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Gordon Lish
or How to Write a Novel
Published by Four Walls Eight Windows/NY in 1998
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2003


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A childhood is not a period of life and does not pass on. It haunts discourse. Jean-François Lyotard

In the game of becoming, the being of becoming also plays the game with itself. Giles Deleuze

Ever wonder about how many words end in "ade," or what does "hurst" or "mere" mean at the end of a proper name, like Brookhurst, a street I lived off of in Anaheim several lifetimes ago, or about words that begin in "be" not like begin, but like bestrewn, or begotten or bedeviled, or why your Aunt who seemed to own a restaurant only worked in the kitchen, or why you mother had more than one name, or why one girl called her nishy a "zeezee," or what to call the grabber on those claw machines where you operate the handle as it falls and try to grab a watch or a pocketknife? Now imagine writing a novel about those things. One would have to get a little repetitive, would have to repeat things, repeat them more than once to have a chance of filling out the novel to 178 pages, wouldn't one? Well, one could always leave some blank pages in the middle - especially if you decide to leave something out of the book and wanted to allow readers to fill in the blanks as they turn from page 85 to 86 to 87 to 88 to, well, all the way to page 105. That's Arcade in a nutshell. A novel about wondering about Gordon Lish wondering about his relatives, about his time at Laurel in the Pines (like why was there only one laurel in the middle of all those pines), about this girl who was "all of her all welcome mat, " about Gordo wondering about life, about novels, about arcades, about why he never ate strudel.

How about some samples of his writing? One cannot just imagine or describe Lish's rambling prose, rambling prose, why you ramble, no one knows, one must experience it. First the wondering why people never explained things to you as a kid. Boy, that happened to me a lot. I quickly learned not to ask, because most of the questions I asked, no one knew the answer to or cared. Gordo knew a Big Eugene and a Little Eugene, and a young girl named Reggie, so he wondered about his mom's name.

[page 11] My mother's name was Regina. But everybody except my father called my mother Reggie. So this made it two Reggies, didn't it? But the family didn't say Big Reggie and say Little Reggie even though there was a big age difference as far as these two different Reggies. Did anybody ever explain this? I don't know why nobody ever explained this. It would not be my way of doing things with people, not explaining things to people. I hate it when people don't go ahead and explain things to you. I hate it when people know things and don't just go ahead and explain them to you. How much trouble is it? It's not a lot of trouble. Everything would be so different for you if people would just explain things to you. The whole world would be a better place for us to live in if people just went ahead and took the time to sit you down and explain things to you. But they don't want to bother, do they? When can you ever find more than one or two of them who will ever take the time to bother? You're lucky if you can find just one or two of them, aren't you? I keep hoping I can find just, you know, just one or two of some people like that. It's what gives me the strength to keep going. It's what keeps me going as far as strength.

The novelist looks the reader in the eye; talks directly to the reader as characters in Woody Allen movies do. This special relationship with the author is one of the endearing aspects of the book which develops as one passes the mid-point of the novel.

[page 19] You see what happens? I went too fast and didn't say the right thing and now I can't think of the right thing even though I know the first thing's wrong. This is what happens, this is what happens now the wrong thing's got the right one down under underneath it. This is why I am taking my time. I'm going to go along and go along very methodically now. I was going too fast. Now I am not going to go along so fast. The only problem with going along like I am going to go now is this problem of running out of time. But look at life, look at life it's always the problem of running out of time.

Ever meet someone who was always repeating himself, but did it in such a charming fashion that the repetition seemed to flesh out feelings and meanings that a simple terse statement would have never done? Gordon Lish portrays such a person in this novel. Maybe he is such a person. Maybe the stuff in the novel is true. Maybe his girl called her nishy a "zeezee" or a "zizi" and her husband will recognize that Gordo knew from personal experience that she was "all of her all welcome mat" and will want to do harm to Gordo.

Writers love words and wonder about things such as Gordon wonders about. Like mere. Like what dictionaries dream of.

[page 27] Somebody should look up mere. Okay, it should probably be me who looks up mere. But I do not think we have that kind of a dictionary here. We probably have just the kind of a dictionary where the chances are it would only tell you what mere means as far as when we say mere this or mere that. But mere as far as Woodmere, mere as far as the name of Woodmere, take my word for it, this dictionary never even dreamed of being a dictionary like this.

Or maybe you want to find out what words end in "ade."

His Aunt Lily was the one who brought out the steaming strudel during his family's vacation at Laurel in the Pines. He saw a twinkle in her eye, a twinkle in her "I" and here's how he filled nearly two pages describing this twinkle he saw in Aunt Lily. Somewhere in the repetition, her spark of individuality glimmers out at us.

