Lutz/Hempel – Manuel Marrero
March 1, 2012
Jordan Strong <email@example.com>
Here’s the review, tentatively titled “Lutz/Hempel.” Originally, I was trying to write about Gary Lutz and Amy Hempel while tying them into a metanarrative about me learning to write from a female perspective. I got confused. It got confused. Now it has less to do with Lutz and Hempel than it does about several writers I’ve never read and have only peripherally known. So this fat, smelly, repulsive nerd in the office becomes obsessed with Alt-Lit. I would say the main impression here is confusion. It probably needs work.
Black. To my immediate left I can hear tanks percolating: punch, beer, water. The space feels angular in spite of unshrinkable mass. An airvent hums. Concrete (brick?) settles, granite rains. I’m unwelcome here. I envision my undoing.
I’m finding it difficult lately to write about. When my friend brings up something matter- of-face, I go bleak, dragging the conversation into deep voids of inquiry. So questions should narrate a commitment to answers. I like writing what is unavoidable; written for, or against. Spatially, not linearly.
This sort of reading into prompts my reaction to syllables.
“Merv? We’re going to the deli across the street for sandwiches and coffee, you coming?”
“But there’s already coffee in the office.” “Right. See you later. Don’t work too hard.” The comment is a farce, an exhalation. I couldn’t work much if I wanted to. My pay reflects my duties poetically: narrow enough for everything else. This kind of writing is inescapable. I can have it one way or another. It’s actually more objective than my friend thinks, in that it’s unlikely anyone will notice it by itself. An object of lust, Tiff greets me in the crowd before settling adjacent to me. This is the first time this has happened. Everything is where it should be except me. Alex.
Marc is picking me up. This could be a date but it feels more like hanging out. Alex is watching me iron my hair from the doorway. I took a job as a screen printer for a company that makes novelty tees. Conditions are hot, but not muggy. At work they don’t have enough gloves for all the workers, so some of us have to grab them hot off the press and fold them. Scalds accumulate on my hands like tattoos. Seniority dictates glove entitlement I think.
So I’ve been living literature and reading life. It’s an intractable formula. Take something and fetishize the convolutions, the not fully-formed illiterate reactions, the nihilistic “nothing has any inherent value other than what it is.” A doorknob and a feeling are totally alike in function if not form. Turn and step aside. Now recall; did you hold it, squeeze it, clutch it, or did it turn on its axis alone? Who cares. Whatever you say.
It’s a date, as I feared. The whole time I’m thinking about what I’ll tell Alex. What phrasing and cadence I will use. What jokes can be made at this bachelor’s expense. He makes a backhanded compliment about my outfit. Maybe he’s a fashionista and I’m his latest subject.
What really happened as I felt her up? Confiding this would feel dirty. There’s no empathy in hopelessness. I’m disconnected from an intimate process like a professional who doesn’t need to think about it and thinks a lot about it: regression. Square one. My dick is lodged square up my ass.
Voice is the medium. What I say is so. Talk to somebody who can tell a story and they’ll say something else. Their subject is already outmoded. Their sentences aren’t startled; their sentences have nothing to fear.
Scenario A) You are celebrating a far-away friend’s visit. Go to a bar. Stare at a girl for over an hour. Make occasional nervous eye contact. Approach the bar, order a drink. Make with prolonged ogling. Notice that her friend is more attractive. Ignore this. Comment on something provocative about the way she’s dressed. A flower in her hair: a classic symbol of fertility, eligibility. Ask her if it’s real.
Scenario B) Make a friend. Spend years fostering your friendship. Meet their eventual coworker. Spend an entire night talking under no particular assumptions. Marry the coworker.
Q. Which is more romantic? Consider fate and capacity for volition.
My friend Sal thinks he can write anything. Give him a subject, a style, he’ll write you under the tables. He has the vocabulary, he’s well-read, his experiences are exceptional to yours. He can shift between distinct voices with finesse. Male, female, adolescent (pre and postpubescent), and what he’s doing has never been done before.
So I’m learning. My other friend Rod thinks men can’t write convincingly as women. But fuck Rod, have you ever been with a woman? Ever delved in her mind? Gone swimming in her subconscious? I’m starting to see what he means. Sal introduced me to this Gordon Lish school, and since then I’ve devoured the works of Gary Lutz, Amy Hempel, and to a less obsessive measure Stanley Elkin, who wrote the best in the style I’ve read, “A Poetics for Bullies” (Interestingly, Elkin doesn’t care for Lish, was never his student, and famously pulled his story “The Bailbondsman” from Esquire rather than submit to his edits). Even so, I feel like I’ve only been perusing, the singularity of the style blurring everything together. Male/Female. Ugly and pretty heart fluttering.
