EPIGRAPH by Gordon Lish


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 More tricks out of the Lishian (Zimzum, 1993, etc.) hat, although the performance this (the eighth) time around may be the author's best, funniest--and darkest. A character named Gordon Lish, following the death (after a seven-year illness) of a character named Mrs. (``Barbara, or Barb, or Barbs'') Lish, writes letter after letter to a variety of people and institutions--letters that form the narrative and provide the voices of the book. And what a narrative, what voices (``I do not honestly think that I am in such hot individual shape either,'' remarks the manifoldly colloquial and possibly collapsing Gordon). Mrs. Lish, one finds, weighed 40 pounds when she choked on her own saliva, and Gordon now sits guiltily, angrily, lustfully, grievingly, and at a comfortable letter-writing angle, in the ``Lauchesset'' she died in- -the medical apparatus that was her sole habitat by the time she couldn't move any ``part of herself, save for her eyes and for her eyelids.'' Mrs. Lish was cared for not only by Gordon but by ``Mercy Persons,'' women from the Congregations of Saint Firmus and Saint Eustatius, to whom and to which letters are repeatedly sent off--in anger, lust, pitiful detail, memory, despair. Gordon's ``search for a return to spiritual hygiene'' includes flings both with Louise (who excessively bakes cakes) and with Lucilla (who does something special with her heels), but it's the dropping of a crumb on the floor, the deaths of a hermit crab and a finch, and the breaking of a plate that--for readers with the energy and readiness to keep up with Lish's skillful, learned, allusive, literary intensities--will break the heart. Delvings into Gordon's unhappy childhood may muddy the book more than deepen it, and repetitious wordplay can irritate more than elevate, but these are small flaws in a novel that dares- -and, partly through comedy, finds a way--to carry grief to its highest, purest pitch.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1996
ISBN: 1-56858-076-2
Page count: 176pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1996


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