[page 46, 47] Because I hope you heard me. But, mind you, I have offered not one word of criticism of Aunt Lily herself, have I? Let me, with your permission, please beg to bring emphasis to the fact that you have not heard from my lips me utter one shred of criticism as far as Aunt Lily. She was a wonderful, wonderful individual. I cannot imagine a more wonderful, wonderful individual. Did I make it clear to you there was a twinkle to her as a person? I am basing this on just the one experience, I am admitting the fact that everything I say to you is based upon just the one and only the one experience, but I give you every assurance, as little as I was, as inexperienced in the rank and file of human beings which at the time of the trip from Woodmere to Lakewood I was, I definitely feel you can give full faith and confidence to this statement which is that as a person Aunt Lily had a definite twinkle to her which you could detect for yourself the instant you went into the kitchen. Granted, there might be a school of thought which would give the credit to the light fixtures in the, you know, in the ceiling. There are people like this. Don't worry, there are schools of thought of like every description. But if the light fixtures were responsible for it, if it was the light fixtures which were responsible for Aunt Lily's twinkle being in her, then wouldn't the other seven ladies, would not each and everyone of the seven other ladies all of them standing around the table with the dough on it with Aunt Lily not also exhibit the same twinkle to them as persons? Listen, I would be the first one to acknowledge the tricks which your mind can play on you. If I thought the twinkle I saw was just a trick which my mind was playing on me then and there at that time or here and now at this one, don't think I would not admit it.

An arcade is an arcade is an arcade. Gordon Lish didn't write that, I did. Gertrude Stein wrote a rose is a rose is a rose and Gordon Lish writes like Gertrude Stein. A method in both their madness. A meaning that threads itself together over two pages of what seems like a bunch of loose threads but suddenly you step back and it's an artistic throw rug thrown together under your eyes.

[page 56] Excuse me. I have to interrupt this to tell you something.

The unexpected is piled upon the mundane. One never knows what to expect, so one reads on. What will come next? Insults? Remember Gordo is talking to you, the Reader.

[page 61, 62] Look, use your intelligence for once. Try to exercise your intelligence just for once. Don't sit there like a lump on a bump constantly leaning on me for every little thing on me. This is a two-way street, is it not? One hand washes the other, does it not? Don't I have my hands full as it is? There is only so much I Gordon as a novelist can do. I am only human, you know. Try to show some, you know, some consideration for someone other than yourself for once.

What next a sexual entendre?

[page 62] She could, she could she could get her legs turned out for you! She had this way which she could do where she could get her legs turned out for you in such a way as for her to get her nishy opened up all of the way open for you. I mean, you knew you were in, you know? I'm serious. You really knew you were in! There wasn't any question but that, you know, but that you were in. I mean, you know she let you, she let you! Not like the way it is with, you know, with like some of them, you know. Not like with those ones which act like oh hey are you in there yet, don't forget to let me know if you are in there yet, make sure you give me the high sign when you want for me to actually be aware of the fact now you're actually in there yet. Oh come on, you know how some of them are. Do I have to sit here and tell you how some of them are? Look alive, for Christ's sake, and don't make me sit here and look like an idiot. Listen, you know what my theory is? Can I tell you what my theory is? They turn their feet the other way so their, you know, so like their legs, you know, so like they go ahead and follow in suit. You see what I'm saying? It's subtle. It's really subtle. It's maybe too subtle a thing for your average reader to sit there like a lump on a bump and detect, but I'm serious, I'm serious it's like they can like lie there on their backs and like rotate them or something.

Maybe a quotable quote?

[page 126] And I'll tell you something else people are people, whatever their walk of life!

In closing let's hear "a word from, you know, from the author of this":

[page 165] I'm sorry, but isn't it high time there was a statement fighting back against them always accusing me of never writing novels but only of, you know, of me sitting here keeping trying to get away with these like these sort of like thinly thinly, I said -- don't they always say thinly? these sort of like thinly disguised autobiographies, if you will or wouldn't? Because it is a dirty stinking rotten lie! Like you take everything in this book, it is all of it made-up whereas in life the only actual like real-life thing I ever had anything to do with as far as an arcade was as far as with a completely different kind of a one. It was the walk-through kind of a one. It was the kind of a one where you go from one street to another street by walking through this kind of a tunnel which is sort of like built up over you this curvy ceiling up above you. Oh, what a thing it was like with shops and with newsstands and with places for you to eat at all along the way on either side of you as you go. Or, you know, or went. Because it is this kind of an arcade which is the only kind of an arcade which I ever really had any actual contact with as far as any actual event in my life. Whereas this other kind of an arcade, the kind of an arcade where they had all of these various different vicarious games for you and things like let's say an amusement arcade or like an arcade where amusement is the idea of it as far as the arcade all of these individuals all going all . . .

So, dear Reader, do you want more of Gordon Lish? No? So do you want this review to continue? No, too? Oh, come on, not so soon there's a lot more to be said about Gordo and to be quoted from. Whatdya say? Aw, still no. . .

[page 172] Fine, fine now consider yourself kissed.

Note: See "Epigraph", another Novel by Gordon Lish.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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