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A Novel

Gordon Lish

Published by Four Walls Eight Windows/NY in 1996
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2004


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Gordon Lish published his book "Arcade or How to Write a Novel" some two years after he published this book. One may deduce from this happenstance that Gordon did not know how to write a novel when he wrote this book, which would help explain the, er, shall we say it, novel approach he took to this novel. It consists of a series of letters, memos, notes, missives to various people following the death of his wife Barbara by choking. As he did later in "Arcade" he left some blank pages, usually the left-handed, even-numbered pages, and he repeated some things, and still managed to be a few pages shy of the 178 pages of his later work "Arcade" in which he left more blank pages and repeated things many more times.

Lish is a male Gertrude Stein. His writing is often inscrutable and even when you are able to scrut-out an idea or two, the next paragraph or page or chapter will send you reeling.

Let's inspect "epigraph." Of the two meanings of the word, the second seems appropriate: 2 an inscription placed on buildings, statues, tombs, coins and the like, denoting their use and appropriation. Each of the missives, which comprise the entirety of the book, appear to be like an inscription on Barbara's life, if not her actual tomb. In addition there are several epigraphs of the first meaning, 1 a quotation, in verse or prose, placed at the beginning of a work, or of divisions in a work, as a motto.

These two prose-epigraphs fill the two pages before the missive-epigraphs begin. The first seems to comment on the longing for his mother's breast as an excuse for his tortuous writing style, and the second seems to be a sarcastic agreement by his father. (Of course, with Gordon, one never knows.)

Through the mouth
that I fill with words
instead of my mother,
whom I miss
from now on more than ever,
I elaborate that want,
and the aggressivity
that accompanies it,
by saying.

    Julia Kristeva

Yeah, yeah, sure, sure.
    F. W. Lish

The first missive-epigraph is a beautiful letter written to the organization which provided "Mercy Persons" in a "wonderful lavishness of women" to the Lish household during the final time of Mrs. Lish's life. This might well suffice as a letter to the Sisters, Servants of Mary for providing two Registered Nurse Nuns who attended to my wife's father in the last hours of his life.

Dear Members of the Congregation of Saint Firmus,

Please know that Mrs. Lish succumbed on the eighth day of this month, this in the early evening hours and, as had been her wish, at home. I trust you will each be agreeable to accepting my most earnest thanks for the benison of your abiding concern for Barbara and for myself and, further, for your gift of the mechanism in which my wife was obliged to spend the last of her life. Finally, I beg you to make certain the Mercy Persons you furnished to this household over the course of Mrs. Lish's ordeal have word of my inexpressible gratitude to them. There was not a one of them who did not, at every turn and in every need, give of herself without reserve and with uninterrupted good cheer.

What a wonderful, wonderful lavishness of women!

Thank you, thank you.

    Yours truly,

    Gordon Lish

In a later letter to Mrs. Fez, Lish waxes lyrical when he compares her to the lights in the sky at night.

[page 15] What a beacon unto me you were! If the years of Mrs. Lish's languishing may be said to have been a night, then were you not the moon and all the stars?

On the other hand, the Clerk of the Court, who keeps sending a request for the deceased Mrs. Lish to do her civic duty as a juror, soon encounters Mr. Lish's wrath in this terse reply:

[page 21] Leave me alone. Can't you leave me alone? Be a sport and leave this household be. Have you no respect for the dead? Please, please, this must come to an end.

    Very sincerely yours,

    Gordon Lish, in desperate grief

P. S. Or is it that it's your dirty vicious rotten scheme for you to see what kind of crime there is for you to cook up and charge me with for opening up her mail? So is this it? Did I guess right? Is it that I, Gordon Gordon! just happened to hit upon your filthy game? Because I would not put it past you, you bastardo! And never mind about the commas, okay?

In a later P. S. to Mrs. Florism, he mentions the Clerk of the Court as an excuse for something untoward that he said to her in an earlier letter, namely this: "Come see me. I want to see your bosoms. Yours are the bosoms that tremble, not the bosoms that shake."

P. S. I have, as you might have guessed and this explains everything, everything! have been under no end of pressure lately as a result of some cocksucker masquerading in the mails as the Clerk of the Court.

Or check out the neighbor who visits every day and brings a cake with her. Even when Gordon tells her he's more a "big Social Tea Biscuit eater than a big eater of cake", she tells him in reply, "Every house needs a cake in the house."

The next expression, the last sentence of this passage, again to the Clerk of the Court, reminds me of the favorite expression Gordon had in Arcade, "Consider yourself kissed." Note also his reference to commas and hyphens which is a repeated theme in this book as part of Gordon's meta-grammatical bent.

[page 61] I am informed of your much-vaunted policy concerning hyphens. Yet further concerning these confusions, word has reached me respecting your much-flaunted policy respecting commas. Will you people stop at nothing? You have not shame, do you? Lucky for you I feel so pooped today. But did you never hear the expression tomorrow is another day? It would profit you to regard yourself as now having done so.