“Jesus Merv, it smells like a fresh testicle in here.” “Fuck you, you silly art faggot.”
Men exude a stifling sureness which can only be construed as intransigence. Brusque good cheer at best. Women manage naivete anchored in being one step ahead, a sincerity that’s at once confident and aloof, a captivation over their subjects predicated on their innate and historical ability to hurt, blaze scandal, flout convention, raise controversy, advance revolution. Like their words are inherently saying something we’ve never heard, tagged by the insatiable stark-raving quest for clinical knowledge about the female mind. For what they’re thinking. For why they fuck. For whether it’s the motion in the ocean or who gives a fuck. So what do women think about our small dicks anyway? Marie Calloway, a good writer, gets it. Her prose is a petri dish for a seductive experiment in crude confession, among other stylistic flourishes (internet- style article omissions, celebrity names substituting for real, pictures of the author with ejaculate smeared on her face). Alt-Lit. It’s not boring like a deadpan account of sex and seduction (in that order) ought to be because it doesn’t lift its deadpan for any dash of schmaltz, reading like a surprisingly honest and unguarded clue into what isn’t often exhibited about women who cry during sex and hurl themselves adventurously unalert into erotic trials for the sake of just feeling human: defenseless, haphazard instincts, where we are all clueless. Alt-Lit.
That Duke girl who compiled the FuckList, documenting her frolickings with harder sex subjects in embarrassing PowerPoint detail (penis size evaluations, dirty talk transcripts, blow-by- blow impressions), who accidentally leaked it and regretted it and scrupulously declined all publishing offers (the ghost of celebrity must have been naked as day, flopping his meat at her) and wrote from a more familiar and self-aware, yet no less palpably sincere perspective, of a vulnerable girl in her formative sex years, confessing her vulnerability (she writes about how she was more susceptible to compliments from these subjects as it was happening then as she’s writing about it), and using it to pivot a cattier, more confident career girl pragmatism. Meaty vulnerability is not the foreground, but she is naked.
Q. Prima facie, which of these girls would you like to get to know? How about after they’ve told you all their secrets? Thanks God literature is not banter.
Tucker Max. Zachary German, who wrote an endlessly quotable book about getting high and listening to Weezer, telling it like it is, never throwing down a single pronoun, where you have to flip through pages of ultra-direct prose and pop cult sign-of-the-times making references to get to the dirty parts. Foreplay like hearing someone’s mother say, “there’s a time for sex, and then everything else.”
Tao Lin. I haven’t read any of this guy’s stuff (though if you rummage through enough refuse in Brooklyn, I guarantee you’ll find a virtually unread copy of the book with the conch shell vagina on the cover, next to some tabloids and that Ian Svenonius pap think-tanked to resemble pocket Immanuel Kant), but Calloway likes him, and he seems to command more clout in the Alt-Lit world for your average teenage girl than, I don’t know, DFW for bespectacled MFAs with huge dimples and sagging jowels. He certainly takes the device of using celebrity names and elevates it to the next level. Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning are more scintillating youth sex protagonists to think about than Adrien Brody (Update: Since the time of this writing, Taipei was released and critics who previously called Lin insipid didn’t read it. Devoid of style, one barely detects an author, much less a vital intelligence, behind the flat and seemingly computer-generated transcripts of pure lifestyle, the same pure lifestyle of which Calloway is protégée and heir to Lin’s male-ness, that continues to define his output. And yet I read Taipei, because it was a popular success in more prominent markets and I felt duly obligated as a deadbeat writer to research the trend now that its soothing strobe cover was staring me down in the New Fiction section of most bookstores, looking suspect as an actual novel. Probably the apotheosis of the mostly insufferable Alt-Lit brat pack repertoire, Lin peels back the cheekiness of past works and gets serious enough to come on with the best qualities of your least favorite authors. Like Hemingway in modern New York, or a humanistic, painterly Bret Easton Ellis, Taipei screams with understatement through a mundane that becomes increasingly interchangeable with your own boring/fascinating drug addled blur. Taipei is accurate. To the point of seeming populated by vacant motors, Lin writes about urban happenings doc-like. It’s surface-level boring, but currents have undercurrents; drama is strained and awkward and forgotten, there are no cues here for anyone to react to or follow up on anything, and the voice is a sincerely thoughtful drug monologue, every pill and powder given due Erowid-style elegy, every human relationship variation its echoing decal. The usual targets for Alt-Lit parody are symptom here rather than anti-style; nothing about it feels made up. It’s easy to walk around Bushwick hungover and feel like you can’t wait to leave this world, meaning finish the book. Interchangeable. If you cared about anything topical in 2013, it was well worth the short time it would’ve taken you to read or dismiss it).
