In a previous post, I discussed some of the current conventions of book reviewing, concluding in part that "book reviewing in most print publications, both newspapers and magazines, . . .includes too little description of what the works reviewed actually do, what they are (aside from simple plot summaries), and too much glib evaluation." This judgment applies exponentially to Emily Barton's review of Gary Lutz's I Looked Alive (Black Square Editions), printed in the Spring issue of Bookforum.
I must first say that I was mostly unfamiliar with Lutz's work until reading this new book, but having done so my own judgment of the book couldn't be in starker contrast to Emily Barton's. I liked it a lot. While Barton claims the stories make for "rather anhedonic reading," I found them on the contrary to be even rather moving on the whole, in addition to being structurally and stylistically challenging (the latter description being meant as a compliment.) It's the kind of book that requires patience in the beginning, but eventually becomes more compelling as you read it. But "experimental" fiction is often like that.
Even if I didn't like these stories so much, however, I would still have great problems with Emily Barton's review. It's reasonably short, so I will point out the lowlights in order, as they manifest themselves to the reader's notice. Although the review masquerades as a "description" of I Looked Alive, what passes for description is transparently a way of conveying to the reader that Lutz simply doesn't write fiction the way it ought to be written, according to the reviewer's assumptions, not as it should be done at all.
Barton immediately informs us that Lutz's fiction "is difficult to read (to some the mark of experimentalism, to others shoddy craftsmanship). . ." The opposition between "experimentalism" and "craftsmanship" is patently obvious, of course, and we know before reading the rest of the review that we ought to avoid Lutz because he isn't a "craftsman." A craftsman doesn't write something that's "difficult to read." Never mind that this amounts to a wholesale rejection of the idea of experimental fiction in the first place, but it's a hopelessly reductive concept of what defines "craftsmanship" as well. If anything, experimental writers tend to be even more craftsmanlike in their approach, since what constitutes the "craft" of writing fiction is uppermost in their minds to begin with. Too many "well-made" stories or novels are not products of craft at all, but simple repetitions of formula.
Then there's "the fault of the narrative voice itself, which may make nominal switches from first to third person but sounds relentlessly the same from piece to piece." One of the blurbs printed on the book's back cover (from Sven Birkerts) suggests that "the overall effect of a Lutz piece is not unlike what we experience reading a John Ashberry poem." This actually seems right to me. The structure and execution of Lutz's stories have at least as much in common with poetry as with fiction. Do we criticize poets because the "voice" in their poems "sounds relentlessly the same from piece to piece"?
This problem, from Barton's persective, is presumably related to the next: ""Lutz never provides the one, salient fact that would imbue a character with vigorous life, or even make him memorable." This is a very familiar lament of reviewers whose most basic assumption is that fiction will present us with "memorable" characters. In addition to being "craftsmen," fiction writers are also expected to be portrait painters in prose. Apparently this is the only thing that makes some readers interested in fiction in the first place, but of course the very notion of "experimental" fiction suggests that these ingrained expectations of what fiction is supposed to do are going to be challenged. If the writer isn't attempting to create memorable characters, it hardly seems a valid criticism to say that after all he doesn't do this. (Nevertheless, in my reading of these stories, several of the characters do stand out, and as a collective whole the characters in I Looked Alive are memorable indeed.)
If Lutz can't deliver up memorable characters, how about his ability to tell a story? "[It's} hard to know, moment by moment, what a Lutz story is even about," Barton observes. Putting aside the fact that this largely isn't true, that it's perfectly easy to see what a given story is "about" as long as you at least temporarily abandon the assumption that a story must proceed "moment by moment," this criticism really takes us to Barton's core complaint about this book, which is further captured in this declaration: "Experimental fiction typically forgoes the comforts of storytelling in order to reveal the world in a new light. Sadly, Lutz reveals little." Thus Emily Barton would be willing to overlook the lack of storytelling, if the book would only conform in this other way to the conventions of realistic fiction, revealing the world through fiction's "light." But in fact experimental fiction doesn't first "reveal the world" in a new way. It attempts to reveal the possibilities of fiction in a new way. If it also gets us to look at the world differently, fine, but Barton puts her critical cart before the literary horse.
Perhaps the most damaging of Barton's criticisms, if it was true, is that Lutz "can't even write prose of middling intelligibility," fails to "maintain a crystalline clarity." Certainly Lutz could write prose of "middling intelligibility" if he wanted to, but he doesn't. He's deliberately confronting the standard of "crystalline clarity," asking why literary experiment can't include experiment with conventional uses of language. In the book's very first paragraph we are told by the narrator that "I had not come through in either of the kids. They took their mother's bunching of features, and were breeze-shaken things, and did not cut too far into life." This is not immediately "informative" in a "crystalline" way, but if you pause (and pause you must, throughout most of this book) and consider it, it makes perfect sense as a description of the way this man might see his children. It's just a "new" way of expressing features we are accustomed to seeing signalled in more familiar phrases.
One could decide that Lutz has failed in his experiments with language or character, that they don't accomplish what he seems to have set out to do, but it hardly seems useful to criticize him for even trying them out in the first place, which is what Emily Barton's review finally amounts to. Bookforum is in general an excellent publication, usually receptive to experimental writing. How disappointing that in this instance it is a forum for a reviewer so thoroughy uncomprehending of what experimental fiction is all about to begin with.