Gilbert Sorrentino

In Barry Alpert’s 1974 interview with him, Gilbert Sorrentino declares that he is “an episodic and synthetic writer. . .I don’t like to take a subject and break it down into parts, I like to take disparate parts and put them all together and see what happens.” In his late works Little CasinoLunar Follies, and A Strange Commonplace, Sorrentino demonstrates that he continues to pursue this “synthetic” approach to the writing of fiction, if anything to even more deliberate and concentrated effect. So dedicated are these books to the juxtaposing of “disparate parts,” they seem to have brought Sorrentino to a point where all conventional expectations of continuity and development in character or story are simply irrelevant, vestiges of a prior of conception of fiction that no longer has much force.

Readers whose assumptions about the novel still depend on notions of plot and character development are likely to have trouble identifying A Strange Commonplace as a novel at all. Some might think of it as a collection of sketches and short tales, but even if we were to take the “episodic” nature of the book as far as this, we would, of course, be privileging the “disparate parts” over the effort “to put them all together” and would be missing the aesthetic point altogether. This is a unified work of fiction, however much Sorrentino makes us participate in the act of synthesizing its elements so that, along with the author, we readers can “see what happens.”

The contents page of A Strange Commonplace signals immediately that the reader should be alert to the novel’s structural patterns, to whatever relationships might be revealed through the arrangement of its parts. “Book One” and “Book Two” each consist of twenty-six sections, the titles of which are identical across both books, although presented in a different order. Thus, we can read a pair of “chapters” called “In the Bedroom,” “Success,” “Born Again,” etc., although, as we discover, in the second set of episodes the cast of characters changes and the stories related are different—except insofar as all of the separate tales depict a post-World War II America of faded dreams, dysfunctional families, adultery-ridden marriages, and often wanton cruelty. Inevitably, this device tempts us actively to seek out correspondences between these episodes; perhaps such correspondences can indeed be found, but one suspects that Sorrentino himself would be less interested in leading his readers to the “meaning” that might be gleaned from this approach than in the process—unconventional and unorthodox—by which they are led there.

            This process is intensified by Sorrentino’s use of a few recurring names for his characters and recurring images and motifs. Two stories are called “Claire,” but the characters involved are, for all we can tell, not the same Claire, and other characters in other stories also bear the name. The same is true of stories whose characters are named “Warren,” “Ray,” “Janet,” and “Inez.” A pearl gray homburg hat appears in numerous stories, frequently we find ourselves at Rockefeller Center, and Meryl Streep is the subject of several conversations. Surely at least here we might regard the homburg as a symbol of the recognizable sort, the other repeated elements similarly placed to provoke us into reflecting on the deeper meaning to which they point? Experienced readers of Sorrentino’s fiction know that such symbol-hunting leads us down a blind alley, that this approach to reading fiction is relentlessly mocked in many of his books, the very notion of “deeper meaning” made the subject of some of his best jokes.

            So what does A Strange Commonplace have to offer the reader willing to allow it its strangeness, its determination to render the commonplace actions of its interchangeable characters in an uncommon way? Partly the same pleasures to be found in all of Sorrentino’s work: mordant humor (although rather less broad in this case), a delight in exploring formal conceits as far as they will go, a prose style that, although entirely free of affectation and ornamental flourishes, is both energetic and inventive, recognizably Sorrentinoesque. Here in its entirety is the first of the two sections called “Snow”:

    The tunnel in the snow leads to a warm kitchen, vinegary salad, ham and baloney and American cheese, white bread from Bohack’s and tomato-rice soup and bottles of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, coffee. It leads to heaven. Who is the strange and beautiful man at the far end of the tunnel he has just dug from the black Packard sedan to the white door of the little frame house? And who is the woman, who smells of winter and wool and perfume, of spearmint and whiskey and love? He gets out of the car and the woman holds his arm as he starts down the thrilling tunnel, through the snow banked above him on both sides, to the man in the navy blue overcoat and pearl gray homburg who waits, down on one knee, his arms held out to him. This will never happen again, nothing like it will ever happen again. The child begins to laugh joyously in the crepuscular gray light of the magical tunnel, laughing in the middle of the knifing cold of the January day, laughing since he does not know, nor do his mother and father, in their youth and beauty and strength, that this will never happen again, and that the family is almost finished and done. His father wears a white silk scarf with blue polka dots.

Even this brief passage exhibits some of Sorrentino’s signature stylistic traits: the first sentence with its list, the exposition-through-questions, the mock lyricism, in this instance leading us to the sudden reckoning with reality: “. . .the family is almost finished and done with. His father wears a white silk scarf with blue polka dots.”

