"Epigraph" is a terrible novel, not worth reading. More about this later. Gordon Lish is probably the most well-known fiction editor in the U.S. His editing work at Esquire from 1969 to 1977 included some of the best American fiction of his time. After that, he worked at Knopf and edited his own journal, the Quarterly, where he published a ton of inspired, first-time writers, many of whom we unfortunately never heard from again. The brilliance of William H. Gass, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, three genius writers of different temperament who pushed American fiction language to super lovely places, rubbed off on Lish well. But one strong complaint about Lish's editing was that he made everyone sound the same. As time wore on, that style got vacuumed out and turned into cute, contoured flab. In the end, something huge was missing. Things like urgency and real life were lacking in the Lish lexicon.
"Epigraph" is a series of letters written by a character named Gordon Lish to a variety of family, friends and institutions--people who have participated in some way in the passing of his wife. Lish's wife in real life died not so long ago and Lish intends to play with this idea, the real and the fictive, and hopefully, push some tricky buttons. The intent is there but the handling is simplistic. The letters are either so short and abrupt they blurt out an elusive quack or they run for a few pages; there's never a moment that doesn't feel super self-conscious, strained and posey.
Who edits the master editor? Who marks up his manuscript, cleans up the mess? Heaven forbid! Nobody. When Harold Brodkey died, Lish published a parody of Brodkey's writing in Fiction magazine. Maybe it was a tribute, hard to say, but it was hurtful to those who were grieving. Lish would love it if people thought of him as a troublemaker. Oh, please say it. OKay. I will. Gordon Lish is a middle-aged bad boy. The poster boy for the bitterness club. The L. Ron Hubbard of New York fiction.