(This is the first part of Chapter 3 of my book-length study of the work of Gilbert Sorrentino, currently in process. Links to the first two chapters below.)
1) “Of and For Itself”: Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things marks a clear turn in Sorrentino’s conception both of the formal requirements of a novel—of fiction in general—and of the specific imperatives implied by his own aesthetic inclinations as a writer. Indeed, while this turn is obvious enough to anyone considering Sorrentino’s career in retrospect, it must have been apparent to Sorrentino, even if he did not begin writing this successor to Steelwork having explicitly determined to make it. Although the move from Sorrentino’s first two novels to Imaginative Qualities could be characterized as the final abandonment of literary realism, the alternative he embraced is even more sweeping. If both The Sky Changes and Steelwork retained a loose allegiance to realism (the latter even more tenuously), neither novel cast its realism in conventional narrative form. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things takes its divergence from conventional form to the point that realism becomes simply extraneous.
Before looking more closely at the way in which this radical strategy is carried out in the novel, it is necessary first to consider Sorrentino’s work as a critic prior to writing Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. Anyone who has read Something Said, the 1984 collection of Sorrentino’s reviews and critical essays, knows that he was a very opinionated critic with definite aesthetic preferences and quite willing to pronounce sentence on writers he judged to be guilty of offences against literary art—although in fact most of the writers who receive extended treatment in Something Said are those he admires and who give him the opportunity to extol their achievement, but also to delineate the aesthetic principles he wishes to highlight and uphold. Not surprisingly, these are the same principles we find at work in Sorrentino’s own poetry, and ultimately his fiction as well: that the literary work is something made with words, the interplay of language and form producing works of verbal art that is an addition to reality, not its shadow or “reflection”; that the writer does not endeavor to “say something” (an effort that almost always dispenses with art entirely), but in attending to the writing itself, allows the work finally itself to offer the impression of “something said.”
Sorrentino articulated the fundamental principle of his own philosophy of composition in a later 1981 review of a new translation of Raymond Queneau (framing it here as a “heresy”): “form determines content.” As Sorrentino became more and more identified as a novelist, so too did he switch focus as a critic to reviews of fiction (although he was less active as a critic than he had been in his earlier days when his priority as a reviewer clearly was contemporary poetry). Many of Sorrentino’s fiction reviews examine writers he admired—John Hawkes, William Gaddis, Italo Calvino—although he also offered witheringly negative reviews of some he clearly did not—Updike, John Gardner, the latter being a target of one of the most cuttingly critical reviews since Mark Twain took on James Fenimore Cooper—but in both cases he appraises the writers and works under consideration much as he had done with the poets and poems he surveyed at the outset of his career, according to how artfully they integrate style and form. Sorrentino observes of Gaddis’s JR that it
does not work on the level of meager naturalism but supposes a world that exists of and for itself and in which all the characters are rigidly predestined to play out their roles. It is a claustrophobic world that works within itself, like a syllogism. The author insists on a closed system: that this system plunges, with maniacal precision, toward denouement within that greater system that we may label the “real world” makes it no less a creation of supreme effectiveness and fictional truth.
The formal structure of JR is reinforced through Gaddis’s strategy of presenting the underlying narrative almost entirely through dialogue, which “is not the product of the tape recorder” but “the carefully selected and shaped materials that reveal each character as definitely as physical description.” Gaddis in effect disappears, not behind the characters, but behind the language (the “shaped materials”) that Gaddis has fashioned to be the characters, focusing all attention to “the surfaces of things—what is really there, what people really appear to be to each other and to eavesdroppers (like the reader).” Gaddis provides us a “clean surface” of “real” language (real because impeccably imagined), dispensing completely with the “tawdry and banal ‘psychological’ probing and the ‘hidden motivations’ of characters” that so much mediocre literary fiction features. The primary accomplishment of JR, for which Sorrentino concludes it is “a brilliant work—a great novel,” is the way in which it seamlessly unifies style and form, so that each seems a necessary effect of the other.
In accentuating the importance of form, Sorrentino does not demand that all works of fiction create unconventional forms. In “Ross McDonald: Some Remarks on the Limitations of Form,” Sorrentino avers that McDonald “nowhere surpassed or transcended the limitations of the form in which he chose to work. He worked brilliantly within the rigors of the form. That is his strength and valor as a writer.” Sorrentino sees McDonald’s career as a progressive working-out of the possibilities of his chosen form, arriving at a point where his mastery of it is so thorough that he could invoke “the understructure of complex form” almost intuitively, making the most recognizable conventions (including stylistic) of the detective novel effectively superfluous. Like Gaddis, McDonald’s fundamental concern was the aesthetic integrity of created form.
With Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Sorrentino’s conviction that fiction is first of all the creation of effectual form decisively becomes the animating assumption of his novels. This novel marks the moment in Gilbert Sorrentino’s career when, despite its conspicuous lack of commercial success, he would be known primarily as a novelist, and a rather notorious one, who could be expected to flaunt novelist conventions, producing “novels” that in some cases departed so completely from those conventions that it might be questionable to even call them novels (at least according to Sorrentino’s harsher critics—and in some cases potential publishers as well). In some ways he became the epitome of the “postmodern” experimental writer—although unfortunately his work was often simply to ignored by editors and reviewers as beyond the interest of their “ordinary readers,” perhaps even more resolutely than most writers who became tagged with the “postmodern” label.
Still, readers would not exactly be misguided if their perception of Imaginative Qualities led them to wonder in what way the book could comfortably be identified as a novel (especially readers in 1970). In this case, a puzzled reader might insist that it is not so much that this work assumes an unfamiliar or unusual form but that it is formless—no story is told, and while “characters” are ostensibly introduced, they are present mostly as the object of the narrator’s scorn and derision, a narrator who seems to call attention to himself as the main character, although at the same time he is not a character at all and seems more or less identical with the author. There is some continuity among the eight sections of the book, as characters featured in previous sections continue to be mentioned, but what finally unites them all is simply the narrator’s direct discourse, freely acknowledging he has invented both the characters and their actions, encouraging the reader to consider both as artificial excuses for the narrator’s self-reflexive commentary.
To be sure, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is not formless, although Sorrentino certainly wants to disrupt the facile equation, “novel = narrative.” Perhaps the dubious reader might inquire, “if a novel isn’t a narrative, then what is it?”, but this is in fact precisely the question Sorrentino wants to raise in the mind of such a reader, as if the first step in providing alternative forms needs to be the suspension of all formal expectations, an implicit acknowledgment that a work of fiction may create its own version of literary form, the principles of which may need to be discovered during the course of reading. This challenge to conventional reading habits would characterize all of Sorrentino’s subsequent books, but a work like Imaginative Qualities also participates in a phenomenon that a number of other adventurous writers from this transformative period in American fiction also helped to advance. “Metafiction” was the term coined by William Gass (just a year before the publication of Imaginative Qualities) to describe a practice then becoming increasingly common among American writers who later were also called postmodernists (John Barth, Robert Coover, Gass himself). Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, beyond its role in the development of Gilbert Sorrentino’s career, also occupies a central place in the rise to prominence of metafiction as arguably the most consequential literary manifestation of the general cultural ferment of the 1960s.
While Imaginative Qualities cannot be claimed as the first important work of American metafiction (it was preceded most notably by Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse and Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association), it could be called the first to develop at the full length of a novel the kind of directly self-reflexive approach found in some of the stories in Lost in the Funhouse or in Gass’s Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, in which the artificiality of the text is blatantly announced. (This is not to say that such a gesture was wholly unique to this group of writers, as it can be seen at work in literary history at least as far back as Tristram Shandy.) Where Coover’s novel could be regarded as an allegorical metafiction (whereby its narrative can be read on a figurative level as a story about literary creation), Sorrentino brings literary creation to the foreground as its narrator confesses it as the act in which he is himself engaged, even as he also creates characters and discusses their behavior in the world he is simultaneously inventing. Barth also called direct attention to the act of fiction-making in some of the stories in Lost in the Funhouse, but on a smaller scale and in a book that exercises other literary strategies as well. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is an extended experiment in “baring the device.”
“I’m going to make up, based on my experience (plus inventions and lies) an early rendezvous between Lou and Sheila,” writers the narrator in the novel’s second section, “Brooklyn-Paterson Local.” This the narrator proceeds to do, with appropriately “telling details” about these characters: “He’s humming ‘I Think I’m Going Out of My Head.’ Sheila is waiting for him in the apartment of a girl friend whose parents are away in Florida—friend on a date and wouldn’t be home until about three o’clock in the morning. Dream of youth.” (As if simply providing us the song title (a fashionable pop song of the time) leaves too much unexplained, the narrator also offers a supplementary footnote: “I first heard the tune at a party in the Dakota. The rich bastard ran out of ice. I hate the rich—perhaps I lie when I say he ran out of ice.”) Sorrentino does not abandon characterization, scene-setting, dialogue, or, finally, narrative, but when these more traditional elements of fiction are present (however fleetingly), we are always made aware that they are the product of the narrator’s imagination, that we should not consider the characters as “real people” except in that they are the “real” manifestations of the exercise of literary imagination.