As playful, even extravagant, as Sorrentino’s fiction can sometimes seem, his best work always represents a reckoning with reality. Books like Steelwork and Red the Fiend perhaps address hard-bitten realities somewhat more directly (but only somewhat) than books like Mulligan Stew and Blue Pastoral, but ultimately all of his books are aesthetically provocative efforts to get at the prevailing features of postwar American life, at what the title of one of his best books calls the “imaginative qualities of actual things.” A Strange Commonplace indeed. This book will probably strike readers less familiar with Sorrentino’s work (for whom it would make a perfectly good introduction) as especially concerned with depicting these prevailing features, most of them disturbing if not actively repugnant, as well as the ways in which its characters attempt to cope with their circumstances. If the novel seems unfamiliar in its method of portraying these characters, their mostly unsuccessful strategies will undoubtedly seem very familiar, the kaleidoscopic picture of ourselves that emerges all too recognizable.

In his last works of fiction, beginning with Little Casino (2002), Gilbert Sorrentino  began composing slim, fragmented texts that he continued to identify with the designation “novel,” but that more or less dispensed completely with the elements usually associated with novels, especially narrative continuity and extended character development. Each of these works presents instead a series of episodes, anecdotes, memories, or observations—in Lunar Follies (2005) pieces of critical discourse about art—that are tenuously connected as narrative, although Little Casino ultimately does a provide a kaleidoscopic portrayal of a Brooklyn neighborhood and Lunar Follies unites its parodic discourse in a scathing satire of the “art world.” (A Strange Commonplace makes an ostensibly more direct effort to unite its narrative fragments through a Oulipian repetition of chapter headings and character names, but the connection is still more suggestive than definitive.) “Character” is equally, and literally, in name only, as individual figures, often anonymous, make brief appearances but refuse to “jump off the page,” as Sorrentino has previously and mockingly described the hallmark of “believable” characters in fiction.

In his posthumously released (and presumably final) novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, Sorrentino again offers a relatively brief work (150 pages) built out of narrative fragments.  As Christopher Sorrentino points out in his introductory note, the most obvious features of the novel’s formal structure are its division into fifty numbered sections that gradually increase in length, from sections comprised of only a paragraph or so to the final sections extending to three or four pages. The Abyss of Human Illusion also echoes Little Casino in its inclusion of textual notes, in this case labeled “commentaries” and appended to the “main” text.

Given Sorrentino’s longstanding predilection to formal experiment and manipulation, already it is tempting to look for clues to the novel’s formal patterning, which might ultimately provide the key to interpreting it, in these immediate characteristics of the text. Why fifty sections? Do the sections increase in length according to some identifiable principle governing the “rules and procedures” that Christopher Sorrentino reminds us have always been partly determinative of the formal qualities of his father’s fiction? If in Little Casino the notes discretely follow each section while in The Abyss of Human Illusion they are listed together at the end of the text, does this mean we should read the two novels differently, in the latter case first reading the main entries and then moving on to the commentaries as a whole? Would this make for a significantly different reading experience, adding or altering meaning in the process?

One is almost compelled to read each of the fifty sections looking for apparent correspondences between them, whether of character, setting, action, or image. And there are indeed correspondences—an orange glow in the first few sections, the perspective through a window in many of them, references to the Milano restaurant, characters who move to St. Louis, an aging writer figure who keeps writing because it’s all he can do. Most of these correspondences are probably either trivial or accidental, while others are simply consequences of the setting of many of the episodes in Brooklyn and of characters no doubt in one way or another created from the experiences of the author. Perhaps these motifs were conjured by Sorrentino to help him develop the book’s structure organically, from episode to episode, but one can also imagine Sorrentino taking delight in the possibility they would lead some readers on a hunt for “meaning” that would ultimately prove fruitless. Even so, following along through his formal and stylistic turns, even when they entangle us in their convolutions, has always been one of the pleasures of reading Gilbert Sorrentino’s fiction, and so it is also in this novel.

The most consistently maintained correspondence linking the condensed stories related in The Abyss of Human Illusion is thematic. Each of the stories tells of characters caught in the “abyss” named in the book’s title. Some of the characters realize the depth of their illusions, while others remain possessed by them. Some are elderly, most often male, facing what now seems to them the emptiness of their lives, while others are still in the midst of carrying out their illusions. Infidelity, divorce, and general domestic unhappiness play prominent roles, resentment, envy, and an emotional numbness often the accompanying states of being. The overall tone conveyed by the stories is a fairly brutal frankness about the disappointments and futility that frequently enough define human existence.

