Thoughts About Christine Schutt’s Nightwork

I was recently asked to play a game of “Truth or Truth,” an asinine variant of an already asinine game, “Truth or Dare,” the game a transparent but ultimately futile attempt at sublimation: a redirection from the charged quality of being a stranger in a sleepy town: an escape from the anguish of having been uprooted, that uprooting being self-imposed doing nothing to assuage that feeling. After I said I was “game” (yes, I was willing to play, but I also meant less-than-half-jokingly that I was also permanently injured), I was asked: “What subjects are taboo in your writing?” Perhaps too quickly, I answered, “None.” And so the game moved on to someone else. I say, “too quickly” because after having just finished rereading (for what, the third time?) Christine Schutt’s Nightwork, preparing to teach it tomorrow, I can’t help thinking that Schutt’s writing demonstrates what I can only hope is evident in my writing, that is, a willingness to engage, to represent what is socially or culturally prohibited; to accept, that is, come to some kind of intelligent terms with the unacceptable; to sully the so-called sacred; to allow, in some way, what’s forbidden; to trespass whatever number of boundaries.

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Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012

Photo by Frank Di Piazza

It’s probably too easy a move to begin my very brief remarks about Gass’s use of architecture as a metaphor by trotting out the old horse of a quote about language being the house of Being, before flogging it to death once and for all; but it seems appropriate, nevertheless, to do so, especially when I think about Gass’s positing that the sentence is a container of consciousness. Actually, the quote from Heidegger is useful only when held in contrast with Gass’s ideas about language. Whereas Heidegger placed speech, that is, the continuum of speech, which includes talking, listening, and silence, at the center of his theory of language, Gass does not see writing as a mere supplement to speech. The continuum of writing includes four modes: persuasive, expository, expressive, and literary; and two hybrid modes: argumentative (a fusion of persuasive and expository) and critical (a fusion of expository and expressive) modes. Of these modes, it is the literary that receives the primary focus in Gass’s critical writing. And so, one might perhaps properly say that, for Gass, writing, or, rather, the sentence is the house of becoming. And what is it exactly that becomes in a sentence? For Gass, the sentence is a container of consciousness, a “verbal consciousness, of course, one built of symbols, not sensations; yet one of perceptions all the same: perceptions followed by thoughts like tracking hounds, and infused throughout by the energies of memory and desire, the moods emotions foster, and the reach, through imagery and other juxtapositions, of imagination…” (“The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”). Like any house, this container can take any number of forms:

[S]entences must be understood to contain all sorts of unused syntactical space; places that could be filled with more words, but, in any specific instance, aren’t…Sentences are like latticework, like fences, to be left open or prudently closed, their boards wide or narrow, pointy or level, the spaces between them, ditto….A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a hallway or a chapel; it’s like a spiral stair. To me, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne’s triplet—“Grave stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oak.”—with its relentlessly stressed syllables (seven strong to one weak in the first row, seven to two in the second course, and six to one in the last) resembles a wall. I can even locate spots (the weak stresses) where its stones have crumbled. Families come to pieces the way the word does.

Yes, architecture is a theme running throughout William Gass’s oeuvre, not only in his critical work but in his fictions as well, particularly in The Tunnel, where tunnel-as-metaphor is used as the very structure from which the novel is built.

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“Fifty Literary Pillars or a Few Planks,” by Christine Schutt

The books listed come in order of memory and recent courses taught at high school and college levels; in both instances, pleasure.  Every year:  Shakespeare, Dickinson, Lowell, Bishop, Frost.  I like many living writers, too, but I have decided to interpret the assignment as listing writers whose work I read again and again.

1.    Shakespeare’s plays, particularly: Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, Twelfth Night,  Richard II.  Lines come back that make me cry.  Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never.”

2.  Emily Dickinson
One of the astonishments is how many great poems there are—too many.   The titles may not be rightly capped but these tumble out:
I Felt a Funeral in My Brain
The Bustle in the House
Twas Just this Time last Year I Died
The Distance that the Dead have Gone  .
I heard a Fly Buzz when I Died
Just Lost When I was Saved
Because I could not stop for death
Pain has an element of Blank
A Certain Slant of Light Winter Afternoons
My Life it Stood a loaded Gun
The Soul Selects her own Society
I could not Live with you it would be Life

3.  Robert Frost, especially  “Home Burial”

4.  Elizabeth Bishop, especially the poem “Crusoe in England”

5.  Robert Lowell, especially the last book,  Day by Day

6.  Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights and the essays

7.  W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants

8.  William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

9.  Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

10.  Homer, Just the epithets are colossal. . .Hector, Breaker of Horse

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I Shot the Moon, Calamari Press, 41 / 41, SLEEPINGFISH 8

Click through to read the full review of SLEEPINGFISH, the forty-first (and final installment) in this full-press review of Calamari Press, and one in which I excerpt some tremendous work, praise Calamari Press one last time, give away copies of SLEEPINGFISH 8, and publicly offer a book contract to M. T. Fallon.

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Bite of Schutt

Last Thursday I saw Christine Schutt read her story ‘The Blood Jet’ at the Housing Works Bookstore in Manhattan. I’ve been to over one-hundred readings by fiction writers but this was the most moving. It wasn’t that she performed it so much as she channeled it. But of course what better reader was there? Schutt had worked over those words, those sentences, those movements–she’d created it out of air. Once there had been a blank page and then there was ‘The Blood Jet.’ It’s an angry piece, people treat each other like slop, but the female narrator admits her wrongdoings as well, her naivete. Schutt busted out this murky tune like Coltrane spilling ‘Dear Old Stockholm’ on his eponymous album. She’d didn’t waver at all, the sentences spun, the inflections rose and sank and we were left mesmerized. I started to watch people in the audience. They weren’t moving, they weren’t coughing. The record for the least number of text messages sent during a reading fell.

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Loving Lowell

Having just finished reading Lord Weary’s Castle, Robert Lowell’s second book of poetry, a collection consisting mainly of revisions of his first book (apparently Lowell, like Walt Whitman, constantly whittled away at all of his work all of the time), I came across these lines from “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”:

The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
the fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
the death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
the gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
and hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags
and rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into rags,
gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather.

and so, I think I may have found another poet I can love.

I decided to seek out Lowell’s poetry after reading an interview with Christine Schutt, wherein she shares that when she is feeling “language impoverished” she turns to poetry by the likes of Robert Lowell and Emily Dickinson, and also other contemporary poets, which reminded me of something William Gass wrote in his essay “In Defense of the Book”: “I have only to reach out, as I frequently do, to cant a copy of Urne Buriall from its shelf, often after a day of lousy local prose, and to open it at random, as though it were the Bible, and I was seeking guidance, just to hear again the real rich thing speak forth as fresh as if it were a fountain…”

So I ask each of you: What books do you reach out for after a day of lousy local prose? Which writers do you read when you feel language impoverished?