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Fiction

IN BRIEF

August 11, 1991|Michael Harris

MY ROMANCE by Gordon Lish (W. W. Norton: $18.95; 160 pp.). In this "light novel," Gordon Lish not only walks the tightrope between raw feeling and smirking artifice, he dances on it, rides a unicycle, wiggles his ears. Somewhat surprisingly in a work as self-conscious as this--the narrator, like the author, is named Gordon Lish, works for a major New York publisher, is a former fiction editor of Esquire magazine and suffers from psoriasis--he keeps his balance fairly well.

"My Romance" consists of two paragraphs. The first paragraph is 150-odd pages long. The second is a single sentence, or punch line, teetering, like the rest of the novel, between pathos and crashing irony. Together, they make up an impromptu lecture Lish/Lish gives at a writing conference. Burdened by family problems--including his father's recent death, for which he feels partly responsible--he eschews the polite remarks expected of him and tries to "produce a scream of some kind . . . scare myself, change the terms, rearrange the rules, let recklessness overtake me," frankly daring the audience to walk out and the reader to slam the covers shut.

Many will call his bluff. This is not what a lot of people would consider a fun read. It's obsessively long-winded about Lish/Lish's skin disease (to combat it, he sunbathes on Manhattan rooftops wearing goggles and elevator shoes, slathered in mineral oil that drips on the manuscripts he edits), his baggy clothes, his hypersensitive ego, his nagging guilt.

But there is fun in "My Romance"--in its language, in the skill with which it parodies and stylizes off-the-cuff speech: its repetitions, its verbal tics, its apparently aimless but carefully contrived meanderings. In this respect, it's a little like J. D. Salinger's "Seymour: An Introduction," granted a huge fall-off in subject matter. Salinger's Buddy Glass tries to describe grace and genius in everyday, contemporary terms. Lish's Lish is confessing to the pettiness and inadequacy that human beings bring even to their most significant moments.

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