Jeremy M. Davies
WELL YOU NEEDN’T, MOTHERFUCKER: SORRENTINO UNDERGROUND


The following essay first appeared in Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics (Univerzita Karloca v Praze, 2010). I am exceedingly grateful to Louis Armand for permission to reprint it here. —Adam


Miscellanies

“The ideal list becomes an object. It not only bypasses or thwarts the combinative processes of language, but it subverts the selective processes of language as well…. The real is a list: a list is real.” [1]

Inasmuch as there is such a thing as Gilbert Sorrentino scholarship, “the list” is often given pride of place as an element worthy of examination in his fiction, and indeed GS himself rhapsodized on the list-form at every opportunity:

“If the catalogue, or any catalogue or list, is understood to be a system, its entropy is the measure of the unavailability of its energy for conversion into useful work.
      The ideal catalogue tends toward maximum entropy.
      Stick it in your ear.” [2]

And, thus encouraged, there is a tradition in Sorrentino scholarship—inasmuch, etc.—resorted to by Sorrentino himself on occasion, beginning perhaps in his early essay “The Art of Hubert Selby” [3]—to approach GS’s work not through a patient progression of thought, beginning with an idea on page one that leads by way of a clear discourse to a summation on the final page, with the intervening pages concerned with the expansion of the initial thought in a linear fashion (ellipses notwithstanding), but by way of a miscellany of somewhat connected, somewhat comical, somewhat resigned “critical vignettes.” (See for instance John O’Brien’s “Gilbert Sorrentino: Some Various Looks,” [4] or Jerome Klinkowitz’s “Gilbert Sorrentino's Super-Fiction” [5]).

I write at the end of 2009. It has been three years since the death of Gilbert Sorrentino. From a reader’s perspective, at a reader’s distance, his passing appeared to be met with a smattering of respectful tributes on the part of a particular literary community, and then a longer, louder blast of indifferent confusion from the world at large. His final novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, written during his illness, will be published in early 2010. I do not know what the critical response will be, though I have my suspicions. As in life, Sorrentino “underground” has managed thus far to avoid the reassessments and encomiums writers as prolific and influential as he tend to accrue. There is the sense—though, admittedly, it is difficult to measure or demonstrate such a sense—that the establishment, be it academia or the ever-shrinking world of popular literary fiction, has ignored Sorrentino, and continues now to ignore him.

Certainly he has received more than his share of praise. Certainly he is, “in many circles,” considered important. His books have been translated; at least five are now available in French, two in German. There have been the friendly, enthusiastic overviews trying to help readers see just how “fun” and affecting Sorrentino’s work is, despite its disdain for realism (and yes: it is fun, it is affecting). [6] There have been, though not too recently, the scattered articles, popular and academic, and even books, focusing, perhaps overmuch, on the myriad ways Sorrentino plays with the novel form, plays with readerly assumptions concerning the “truth” of a given text, “what is really happening” in a given piece of fiction, indeed the relevance and coherence of one internal text to another (and yes: what American writer, save perhaps David Markson, has done as much to expand our notion of what can or cannot function in/as a novel?). [7] But if we can speak of an author as idiosyncratic and uncompromising as Sorrentino ever being able to “make it,” it is clear enough, despite these little victories, that he has not. We need only review the infamous New York Times obituary if evidence beyond our own intuitive grasps of the culture will not suffice:

“Mr. Sorrentino had his detractors as well. Martin Seymour-Smith, writing in The Financial Times in 1984, wrote that Mr. Sorrentino had “attracted extravagant praise from a few but no notice from most critics or readers. This suggests that he might well be a writer of very high quality. But in my view he is not.”

Since there is so much still to be written on Sorrentino, since no definitive career-spanning studies have appeared, since Sorrentino as yet remains underground for most of the English-language community—despite attempt after attempt to reverse this trend, and despite (or because of) the size and influence of his oeuvre, and since moreover it would take a book and not an essay to do the peculiarity of GS’s oeuvre justice—it might do to collect, here, in modest tribute, a few unscholarly, unscientific sentences, mainly questions, on the subject of one of the English language’s great doctors and despoilers, and indeed on the subject of how we, his prospective readers, might see his life and work, now that the former has ended: a few possible routes, a few possible nodes of inquiry for those utopian scholars of the future who might find in Sorrentino a fine fatted calf for a dissertation; and specifically some ruminations as to why, indeed, one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century remains by and large a stranger to his own countrymen. If in the process I manage to say one or two things of use to “Sorrentino scholarship,” I will count myself singularly fortunate.

Vital Statistics

To speak about Sorrentino without engaging in yet another impotent overview is to speak primarily to the “devoted sons and other deviants” [8] already familiar with his work. One stumbling block, as retailers and publishers will confirm, is the overabundance of available product: Sorrentino was prolific, and unapologetically so—within his output, book to book and even over the course of individual texts, we find an abundance of approaches, forms, constraints, references, and pranks. Sorrentino did not sit still; even when he returned to familiar forms (2002’s Little Casino and his final novel The Abyss of Human Illusion, for instance, share the basic form of anecdotes-with-commentary found in the short piece “Sample Writing Sample” from 1997 [9]), he did not do so soon or regularly enough to “brand” himself, popularly, except as insular, a chimera. No wonder then that every writer approaching Sorrentino will find herself sorely tempted to begin with the basics—to offer a guide for the perplexed. We are forever stalled at the starting line. But it can be useful nonetheless to revisit the numbers.

