Online Edition: Spring 2004

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Denny Smith

Robert Glück

Clear Cut Press ($12.95)

by Gail Scott

For me, the arbitrary status of The Review as respected judgment based on common notions of value seems disingenuous. Reading is a conversation, a dance, and the music in our reading-heads a potpourri of the cultural, historical space we read from—and toward. I will say right away that for some time I have been in conversation with Robert Glück about innovative prose, and I am a fan of his limpid, textured, and very funny fiction. Not that we agree about everything. I come from northeastern predominately French-speaking Québec, and Bob is a Californian: we pull the narrative blanket in different directions. Yet reading his fiction utterly satisfies both my Euro-inflected desire for writing-as-thinking and my North American love of glass surface. Denny Smith, Glück's most recent collection of stories—the first in 10 years, just published with novelist Matthew Stadler's new publishing company, Clear Cut Press—is impressive in this respect.

The 12 stories here are gems of plastic composition, of remarkable narrative adeptness, complete with the diversionary tactics, the asides, the aphoristic pauses that multiply layers of awareness and reading pleasure in the best contemporary fiction. In prose, it is extremely difficult to offer pleasure and the contradictory path to knowledge in the same breath. How—without missing a beat—does the lover in the title story, who is being dumped in a pretty café garden, end up in a compromising conversation with Imelda Marcos, wearing polka dot scarf, picking a thread off his jacket and calling him a Momma's boy? "We don't talk about betrayal, but I wonder, Can I talk about my life without altering it?" asks the narrator after losing his half-crippled father's money to a boardwalk con-artist to whom the wayward son is attracted. Another story, "Batlike, Wolflike (A Memoir)," beats a desperate moonlit tune as the excessively earthy narrator rushes to meet the classy lover known as Your Majesty. What is incredible about this story is the way the subtitles (Edible, Tasting, Waiting) and the movement of sentences emphasize the "animal passions" while the narrator participates in the usual civic gestures, such as getting on and off planes: "Yes, that's him, sprawled at the back of the waiting area in Newark, someone's smoke drifting across his lack of expression."

These stories are as private as autobiography, yet splayed into culture. Everywhere the lover's greed is framed by the kitschy articles of consumerism that help construct him: the triangle of lime in the plastic cup; the plaid seat airplane upholstery; the blue bubbles in the glass of Calistoga on the café table when Denny Smith is dumping him; the "American" boys in the recycled porn magazine he masturbates to in "Workload." One of these boys, J.T., "visits me after this story is published—things like that happen. My pain does not diminish; it continues as its own story read at the same time as other stories. If they all take the shape of J.T. getting fucked, perhaps there is more content in the world than form . . ." This last might be read as a dig at the language poets, with whom Glück, as a "new-narrative" writer, found himself arguing at the beginning of his career. Or it might be about balance and proportion in any work of art. Does the hero lack an identity, a Dad? whines the narrator. And empathy does a two-step, somewhere between pity and laughter.

It's rare that fiction mirrors the immortal authors who get quoted in exegesis. This book is a breathing exposition of the Artaud citation introducing "Forced Story: Conviction": "From this pain rooted in me like a wedge, at the center of my purest reality, at the point of my sensibility where the two worlds of body and mind are joined, I learn to distract myself by the effect of a false suggestion. . . ." Its fey gay narrator makes us glad an older man is writing about sex, his stories jerking and loving their way through adolescent memoria, suburban tracts, a Tijuana shopping arcade, a Women's Clinic (where the narrator's a hapless sperm donor) until he becomes one of "The Purple Men" and "Purple Men 2000," the lovely end pieces of the collection. These are tableaux vivants, bathed in purple, decomposing and recomposing; they could be paintings. But the pretty opening tableau, starring Trent and Daryl, turns out to have been inspired by a 1978 scientific experiment that caused purple dye to spread through whole bodies when painted on two gay men's anuses before sex. In a typical Glück turnaround, the piece builds into a wonderful inside/outside portrait, tracing gay history from the halcyon pre-AIDS period, through AIDS and beyond. I will end with its opening sally, which says more than I can about how Glück's narrating, proceeding with clear little baby steps, sends us flying into the abyss that underscores History:

They are not entirely purple yet. They have purple shadows and the space around them protects and simplifies their nakedness with pinks and salmons of undifferentiated flesh. One man reaches through the other's crotch to pin down a wrist, getting a spot of purple, I guess, on his forearm. The scene may be naturalistic, but it conveys the interior effulgence of the lovers, sensual immersion akin to repose, power unconfined by definite boundaries. Really they are just wildlife in the garden. They strain away and toward and also try to remain still. White-coats-of-objectivity peer through one-way glass.

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Spring 2004 Table of Contents