Book Review: White Plains

“Every utterance in this book has been coddled, eggs in a pan.

It’s all been bent, deformed, calculated, a swindle. You can trust it a little but only, as admitted, a little. In the end the end is for me to have my way with you, get the better of you”

The author of White Plains, Gordon Lish, taught fiction writing at a number of universities in America. In reading about him elsewhere, his students have variously described their experiences of his classes as:

“I understood what he was offering—the special chance to become hugely conscious of how language can be manipulated to produce maximum effects. So often, in our naturally powerful speech, we only understand dimly how we are doing it, so that we are deprived of the good fortune of being in charge of it, rather than the other way around.”

and of him:

“an unbelievably crazy, manipulative, egomaniacal person”

This, Lish’s latest book, is subtitled Pieces & Witherlings. Divided into twenty-five distinct chapters, the bones of the narrative are based on his life, although it is defined as fiction. Presented in the form of conversations and monologues, the loquacious style can appear rambling with whatever point being made only vaguely. There is a constant meandering off topic, although this is obviously deliberate. The words used have seemingly been chosen to obfuscate and challenge. The author is playing with these words and with repetition.

“an incomparable compilation of words as to the meanings thereof, or a vast compilation of incomparable meanings as thereof to words”

Some of this circumlocution is presented as what is typical of conversation, where points can be lost as speakers vie for the attention of those supposedly listening. Some digressions can be difficult to follow, and there is a degree of literary pretention. What appears to be desired is an appreciation of the language used.

“I would have for you the right answer reposing in the right words”

This circular, introspective prose offers insights aplenty. There is anger at aging, poignancy when recalling the lingering death of a beloved wife. The recollections of family, friends and neighbours that have had decades to develop. The narrator describes himself as old and can appear crotchety as he struggles with failing faculties and unwelcome intrusions into his current existence.

In Begging the Question Lish is railing at the demands of his neighbours. On either side of his apartment are elderly residents who have also been widowed. There is a dispute over the sorting of recycling, a request to view tiles in a bathroom that Lish regards as an invasion that will potentially damage a carpet. This simple premise is woven into pages that bring out the aged’s feelings of entitlement, their resentment at what they regard as interference, their forgetfulness, angry demands, and the poignancy of living longer than those they have loved. This latter subject is also explored in What’s Wrong With This Book. Lish’s back pain is exacerbated by working from an uncomfortable chair. The chair, one of a pair, was purchased by his late wife. This furniture reminds the narrator of a time of happiness which he values, despite the discomforts that it costs.

No matter how carefully selected, words, when put in a certain order, can have their meaning, their implication, misunderstood. Each reader makes assumptions based on their own experiences, about the words and also their creator. Words have synonyms, nuances and varied interpretations.

“A fella turns around and the next thing he knows, they went ahead and took away one word and put a different one in its place”

The book itself is aesthetically pleasing. The cover is appealingly minimalist and contains attractive end pages. The print throughout is uncluttered and on quality paper. The meanings behind the text may play the reader from all angles but it does so in a manner that will entertain the discerning.

I needed a dictionary for certain words employed, a few were obviously invented. Likewise conventional spelling is occasionally abandoned providing a workout for the brain. Although experimental in places, White Plains offers a satisfying reading experience.

I was made to consider the point of fiction. The straight road may get the traveller to their destination quickly but when the journey is from birth to death this may not be desired. Most will welcome distractions, such as is offered by literature. This book provides a diversion that should not be rushed, one that is worth taking.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.

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