Gaudy Mayhem

Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood

And Other Stories, 120pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781911508243

reviewed by Jacinta Mulders

I had never heard of Christine Schutt before coming to Pure Hollywood, her third collection of short stories and sixth work of fiction. This review came about at the recommendation of an editor friend, one knowledgeable of a different literary zeitgeist to the one I usually dip into. Schutt has many accolades to her name: a Guggenheim Fellowship, teaching posts on American MFA programmes (among them Columbia and Syracuse), stories in places like Ben Marcus’ celebrated New American Stories (2015). She has twice won an O. Henry Award for her short stories.

Schutt is lauded by big names on the book’s cover: George Saunders, Ottessa Moshfegh, John Ashbery. Despite this praise, I arrived at the impression from the blurbs on the back that her work is difficult to frame, with Moshfegh settling on the phrase ‘exquisitely weird.’ Schutt is associated with Diane Williams and her literary magazine NOON Annual, a publication known for championing work which is avant-garde and oblique. For this reason I expected certain things of her writing: a lack of ready access, an articulation of the world that is foggy and lushly convoluted. It is a connotation she does not dispute, saying in interviews that her work calls for ‘close, hard readers of fiction.’ I was in the middle of moving countries when I picked up the collection and found the prospect of reading it daunting. Would I have the acumen to deal with something deliberately difficult, where the articulation of the world is so unfixed?

I needn’t have been so trepidatious. The writing wasn’t onerous, but dense, fast-paced and joyful. Like all good fiction the stories are led by plot and character, and any ensuing ‘weirdness’ is almost always in service of this. These stories readily open themselves, painting humanity with grace, charm and humour in prose that is rapid, fluid and assured. The collection, after all my hesitancies and pre-mediations, was an extreme pleasure to read, and I recommend it unreservedly.

Pure Hollywood is confidently American and confident in its involvement with American life. The landscapes evoke America and the ways we tend to think of it: California, Wisconsin, Manhattan and Maine. The book features long drives out into the desert among places titled ‘Culp, Canyon, Sweetbush’ or, later in Wisconsin, ‘Door County, 1951,’ where a man remembers ‘poking raw squirrel over smoky coals, washing the meal down with whisky.’ Landscape is a site for the characters to dream, agitate, be reflected in. See how Schutt so firmly occupies a summer in New York and the emergent preoccupations of the mothers who inhabit it: ‘That was the summer when little parts of little bodies turned up in KFC buckets in Dumpsters in the city, the summer of 1984, weeks of record heat and brown air. Colonies of plague-ugly rats parties under park benches, hauling off big finds, pretzels and buns, acting bold.’ In fiction where consciousness, character and perspective are often deliberately untethered, the focus on landscape provides an anchorage for the characters and ourselves.

Schutt’s attention to detail, too, is deliberate, precise and telling. See, for example: ‘Dan looked into the orange-yolk bell of a quaintly named daylily;’ ‘White chips of birds passed fast overhead, and the water was bright; they looked too long at its ceaseless signals and at noon they zombie into it;’ ‘Opalesce is a gauzy word to describe what the sky is doing.’ Coupled with the emotionality of her work, this specificity lends the prose a sense of movement which is suggestive of life’s rhythmic undertow. Despite its cacophonic quality, the descriptions resonate with sparseness and clarity – nothing is included for the sake of it. Through Schutt’s insistence on a shellacked and prismed world through which her characters are refracted, the reader finishes her work feeling very steeped in life.

The stories are firmly contemporary – Schutt knows the Baroqueness and indolence of middle-class Western life. In ‘Pure Hollywood’ she describes the ‘gummy sieve of social media’ and, later in the story, the predatory sexual violence of a male comedian, rendered with distressing power. The final story, ‘The Lady from Connecticut,’ feels the most explicitly political, its opening page full of the thinginess of capitalism and its trappings. The muted news near the kitchen island is playing ‘gaudy mayhem.’ Meanwhile the protagonist is a loose agent, drunk from her day in the city and surrounded by luxury shopping bags, overthinking her existence on a bench outside a church: ‘You’re alive! You’re well. Think of the war-ravaged poor rocking in a boat in the middle of a black sea, desperate: you’re not one of those.’ Schutt seems to want to mock us for our stupidity, indifference, in the same way she gently mocks her characters and their tragedies. We have no problems. How is it that we should live in the world?

The writing is serious but does not take itself seriously, making fun of the situations it occupies. Deliberate cliché and the indulgent largesse of self-pity are all part of the mix. So too are irreverence and honesty: the personal trainer of an ageing actor ‘was from one of those places in Eastern Europe that [he] associated with mass graves in the woods and wet wool coats.’

Along with the book’s idiosyncrasy and the opportunities it provides to look at life and at people, one of its most arresting qualities is the speed and unpredictability of plot, the racing twists, whiplashes, then moments of sculpted care and calm. Listen, here, to a description of a woman’s grieving for her dead partner. The seasons are passing: ‘She read; she wrote, she must have had lunch but she could not remember. The scenes that blew past came out in bands of colour. The wispy complication of bare branches was added magic; the shadows were dark and sure. She put Owen in her poem, Owen or the shape of him.’ These lines encapsulate Schutt’s ready emotionality and the easy, gorgeous grace with which it is executed. I read them like poetry.

Pure Hollywood falls into the category of type of fiction we should be reaching for: fresh, dry, telling. You can sense the work that has gone into it, and yet it is clean to read; it never feels laboured. It is a real joy to access something where all the facets of the prose enable each other – where the writer is not simply enabling the writing but creating writing that enables itself. This is a gift and a skill. Read this book.