1. Loosened association
2. Antic behavior
4. Morbid ambivalence
Ignore the fact that he’s written about eating shit, or about stabbing someone in the eye and hearing the particular click as the knife tip punctures a contact lens. Forget the fact that he was so sure Dean Moriarty was a real person that he moved his entire family to San Francisco to hang out with “the man,” or that he published a story under the pretext that it was written by Salinger. Gordon Lish is the Andy Kaufman of the literary world. A maniac of publishing, wit, and dessert, Mr. Lish is a mythic figure—a supra-monster, distorting and bending American fiction in its own shiny be-stabbed eye.
At the peak of his powers, Lish dubbed himself “Captain Fiction.” As a teacher (for Gary Lutz, Amy Hempel, Will Eno, etc.) he railed for perfect, compressed sentences; as an editor (for Raymond Carver, Esquire, the Quarterly, etc.) he slashed and compacted with line-item-veto fury; and as a novelist (the infuriatingly riveting Extravaganza: A Joke Book) he is capable of some of the most grandiose, gleeful overindulgences imaginable. He has long ceased publishing and writing, but his influence is out there, watching you, breathing.
Lish and friends used to meet and eat weekly in the now-defunct “Pork Store” on Broadway and Broome—Lish’s favorite haven for marinated meats—where he would hold court with whoever was within arm’s reach. Because he is so reluctant to answer any question put directly into his face, and since most of his novels are written in letter-form, we were forced/honored to interview him via chicken-scratch postcards. The results are a hodge-pong ball of randomalia that leak secret truths about a “man” who is unknowable, untouchable, un-unintelligible.
—John Lee and Vernon Chatman
Dear Mr. Lish,
- Can you infuriate people into liking you?
- Does it matter? The infuriation. The liking.
- What is that which hammered you into the shape you are in?
- What matters most? (A list.)
- Describe the perfect description.
Gordon Lish replies:
According to my staff, this was to have been a one-question, per leg, letteration. Yet you ask, in yours last, excuse me, five questions. Tell you what: I’ll, to the best of my ability, answer one, a word I just had to italicize at my own expense, and another, if we are counting all such exertions obtained from me so far—replying to one of the five, you see—em dashes, earlier, ignored at the worsening peril. To wit: what is that which hammered you into the shape you are in? All right, if this is what you want to know. I, Gordon Lish, will tell you what hammered me into the shape I am in. Was maybe seven, when, come summer, was required to spend it killing Japanese beetles. Oh, and, remaining bent to the grass, dig out, tear out, wrench out—with all my defeated wiles—crabgrass.
Yours truly, etc.,
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