Gilbert Sorrentino (1929–2006), to count only the major publications, is the author of seventeen novels, one meditation or prose poem (which could easily be counted a novel, given Sorrentino’s loose criteria), one collection of short stories, eight books of poetry (more or less collected into a single volume in 2004 [10]), and one book of selected nonfiction. A few of his books were published, from the late sixties through the early eighties, by larger trade publishers. Gradually his books went out of print; the majority were acquired by Dalkey Archive Press, which still keeps them available today.

Of his novels, three could be said to have continuous narratives, in that they begin on page one recounting an incident that precedes in the internal chronology of the book the incident recounted on the final page, and where the intervening pages are concerned with the progression of events in a linear fashion (ellipses notwithstanding) from the initial stage to the latter.

Of his novels, fourteen are structured implicitly or explicitly as miscellanies, presenting information concerning the thoughts, activities, and—generally—amours of a semi-stable chorus of the same (or similar) characters in discrete segments following no internal chronology but the logic of a list or other ordering constraint (most “famously” Misterioso, which proceeds in vignette fashion through the alphabet: a copy of Absalom, Absalom! found in an A&P through the lassitude of a woman nicknamed “ZuZu”).

Of his novels, two get their titles from William Carlos Williams. One from Henry James. One Shakespeare. One Flann O’Brien. One Thelonious Monk. (Is it possible I am missing references in his other titles? Yes, it is possible.)

Of his novels, and now further entering the realm of opinion, perhaps none could be described as being concerned with imaginary personages who possess, “as the phrase has it, redeeming qualities…. ameliorated or softened by interjections of ‘warmth’ in the guise of characters, events, or locales.” [11]

Of his novels, perhaps all could be considered comedies. At least as much as The Duchess of Malfi. At least as much as The Making of Americans.

Of his novels, perhaps all could be considered a form of literary criticism.

Geography & Authenticity

Of his novels, or now perhaps “books of prose,” all but five could be said to “take place” entirely in New York City, which is to say, in the main, Brooklyn or Manhattan, occasionally the Bronx, and indeed to hold a character’s abandoning New York City, which is to say Brooklyn or Manhattan, occasionally the Bronx, for a place of greater safety (“moonlight in Vermont” [12]!) in almost as much contempt as their staying put.

Of the five books of prose that could be said to “take place” outside New York City (I posit: The Sky Changes [1966], Splendide-Hôtel [1973], Blue Pastoral [1983], Under the Shadow [1991], Lunar Follies [2005]), the astute reader could easily object that they take place at least partially in Brooklyn or Manhattan (literally so in The Sky Changes, which uses a progression from this home turf across the country, heading west, for Mexico, and never arriving, as an ordering element; likewise Blue Pastoral, which I suspect uses The Sky Changes as an ordering element), or object, indeed, that when in a novel or story Gilbert Sorrentino sets his scene outside of New York City, it is not—properly speaking—set anywhere at all, aside from the consciousness (frequently disgusted, frequently bitter, frequently disappointed) and vocabulary (mocking, concise, shorn of simile) of a narrator who is certainly a New Yorker, and who we are invited—at, of course, our peril—to associate with GS himself.

What would a geographically oriented study of the work of Gilbert Sorrentino teach us? If we were to map his novels and stories, which Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods would or would not feature? Were we to walk these spaces today, would they bear any resemblance whatever to the places Sorrentino intended to implicate when he named them in his work? Do his novels make a circuit, beginning X in Steelwork, his second, sedentary novel, traveling as far as California in Blue Pastoral, atomizing the memory of the East Coast in the Pack of Lies trilogy (predominantly written during GS’s exile at Stanford), arriving in the no-place California limbo of Under the Shadow, returning home in Red the Fiend and Little Casino, striking back reflexively at the “wild” west in Gold Fools?

And then, what do we make of the insistence, over and again in Sorrentino’s work, that one is always, and irrevocably, an insider or an outsider, as regards place, as regards art? That one is indeed “hip” or not (“[M]any beatniks think of themselves as hipsters, while there are no hipsters at all today, at least not in New York…” [13] he wrote in 1964; matters can’t have improved since); that to be on the outside and pretend to be “in” results, quickly enough, in losing one’s soul, becoming obscene. “In” here meaning: literature, New York.

To return to GS’s essay, “The Art of Hubert Selby”: Selby is praised for his “impeccable” ear for speech:

“Only a fool can be misled by the heavy-handed vulgarity of so many popular prose writers who mistake one brand of grammatical aberration and slang for another.” [14]

“To anyone who knows…” GS goes on, Selby’s choice of one bar over another for Tralala—his low-class Last Exit to Brooklyn prostitute—to hustle in, is perfect: she chooses a spot “strictly for the tourist,” [15] since this would be her proper habitat. And yet, jumping ahead to 1993, in one of Sorrentino’s wonderful aphoristic essays, we find: “Journalists are always bad writers because they think that fiction is an elaboration of reality, like reporting.” [16] Nothing strange about a writer refining or contradicting a point made thirty years before—and certainly Sorrentino was not praising Selby’s work solely on its merits as fiction that “got it right”—but just a few entries later in this same piece, we find:

“The wry, cynical, smart, sophisticated, and glittering New York depicted in Hollywood musicals and light comedies of the thirties and forties was really, in some magical way, what New York was really like up until about 1950. Nobody who was not there believes this.” [17]

