A Short History of the Novels Written by Gordon Lish
NOTE: While shooting a movie on the beach in Malibu, California, a bottle washed ashore. The bottle was several years old, from the looks of it, and inside was a message—if you can call this a message. There were five sheets of paper, and on the sheets a single long paragraph was composed in neat block letters. The writing was a critique of some sort, literary criticism about the novels of a writer I had never heard of. (Though I have now Googled "Gordon Lish" and found out a great deal of information about him.) Why this was written and crammed into a bottle and tossed out to sea is beyond me; nevertheless, I present the text verbatim for readers to make of it what the will. –Michael Hemmingson
Ladies and Gentlemen: of all his books, Lish's first novel, Dear Mr. Capote, is his most accessible work, less experimental and minimal than his later offerings, taking on a popular genre in the 1980s-90s: the serial killer yarn. It is an epistolary text, comprised of letters (or one letter) written to Truman Capote by a would-be serial killer who has just turned forty-seven years old and intends to murder forty-seven women, one for each year of his dreadful, empty life. Actually, forty-six women, as he will then commit suicide and become the last. His name is David, he works in a bank; he is married and has a son. In his letters, he chronicles his slayings of random women in the city of Gotham, by knife, so that Capote will have research material to write a book greater than In Cold Blood. There will be vast sums of money made, which he wants to go to his son, "the boy." David claims: "I am already more famous than you are even if in the public nobody knows my name by heart" (4) because he has already murdered a number of women that made headline news—Gotham is living in fear of this unknown, homicidal maniac on the loose. "Dear Mr. Capote," he pleads, "call Random House!" David is not shallow and two-dimensional as his American Psycho compatriot, Patrick Bateman; he is a complex man of deep, critical thought—albeit insane, justifying the forty-seven people he must murder, as if the Universe has honored him with a mission: he only kills "the ones which when Nature calls sit down to you-know-what"(4). He recounts seeing a woman in line at a Chinese restaurant during lunch. He is fascinated by her and follows her onto the street, stalking, ruminating in a tense, obsessed voice, addressed to Truman Capote, but also to himself:
…So she turns toward Second. Nibble nibble nibble. She's walking slow. Nibble nibble nibble. You know what? A person which is pigeon-toed, it's funny when they walk slow. Nibble, nibble, nibble. But don't ask me why. It just is.
The other thing is her shoes.
Like they're white and soft.
Hey, I can hear them, white and soft. Like this. Woof, woof, woof. Only slower. Woof. Woof. Woof. More like that and very soft (77).
He murders her, of course.
You don't really have to hurry more than what is reasonable. It’s dead. I mean, she is. But if she's set right when you jab her, she can stand and stand and stand. You'd be surprised. I'm not talking minutes, of course. I just mean it's not like you do it and here she comes before you have a chance to catch your breath. In other words, she's going to stay on her feet for maybe upwards five, ten, fifteen seconds, give or take. But it all depends on how she's set, all things being equal (81-82).
One of his preferred methods of striking his victims is to stab them in the eye, getting to their brain, where "you sometimes hear a click. But you can't really see anything because the goo gets in the way" (80). Why the eye and why women? "Better targets," he confesses. "Bigger eyes" (10). David is obsessed with the female eye, which he believes are bigger than men's eyes, giving him a wider "range of females. I said it was the bigger eyes which is the reason. But let's not forget there are these other things, which is these things like this—mascara and eye shadow and eyeliner and eye pencil and sometimes your cream a glitter" (18). Throughout the letters he brings up his Other: Janet Rose, his first and greatest love, a young love, deeply intimate rather than innocent. She was thirteen and he was sixteen back then but she was far more experienced in matters of sex and mind games than he. Precocious is not the proper word for her—the scenes of oral sex are unequivocally rendered in great detail (although David can never say the proper name for genitals, calling hers a "you-know-what") with graphic exchanges of fluids. She has many curious kinks, such as enjoying a hairbrush inside her vagina or staring at her image and his in the mirror, all the while delivering her own maddening monologues:
She says, "Look at us in the mirror together." This is what Janet R. says, She says, "Look at us in the mirror naked together. You're naked and I'm naked and we're looking at each other in the mirror together. Do you see my boobies? See my cunny? You can't see my hole when I'm standing this way, can you? Do you want me to show you my hole in the mirror? […] Do you want to get closer to the mirror now?" (165)
