown this early and this explicitly regarding the author’s goodwill? It’s a minor point to harp on, in that it’s been the author’s schtick for decades. Unreliable narration is as old as fiction itself. But the resulting effect makes several of the more essayistic pieces in the collection hit with less force, the ones that spotlight moments with his friends and family and seem to reach out from the page to invite us into Gordon Lish’s, the actual man’s, lived life.
What we are left with in “In Death and So Forth” is a larger-than-life myth looking back at, while contributing to, his own caricature. The focus on death doesn’t browbeat us into appreciating life more, nor does it devolve into cheerless nihilism. The collection pulls its subjects and themes from Lish’s honest-to-god life, and that imparts a new depth to the writing that shifts from a preoccupation with grammatical excesses and postmodern hijinks to a more sincere invitation to understand who, after all, is speaking. Yet he can’t help from undercutting that sincerity, never letting us forget it’s all smoke and funhouse mirrors, that no one is to be taken at their word. At what point is the trickster to be trusted?
“Nobody gets away without showing off,” Lish writes in “Bloom Dies,” editorializing the late literary critic’s deathbed wishes. In a way, he’s speaking about own writerly tics, too. The author might never be able to pull away from that tendency, as much as this collection signals a desire to unravel the knot he’s spent a career tying up into elaborate bows. We will have to wait a little longer to see what he does with all the cordage trailing behind him.
Death and So Forth, by Gordon Lish. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, April 2021. 176 pages. $24.95, hardcover.
Nathan Blake is a digital content specialist living in Richmond, Virginia. He’s the author of the chapbook Going Home Nowhere and Fast (Winged City Press), and his writing has been featured in Best American Experimental Writing, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and PANK.