André Breton writes an experimental novel circumscribing (concatenating?) a mysterious woman and it’s considered groundbreaking and sexy, Henry Miller degrades whores and it’s fin de siècle, but any honest attempt by a woman to illustrate her sexual encounters and opposites is threatening to the male libido, among other masculine preoccupations. Not to dodder, but anyone who inveighs against this would probably do well to point out that since men aren’t beautiful, any portrait as such would seem gay, and not the coy, expressionless fait accompli sketch of femininity considered to be a true withholding of beauty, when less would seem that much less sexy. Look at Chris Kraus, whose eloquent rhapsodizing over a man in I Love Dick is always firmly tongue-in-cheek. Or Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, why not, with its playful gender bending and historical pageantry as imaginative conceit for role-switching in an eternally male-dominated world. However many episodic roles in whatever century or culture, she’s trapped as a woman and free as a man to love a woman; an elaborate joke to her lesbian lover with pink matchbook and scent of tulips. Not to say that no woman has ever gone butch for a man and written about it (while I’m at it, there’s very little that hasn’t been done yet, and I’m speaking, albeit vaguely, to a subculture that slams Lena Dunham’s stylist instead of meeting her on merit, not that she has any, nor am I exempt from marvelling at how strikingly that woman resembles Alfred Hitchcock, or thinking “Nice hair, fruitcake!” when Dave Eggers enters the room), as Sylvia Plath could make straight love dark and sexy for men, and Marianne Faithfull and other rock n’ roll ladies exert power over the Jaggers of the world and write compelling literature about it without grossing me out.
From Marie Calloway’s perspective, internet art is not just intriguing curio, it is sincerely, ineluctably her, in the way meeting your first love can hold an ineffable nostalgia over how you orbit others (she did in fact meet her first love on the internet). Calloway is a firebrand; her writing is, Noah Cicero for HTMLGIANT writes, “about a young girl having sex.” Some of her best art have likely been through text messages and Tumblr posts. Some of the best, most romantic conversational salvos and pithy repartee have no doubt been transmitted by my generation through these mediums. From a man’s perspective, you get Tucker Max, and it really doesn’t matter how true his stories are because they only provide insight into the psyche of an Ivy League educated type-A womanizer, which has been mined and covered historically.
“Women only date men to build their relationships with other women.” This is what I mistook for an undercurrent of lesbianism in some of Amy Hempel’s
stories. I know that women hate dating even more than men, except for them it isn’t agony, just distraction; peripheral. They also enjoy sex more, but it’s hardly worth comparing.
Every woman’s a lesbian, and I don’t mean that as some kind of would-be fag persuasion or bump for the Kinsey continuum. Women are beautiful. Men are just persuasive. What can be said about a mammal whose main reproductive function is to splooge.
Being medicated at twenty-four holds some of the same qualities permeating these stories: forgetfulness, feeling unsexy, lack of lucidity, stiffening of joints and muscles, the shakes. I no longer bother with making room for what is always there. So much is indelible in itself that attempting to enjoy life beyond what happens to you is some serious brashery. Get out there, but don’t expect anything.
“Let’s do it.” “Japan…” “You know anyone there?” “Nah. What about Sprague?” “I don’t think he’d put us up. He has a wife and kids and he’s like 40.” “Maybe he’d want to have rockstars in his home. Maybe it’d be a good experience for the kids.”
“I don’t think so.” “I heard we could stay in the attics of these manga stores.” “We’d have all the manga we want.”
Two Asian women walk into a bar. It’s funny because it’s true.
The problem with the male/female communication dynamic is not a binary outcome of birth. There is no inherent disparity between a phallocentric psychology and a kolpicentric one. It is not genderless however, as the difference between directness and indirectness, or chronic hedging, are masculine and feminine, respectively. The direct person will mine for meaning in everything the indirect person says, while missing the tacit point. The indirect person will often interpret the direct person’s bluntness as hostility. The direct person lacks finesse in expressing or registering emotional nuance. Loquaciousness is a shared trait. You are all both these extremes and bales in between.
Women are yes, more nurturing, compassionate by nature, with exceptions. More reasonable and noble in their failures. I want my failures to be spectacular, my effronteries destructive. You’ve got to make immediate what you get moment for moment. There’s nothing mature in it. I don’t care about maturity because I was never good at it. I don’t care about anything except art.
“Sometimes you meet a chick.”
“And sometimes you go home with a dude.”