While such a disabused portrayal of his characters’ motives and behavior is common in Sorrentino’s fiction, rarely is it made quite so relentlessly the focus of interest as it is in The Abyss of Human Illusion. Sorrentino’s view of the role of “theme” in fiction has always been that it undercuts the aesthetic integrity of the work when conceived as the act of “saying something” through the work rather than as simply “something said,” thematic implications that arise from the work as it pursues its own aesthetic logic. It is entirely possible that Sorrentino began this work with the brief image described in the first section—a young boy sitting at a kitchen table on top of which are placed a bottle of French dressing, a bowl of salad, and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce—and that all of the succeeding sections developed from this base and in imaginative interaction with each other, but the ultimate effect of the central conceit is to leave the impression the novel is a “commentary” of sorts on our capacity for self-delusion.

The coherence this conceit provides could make The Abyss of Human Illusion perhaps a more accessible work than some of Sorrentino’s other fiction, in which complexity is built out of simplicity. This last novel more nearly reverses that process, producing apparent simplicity from a deceptive complexity. Whether this inversion of his normal practice is a structural device Sorrentino intended us to notice probably cannot now be known, but it does draw our attention to structure in a way that is consistent with his distinctive brand of metafiction more generally and especially with the three novels preceding The Abyss of Human Illusion. Together, this quartet concludes Gilbert Sorrentino’s career by reinforcing that career’s implicit insistence that “fiction” identifies not a specifiable form but an opportunity for the resourceful writer to further specify through example its yet unexplored forms.

Often enough a good way to get a quick introduction to an author’s work is to start with one or another collection of that writer’s short fiction. Frequently the short stories will provide a helpful if preliminary sense of the writer’s preoccupations, strategies, preferred subjects, stylistic tendencies, etc. If this writer is also a novelist, one can then decide whether to devote the greater time and commitment needed to tackle the longer works. Unfortunately, this does not really prove to be the case with Gilbert Sorrentino. Although Sorrentino is in my opinion among the most accomplished (and will, I believe, in the long run be among the most influential) post-WWII American novelists, The Moon and Its Flight, a more or less omnibus collection of his short fiction, does not present Sorrentino either at his best or his most representative.

The book does manage to hang together thematically as a portrait of American life in the twenty or so years following on the end of the second world war, or at least of a certain segment of American society characterized by its aspirations to a pseudo-bohemian way of life vaguely associated with art or writing or the academy. The portrait that emerges of this class of intellectual pretenders is a decidedly sour one, their lives notable mostly for their casual betrayals, petty spite, their lassitude and spiritual drift. Indeed, the overall view of human endeavor that seems to pervade The Moon in Its Flight is overwhelmingly pessimistic, even misanthropic. The narrator of “Decades” writes: “The fashionably grubby artistic circles in New York are filled with people like me, people who are kind enough to lie about one’s chances in the unmentioned certitude that one will lie to them about theirs. Indeed, if everyone told the truth, for just one day, in all these bars and lofts, at all these parties and openings, almost all of downtown Manhattan would disappear in a terrifying flash of hatred, revulsion, and self-loathing.” The narrator of “In Loveland” remarks on his own writing ambitions that “The desire to add some more stupid clutter to the clutter of the vacuous world is virtually unquenchable.”

Of course, one ought to hesitate in associating the comments of these first-person narrators with Sorrentino himself, but the world-weariness and sense of futility these characters express are reinforced in many of the other stories as well. The impression conveyed in such retrospective stories as the title story, “Facts and Their Manifestations,” “Life and Letters,” “Gorgias,” and “Things That Have Stopped Moving” is of failure, lost opportunities, not just regret for squandered lives but a feeling that such lives were always doomed to be squandered. This is one of the ways in which The Moon in Its Flight seems a departure from most of Sorrentino’s other work, which is marked, even when treating similarly disturbing material, by a sense of creative playfulness and an all-encompassing kind of comedy that is missing from most of these stories. But perhaps they are simply the flip-side of such comedy, the more sober depictions of the stupidity and folly that also fuels the comic novels.

Not all of the stories depart from the mode of all-out experimentation one expects from Sorrentino’s novels, however. “A Beehive Arranged on Humane Principles,” written entirely in interrogative sentences, is the obvious precursor to the later Gold Fools (and, it must be said, the technique works better in the shorter form); of “Times Without Numbers” we are told in a concluding note that “the story comprises 177 sentences, 59 of which are taken from 59 separate works by 59 different authors. The remaining 118 sentences are from one of my own earlier stories.” “The Sea, Caught in Roses” seems to be built on some principle of repetition or accretion, taking the initial image named in the title and working it through a series of emendations and authorial comments. Or it may just be a spoof of romantic imagery and “picturesque” subjects.