And then, indulge me, a step backward to 1972: In a piece on the death of his familiar New York “Bohemia,” we again find Sorrentino’s familiar rage at the ersatz: “It was a ‘hip’ world, and that word as currently employed and as it was then employed, means two different things.” [18] And once more:

“If one has never heard Bach, then Mantovani is fine. If one does not know the work of Williams or Pound or Olson or Duncan or Weiners, then Donovan and Leonard Cohen are poets…. Art is ruthless. This fact is not tolerated today. The young are handed perverted goo which is passed off as art.” [19]

So: “Nobody who was not there”; “If one does not know the work of Williams…”: this concern, this morality of essentials—geographical, aesthetic—is never far from Sorrentino’s poetics…this writer who nonetheless listed his own “artistic necessities” as “an obsessive concern with formal structure, a dislike of the replication of experience, a love of digression and embroidery, a great pleasure in false or ambiguous information, a desire to invent problems that only the invention of new forms can solve, and a joy in making mountains out of molehills.” [20]

In Sorrentino, we see this conflict between a love of elaborate falsification and a disgust for the false fought to a draw over and again. This is, for the reader, unsettling. This is, as well, deeply unfashionable, as it must needs be. Ask Wyndham Lewis, if you can find any of his books. It is one thing to expect our “experimental” fiction to demonstrate that this or that emperor has no clothes—who here is frightened by literary subversion? We know the culture does not care. What is not often remarked upon, with regard to Sorrentino, is his insistence that there are no clothes for any of us to don. He knows who he is addressing, and he does not spare us—nor himself. Writing is a losing battle. Sorrentino’s is an intelligence inspired by, enraged at, the unforgiving, inevitable naught of the failure of imagination.

Cliché

“No art can succeed when it is willingly mistaken for reality,” Jerome Klinkowitz says, summing up Sorrentino’s attitude toward fiction (calling GS, incidentally, “The Man Who Hates His Story”). [21] What then, in an art form that may not be allowed to replicate experience, whose only strength lies in its spuriousness, constitutes authenticity, honesty? Is it enough to remind the reader that words are words and not images? To steer away from representation?

“The reader will see that what I am driving at is that these words that he is reading—are words.”

[…]

“The difference between a good writer and a bad one—or, the difference between a writer (take your choice out of the millions around) and an artist—is that the former thinks the words are pictures, and so on. He thinks they “represent” things, and take their place. The artist is a slave to the fact (it takes a great while to realize this) that they represent nothing, and you pay homage to them on their terms.” [22]

Of course it isn’t enough, because language, like thought, like any medium, is inherently inert, stubborn, lazy. Unlike stone, however, or silver halides, language also defines our function as human beings, our interaction with the phenomenal world and one another. It is a grave thing, then, to sin against your medium as a writer—to propagate “perverted goo” in the guise of art, to rely on a pernicious consensus rather than test the margins. It has consequences, Sorrentino tells us, far more profound than merely constructing an object of no value.

Here is a generative constraint you might use in your own work. Do not write a single phrase that could be identified as a cliché or a product of received language—and be ruthless in so identifying your usages—without calling attention to your “lapse.” No matter how awkward it might seem, no matter how it might undercut your intentions, leave no laziness, no cheapness unemphasized; expose yourself to your own and your readers’ ridicule. Do so, in fact, so often, that even those phrases that are plausibly your own—inasmuch as we, like musicologists at a plagiarism trial, can sift the “received” from the “invented”—begin to lose value, begin to cheapen by close association with the cheap. What is the effect? Is this honesty?

The word “phrase”—“handy phrase,” “awkward phrase,” “tired phrase,” “such turns of phrase,” “Now there’s a turn of phrase!”—is a basso continuo in, to take one example, Sorrentino’s Pack of Lies trilogy. It occurs so often, as its various narrators double back to bite the tails of their accidental/intentional clichés, that a full citation would be wearisome. You will find similar locutions in most of Sorrentino’s novels:

“Let’s leave him a moment—in that lovely phrase of the novel…” [23]

[…]

“A wondrous phrase, yet all methinks devoid of meaning…” [24]

[…]

“The Drummer ignores [Cheech] and “strains every fiber of his being” toward Professor Kooba.
      It’s a great relief to me that that phrase is in quotes, Curtin says. A great relief.” [25]

We know it is in itself a cliché to point out that we are all, as users of language, implicated by the use of cliché. The culture, the language, speaks through us, wrestle with this angel (!) as we will. Language, to Sorrentino, is facile, but it is also the enemy. Blobs of text disgorged by a thousand hacks bob up in his mind, same as any mind; Sorrentino the collagist presents them unaltered, often, to our eyes—and the undiscriminating reader passes over them without so much as a bump. Until, that is, Sorrentino forces this bump: you the rube, have swallowed another mouthful of dreck, so eager were you to move through your meal. The effect over time is, at best, discouraging. How many writers can we name who have taken as their primary theme (what a field day, indeed, Sorrentino would have with “theme”; note too the opacity of the phrase “field day”) the inviolability of the writer’s art? We can say there are writers who are daunting in that their prose achieves effects we cannot ourselves achieve, who resist emulation, who have claimed a corner of the tablecloth as their own, redefined what can be done with prose in a way that seems too novel for appropriation—but who, among our greats, has stood at the gate (gate?) holding his hand up, palm out, indicating that we dare not pass? Is there not, in Sorrentino’s work, an underlying caveat to all readers that they would do better, perhaps, to remain on the far side of the page, and not inch their pens into what is, after all, a specialist’s domain?

