PICK UP A BOOK by Christine Schutt, and you’ll be struck straight away by her style. In two short story collections and three novels, she’s honed a language that feels wholly hers: a carefully cadenced poetic prose that warrants being read reverently, aloud. I’ll say it right now: I believe Prosperous Friends proves Schutt to be one of the finest stylists alive. Praised by the likes of Lydia Davis and John Ashbery, Schutt has been called a “writer’s writer.” Yet if her style is “writerly,” it’s not estrangingly so. She doesn’t indulge in insular word games, fashioned for a refined few. What she does instead is draw out a secret world of love and suffering, which, once it is revealed to us, we recognize as our own.
Schutt’s first collection, Nightwork (1996), disclosed these secrets with such disturbing directness that critics tagged it as “transgressive.” Broadly, it is a book about incest; its feral Freudian stories stage a return of our most repressed urges — those unacknowledged desires that underlie our relationships with our nearest and dearest. It is also a book born under the guidance of Gordon Lish, whose workshops Schutt attended and who later commissioned the collection for Knopf. Looking back, Nightwork seems stamped by what Lish demanded from his students: an arresting extremity of style and subject matter.
Lish’s influence can likewise be felt in Schutt’s first novel, Florida (2004), about an abandoned girl’s growth into adulthood, and her adoption of art — of writing — as a way of saving herself. As in Nightwork, the novel enacts a kind of confession: an articulation of private and painful experience. In workshops, Lish would urge writers to unearth their innermost “errors,” their failures, as sources of power on the page. Thus, Florida’s first-person perspective fully uncovers its narrator’s mind, so that, in reading, we relive her psychic losses and gains.
But in Schutt’s second novel, All Souls (2008), something changes. The shock tactics of Nightwork are gone, as is Florida’s self-consciousness. An omniscient narrator mediates All Souls’s action, lending a sense of distance to Schutt’s story of two schoolgirls. Prosperous Friends continues this trend, observing its characters’ lives largely from outside. Where secrets were once spilled onto the page, here they are withheld, or else merely whispered. To me, though, it seems that Schutt’s early concerns have only grown more movingly present — all the more present for their apparent absence. The more they recede, the more their mystery deepens. In short, Schutt has mastered an intricate indirectness.
After all, Schutt’s art is, in part, about unspoken emotions, and the clandestine life of the body. So we could say that with each new book this embodied, emotive life is ever more expertly buried. Now it lives less in Schutt’s themes than in her forms, less in plots than in prosody. Difficult intimacies no longer need explicit confession. Instead they’re secreted in Schutt’s very sentences — coded in consonance, assonance, syllabic patterning. Another great writer and acolyte of Lish, Gary Lutz, has lectured at length on the “romance between letters” in Schuttian phrases like “her lips stuck when she licked t...read more