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Lish is not afraid to violate taboo, to render discourse extravagant, to speak of that which others dare not, in his relentless exploration of the abscession of the human heart. A consummate stylist, Lish offers up sentences near perfect in their rhythmical and tonal qualities. Zimzum advances through sentential variation and permutation, employing the formal repetition common to musical arrangement, to liberate the powers of the utterance. The result is a brilliant,dark,comic novella, a book unique in American literature.

Zimzum consists of six discrete sections, from two to fifty-five pages. The first four sections practice a non-paragraphing whose seamlessness rivals Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch and Bernhard's Correction. The sections are linked by a common theme: people are little more than objects, even for their dearest friends and family. We use others-and in turn are used by others - for selfish purposes.

The opening section, "Paragraph," confronts a boy named Lish with the enigmatic appearance of a boy in an iron lung at his beach. "Sentences" charts an anguished older man's attempts to soften the hell of attending his dying wife by recalling past sexual escapades. But remembrance intensifies, rather than dissipates, his grief. The strongest section, "July the Fifteenth, 1988," is a crazed, selfish narrator's recounting of the collapse of his life through the events of a single day-his wife's discovery of an unspecified illness, his parents' misbehavior at a rest home, and his being made to shop for a dildo with his lover. The narrator insists, in increasingly harried fashion, on others' insensitivity - failing to acknowledge his own ill-usage of others. The narrators of "Sentences" and "July the Fifteenth" verge on madness. Lish, like Jonathan Swift, refuses to present an overarching judgment of his narrators, allowing them instead to condemn themselves. He trusts the reader's ability to perceive and judge his narrator's madness-and in so doing to judge oneself. In "July the Fifteenth," the narrator's insistence on having been ill-treated is enough to reveal his moral blindness to a careful reader, but not to himself. "Sentences" critiques erotica in the way Lish's Dear Mr. Capote critiques criminal biography. Working by exhaustion, Lish allows the narrator to heap up libidinal evidence against himself until titillation gives way to desperation, rupturing the thin membrane containing the narrator's anguish. What begins as seeming erotics ends with humanity stripped of flesh, nerves exposed.

"July the Fifteenth" is followed by perhaps Lish's only female narrator. The language in this section is cultured, beautifully controlled, and utterly convincing. The female narrator reexposes the theme, offsetting its harsher expressions elsewhere.

With the first narrator named Lish, and with other narrators recalling the press's parody of Lish, Zimzum initially seems to encourage biographical reading. Like Denis Diderot and Michel Leiris, Lish is unafraid of fleshing his fiction through biography. However, his fictionalizing transforms biography into something entirely other. Zimzum refuses to provide simple answers to the question of biography's relation to fiction, the novella's last two sections poking fun at those who do. Michel Leiris's words are relevant: "I reveal all, but only to hide better." There will doubtless be those who insist on reading Zimzum in light of Lish's public persona (another fiction) rather than in the fiction's own terms. To do so is to neglect the book's real power.

The sections, initially seeming disparate, prove on further reading to be complexly interlinked. Zimzum gains in complexity from reading to reading. Zimzum reasserts Lish's strengths as an original writer of fiction, proving Lish the rule by which those writing progressive, formally perfected fiction shall be measured.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Evenson, Brian
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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