Alan Friedman (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Writers as Tricksters," in The New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, p. 13.
[In the following positive review of What I Know So Far, Friedman focuses on the plot and style of "For Jeromé—with Love and Kisses. "]
When you read a writer as terribly clever as Gordon Lish, an inescapable question comes up—is he only clever? I doubt it. I think he's earnest and reckless besides. Mr. Lish, who made his mark first as the fiction editor of Esquire and then as a publisher's editor, has lately chosen to join the madding crowd of authors he has edited. I say this because, to judge from the two books he has written recently, he seems obsessed with writers—with their magical power as tricksters and big shots, with their vanities and inanities, with their techniques of deception, including self-deception.
Dear Mr. Capote was an eccentric first novel that earned justified high marks when it appeared last year. Sensational, it is difficult to read because it is written in the form of a long disjointed letter from a homicidal maniac to the famous author. . . . Among Mr. Lish's terrifying per ceptions was one that particularly appealed to me—the discovery by the letter writer, your ordinary subliterate madman, that fancy words can serve as agents of death. Fancy words, uncomprehended, could confuse unwary victims (readers too? one wonders), conveniently turning them toward the killer's knife. The killer's line of attack, begun with a word, was through the eye and into the brain.
Now we have What I Know So Far, a collection of Mr. Lish's short stories. Short they certainly are—two to four pages long, for the most part—and edgy and subtle. To call them stories, however, is mere force of habit. Some of them do tell a tale of sorts, but even these read like riddles and satires or like sketches and blackouts. Some of them resemble narrative essays, bearing titles like "Fear: Four Examples" and "How to Write a Novel" (which is really about several kinds of suffering other than writing a novel). But virtually every story, whatever else it may be, is a monologue delivered by a first-person narrator who characterizes himself as he speaks his piece....
(The entire section is 929 words.)