When I was young, the main bathroom of our house had this wallpaper decorated with large archaic sea-faring vessels. The design was executed in billions of tiny, thin lines, and while there were many different ships and many details shown on each of these many ships, each individual line consisted of the same width, and there wasn’t any shadow or perspective drawn, so that while there was a whole lot going on on this wallpaper, everything blended into the same texture and I really had to concentrate, from only two or three feet away, to make out the particularities of any individual ship. It didn’t take much to see the wallpaper as only swaths and stringy lines of color. The back color was a light, fleshy tan, while the ships had some blue to them: a deeper steel, slate blue and what a box of crayons would call cerulean. All of the ships had huge, billowing sails and were set into the tan back drop with rippling waves. The pattern of the ships on the wallpaper was sporadic and complex enough to not appear symmetrical, designed, planned. I had to count the ships from a close distance, marking each off, to see where the pattern began and ended.
Picking up Gordon Lish over the weekend, I was surprised at how much of the language, syntax and content was similar to Gary Lutz. I had never read any Lish before, only knowing him as the ‘great editor’ the ‘ruthless professor,’ thinking of him sweetly, demurely, as only ‘Papa.’ Here is the opening of a story entitled ‘Shit’:
"I like talking about people sitting on toilets. It shows up in the bulk of my speech. Wherever at all in keeping with things, I try to work it in. You just have to look back at the stories I have had printed to see that I am telling the truth. People on toilets is certain to show up with more than passing incidence. I will even go so far as to say that where you find a story with a person on a toilet in it, forget the name that’s signed as author – no one but me could have written the thing. Indeed, it is inconceivable to me that I didn’t.
But the one I’ve got now, this one here, it promises to be the best of the type.
Or anyhow the purest.
Well, the truest, then – the one with nothing in it made up.
The other thing about it that I like is that it could not be simpler to tell – nothing in it but just a man sitting on a toilet in it and the wallpaper in it that the man is looking at.
Oh, of course – not just a man in general but me, in fact – the one who is doing all of this telling right here this instant.
In fact, I would never tell a story about anyone else. For one thing, it could never be true, could it? I mean, what do I know about anyone else – or care to? Good Christ, I have all I can do to marshal even a small enough interest in myself.
Or do I mean large enough?
I don’t know."
What’s being done here?
How is this a ‘story’?
We begin with the sort of straight-forward, abrupt confession we expect from children just potty trained but perhaps not in school yet; private, bodily – disarming in its bluntness, socially awkward, funny. The confession puts us in a position of involuntary ally toward the narrator, or, in the chance we don’t find this confession amusing, turns us away (either prudishly or with a tired exhaustion – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends tell me to stop talking about the poop already). The second sentence complicates this relationship – the advanced, sophisticated language challenging the simplicity of the sentence before, adding texture and depth to the original thought. Talking about people on toilets is not just a pleasure but a recurring action – not just something the narrator likes but something the narrator does often. The third sentence, with a complex syntax that slows our reading even within the simple, easy word choice, lets us know that this action, this pleasure, is pursued – it is intentional, the narrator is driven toward it. The direct address then invites us into the story itself – our presence is a consciously required element, we are asked to participate actively in the story. While no action has taken place in the story in terms of a plot, what’s being built here is this relationship between the narrator and the reader. We are being asked to consider not the scene or action of a man shitting but the narrator’s relationship to his subject. We progress through the story being granted increasingly personal, increasingly intimate information: “Good Christ, I have all I can do to marshal even a small enough interest in myself.” What is at stake here, what we are being asked to look at, is the narrator’s dependence on and limitation with story and language. “Or do I mean large enough? I don’t know.”
I obviously can’t reprint the entire story here, but it goes through the narrator’s habits as a writer, some childhood memories, and the story about the shitting and the wallpaper, “this story, the wallpaper” doesn’t really come into play until the third page, and we get the story of a difficult shit, and the narrator holding onto the wallpaper: “I thought: ‘Hang onto the wallpaper.’ I mean, with my mind, with that.” and the description of that wallpaper.
When I was little, in the bathroom with the wallpaper with the ships on it, there was also a wooden magazine rack that was always stuffed with newspapers. Sometimes, there’d be a New Yorker, but the New Yorkers were mostly kept in my mother’s bathroom. The magazine rack sat directly in front of the toilet. The rack was simple, old-fashioned, with vertical columns that held the newspapers in place. Sometimes there’d be a newspaper open on the floor. Whenever I sat on the toilet I would look at the newspapers to make sure no photographs of people were showing, and if there were, I’d make sure to cover them up. I would turn the newspaper around in the rack or fold it differently so that the photograph would face the other way. Sometimes, with newspapers that were on the floor, I would just put my foot on top of the photograph, covering it up. I didn’t want the people in those photographs looking at me.
"I sat there holding on.
I mean to tell you this – that I had had the thought that I was doing it for nothing less than life. Pretty dumb, right? After all, all it was was just a lot of shit. If anything, I should have been joyous, been jubilant, been pleased as punch. Hey, come on – I was going, wasn’t I?
But I was scared to death.
I thought: ‘You think you’re so smart, then make something out of this.’
Skip it, what the facts are – I don’t trade in science. I say that you just heard a story. I say your life, it saved your life."