You Have Arms to Bar Yourself from People: Gary Lutz and I Looked Alive

Alissa Nutting


Gary Lutz
I Looked Alive
Black Square Editions/The Brooklyn Rail
Oct. 1, 2010
190 p. $17.00

Just when ubiquitous Eat, Pray, Love fervor threatened to taint popular society with a general sense of fulfillment, the expanded reissue of Gary Lutz’s I Looked Alive is here to provide us counterinsurgents with a potent antivenom. Full of characters determined to ache and scathing observations about the ways life can fail to satisfy, Lutz’s stories offer unprecedented access to brutal clarity.

Beginning in a toilet stall and ending face-deep between a woman’s legs, it’s not a book for those who insist on privacy. The opening story, “A Woman with No Middle Name,” starts with the male narrator discussing how he compulsively slips off from his wife to have homoerotic encounters in public bathroom stalls. The matter-of-fact prose artfully avoids sounding confessional: the narrator makes it clear that these are not embarrassments or shameful secrets but details. Performing fellatio inside a commode is treated as a prosaic non-event, like picking up the dry-cleaning. Indeed, in several of the stories the public restroom is the new bedroom, the toilet the new bed. And since urinal cakes and sentimentality don’t mix, this makes for a refreshing look at sexual encounters divorced of a need or expectation for permanence. Such meetings are temporary by mandate: expelled, left behind, and forgotten.

These lavatory trysts are peppered with declarations such as, “some days the whole world lags and withholds,” and “everything makes a point of taking itself down a peg.” Lutz’s one-liners are one of the book’s greatest treats, and are often written out like pronouncements from a depressive Confucius: “Life isn’t apportioned equally into people”; “Whenever a large dog died, an even larger cage was left behind to fill”; “There is no use in hearing the term ‘apartment complex’ unless it is taken immediately to mean a syndrome, a fiesta of symptoms.” Stark circumstances, dry wit and atypical sentence structure allow Lutz to lay bare his poignant truisms without seeming hokey or forced. Many of the story titles even function this way. Take, for example, “People Shouldn’t Have to Be the Ones to Tell You.”

Always in first person, the stories’ changing cast of narrators rocks back and forth between the poles of male and female in a playfully seasick continuum that explores various gradations of sexuality and gender. Nothing is fixed, and no experience is off-limits—except, of course, happiness. In fact, these characters’ complex machinations to ration and compartmentalize desire seem to be their only method to move towards something resembling contentment. Imagine a retelling of “The Gift of the Magi” in which rather than two people exchanging useless gifts, it’s one individual, cutting off a part of himself to feed another part, which then, ironically, loses its appetite the moment the offering is made.

All of which is to say that within these stories, intimacy is not really an option. Lutz comes as close as he can to excising  emotion. (One character remarks, “I…had always lived a little in advance of my feelings.”) The result of this amputation is engagingly new prose: the reader examines action in and of itself. The plots move through the illogic of escalation: a baby dies, its father begins cross-dressing, and its mother solicits a man for a threesome. A father insists his two estranged daughters take baby steps towards one another (mainly so they’ll each leave him alone), and they end up marrying one another (the kiss at the end of the ceremony is brilliantly described as “swift but depthening”). One is reminded—though not really—of the saccharine and infamous plastic bag taken up by the wind in American Beauty, the suggestion that there is, after all, something to be said for movement alone. Except when discussing these stories, a plastic bag is far too hygienic and impersonal a comparison; a colostomy bag would be a better fit.

Lutz doesn’t strive for depth. Instead he purposefully shirks it off, but it’s a masterful sleight-of-hand: the book’s humor effortlessly holds up a sadness hundreds of times its own weight. In the story “Carriers” a child’s death gets explained in the abbreviated fashion of a deli order: a woman is married, pregnant, and then planning her deceased child’s funeral within the span of nine lines (the funeral director explains to the mother “how he wished that to have been clumsily loved could just this once be counted a life in itself”). Cackling at this dark humor only to recall the context and feel like a bad person is a response that seems congruent with a major theme Lutz drives home throughout the book: what aspect of life isn’t predestined to make one feel bad?

One possible answer might be no-strings-attached sex. Physical actions such as this are the only ways these characters can join together. Lutz’s story “The Least Sneaky of Things” argues that we connect with one another so thoroughly through touch, contagion and contaminant (just think of how many sets of hands have brushed across public objects) that perhaps connecting on an emotional level as well is actually overkill. Isn’t cellular contact literally as close as people can get?  Feelings, as these stories repeatedly prove, are not as easily transferrable as dead skin.

In these stories, basic life skills such as saying “hello” are as agonizing as a hermetic computer programmer’s first ballroom dancing lesson. But the point is that the disenfranchised characters showcase the fluidity and prevalence of isolation. The walls preventing intimacy are insurmountable and yet they also seem to be each character’s most prized view—when these individuals pull back the window blinds in the Motel 6 of the heart, nothing would please them more than looking out the glass to see the view entirely obstructed by a brick wall. A mother instructs her children “that you had arms to bar yourself from people.” Two lovers never sleep in bed at the same time; they opt for the floor instead because the communal bed is too frightening a symbol. Characters do not know exactly where their partners work, or the names of their partners’ other lovers, and they most certainly do not ask. Auxiliary characters are even more vaguely constructed, often just one hilarious detail thrown upon an otherwise undefined personality: “These were unpleased people in airplane attire.” Lutz’s characters have hidebound personalities that are scientific forces, like gravity, that just have to be accepted: “He never stayed around for things.”

With emotions and relationships stuck behind Plexiglas, existence is mapped anew through blind attempts at coping. The only certainties people have of one another are traces of physical evidence: indicators of health or rather its deterioration, their hair, their teeth and the things that can fall away from the body yet still magically, somehow, remain that person. These are stories of microcosmic importance, in which a hair left on a bar of soap is a revelation and a divorce hardly merits a full sentence. The narrator in “You’re Your Own Age” confesses: “I was cozying up to whatever was nothing to people. A loose string on the sleeve of someone’s work sweater? I would pick it off unnoticed and give it place, keepsaken privilege, perpetuance, behind a window in my wallet.” Intimacy is therefore inverted; the closest you can be to someone is to handle a discarded piece of his or her lint.

Bonding mechanisms within the characters are hopelessly farsighted: total strangers can be present enough to cause feeling, yet family members stir little. In the ultimate reversal of emotional polarities, parents regard their children as little more than unfortunate bodily expulsions, byproducts of an orgasm that inevitably disappointed (and in the dictionary of I Looked Alive, “disappoint” appears as part of every definition). In “Fingerache,” a mother recounts her words to her children: “I said that as soon as they felt ready I would show them how to take any emotion and put a nice, bright costume over it.” Attempting to understand, the middle child questions, “She’s saying there’s no need to tell people apart?” It’s a message that’s confirmed within the story “Eminence,” where a character says, “you could run your feelings over one person and get them to come out on somebody else.”

Soap is mentioned in most of the stories. Yet it, too, is a disappointment: it never gets anything clean, for we are always oozing and shedding and trying on different people. One man considers of his female partner: “Men, women, were maybe not her type.” Like isotopes, these irregular characters busily exchange portions of themselves with one another. They do not, however, ever find the right swap that turns them stable.

The result of these struggles is off-color, thought-provoking writing. It’s a pleasure to read and yet still forces us to confront the feasibility of ever truly being whole. Though the title itself suggests that being alive concerns something more than what these characters are able to manage for themselves, Lutz implies that miseries are indeed both human and inescapable: we get bored, we disconnect, we long for more than we can get and less than what we have.


Buy a copy of I Looked Alive here.

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