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BOOK REVIEW : Lish's Narrator Is a Many-Layered Thing : ZIMZUM; by Gordon Lish ; Pantheon Books; $18, 98 pages.

September 20, 1993|MICHAEL HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By now, we know we have to take Gordon Lish as he is. We know he isn't going to wriggle out of the pupa of his established personality and suddenly flap his wings as a writer of taste, moderation, balance and moral acuity--an E.M. Forster, say.

No, the Lish we've encountered before, as a bad-boy editor at Esquire and Knopf, as a controversial teacher of writing and as the author of provocative fictions ("Dear Mr. Capote," "Peru," "My Romance"), is the same Lish we get here.

"Zimzum"--no telling what the title means--is a typical Lish novel: short and crowded. The crowding isn't due to the number of characters and incidents. There is only one real character, the narrator, who is more or less Lish himself. It's due to the number of inflections, or layers, that Lish is able to pile onto the narrator's voice.

At the most basic level--call him Lish One--the narrator is an ordinary guy beset by life's problems. His wife is "burning up" with an undiagnosed ailment; he must live in freezing cold and in the roar of multiple air conditioners. His lover is emotionally just as chilly. A "Mr. Fix-It Man" refuses to return a sex toy the narrator took in for repairs. His parents are threatened with eviction from a nursing home for "acting up." Fairness, decency, the simplest human contact seem unobtainable.

Before long, though, we feel uneasy about Lish One. His troubles are ludicrous as well as poignant. He lacks--another Forster word--perspective. He bends our ear with the obsessive sense of grievance, the numbing monotony, of the drunk on the next bar stool. We begin to see him in a different way: as Lish Two. We blame him rather than the state of the world--and blame the neurotic author for losing control of the story.

The author is ready for us. You want control? he asks. I'll give you more control than you ever thought possible. And, indeed, we come to see that what we took for mere rant and diatribe is actually rhetoric polished to a very high gloss, crafted for us by--let's call him Lish Three.

Take this sentence from the opening chapter, a reminiscence of childhood: "I saw the men who were the drivers who had on sunglasses on who were sitting up on the seat." When we read that sentence on the page, we want to grab an editor's blue pencil and cross out the second on. But when we read it aloud, in the context of similar sentences, we find that the joke is on us: This really is how people talk.

Or take the second chapter, in which the narrator longs for sex and replays his whole erotic past--the names of the women, the things they did, the cities they did them in. Far from arousing desire, as pornography is supposed to do, it beats the language of desire to death. It's a leaden parody of porn that first depresses us and then--especially when read aloud--makes us giggle. You see? Lish Three asks. Isn't humor a sign of perspective? There isn't a criticism you can make of me that I haven't anticipated. Believe me, I'm covered.

What happens when we finally grow tired of all this game-playing, skillful as it is, and demand more substance from the story? Enter Lish Four, who is like Lish One, only more sophisticated, encompassing as he does all the Lishes in between. Lish Four asserts that he is in pain--that the game-playing wouldn't have been necessary if he hadn't had to overcome what he has assumed all along would be our contempt for him. His appeals to the reader become more personal and pointed:

"Is this what you think, that I am just sitting here making a spectacle of myself from telling you this? Nobody has (anyone else's) welfare at heart. . . . I do not know why I am bothering trying to communicate to you."

And in the sex chapter, after the depression and the mockery, Lish Four leads us into another, more elusive emotion. The crazy catalogue of past couplings reminds us that, indeed, nothing is more evanescent and irrecoverable than sexual experience, no matter how vivid it seemed at the time. We feel a different kind of sadness, and then, unexpectedly, a bit of desire after all.

Is Lish covered? Not completely. He still lacks some of the novelist's most basic equipment: an interest in the world outside himself. He's a solipsist, and knows it, and knows we know it. All his elaborate fictional strategies are a compensation for that lack, like a blind man's sharpened hearing. It's entertaining to see him walk down the sidewalk as sure-footedly as he does, tapping with the cane of that remarkable voice; but we can't ever expect him to run.

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