Sorrentino frequently expressed his dim view of the notion that fictional characters might “walk off the page,” escaping their actual existence as patterns of words on the page and becoming “real” in the reader’s mind. Indeed, this is often cited as something like a critical standard of sorts for judging a writer’s ability to create “three-dimensional” characters, itself considered one of the necessary talents of the novelist (along with “telling a story.”) All of the narrator’s efforts in Imaginative Qualities are designed to remind the reader that, on the contrary, in this novel the characters must remain on the page, as we are witnesses to the process by which they are affixed there. This does not exactly reduce the characters to “puppets on a string” being pulled by the author—although if it does, the effect is not so much to undermine the credibility of the characters as to heighten our awareness of the fact that fictional characters are always the product of the writer’s manipulation, even when the manipulation is in the name of greater “authenticity,” which is, of course, an illusion.
If Sorrentino does not seek to liberate his characters from the prison-house of language, that does not mean the characters in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things do not engage our interest. They are actually quite memorable, although for reasons that might at first seem to be in conflict with Sorrentino’s disdain for fiction that “says something.” All of the characters are people with whom the narrator professes to be acquainted (too closely, perhaps). They are all “creative” types, writers and artists, and they are all finally failures as what they do. One could call the novel a satire of the artistic pretensions endemic to the New York cultural scene, except that there is little indication in the various character portraits that the flaws on display—both personal and artistic—are of the sort that might be subject to revision or amelioration, traditionally the ultimate goal of literary satire. At times it can seem that the narrator has utter contempt for the characters, as in this comment about “Anton Harley”:
One of my great problems with Anton Harley is that I can’t make up enough terrible stories about him to make him totally unreal, absolutely fleshless and one-dimensional, lifeless, as my other characters are. I’m afraid that the reader may get the idea that some monster like this actually walks the earth.
Ultimately, however, what bothers the narrator most about such characters as Anton is not that he behaves badly (although he does), but that their interest in the art they pretend to care about is so clearly counterfeit. About “Lou Henry,” a poet, the narrator remarks: “Lou was one of those men who confused passing happiness or misery with the sources of art. The world is full of them. When one disaster is over, they turn to another. . .They think their rage and impotence will make the poem.” Lou likes being a poet, fancies that his dedication to the vocation is genuine, but his understanding of where the true sources of art lie is hopelessly superficial. Other characters, such as Lou’s wife, Sheila, enjoy living the life of the bohemian artist (or think they do), but simply have no clue what it really takes to create art. The succession of abject figures invoked by the narrator of Imaginative Qualities is not used to ridicule these figures for their moral deficiencies, but they are instead mocked for their offences against poetry or painting (although the narrator may seem to value these with a kind of moral fervor), so that the novel might be taken as an anatomy of the requisites of art, using the cast of characters and their attitudes and actions as cautionary tales of a sort, not a satire of social and cultural practices.
In a chapter on Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things in his book Satirizing Modernism (Bloomsbury, 2017), Emmett Stinson argues that Sorrentino’s approach does indeed qualify as satire, although it is not of the regenerative sort usually associated with literary satire, at least until the 20th century, and still characteristic of most popular satire. According to Stinson, Imaginative Qualities should be regarded as an example of what he calls “avant-garde satires of the avant-garde,” works that satirize “avant-garde” art, as well as the cultural milieu in which such art arises. But, since these are works that themselves can be described as avant-garde—in literature, describing an emphasis on formal and stylistic heterodoxy and experiment—their mockery can’t really be directed at themselves or they would censure themselves out of existence, their authority to satirize in the first place lost. Thus Stinson argues that a writer like Sorrentino instead creates a different kind of satire, so that in Imaginative Qualities “its undermining of its own authority and its articulation of a notion of art as radically separate from life forms the means by which it can claim to reconfigure, critically and imaginatively, the relationship between fiction and the actual.”
Stinson’s analysis of the qualities shared by these satires of the avant-garde (which also include Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God, Gaddis’s The Recognitions, and Evan Dara’s The Easy Chain) is meticulous and frequently illuminating, but while I might agree that in, say, Gaddis’s case, The Recognitions manages to elude its own satiric gestures and preserve a kind of modernist autonomy (and therefore might become something other than satire), I would maintain that in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, the satire actually does mock its own existence. If the narrator of Imaginative Qualities consistently speaks disdainfully of his own characters, we should not fail to notice that just as often he casts scorn upon himself, inviting us to find “Gilbert Sorrentino” a rather obnoxious fellow indeed.
