‘A swooning, a thrill’

Gordon Lish, White Plains: Pieces & Witherlings

Little Island, 283pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780993505690

reviewed by Stuart Walton

Is there anything to be said for old age? It all depends on what is to become of us. Will it be recollections in tranquillity or futile raging on the blasted heath? 'We breathe, we change,' Beckett's Hamm says to his servant Clov. 'We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!' – the living reassurance that Nature hasn't forgotten us. A second childishness and mere oblivion, sans everything, doesn't sound too bad when weighed against the terrors of the first childhood, adolescent anxiety, the coronary seizures, the menopauses and pained resumptions of middle age. And then there is the veneration we can expect to attend even the mildest competences of later life. 'If you can eat a boiled egg in England at ninety,' Alan Bennett observed, 'they think you deserve the Nobel Prize.'

Gordon Lish's latest collection of short pieces, all of which are narrated in the voice of somebody called Gordon Lish, manoeuvre themselves with difficulty in the cramped mental space of the octogenarian, bumping into the furniture of memory and language, constantly at risk not of falling, or falling silent, but of having what the elderly call 'a Fall', a lapsarian turning-point in which previous aptitudes are surrendered for good, their loss only adding to the quantum of frustration and helplessness.

Lish has always been interested in the deceptions and perspectival illusions of memory. His 1986 novel Peru claims to recollect a childhood incident in which, at six, he killed another boy in a sandpit, bludgeoning him over the head with a plastic hoe. In Zimzum (1993) the narrator, one Gordon Lish who may or may not be related to the Gordon Lish of White Plains, recalls a childhood trip to the beach, as well as undertaking an audit of past sexual encounters, the latter bearing no ready relation to the present-day purchase of an outsized vibrator that, like many another aspect of a poorly designed life, doesn't appear to fit the orifice for which it is intended. Simple pleasure turns out to be a technologically precarious matter. If the material world is so recalcitrant, what hope can there be in the once sustaining comforts of the immaterial, which are all that the elderly have left?

Except where they don't. Hardly anything is more unyielding to the grip than language, a century-old apprehension that Lish demonstrates with all the obsessive tenacity of the modernist masters. If previous works of Lish's have conjured the verbal ectoplasms of Joyce, Bernhard, Gertrude Stein, the presiding spectre at the present volume's banquet of fragments is Beckett: 'Yes, yes, yes, there were, I am not in the least ill at ease to admit it to you both openly and that other word, candidly, there was, or were, years and years of therapy (therapeutic appliqués), beforehand needed, and naturally I would not be the brand of humanity which I am was I not (were I not?) therapized, and that's the man in me himself speaking unto you, so take it from me, get help . . .’

The relentless torsions of synonymous clauses, the digressive repetitive clarifications, by which those who have come to suspect that holding on to meaning through language is like nailing jelly to the wall, are a hallmark of fading powers. Repeatedly, Lish's prose dramatises this: 'I've reached the age of guessing, and then of abandoning the excruciation of guesswork and settling for what seems, in the exertion, a hint more reminiscent than that does.' Theodor Adorno observes in Minima Moralia that, in grossly inequitable society, the poor chew their words for want of having anything more sustenant to feast on, and something of that recourse to the materiality of language often returns in late life.

In a particularly discomfiting short piece towards the end of this collection, 'Does This Mean Anythugng?', the writer's failing eyesight and clumsy digits keep inducing him to hit the wrong keys on the computer, the result being a fog of typos through which one distantly discerns the actual anguished monologue. When the keyboard is behaving, it is pounded remorselessly for the apposite turn of phrase, the correct spelling of words that have drowned in the swell of transatlantic orthography, the niceties of punctuation, the haunted feeling that one may be speaking in one's own hapless neologisms. 'Titling' or 'titlement'? 'Shilly-shallying'? ‘Shilly-shallowing?'

Not that desperate frailty is the sole, or even predominant, tone. White Plains – the title is the name of a clinic with which the author has become over-acquainted – also resounds with a more infuriated voice, one that keeps rising into WHOLE CLAUSEFULS OF APOPLECTIC CAPS. If memory falters over the all-important trivia of life, it preserves in pristine amber the provocations and seething resentments visited on us by inhuman clinicians, bombastic publishers, idiot neighbours. When roused to this pugilistic mood, all piss and vinegar, the texts revel in their own vituperation. In a delicious dialogue piece, 'Investigations', a lady by the name of Joyce Carol Oates calls a firm of private detectives to complain about a book called White Plains, not one word of which corresponds to the publisher's claims for it on the book-flap, but in which the author, whom she has it on good authority is crazy, has resorted to the most desperate 'self-cannibalism'.

The hardest trick of all to pull off in this kind of writing is the effect of tenderness, a trope in which Beckett himself was, sparingly enough to be sure, a virtuoso. In the final item here, Lish recalls reading an Edward Loomis short story, 'A Kansas Girl' (1964), a Carveresque miniature in which a woman who has lived a dutiful unmarried life looking after her father takes a trip at retirement age to the Grand Canyon, a successful short vacation that crowns her life with a sense of settled repletion in which she can die happily. Lish confesses that, teaching the work to his literary students over the years, he has been repeatedly moved to the point of tears by it.

Undoubtedly this volume's most potent piece is 'What's Wrong With This Book?', a 10-page meditation on the death of his second wife Barbara from Lou Gehrig's disease in 1994. Bereavement is a world partly composed of the unchanged belongings and mementoes of the departed, and partly of the transformations that they didn't live to see, the unappealable injustice of untimely death, its enormous insolence and the absences it tears in the tissues of existence. 'Is it thus with everyone who's gone on to live when his reason for living has died – that the one living is seeing what the one not living cannot and the one living ceaselessly hears himself sighing oh oh oh, the wonder of the wonderment of being, the want of wanting time to be ceded back to the one person most cheated of the delectation of the prized.'

If the ancient cultural paradigms of old age as the time of serene wisdom have withered to nothing in an era when casual discrimination against seniors is all of a piece with government jeremiads about the wretched drain on society caused by people living longer, what nobody wants squarely to confront is that this is a time of life, and always was, in which a way must be learned of negotiating the concurrence of physical disintegration and emotional loss. Granted, these conjunctures can blight any time of life, but old age is when they become normative, part of the routine fabric of going on. 'Keep going, going on,' Beckett's monologist in The Unnamable (1959) advises himself, 'call that going, call that on.'

What there is to shore against the long intervals of fear and instability is the occasional surrender to the kind of emotional release that can happen between father and son. These moments may not be accompanied by hugging or tears in the cinematic idiom, but something happens nonetheless, 'a hedge against death, a fugitive, virile denial of it – a swooning, a thrill – lasting maybe a couple of terrific curative instants', but which leave you the better for them, 'reminded, as it were, of an uncanniness, for the rest of your days, it has saved you, as men, to share'. The rest is writing, the wresting of obstinate language into a shape resembling truth, and Lish is still doing that too.