REVIEW: Death and So Forth by Gordon Lish

Reviewed by Shura Price, Andy Fraser, Steve Welsh, Theresa Sowerby & Zoe Collins from Todmorden Wednesday Writers  

Writer: Gordon Lish

Publisher: Dzanc Books

Release date: 13th April 2021

Price: £17.92

Invigorating and frustrating in equal measure, this collection of stories does not provide the reader with painless pleasure. Directness doesn’t feature much in Gordon Lish’s style, which is understandable when your themes are aging, illness and death; and your subjects and protagonists are, we suppose, people you love and care about.

Gordon Lish was new to many of the group so some initial responses were unfiltered, unaffected by his status and fame. Comments ranged from the blunt ‘impenetrable’, to the more generous: ‘simultaneously whimsical and clodhopping’. One of the members of the group who was familiar with Lish’s work, found the stories dated, and ‘dull and derivative’. So, did we consider this collection the self-indulgent, pretentious ramblings of a contrary old man, glory days long gone? Maybe…or then again, on closer reading, maybe not.

Mr Lish loves words, no surprise given his fame, profession, and association with many highly respected writers; most notably, Raymond Carver, whose stories Lish edited, thus ensuring Carver’s success. And no surprise therefore that his style is self-reflective, constantly questioning, revising, editing his own narrative. I wonder if there is real self-doubt lurking behind this circumlocution. Or is it only a wry device, deliberately infuriating and wrong footing the reader with meanderings and lists of synonyms? Pretentious, showing off his cleverness, leaning on his reputation? Or perhaps his oblique, tangential approach contains apprehension – of the subject itself – of his writing being judged by the ‘literary giants’ he has worked with. Is it a way of disarming the reader? Certainly the Word in Front (as Lish titles his foreword) invites us to be kind, however much the length and circumlocution seem to undermine that appeal.

One of our group remarked on Lish’s reputation for ‘dysfunctional prose’ , perhaps in this collection it is effective as a way of expressing how grief, loss and the prospect of death affect our mental capabilities, maybe emphasising the confusion, lack of confidence and hesitancy that creep in with age.

This comes across strongly in the piece Grace, in his account of a visit to a restaurant when his wife is dying. A touching and funny occasion revealing the indifference of the world to their pain; repetition and muddle used to great comic effect in the bizarre ending underlining how grief and sorrow can disable a person at a very basic physical level.

Lish is adept at portraying the banal, daily discomforts of life, its tedious times and awkward moments. Often his stories through style and structure create those feelings of discomfort for the reader.  Sometimes it seems, in a way that is a bit too gleefully self indulgent such as in Naugahyde; but it’s hard not to laugh at his audacity in stringing us along with this pair of ‘aging pedantic lovers’, but then cleverly burying details of the fear of dying in the banality of their repetitive dull conversation.

Despite the contrived ambiguity and strangeness, Lish has a sharp eye for the power of small moments, mundane actions and what they can signify. For example the child’s anxiety on a fishing trip in Exelcsior:

I fitted myself into the prow, probably shivering from fear, the crotch of the short pants crowding my miserable putz …’

or the need of the bereaved writer for human touch in Into the Bargain:

not having exhibited to this person just what fucking grief is all about, which is when the woman gives me a look…touching my arm again, into the bargain…’

or the way routine professionalism, ‘every conventional ministration of the waiter’, in Grace causes an emotional response in the distressed husband: ‘carried me into a small weeping’.

In these depictions of painful and tender moments there is a quality of directness and authenticity suggesting lived experience, and a willingness to open up to the reader.

Death and so Forth is no doubt a challenging read, but there is enough humanity, mischievous humour and understanding of the disappointments of aging and the dislocating pain of grief in this collection to make the effort of reading worthwhile.

You can pre-order your copy of Death and So Forth here.

Gordon Lish is an acclaimed author and editor. A former editor at Esquire and Alfred A. Knopf, he is celebrated for his notable work with authors including Raymond Carver, Denis Donoghue, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Gary Lutz, Ben Marcus, and Christine Schutt, among many others. His previous books include Dear Mr. Capote, What I Know So Far, Mourner at the Door, Extravaganza, White Plains, Peru, Zimzum, The Selected Stories of Gordon Lish, and more. He lives in New York.

Todmorden Wednesday Writers are a group of writers, performers and reviewers based in Todmorden, a little town on the balance-point between Leeds and Manchester. Find them on Twitter @TodWedWriters