In the chapter devoted to Lou Henry, that narrator imagines a future meeting with Lou at Max’s Kansas City (“or some other brothel of success”) in which Lou shows him a new poem. “Sitting among the aroma of lobster and the dimwitted conversation of up-and-coming molders of stainless steel and styrofoam,” the narrator muses, “I’ll suddenly realize that I am a middle-aged and unsuccessful writer. Lou will know this and so talk to me as if he is my peer. An oaf.” While the narrator continues to express his usual dismissive attitude, toward both Lou and their surroundings (“dimwitted conversations”), he also, and not for the only time in the novel, draws attention to his own lack of success, his own marginality in the artistic/literary world he is examining. Perhaps the prevailing tone is petulant rather than self-critical, a move to provoke some degree of sympathy for the narrator’s plight. But this makes the narrator seem pathetic at least as much as it might confirm the narrator’s grievance: that he would need to establish his superiority—the superiority of his art—in the presence of a character he has himself invented is palpably absurd, as is the more general idea that a writer would create a whole cast of characters primarily to assert his own preeminence over them.
The humor in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things—and a full appreciation of the novel must finally acknowledge it is a very funny book—comes from way Sorrentino exploits this absurdity, on the one hand maintaining the censorious tone the narrator can’t seem to help himself from taking, and on the other making the expression of such contempt risible in its excess. Some of the characters in the book are no doubt in part based on people with whom Sorrentino was acquainted (reportedly several of them claimed to recognize themselves in Sorrentino’s caricatures), but finally Imaginative Qualities is not about literary or artistic personalities, but about art. It is the attitudes about art, and the way these attitudes are manifested in the art (especially the poetry) created by—perhaps in some cases not created by—the characters portrayed that the narrator abhors. However much the characters are ridiculed for their jejune and opportunistic behavior, it is their failure to understand the real requirements of art, their willingness to pose and posture as artists and poets, that is the true target of the narrator’s ire.
That the narrator believes he does know true demands of art is certainly the case, but his willingness to display his own arrogance is equally obvious, and if he wants us to regard him as real artist, the “novel” he is ostensibly composing assuredly does not seem to demonstrate his skills in writing a proper one. And indeed, he is deliberately trying to resist doing so. If we could say that Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things comically undermines the assumption that a novelist creates well-rounded, objectively conceived characters with a “life of their own,” this is not the only traditional element of fiction that Sorrentino travesties. The notion that a novel offers a plot is of course most directly abandoned. While there is overlap among the characters and actions across the eight sections of the book, no linear narrative ever emerges. (Sorrentino’s rejection of a unifying “story” in all of his fiction after The Sky Changes is perhaps the most radical such rejection among all of the notable postmodern writers.) It would not be accurate even to call these sections episodes or scenes, since the narrator ranges freely in chronology and circumstance, at times giving us the impression that he is randomly recording his thoughts about the characters as they occur to him. And while the novel is loosely set in the bohemian New York art scene, little effort is given to providing us with “vivid” descriptions of this setting beyond its common influence on each of the characters depicted.
Thus at least as much as the novel satirizes this bohemian enclave and its failures of ambition and purpose, we could say that it indeed satirizes itself (or comes as close to this as it is possible for a literary work to do without simply negating itself). Imaginative Qualities embodies what the Russian theorist M.M. Bakhtin called “absolute comedy,” a comedy dedicated to taking nothing seriously, to applying a “radical skepticism” to everything it considers. For such comedy to maintain the integrity of this ambition, it must also refuse to take its own expression (in whatever form) as anything other than itself vulnerable to the same skepticism, the source of its expression just as subject to possible mockery as the ostensibly targeted subject. The qualities imagined in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things are thoroughgoingly comic: The “autonomous” space created by Sorrentino’s comedic art is one in which the satiric mockery—if we wish to continue calling it satire—is directed at the novel’s own aesthetic order, rather than the “actual things” to be found outside the novel’s transfiguring of them. It is a comedy of the “closed system.”
This sort of radical, absolute comedy is certainly not a new development in literary history. (Bakhtin himself cites examples going back to Rabelais), but it is the kind of comedy characterizing much American postmodern fiction, and it will be the approach Sorrentino takes (with modifications and variations) in the fiction to follow on his initial use of the strategy in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. In this novel, he employs the strategy arguably more insistently than any previous postmodern novels did (than even Pynchon, for example), but in Mulligan Stew he will even more comprehensively take the iconoclastic impulse of metafiction and direct it toward creating the most all-encompassing kind of subversive humor.
"Sorrentino the Poet" Link
"Sorrentino the Realist" Link