Language is the enemy, because to use it for aesthetic effect is to tip yourself into an arena where your very human decency (presuming one has begun the game with any) is endangered by your medium: to write pabulum is to let it circulate freely in your thoughts and enter into your life, you plague rat. For one’s language to be refined to the point where the “absolute falsity of the representation of reality” [26] is clearly delineated is all the honesty, all the morality, literature can give us…and it is still not enough, for the glorification of this “falsity” can as easily calcify into a new form of cliché. Yes, art is ruthless.

Sorrentino’s gatekeeping, then, which could certainly be mistaken for posturing—as indeed (who can say?) it on occasion is—is as much a self-indictment as an attempt to warn away the pinchbecks and poetasters that (can we agree on this?) crowd the medium with inanity, rotting “the mental health of the state,” [27] unleashing Williams’s “black smut” upon our literary corn…. Sorrentino is implicated, in pointing out our inadequacies—as readers, writers, users of language—for having, himself, preceded us into a purview where there can be no innocence, no victory, and no respite. Is he beating down straw men? Shooting fish in a barrel? Preaching to the choir? We who listen and aspire are guilty; Sorrentino is guilty of wanting to teach us.

“So to speak, as it were, after all, in sum, and finally.” [28]

Shanty Irish (an interlude)

The word “shanty,” independent from or adjacent to the word “Irish,” appears—at a rough estimate—around thirty-three times in the works of Gilbert Sorrentino; a whopping seventeen in Aberration of Starlight alone, in the mouth—primarily—of the monstrous grandmother figure who returns, distilled to a greater degree of monstrousness, in Red the Fiend. [29]Usage is not restricted to those two novels, however:

“Experience shows that the overwhelming sandwich favorite among shanty Irish is ham and potato salad on a seeded role with mayo.” [30]

Is thirty-three more or less than expected?

The Narrative of Neglect

Sorrentino is himself at once hard to place and exemplary, a writer who insists vehemently on the uniqueness and autonomy of the literary work, and whose willing embrace of marginality seems only to confirm his place of honor among experimental writers in the U.S. [31]

Inasmuch as there could be said to be such a thing as Sorrentino scholarship, it is a commonplace—and we cannot object to the utilization of commonplaces in discussing an author who used received critical and literary language as eloquently as any Braque or Picasso did their newspaper clippings—that he has not received the recognition he deserves. Indeed, in William McPheron’s Gilbert Sorrentino: A Descriptive Bibliography—covering the years 1960–1990—the bibliographer states in his introduction that Sorrentino’s career “reflects the fate of classic American modernism in contemporary literary culture,” and “mirrors [the] erosion of commitment to serious literature.” [32] The thesis of the bibliography—which is certainly a polemical work—is this: Where once Sorrentino would have been recognized as a giant of American letters, he has been forced into a marginal position because of the increasing commercialization of the publishing industry, and indeed the absorption of the poetics and “experimental writing” communities into the academy, whose tastes have long since parted ways with the so-called high modernist tradition Sorrentino represents.

Thanks to the detail with which McPheron records the circumstances of every one of Sorrentino’s initial book publications, reading Gilbert Sorrentino is a rather novelistic experience—GS’s novels, their panoply of fictional writers making bad choices, prepare us to read it as such—with our protagonist again and again falling foul of bad luck or hubris in his attempts not only to get his work published but be rewarded for this both monetarily and with some amount of respect by the publishing industry and greater “world of letters.” His first novel, The Sky Changes, was acquired by Hill and Wang after three other trade houses rejected it. Time magazine, of all places, declared it would run a very positive review with a featured picture of Sorrentino; the review was killed, however, with no explanation, immediately after being filed. Hill and Wang declined to further publicize the book after this setback, and so it languished, necessitating that GS work more or less from scratch in placing his next novel, Steelwork. (It found a home at Pantheon through friends, along with Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. [33]) This story, with variations, is repeated throughout Sorrentino—and other examples of editorial and/or writerly cupidity are in no short supply.

Certainly, if we take commercial “penetration” as a measure of the culture’s grasp of a given writer’s work—high advances, this-many-thousands of copies sold—then Sorrentino has made barely a blip, aside from the wavelets put out by the relative success of Mulligan Stew (interestingly, McPheron does not record the advance for this title [34]), still GS’s best-known novel. Sorrentino was reviewed consistently, though there is often to be seen an inversely proportional relationship between the enthusiasm of a given review and the review outlet’s circulation; and with several long-standing cheerleaders aside, these reviews were often confused and discomfited, particularly as GS put more and more distance between himself and what could be mistaken for realism. [35] In terms of critical work on Sorrentino, McPheron’s accounting lists 113 articles up through 1990, most of these not on Sorrentino himself but citing his work as an example of Homo metafictionalis, and one of which is in fact a vengeful poem by Rachelle Owens titled “To an Arrogant Fart.” [36] More often than not, those pieces centering on Sorrentino’s work exclusively were published in special issues devoted to him (Review of Contemporary Fiction 1.1; Vort 2.3). [37] In the twenty years since, I can find evidence (at the UMI ProQuest archive) of only five dissertations focusing, in any significant way, on Sorrentino’s work.