Although most of the stories are metafictional in various fairly minimal ways—Sorrentino always reminds us that such stories have been subject to imaginative re-creation, are at least “twice-told” even when they seem to be sliced from life—few of them are as outrageously and systematically self-reflexive as his better-known novels. “Sample Writing Sample” is a story about making up stories, while several others are directly about writers, and examine the consequences and ramifications of what they’ve written. “It’s Time to Call It a Day” is a fairly thinly-disguised attack on the banalities of conventional fiction as well as current publishing practices, but a rather entertaining attack (and implicit statement of Sorrentino’s own principles) nevertheless:

    This latest novel, created to satisfy the desires of an audience, as Clifford’s editor had characterized it, “too hip to actually read a lot,” educated, so to say, and busy, so, so busy, was, he hoped, the very thing to interest those readers among the favored “target group” who had progressed from slop-and-ramshackle best-sellers to the sort of fiction admired by professional reviewers—well-written, with fully developed character, a nicely turned plot, and something important to say. It was, that is to say, designed for a particular kind of success, a “literary” success, and one that was, God knows, long deserved. So Clifford thought in righteous irritation. His first three novels should have been better received than they were—as he often complained to his wife. She thought of him as “neglected,” not, as he was, ignored. The books had been painstakingly constructed, modern in their “sensibility,” whatever he meant by that, accessible and possessed of accessible, contemporary motifs, dialogue, and sex scenes. They were, to be blunt, absolute failures, and each got a handful of mostly snide, semi-literate reviews, featuring the self-satisfaction of the ignorant. These were, of course, the usual, but Clifford was astonished by their blithe savagery.

(Although not astonished enough that he would want to stop trying to please them.)

The two concluding stories in this volume, “In Loveland” and “Things That Have Stopped Moving,” in some ways sum up both the strategies and the themes of The Moon in Its Flight. “In Loveland” begins, “I have attempted to tell this story many times over the past years, the past decades, for that matter. I’ve not been able to bring it off, for I’ve never been able to invent—inhabit, perhaps—the proper narrational attitude. I begin to invent plausible situations that soon enough falsify everything, or unlikely situations that,  just as soon, parody everything. I have even, at times, tried to tell the undecorated truth. . .” and goes on to tell a story of marital failure and self-disgust similar to a few of the earlier stories, but it is more amply told, with some compelling details. It concludes with these reflections, which add in a satisfying way to the story’s dramatic resonance and aesthetic implications: “Reality, or, if you will, that which we constrain ourselves to believe is, beyond all philosophies, also that which we make of what happened. Unexpected connections do, of course, sometimes make for unexpected forms. For instance, I see that this story is, essentially, about a set of disappearances. I had not intended that to be its burden, although any further attempt to say what I meant to say is out of the question.”

“Things That Have Stopped Moving” at first seems a retelling of the earlier story “Decades” (Ben and Clara Stern are the principals in the latter story, Ben and Clara Stein in the former), but manages to leaven its narrator’s account of the empty and adulterous sexual encounters between himself and Clara with some rather heart-felt reminiscences of his parents. It, too, comes with a metafictional conclusion:

    This story is dotted with flaws and contradictions and riddled with inconsistencies, some of which even the inattentive reader will discover. Some of these gaffes may well be considered felicities of uncertainty and indeterminacy: such is prose. The tale also, it will have been clear, occasionally flaunts its triumphs, small though they may be. I am afraid that the final word about the gluey, tortuous, somehow glamorously perverse relationship that Ben and Clara and I constructed and sent shuffling into the world hasn’t been arrived at, but perhaps the unspeakable has had created some sad analogue of itself, if such is possible. Something has been spoken of, surely, but I can’t determine what or where it is.

Both of these stories are successful demonstrations of the way in which self-reflexivity can actually contribute to the emotional impact of a work of fiction, while continuing to draw the reader’s attention to the artificial devices by which, unavoidably, aesthetically cogent fiction must be created.

The Moon in Its Flight is a book that fans of Sorrentino’s fiction will want to read, but it is more interesting as a minor side attraction amid the greater pleasures of Sorrentino’s carnivalesque novels. Curious readers would be better off to start with Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, a provocative but also compelling work of metafiction, perhaps then going on to what is in my view Sorrentino’s masterwork, the sui generis Mulligan Stew. Those interested in Sorrentino’s fictional depictions of Brooklyn (in which several of the stories in The Moon in Its Flight are set) might also try Steelwork or Crystal Vision. The biggest problem with The Moon in Its Flight is that unwary readers might take some of the more tepid and unfocused stories in this book as representative of Gilbert Sorrentino’s achievements as a writer of fiction and might pass on the more important novels. If they did so, they would be missing out on the opportunity to read one of the most invigorating and audacious bodies of work in 20th century American fiction.


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