What can we say about Christine Schutt that would correctly transmit to you that we have, over the years, simply been in awe of her work, from her appearances in The 1/4ly, her first book with Knopf, her other books with TriQuarterly Books and Harcourt, her connection to NOON, etc etc.
Nightwork was recently reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press, which has re-released a number of writers with a Lishy smell: Diane Williams, Ben Marcus. While we love Dalkey Archive, the original Knopf edition in hardback is available for cheap prices from many oline booksellers and we prefer the look and feel of that edition, 129 pages with 17 stories, 10 of which appeared in The 1/4ly, two in Lish-guest-edited issues of StoryQuarterly and The Alaska Quarterly.
Nightwork was another one of the titles orphaned at Knopf, not seeing print until March 1996, with cover flap not written in Lish’s electric style but rather dull-ish from some unknown editorially assistant at random House.
And some of the themes…well, there is family, always family with Lish…but also unashamed matters of incest, between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons.
She was out of practice, and we wanted practice, so they started kissing each other, and they called it practicing, this kissing that occurred to him […] “Like this?” the boy asked, and the mother said, “Yes.” (“What Have You Been Doing?”)
A friend of a friend had a place for them to go in a big enough town where a lot went unnoticed but her father said, “No, I don’t feel like kt today.” … “No,” her father said. “No, I have no place to keep it. “Just let me kiss you,” he said, and she did. Arms crossed and eyes shut tight in the cold of the car, she moved a little closer to him and waited for the blow. (“You Drive”)
The titles have Lish-y titles, the kind you might find in Carver, Hannah, Kaufmann, Christoper, etc., from “What Have You Been doing?” to “Steven, Patrick, Michael, John” and “Goodnight, Sweetheart.”
Reviews were favorable and mixed. Kirkus Reviews wrote:
A debut collection made up of 17 stories (or, in some cases, slivers of story) told in voices flattened by despair. The narrators here are mostly nameless, and the uneasy territory of their subject matter cannot readily be labeled. In the opening piece, “You Drive,” a grown daughter and her father cross the boundaries of any usual parent-child relationship as they sit in a car, sharing secrets, kissing and memorizing the smell and texture of one another’s skin. In “What Have You Been Doing?,” it’s a mother and son who kiss: “She was out of practice and he wanted practice. . . . In the middle of rooms she obliged, in her bedroom, his bedroom, a kissing done standing, her hands on his shoulders, his not quite on her waist, heads tilted, mouths open.” Another mother, in “Teachers,” tells her daughter details about her lover while the girl yearns to get away, begging to be allowed just to go off to school. The spareness of Schutt’s prose, in combination with her elliptical storylines, can make certain pieces (notably “Giovanni and Giovanna” and “His Chorus”) difficult to decipher at all. But when she works with more accessible themes, the results are powerful, as in “Daywork,” where two adult daughters guiltily clean out the attic of their mother’s house as she lies dying in the hospital, and “To Have and To Hold,” as a spurned wife acts upon her anger and grief in her tiny and terrifyingly tidy kitchen. Schutt is good at small, sharp moments, and she chooses words with the care of a poet. But effective as some of these tales are, others feel fragmentary, incomplete. Taken all together, they’re finally overwhelming in the uniform grimness of their point of view. Razor-sharp writing in stories sliced a little too thin–and admittedly close to the bone.
Although distrubing or startling at moments, it is the freshness and curt wording that illuminates the underlying themes running throughout of childhood innocence and naivety clashing with the malevolance of reality.
Schutt is a good example of life after Lish. Her novel Florida (told in short flashy chapters) was a 2008 National Book Award finalist.