Does this, however, constitute neglect? Certainly Sorrentino’s writing does not “feel” as though it is part of the contemporary discourse on fiction, difficult though it is to qualify something like influence. That Sorrentino himself felt neglected during his lifetime is clear enough: “Artists, in old age, should not appear eagerly grateful for belated attention to their work. A decent courtesy is more than sufficient.” [38]

Neglect is especially difficult to gauge vis-à-vis Sorrentino as so much of his work is precisely an attack on those institutions from which a writer of his stature might expect a certain amount of attention, belated or otherwise. Sorrentino, in his work, is always the “insider”: the reader is the mark, being instructed on the long-con of literature. What, effect, then, would “success,” even celebrity, have on GS’s work? To what degree was GS’s great theme his own reception, or lack thereof—better put: his own irrelevance—as evidenced by the career-spanning vitriol he spooned over his own, imagined authors and artists, their coteries, their reviewers, their careers?

And: Must discussions of the neglect or perceived neglect of a great writer tend always toward the axis of: He brought it upon himself / Without neglect he would not have been a great writer? The language available to ask these questions seems to pull without fail toward one of those poles—and it is worth noting that Sorrentino himself was a master of this same whinging rhetoric. In any case, Sorrentino certainly wrote his own neglect in a way few others writers have dared. He understood it, even encouraged it—not so much in “real life” (I know nothing about Sorrentino in “real life”) but by so lovingly constructing a rhetorical universe, in his fiction and elsewhere, where art—real art, his art, the art of his chosen peers and predecessors, for which “the audience…is miniscule and numerically constant” [39]—is extraneous to the world, and can exist only in the shadow of the soul-denying pap branded “art” in its place…with the genuine article therefore held in contempt for not itself being soul-denying pap.

What is more interesting than debating whether GS’s notion of the world’s relationship to art has any basis in reality—clearly it does, and then occasionally does not—is noting quite how fundamental was Sorrentino’s pessimism, and how that has, perhaps, colored his reception. He wrote against the neglect of art, toward the neglect of art. Where someone like William H. Gass (four years older than GS) as tirelessly and ferociously advocates the same basic, formalist agenda as Sorrentino—art is useless, and the only function of the artist is to make art; to comment, as an artist, on anything other than this “making” is to court disaster—he does so in what is, by contrast, a wholly encouraging, loving, sensual mode:

“[N]ot the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs.” [40]

And yet, Sorrentino’s review of the above-quoted book ends with the following statement:

On Being Blue celebrates both language and that which it represents and carefully draws our attention to that difficult middle ground on which the writer finds himself in lifelong struggle to join the two without sullying or smearing the clarities of either.” [41]

And in Sorrentino’s own On Being Blue—if I may call it that—Splendide-Hôtel, likewise a plotless paean to the word, we find:

“The false poet has written a false novel, the language further corrupted. This rubbish will sour and destroy the world.”

[…]

“The language [the audience] employs to make these demands is dead, a smell of putrefaction hangs over it.”

[…]

“There is no politics but the manipulation of power through language. Through the latter’s constant debasement.”

[…]

“His language is that of instruction booklets on the installation of air conditioners. In his more elegantly turned phrases, one hears the echoes of commercials.” [42]

Language, again, is the enemy. To a not-irrelevant degree, that makes us, the readers, the enemy as well. Sorrentino asks us to be as ruthless as he. As ruthless as art.

Is there a little of the scent of a bullying boys’ club to all this?

Perhaps.

Should all aspiring writers nonetheless read the first two pages, at least, of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things?

Oh yes.

That Obituary

The New York Times obituary of Sorrentino [43] seems at first glance emblematic of his reception during his lifetime. It is a petty and ill-informed piece of work, a hatchet-job in the noblest tradition—inasmuch as the unlettered reader will see in it not an attack, but a generous tip of officialdom’s hat to a fusty, unimportant writer whose passing need not warrant so much as a sniffle. The last word in the obit, worth repeating in full, is given to a Financial Times review written twenty-two years before GS’s passing (did the clipping happen to be at hand? perhaps already tacked to a nearby bulletin board? goodness knows no one had reviewed the guy since, right?):

“Martin Seymour-Smith, writing in the Financial Times in 1984, wrote that Mr. Sorrentino had ‘attracted extravagant praise from a few but no notice from most critics or readers. This suggests that he might well be a writer of very high quality. But in my view he is not.’ ”

John O’Brien, Director of Dalkey Archive Press, commented later in Golden Handcuffs Review: “What kind of obit is this? ‘Here’s a writer nobody read and here's a critic saying he wasn't worth reading.’ As Gil would have said, “Sweet bleeding Jesus.’ ” [44]

And yet, the obituary is such an impressive work of focused and directed indifference that now, years later, it has been suggested that the piece was a plant: that GS himself, or some other member of the little “deviant” horde of Sorrentinophiles, was trying, here, to be certain that death would not elicit any of the vacuous revisions we often see in popular appraisal. Where, exactly, would praise get us, this late in the day? “A decent courtesy is more than sufficient.” And it would not be proper praise, but pity. Let us be consistent, if nothing else. Seen in this light, the piece fits squarely in the Sorrentino oeuvre. What else could it be but parody? A mincing and mealy-mouthed and rather funny expression of the way art, or let us say literature, has a way of turning us “foul and greedy and mean,” [45] whatever our ambitions toward—what?

