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Romantic (Self) Obsession

Robert Glück's Denny Smith

"What do you write about?" a young runaway hitchhiker asks Robert Glück, the fictional narrator of the new collection of short stories Denny Smith. "Romantic obsession," Glück replies.

Robert Glück is also the author of Denny Smith, and while it may be unclear where narrator begins and author ends, narrator Glück is right about one thing: one after another, the stories in the collection deal with romantic obsession, often with sexual scenes that, taken out of context, would be pornographic. But far more provocative is the presence of Robert Glück, like an unsettling doppelganger, in the middle of the action.

A creative writing professor at San Francisco State University and author of eight books of poems and fiction, Glück is well known as an original practitioner of the New Narrative, whose authors, as you might have guessed by now, weave their own names and those of friends and lovers into stories that happen in real places. And although, as another New Narrative adherent Steve Abbott notes, the writer risks being foolish, mean-spirited or wrong, "if the writer's life is more open to judgment and speculation, so is the reader's."

Glück as a theory-based writer and gay man wants to represent personal experience as fiction but deform it as little as possible. His solution is a narrative point of view that jumps like the movement of a human eye, taking in and interpreting various objects and creating a mix of memory and emotion that at first seems disconnected and confusing. (In a breakup scene in a cafe, Glück's attention swerves from his boyfriend's voice to his nipple to a glass on a table to pansies blooming in a metal pot.) But he steadily weaves this jumble of sensations into a pastiche that, by the end of the story, feels like unedited everyday life.

For Glück, romance is tragic, and he is forever haunted by unrequited love. But in Denny Smith the characters (including the narrator Glück) continue to believe in the promise that the world will love them back. Hence Glück's romantic obsession: "It's as impossible for me to understand the withdrawal of love as it is to understand my death -- simply a gap -- a romantic failure of the world to love me," he writes in the title story. (Denny Smith is the character who breaks up with Glück in the cafe.)

As narrator, Glück describes his friends, tries to understand his family, has sex with his lovers, and masturbates a lot. This graphic physicality amplifies a sense of his complete exposure and vulnerability to the reader. Indeed, it often feels as if Glück's sex scenes (with himself or with others) are the most honest language to describe a character's innermost thoughts.

In the story "Batlike, Wolflike," Glück describes the bold words 'I love you' as inadequate; they reduce the experience and render it one-dimensional. The way Glück describes two people making love (or one person masturbating) is more illustrative than any spoken language. "The spasm of pleasure that contorts your face is my revenge," thinks the narrator in "Batlike, Wolflike" as he watches his lover reach orgasm.

The shock of the sheer amount of sex wears off, and intimate encounters emerge as a significant destination toward which the journey began months or even years earlier. For Glück, the way people touch each other speaks volumes of complex personal and social history.

Glück's narrative may seem self-absorbed, but the vulnerability and intimacy of his actions exert a countervailing force upon the reader. No matter how much Glück the narrator matches up against Glück the author, or how grounded in reality the stories of Denny Smith are, Glück's writing acts as a mirror that shines more light into the darker sides of our own inner lives.

Denny Smith
by Robert Glück
Clear Cut Press; ISBN: 0972323449
Paperback: 268 pages (January 2004)