She goes on for pages—it is repetitive, perverse, and intoxicating for David, claiming her words alone could make him reach orgasm). He is obsessed with the memory of her and wishes to go back. They referred to one another as "Mr. and Mrs. First-Nighter" and when there is a lack of understanding or communication, they play a game, saying, "Red Dog One to Blue Dog Two, do you read me?" which exhibits a trace of childhood to this relationship. Needless to say, they have pronounced their undying love for one another, an endless love, but like all young love, something happens to disrupt the flow of overwhelming feelings. It seems all tragic love stories must have one final, painful encounter, to bring closure to the agony of youthful, futile adoration—Romeo and Juliet is the classic example, but Scott Spencer's Endless Love and Jack Kerouac's Maggie Cassidy come to mind, where the characters, separated from one another, have grown, changed, but make love one last time, an act they eventually regret. This is true for David and Janet. He crosses paths with her some months later. He runs to her, cries, "My beloved! My beloved!" (214). She is indifferent, she says he should leave her alone, that she has a boyfriend now; then she suggests they can go somewhere and be together "for old time's sake" (215). They go to the apartment where a friend of hers lives, she has they key, it's where she has sex with her new boyfriend. She says the friend will watch them, listen, and maybe join in. They stand naked in front of the mirror and do the things they used to do. But Janet seems to come unraveled, she keeps calling to her friend to come in and join, but there does not seem to be a friend—or is there? The friend joins in, but so do many other people from their past, even David's wife, so that it has now become an orgy. The orgy, however, is most likely in David's mind. He starts to become angry: "You hear me, all you sons of bitches in your fancy fucking famous places? You're fucking nobody because I am who you are" (256). He is convinced the newspaper is watching him, the kitchen is watching him, and the eyes of the world are on him. The reader is left with the sensation that David may have killed her, knowing this would be the last time with Janet and not being able to deal with that loss of love. "My darling. My beloved. There is no world, no window. There is just a mirror" (257). And that is it. Lish does not show, nor overtly hints, that David has murdered the girl, but what else could there be? He is obsessed with stabbing women in their eyes because of his memory of seeing Janet in the mirror, of Janet watching him, staring at him, her eyes always on him: this girl he desperately loved and who eventually rejected and hurt him. By stabbing women in their eyes, he destroys those mirrors, and makes them, as suggested by Deluze and Guattari, "the body without an image" (Anti-Oedipus 8). Then again, maybe none of this happened; perhaps it is all the fantasy of a madman stuck in the bughouse of his skull. In a 1984 radio interview with Don Swaim, Swaim wonders whether or not David has actually killed anyone. "Was this something in my lack of reception, or was this meant to be somewhat in the air?" he asks. "So far as I can see every reader has had it a different way," Lish replies, "it is intended that one sees that he has not killed anyone at all, that's he's incapable of killing. He would like to be able to do so, that's certainly is his ambition, to kill enough people in order to generate an exciting enough story to provide a bestseller in order to secure the future of his son is indeed a notion of his but never achieves any kind of reality […] The clues to suggest as much are subtleized in the extreme—I think you mainly get it in a scene near the back end of the book when his wife is heard speaking, and she says in that peculiar voice, that voice that is peculiar to her: 'You couldn't off anybody.' […] I think the indication is rather oblique but there that he is in fact not killing." It does not matter whether David is really a serial killer or—like Ellis' Bateman at the end of American Psycho—it is all a ruse, the fabricated violence of an overactive, needy imagination. Many critics agree that Lish is not an easy read—he has a language all his own, a voice like no other writer; each sentence, each syllable, needs to be paid close attention to. "I wanted a voice that sounded like nothing else you ever heard before," he tells Swaim. "I wanted a book that was erotic as I could make it, I wanted a book that was as shocking as I could make it." "Picture a man possessed by, saved by, whatever ruins of temptation and salvation have made their way to his man-self," writes Peter Markus in a review of the 2006 paperback edition of Zumzum. "Now picture 'Gordon Lish,' a man possessed by his own fear and his own fearless desire." Dear Mr. Capote is possessed by that meddling fear and desire—so what about the body of his literary output? It would