The “Last Book” as Genre

At the end of his life, the story goes, laid up in a hospital bed, the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, waiting to die, composed his last short by scratching away the emulsion from a length of raw stock, one frame at a time, with his fingernails. [46] Seeing this film, Chinese Series, if we had not heard the above, would still—as with any last or posthumously published work—be, for an adherent, a fan, a moving experience. Even for Brakhage, by no means a neglected artist, staying alive and producing more work was the best, perhaps only response to a commercial establishment that considered him irrelevant (except, perhaps, when a neat trick might be stolen). Work does not convince. Occasionally, example does.

Sorrentino’s last novel, we’re told, was written under similar circumstances. His son, Christopher Sorrentino, tells us that GS continued working as his health failed, fully aware, toward the end, that this project would be his last. [47]

The chapters or vignettes in Abyss are finely composed, on a par with Sorrentino’s earlier work. They belie the desperate circumstances of their composition. But as with Chinese Series, we “devoted sons and other deviants” are inevitably primed by anecdotal evidence to read into Sorrentino’s fifty flint-strike vignettes all the exhaustion and effort of a man fighting to “get it down” as his body leaves him, as it were, in the lurch. The overarching narrative of Abyss, then, can be only one of decline: the opening half is strong and concise, “healthy,” it persuades us to feel that this slim final work will have to be counted as a late masterpiece, as tight and mean and ineffable as anything we’ve ever had from GS. The second half, however, becomes more diffuse. The vignettes become longer, less focused: the book evolving, as it progresses, from terse descriptions of disappointment, into its embodiment.

Of course, it’s impossible to say whether the sections of the book are presented in the order of their composition—but the temptation to read the book this way is irresistible. The book seems to tell us there simply wasn’t enough time: the narrative, such as it is, moves from perfect control to dissipation. It’s this that makes Abyss the saddest, the least hopeful of Sorrentino’s works. Certainly there’s humor here—Sorrentino with ashes in his mouth is still funnier than a gaggle of “comic novelists”—but there is also a distance, a resignation that feels new. Abyss’s quiet, bitter rage at the insufficiency of life, of art, and of our reactions to life and art, is no longer the same old contempt for “the fake.” Yes, there are failures and phonies here, artists as ever singled out for their pettiness and vacuity, but now it seems—as the title, from Henry James, indicates—that they never really had a chance. [48] Given the opportunity, we’re told, these homunculi (mostly nameless, mostly old, mostly alone) would make the same mistakes, waste the same time, hurt the same people, produce the same shit—there isn’t a way out for the human animal, though one can, with precision, delineate how far short we’ve fallen of our ideals. This book has no ending: only a death. The final fillip, the “kicker,” the resolution that’s missing must be located out here in the phenomenal world: there is no more Sorrentino, and there will be no more Sorrentino novels. The writer has finally been subsumed into the frustration and regret of his characters. Christopher Sorrentino’s preface makes the book into a fractal: here are more portraits of the failed, and each a miniature of the novel—and this is perhaps what makes it a novel—as a whole.

Might we say that Abyss is a success as a last novel, even if it might fail as a late masterpiece? Is the genre of “last novels” another which we might say that Sorrentino mastered, as he did the languages of so many other debased forms? Here, whatever our perspective, we may find his radical, aesthetic pessimism collapse into its own bile—and subside.

Models

Inasmuch as there could be said to be such a thing as Sorrentino scholarship, something that has not been often enough discussed (but what is “often enough?”), or taken as a point of entry into his oeuvre—though he left the door, as they say, wide open—is GS’s use of sources both outside and within his own fiction as structural models. In Something Said, the selected nonfiction, we find a brief 1982 review of Jules Renard’s Poil de Carotte, that “reserved and unsentimental work about an unhappy boy…in an unhappy provincial family…” The boy, Poil de Carrote himself—“Carrot Top”—“is a classic victim”; his mother, Madame Lepic’s, “assault on him is relentless…. She wars on [the boy] as she would an adult.” Poil de Carrote has “49 brief sections and a splintered though conventional chronology. Renard has no interest in causality…” [49] It is no great discovery that Red the Fiend is Sorrentino’s “version” of Renard’s novel, right down to the number of chapters; it is however fascinating—here and elsewhere in Something Said—to see just how publicly GS had made clear his interest in the tools Renard left for him.

An obvious topic: Shakespeare and Sorrentino. The Sky Changes, still the best American marriage manual, gets its title from As You Like It (IV.1): “Men are April when they woo, December when they wed: Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives.” “Lady the Brach,” the first chapter of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, takes its title from Lear (1.IV). A “brach” is a hunting bitch.

Again obvious: Flann O’Brien. Raymond Roussel. Rimbaud. Williams.

Less obvious: Sorrentinto and Pinget. The Pack of Lies trilogy is in many ways a response to The Inquisitory. There is the construction of a novel out of an interrogation, in Odd Number, but also the use of an established cast of characters, many of them originating in other of Sorrentino’s novels (and, in fact, in the novels of Nabokov and Flann O’Brien, from which Sorrentino pilfered characters to populate his own universe—and, just as much, to prove a point). Pinget’s imaginary town of Agapa seems here to have been dug up and replanted in the U.S., and its sister town of Fantoine gets mention as well—and, indeed, they occasionally combine to make “Gapoine” or “Fagapa.” (Do Anglophones still read Pinget?)

