A review of Gordon Lish’s novel (spokening) Cess


-What is the book about?


-I mean, like, what’s the plot?

-Okay. I’ll try. The narrator is Gordon Lish—a version of Gordon Lish, of course (Gordon!), who tells us about a cryptographic “test” his aunt, an agent for the National Reconnaissance Office, sent him in 1963.

-Why did she send him this test?

-Poor Gordon was jobless and had a wife and kids to support and-

-You mean his kid the novelist Atticus Lish?

-Please don’t interrupt; no, these, these are other kids; Atticus comes later, but Lish does write about him in Cess. Anyway-

-What does he say about Atticus?

-He writes that “Atticus is, a, you know, a writer by Christ—is a novelist, by Christ, is indeed, if I, by Keerist, may say so myself, ever so proudly so, ever so rivalrously so, a novelist of nothing less than of rank.” Okay?


-So: The narrator gets this “test” from his aunt and-

-What does it look like? What is it?

-It’s a long list of esoteric words.

-May I see?

-It’s a pretty long list.

-How long?

-About 170 pages, about 22 words per page.

-May I see a section then?




-That’s what I thought too! In fact, I first got a digital copy from publisher OR—so I was just reading, you know, on an iPad—which is, I mean, if you can imagine, I wasn’t doing the flicking through thing, the physical browsing thing—so I had no idea that there would be this big long list of words as like, the main course. I was shocked. It was electric.

-Isn’t that all a book is though—like a list of words, arranged somehow? Isn’t that then maybe what Lish is doing here then? I’m reminded of something Derrida-

Sh. Please.

-and of course John Cage has-

Sh. Shhhhhh.

-And Blanchot, of course, has written-

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhut the fuck up.

-Okay. So, this list of words, it’s like, a test you say?


-And Lish is sort of, like, passing the test onto the reader?


-Did you pass the test?

-No, no, not the first time—or maybe not at all—I mean, I don’t even know if I read it properly, you know? It was exhausting, I didn’t know the words, etc. But when I reread it as a physical/paper copy, I kinda sorta maybe got it, or at least noticed some clues/keys. I’ll leave it at that.

-May I see a little more?






-An obsolete form of “devastating.”

-So, okay, so—most of the book is this big long list-test-cryptogram?

-Yes and no—there are two notes, one before the list—which the table of contents titles “In the Cesspool”—and one after. And a “Postfix” which undoes the answer to the test, perhaps. The second note is the real animating force of the text—there’s a lot going on there—Lish’s life is in there, sort of-

-You mean like it’s a memoir?

-Well I have it on authority from a Lish scholar that “Almost everything he [Lish] writes is made-up, especially the most apparently biographical stuff.” Which complicates my reading of so much of Lish, from my favorite stories in Mourner at the Door to last year’s collection Goings in Thirteen Sittings, which I claimed in my review is “like a memoir-in-fragments.” And Lish of course, is playing with his persona throughout: “I am, you see, a fiction-writer, once an editor thereof, once a teacher thereof, once a teacher thereof, and am, you can surmise, surely not at home, nor anywhere near to it, when in the company of what I have been seeking to establish as fact—more direful still, as corroboratable fact.” He constantly writes stuff like that, stuff like, “I’m just trying to do all that I might to prove to you that I, Gordon, am doing all that one might to affirm as to how I am (being) on the (one hundred per cent) square with you.” And then, of course, there are all sorts of digressions that digress, maybe, around language’s gaps, its failures to mean with the absolute authority we might wish it to possess. Which is what Cess is about. And is. But like I was saying, there’s a lot in that second note—a riff on the Lish-narrator (Gordon!) going on a date with Marlon Brando’s mistress, for example. Lots of fun funny stuff, and as always, it’s the voice, the force of the language that compels us to read Lish.



-There is no Us; the whole concept behind this ostensible “review” is a bad joke; it isn’t even a concept; it’s a fucking schtick.

-I don’t think there’s a “c” in shtick. Also, reviewing Lish is, like, hard. There’s a moment in the second note of Cess where Lish writes, “Words! Jesus Christ Almighty words!” and all I could think was Yes yes yes of course yes me too. I dogeared that page. I dogeared almost all the pages of the second note though.

-Anything of note?

-Hell yeah.

-Such as?

-“I am, qua Gordon, what the experts refer to as an authentic human being.”


-“…you know, but because the truth never seemed to me quite true enough, I’d concoct some goddamn lunatic elaborations which everybody would then look at me with a look which looked to me as if they knew perfectly well I was calculating my head off and how precious little of—yes, yes, how little of it was anywhere near close to the honest-to-God…okay, skip it, let’s just go ahead and skip it, you and your friends and relations know exactly what I am sitting here getting at and are probably, you know, not all that fabulously, or weren’t, when you were a kid, all that different in handling a hotspot like that, etc., etc.”


-“Sorry for all the words; sorry that in your getting a look at them you had to suffer so much talk.”

-So much talk? Isn’t it reading? How is reading different than talk?

-Don’t you mean different from?

-Ugh. Look, he calls it, or subtitles it, A Spokening. What the hell is a “spokening”?

-Let’s cite the text: “For isn’t this (you were paying attention, weren’t you?) a spokening? Ah, so what in the duce is a spokening? Here’s my answer—don’t ask me again.”


-Yeah, fucking lol, right?

-Cool…so…did you like the book?

-Hell yeah.


-I don’t know if there’s an and…I mean, in evaluative terms, I don’t know if it’s the best starting place for readers new to Lish, you know—but also, it’s like, the Lishiest Lish, you know?

-I don’t know. Is it worth reading though. Like, worth, uh, timeeffortmoolah?

-Hell yeah.

Gordon Lish’s novel spokening Cess is available now from OR Books.

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