What It Is I Cannot Tell You: TFT Review of Collected Fictions by Gordon Lish
Two hundred and forty pages into his Collected Fictions, Gordon Lish has his narrator tell to us the facts that “No I cannot tell you the true story of my father’s shoes. I withdraw the statement of my ambition to do so. It was foolish to have boast of such a project. Such a project is not projectable.” Which is another way of saying that I will not tell you that story because it is not a story to be told and let us agree that whatever we say we are talking about, maybe this is not exactly what we are talking about. It is also another way of saying that what happens in here while talking about this large book of fictions will not exactly be what happened in there, but it will be something.
And so to begin with the first thing we see after the contents–the first piece of complete sentences strung along one after the other–is the foreword, which is worth discussing for the fact that it is also a form of story and that what this story is about is a man at the end of the journey come back to tell us a thing or two before the beginning. That this foreword is a story and the first one we read and also in itself a story one has to chew on, that one has to get one’s mouth around, in one sense or another.
Because Lish is at times going on and about like a deranged Grace Paley. I mean that, like Paley, he is concerned with the people in their buildings and their weakness and domesticity, which is another sort of household fact. Gordon Lish is interested it would seem in what Gary Lutz called household facts. And when we say deranged what we mean is that these stories are unrelenting. That at times they appear unhinged in their diction and movement, but that they are in fact careening wildly on course and it is a course that may kill you or at least somebody. Some thing perhaps.
And we say deranged because there is an ordering here which when we encounter it appears to have been shuffled and only unfolds as it goes. It moved backwards and forwards and side to side. And by describing all this now I realize it may come across as brazen or outrageous. And some are in a way. There is a fifty-two page epistle in the voice of one Jerome Salinger’s very Jewish, very retired father who has moved to Florida into a home in which live the parents of Phillip Roth, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow, pleading and excoriating his scion to appear on Merv Griffin and to stop going by those silly initials just once so his father can show these people that his son is a real live boy with a heart of gold and a face to match and is a real good writer, and it goes on like this and it goes and goes back and forth between pleading and berating and pity and pain, with also this story about this lady that lives next door. I could barely get through this, not because it was poorly written, but because it was fifty pages of what I just told you it was in the voice of one Jerome David Salinger’s Jewish retiree father down in Florida. And then it turns into a five page Thomas Pynchon joke, and it’s hilarious. What I have just done now is possibly ruined the story for you similar to how the lives of the characters in this book seem to be in some way ruined. Worn down. Wrecked. Propped up. The plots of these stories or fictions mostly center around fathers and sons with one feeling a sort of obligation to the other and everyone generally resenting the obliging emotions, they deal with lost sleds and things said while drunk at dinner parties, with a man choosing to shellac his shoes for that permanent style of shine, with men we hardly know well enlisting us to aid them in the ending of their affair or marriage, with trips to the grocery store, with pleas, with the everyday ways that we brace ourselves against every day.
Original art by Antonia Blair.
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