Now, wholly obscure: The use of a 1598 catalog of stage properties for the Rose theatre, London, as an ordering element and inspiration for the chapters of Rose Theatre, the middle book in the Pack of Lies trilogy. (We have McPheron to thank for revealing this otherwise completely inscrutable reference. [50])

And then: the echoes and doubles within Sorrentino’s oeuvre. The Sky Changes and Blue Pastoral. Grim Steelwork and fanciful Crystal Vision. The names and scenarios. The eternal return.

Geography & Authenticity II (an anecdote)

Having a distinguished appointment to make, and with the whole English-speaking world to hunt in, [the English Department] came up with a coterie writer of minimum distinction [51]

said pouting Wallace Stegner when Sorrentino was asked out to Stanford in 1982, where GS then taught for fifteen years. This prompted Stegner’s threatening to remove his name from the university’s famous fellowship and eventually his decision to peddle his papers to Utah instead. (“Any scholar who has to go to Salt Lake to study Stegner will get a bonus by being lured into good country,” he wrote three years later. [52]) The pages of Philip L. Fradkin’s Wallace Stegner and the American West devoted to l’affair Sorrentino are another confirmation that GS’s powers were so great, or his cabal of admirers so efficient, or reality so malleable to our few master stylists, that, again, we find life, or our records of it, conforming precisely to the meanness of Sorrentino’s fiction. In Mulligan Stew, published three years before the Stanford tussle, we find Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds referred to as “a coterie novel,” [53] and poor Antony Lamont—himself hired out of At Swim’s hardy cast to serve, in Mulligan and elsewhere, as yet another ringer in the ranks of writerly also-ran fouling the New York air—laments, as is his wont, that he is doomed to “Obscurity. Not to be even a ‘coterie’ writer.” [54]

Fradkin reports that “Sorrentino taught—‘lackadaisically’ said one of his colleagues”—no doubt extensive interviews were conducted within the department—“and then returned to New York City. Sorrentino…saw himself as a New Yorker’s New Yorker…” [55]

A footnote in Stegner’s letters helpfully informs us that GS was “precisely the kind of avant-garde, postmodern, metafictionalist Stegner could not abide.” [56]

Wordlessness

Sincerity too is a rhetorical strategy, Mr. Stegner. It is incredible that writers still need to be reminded of this. Wise Hugh Kenner reported, in tracing Hemmingway’s decent into self-parody, that “The quest of the one true sentence leads to wordlessness.” [57] Kenner too reminds us, on the subject of William Carlos Williams, whose own undervalued fiction is never far from Sorrentino’s work, that Williams’s poem “The Poem,” and his writing generally, “[is] too quirky and tricky for orality, but one of its qualifications for anatomizing its theme is that it knows what a voice sounds like.” [58] This is certainly true of Sorrentino as well.

One thing that is consistent through every one of GS’s novels, a unity despite the changes of tone and form, is the edge, the bite, the bitterness—that voice. “[I]n terms of fiction all voices are invented voices,” [59] he tells us, and the voice he invented, the one that recurs most, whether or not it bears any relation to Sorrentino’s “real” voice, takes all the assumptions of fiction—and language—and therefore living—and leaves them without a patch of skin intact. It leaves us, indeed, with very little.

It may be, then, that Sorrentino does not open ways for writing, but closes them. I don’t mean by this anything so unhelpful as to imply that one of our great authors is “merely a dead end”—just the sort of critical commonplace Sorrentino would disdain, and correctly—but simply that his work may not be generative, as his own idols/models/favorites’s were. Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Williams—they are beginnings, and we know this if for no other reason than that Sorrentino built upon what they began. But GS himself came to us, like Diogenes, to debase the currency. Is there any way to be “honest” enough for Sorrentino, in this business where honesty can rightly be dismissed as another way to lie?

Sorrentino is certainly one of our funniest writers—another difficult claim to verify—but there is something misleading in pointing readers firstly toward an appreciation of his humor. It is easy enough, indeed impossible to avoid, the apprehension of Beckett’s work, for instance—also damn funny—or indeed Blanchot’s—likewise (is this provocative?)—as being a “writing toward silence,” aiming itself at the limits of what language, and its literary subset, can accomplish. No similar claim adheres to the fiction of verbose, “earthy,” chameleonic Sorrentino, yet this is the secret vein beneath the seeming carnival of his work. Susan Howe has said that most literary criticism is based on calculations of interest. [60] Sorrentino’s fiction is bleak, is unpopular, perhaps because it is “high” literature with no interest in romanticizing the literary. Quite the opposite. It is—another priceless means of dismissing an author—“writing for writers” that nonetheless asks that those writers hold themselves entirely accountable. This is not easy, and it is not in one’s interests to admit this.

I once heard it said in a writing workshop that characters like Emily Grimes in Richard Yates’s Easter Parade were portraits of the writer without writing: the misery, the stupidity, the drudgery, all drawn from the author’s imagining his life “if he didn’t have art.” And, whatever the merits of this comment, it may well be that the lure of narrative, for many writers, realist or non, is very much the lure of this same ennobling fiction: that life, such as it is, goes down better in words. But what if, Sorrentino asks, this is just the quicker way to hell?