Or take this one in which he rightly observes that some words rightlyly can be made into adverbed adverbs. This is a letter to Mrs. Hennessey:

[page 63] One regrets one's having to make mention of one's having failed utterly, if not entirely, in ones' efforts to lay down a firm basis of mutuality with relation to your erstwhile colleague Mrs. Fex, which person appears in every particular to conduct the stewardship of her social commerce in a manner quite carelessly, if not slovenly. Or is it slovenlyly? It sounds to me as if it should be slovenlyly. Does it sound to you as how it should be slovenlyly? Let know how it sounds to you as if it should be. I await receipt of yours soonest. Farewell and ado, Mr. G. J. Lish

No part of speech or manner of speaking is exempt from his meta-comments take this P. S. to his old friend, the C. of the C. :

[page 78] P. S. Don't you dare think I'm through with you! Or, actually, it's probably think me through with you.

Gordon Gordon! just wants to be understood, understand? If they knew his story, he writes to "Dear Congregations," as well as they know the story of their Lord, well, they'd understand him. He is, after all, just a human to whom things happen. Read the things that happen to him that he details in the course of this book. The button box his mother hid under the bed, Jack the dog who scratched his knees till they bled to get him to scratch Jack's head, etc. (Note how the P. S. ends in mid-word. Another technique of Lish's.)

[page 85] I mean, I am just a human being, you know. So looking at it from this perspective, let's just go over a couple of things for a minute from this perspective for a minute since there's these one or two things which happened to me in my life which I think should prove to people I deserve more than just to be swept away under the carpet and treated like a complete criminal;... First, there was the button box. Second, there was Jack always scratching me. Or maybe it was Mickey. Third, there was the time I was there in the room and put my shoe down in the wrong place and where I did it it was all gishy and runny and squushy and horrible. Fourth, there was when they were taking her out of here and somebody said nine'll get you ten what she weighs, it doesn't come to as much as to probably maybe even as much as forty. Five is the goys, the fucking goys. Six is thinking I had caught the whole ocean and being the happiest I have ever been and then him coming along and just yanking on the line just a little bit and getting the hook out from where it was stuck up into the underneath of the dock with it. Seven is the surge routers, the flow cocks, the skimmer spoons. Eight is jibby-jibbies. Nine is Wilhelm not having the brains to just turn around and go walk up to the other end of the tub. Nine is hyphens. Ten is Fred. Eleven is having to have the job of getting the antenna up all of the way up and of not being able to reach up that high to get it up enough. Twelve is having to wear short pants instead of longies. But does Mickey stop and take this into consideration? Or Jack? What about thirteen? Fourteen was catching a little peek at her when they sort of had her so that she was not all of the way up yet up on her toes yet and were either putting something on her or were taking something off her-you couldn't tell which, you couldn't tell which! but then I saw her go right back up back up onto her toes again before I could hurry up and look somewhere else. Fifteen is the finches, billions and billions of them, wings and scritchy feet, finches. Sixteen and seventeen and eighteen is always getting angel-food cake or angels-food cake and not being able to say to her you bitch, you bitch, quit it, goddamn it, you stinking lousy rotten bitch. Nineteen is the mail which keeps coming to her even when you tell them they can't get it through their heads it was curtains for her so many months ago it's not even funny anymore. Twenty and twenty-one and twenty-two is never seeing one of them with her brassiere off and they tremble instead of just shake. Twenty-three is forgetting to first get it out before getting off the belt. Twenty-five is hyphens again and when is it that anybody is going to stop to say to themselves he deserves a medal for it, hyphens? Twenty-six is the worms wriggling around so much inside of the box so much it feels like the box in your hands is a heart. Twenty-seven is strewn. Or deign. Okay, that's all I can think of So big deal, so it came to more than one or two. So I lied so go report me to the Clerk of the Court! You bastards, you bastardos! I I, Gordon Gordon! I am not scared of you!



P. S. Suppose I said deign again doesn't it make it twenty-seven again? Or did I miss counting something again? Miscount again. Mis

This next passage is the dilemma that faces every teenager in our society, in fact, in any society, at any time in history.

[page 103] What would you do if somebody said to you for you to do something and you weren't really actually yet big enough yet for you to actually yet do it?

Gordon Gordon! even writes a letter to his deceased wife.

[page 139] My very dear Barb,

Why do I keep saying these terrible things? I wish I wasn't saying these terrible things. If I only didn't keep saying these terrible things. Because no kidding you wouldn't believe what's been going here since they came in here and went back out to the back and then came back out with you and then went out the front door with and took you all away. Myself, I don't come in and out of that door anymore. Isn't it crazy? I guess it's pretty nutsy-crazy.

No one can accuse Gordon Lish the writer of this book of being locked into a formalism of literature of the type that Julia Kristeva talks of in this near final prose-epigraph:

Inverted into its formalism,
literature sets out on a difficult course,
its quest of the invisible
becoming imperceptible
and progressively antisocial,
and also, by reason of its being

    Julia Kristeva

Gordon Lish is anything but uninteresting. Even his "Dad" seems to agree in the penultimate epigraph: "Nice try, Jewboy." F. W. Lish

Gordon then seems to tell us to replace his Dad's epigraph with this final one by Nietzsche:

O come back,
my unknown god!
my pain!
my last happiness!

    Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Note: Definition of "epigraph" is from "The Cassel Concise Dictionary".


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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