be prudent to take a brief look at Lish's other novels, and how they relate to his first. All of his novels, except one, are written in frantic first person; they tend to be autobiography, or at least reflexive, as the narrator is "Gordon Lish," sometimes referred to in the third person.10 His second novel, Peru, is the apparent memory of a middle-aged man, who believes, at age six, he committed an act of violence against another child. "I should probably be talking to just six-year-olds […] Who wants to remember the way things really were? You have to really think about it and think about it to keep things which happened from getting mixed up with the things you're always making up" (107). He is calling into question the validity of memory—are the events of a life we recall truly true, partially fiction, or completely wrong and fabricated? How accurate is memory—this is a fairly new debate in academic life studies as well as world history. The two characters in Extravaganza, while telling jokes, explore the same territory of questioning the past and its truthfulness—it is a third person text about Smith and Dale, two vaudevillians who have a lot in common with Vladimir and Estragon, Laurel and Hardy, the Smothers Brothers, Cheech and Chong, Penn and Teller, and even Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D: two disparate, comic voices commenting on—things. "What" things are difficult to determine, because none of the anecdotes and jokes make sense, or are simply absurd and amusing (Beckett again). It is futile to look for plot and structure in Lish's four subsequent novels: My Romance, Zimzum, Epigraph, and Arcade or: How to Write a Novel. My Romance is a 142-page single paragraph (except for the last sentence, which has an indent) in the form of a speech "Gordon" gives at a writing conference, talking about editing, drinking at work, and the loving relationship with his wife, Barbara. Zimzum is a 98-page novella that deals with memory again, where "Lish" recalls going to the beach as child and makes a list of every woman he has had sex with or wants to have sex with, noting what he did or wanted to do to their bodies and his. Epigraph returns to the epistolary genre, a somber work in the form of several letters about life after his wife's death from cancer—going into retirement with a hermit existence, alone in his apartment, the only drama being the brief encounters with widowed neighbors seeking a senior citizen's connection. Finally, Arcade is his most blatant try at the metafictional form overdone in the 1970s and 1980s by writers such as Raymond Federman, Ronald Sukenick, and George Chambers: another memory work, the cover copy advises: "This book is empty, the pursuit of the blank, a smug admission of flawed booklessness." It contains an 84-page paragraph of ruminations on the Lish family and them, for unknown reasons, has twenty blank pages, some text, then ten blank pages, some text, and then six blank pages, and the moves toward an end, where, in a section titled "A Word From, You Know, From the Author of This," Lish takes a breather to state:
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 thinly—thinly, I said—don't they always say thinly?—these sort of 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 made up (165).
Lish is telling his readers not to believe everything he writes, or says, and to be prudent enough to always question the truth of the text. He admonishes in Zimzum, "God, you've really got to watch it when you sit yourself down and start making things up" (97), which is damn good and nifty advice—nibble nibble nibble [Here the text ends as there were no more pieces of paper in the bottle—M.H.]
The following was not included in the message in a bottle but I thought it prudent to include a short bibliography. –M.H.
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. NY: Random House, 1966.
Deluze, Giles and Félix Guatarri. Anti-Oedipus. NY: Viking Press, 1977.
Kerouac, Jack. Maggie Cassidy. NY: Avon, 1959.
Lish, Gordon. Dear Mr. Capote. NY: A William Abrams Book/ Holt Reinhart and
_________. Peru. NY: A William Abrams Books/Dutton, 1986.
_________. Extravaganza. NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1989.
_________. Zimzum. NY: Pantheon, 1993; NY: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006.
_________. Epigraph. NY: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1996.
_________. Arcade or How to Write a Novel. NY: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1998.
Markus, Peter. "Horny dilemma: a former Esquire editor's linguistic acrobatics."
MetroTimes 30 August 2006.
Spencer, Scott. Endless Love. NY: Knopf, 1979.
Swaim, Don. Audio Interview with Gordon Lish. June 29, 1983.
Michael Hemmingson's work has been published in Fiction International, ZYZZYVA, Gargoyle, The Journal of Sex Research, Qualitative Inquiry, Asylum, American Book Review, etc. His forthcoming books are William T Vollmann - Freedom, Redemption, and Prostitution (McFarland & Co.) and Gordon Lish and His Influence on 20th Century Literature (Routledge).