Sorrentino’s writing, for all its sensuality, is literature that loves literature, but is not broadly in favor of literature, as Gass’s is. No: The sentences we write have already been written. Fiction has its origins in the cliché, so is implicated in the death of sense and feeling. In the end, the hip and the square, the con and the mark, turn out to be in cahoots—they all seek to break, however temporarily, the embargo of the ersatz. How often do they succeed? More to the point: How often do they like to be reminded of their failure?

Notes

1. Gilbert Sorrentino, Something Said (1984; San Francisco: North Point Press; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2001) 356.
2. Sorrentino, Pack of Lies (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997) 144.
3. Collected in Sorrentino, Something Said, 114–128.
4. Vort 2.3 (1974).
5. Chicago Review 25.4 (1974): 77-89.
6. Gerald Howard’s gregarious 2006 piece in Bookforum being the last such effort: “A View from the Ridge: Back in the Old Neighborhood with Postmodern Prole Gilbert Sorrentino.” Bookforum, Feb-Mar. 2006.
7. See for instance Louis Mackey, Fact, Fiction, and Representation: Four Novels by Gilbert Sorrentino. (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997).
8. As Christopher Sorrentino calls his father’s devotees in his lovely preface to The Abyss of Human Illusion (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2010) xii.
9. Collected in Gilbert Sorrentino, The Moon in Its Flight (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2004) 106–120.
10. Gilbert Sorrentino, New and Selected Poems: 1958–1998 (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2004).
11. Sorrentino, Something Said, 295.
12. Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971; New York: Pantheon Books; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991) 243.
13. Sorrentino, Something Said, 118.
14. Sorrentino, Something Said, 116.
15. Sorrentino, Something Said, 117.
16. Sorrentino, Something Said, 340.
17. Sorrentino, Something Said, 340.
18. Gilbert Sorrentino, “If one has never heard Bach, then Mantovani’s fine.” Crawdaddy, 20 Feb. 1972: 46.
19. Sorrentino, “Bach.”
20. Sorrentino, Something Said, 265.
21. Jerome Klinkowitz, “Gilbert Sorrentino's Super-Fiction,” Chicago Review 25.4 (1974): 79, 81.
22. Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities, 37, 169.
23. Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities, 220.
24. Gilbert Sorrentino, Blue Pastoral (1983; San Francisco: North Point Press; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000) 98. Blue Pastoral is centered on a quest to find, just so, the Perfect (Musical) Phrase.
25. Gilbert Sorrentino, Crystal Vision (1981; San Francisco: North Point Press; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1999) 150.
26. Sorrentino, Moon, 107.
27. Hugh Kenner on precisely what Pound sought to avoid; from his The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951; London: Faber and Faber; Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1985) 46.
28. Sorrentino, Moon, 108.
29. Red himself “originates” in Steelwork.
30. Gilbert Sorrentino, Mulligan Stew (1979; New York: Grove Press; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1996) 245.
31. Joseph Tabbi, “Matter into Imagination: The Cognitive Realism of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things,” The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity, eds. Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004) 167.
32. William McPheron, Gilbert Sorrentino: A Descriptive Bibliography (Elmwood, IL: Dalkey Archive Press 1991) vii.
33. McPheron, Gilbert Sorrentino, 8, 14.
34. McPheron, Gilbert Sorrentino, 37.
35. McPheron, Gilbert Sorrentino, 135–191.
36. McPheron, Gilbert Sorrentino, 210.
37. McPheron, Gilbert Sorrentino, 195–217.
38. Sorrentino, Something Said, 343.
39. Sorrentino, “Bach.”
40. William H. Gass. On Being Blue. (Boston: David R. Godine, 1976) 11.
41. Sorrentino, Something Said, 192.
42. Gilbert Sorrentino, Splendide-Hôtel (1973; New York: New Directions; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1984, 2001) 9, 10, 17, 47.
43. Anthony Ramirez, “Gilbert Sorrentino, Novelist and Professor, Dies at 77,” New York Times 22 May 2006.
44. Quoted in Douglas Messerli, “The Shape of the Gesture: Three Pieces on Gilbert Sorrentino,” Golden Handcuffs Review 1.8 (2007): 299.
45. Sorrentino, Pack of Lies, 111.
46. Fred Camper tells us, “The material that he scratched on black film was first printed with each frame repeated twice, and then printed with each frame repeated only once,” as per Brakhage’s instructions.
47. In the aforementioned preface to Sorrentino, Abyss.
48. Sorrentino said much the same thing of Selby’s characters in his “The Art of Hubert Selby.”
49. Sorrentino, Something Said, 295–96.
50. McPheron, Gilbert Sorrentino, 66.
51. Wallace Stegner, The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner, ed. Page Stegner (Berkley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2007) 319.
52. Stegner, Letters, 66.
53. Sorrentino, Mulligan Stew, 41.
54. Sorrentino, Mulligan Stew, 248.
55. Philip L. Fradkin, Wallace Stegner and the American West (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2008, 2009) 283.
56. Stegner, Letters, 319
57. Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World (New York: Knopf, 1975) 155.
58. Kenner, Homemade World, 86.
59. John O'Brien, “An Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 1.1 (1981).
60. Susan Howe. My Emily Dickinson (1985; Berkeley, CA: New York: North Atlantic Books; New York: New Directions, 2007) 13.


Jeremy M. Davies is the author of the novel Rose Alley (Counterpath, 2009) and is Senior Editor at Dalkey Archive Press in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.