Blog about a particular Gordon Lish sentence

A new literary magazine called Egress debuts in the UK this month and in the US next month. I have read an advance copy and it is Very Good. Egress features, for lack of a better term (although there are better terms; I’m just being lazy) experimental short fiction. It might be better just to list some of the authors featured in the inaugural issue: Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, David Hayden, Sam Lipsyte, Evan Lavender-Smith, and Gordon Lish (there are more).

There are two shorties by Lish in the collection. Both are Very Good and Very Funny. One of them, “Jawbone,” is about a narrator killing two bugs.

Have I spoiled Lish’s “Jawbone” by revealing its intricate plot (i.e., the murder (murders?) of a pair of (possibly copulating) bugs)? No, not really—for the story is really about language itself (which like so a lot of Lish’s fictions are ultimately about, yes?)

There’s a sentence in “Jawbone” that I could not leave alone. I kept reading it and rereading it, and then read it aloud almost rapturously:

Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.

The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky, elevated and base, smooth and harsh. The alliteration is at once sumptuous and unbearable–ells and kays fray into esses and zees; tittering alveolar touches stutter throughout the thirty-six syllables. The repetitions clip along, cleverer in the end than they at first seem: “was there in there on duty on the nightbeat” builds with a force that shuttles into not one but two “last nights,” a bit of redundant fun. Should a sentence of 27 words contain so many prepositions? I guess this one should. I would go on about the hyperbolic brilliance of the line but maybe that’s pinning it down a bit too much, which is not what one should really do with such a clean upstanding decent ugly sentence. (“Crapper”!).

Let’s close by connecting Lish’s ironic hyperbolic sentence to what I take to be the namesake of his short vengeful tale, an episode in the book of Judges. After tying together 300 fox tails and lighting them on fire, the great (and eventually-blinded) hero Samson kills a bunch of Philistines (Philistines!) with the jawbone of an ass. He then gets thirsty and God Provides Some Water from yon jawbone. Here is Judges 15:16, King James Version on this matter: “And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men.

490px-salomon_de_bray_28dutch_-_samson_with_the_jawbone_-_google_art_project
Samson with the Jawbone, 1636 by Salomon de Bray (1597 – 1664)

And here—I mean, I hope I’m not being too tacky in revealing the last line but, Lish, but—

Well, fuck, bugs – I mean, what can anyone really do?

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