Afterword to The Abyss of Human Illusion

Christopher Sorrentino

My father completed his final novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, in April 2006, a little more than a month before he died. The title is taken from Henry James’ story, “The Middle Years,” in which Dencombe, an ailing older writer “who had a reputation” — mostly for disappointing sales — sits at the edge of the sea, indifferently holding a copy of his newest book (also called The Middle Years), still in the envelope in which it has been forwarded by his publisher, considering his own incapacity for wonder, surprise, astonished joy:

He should never again, as at one or two great moments of the past, be better than himself. The infinite of life had gone, and what was left of the dose was a small glass engraved like a thermometer by the apothecary. He sat and stared at the sea, which appeared all surface and twinkle, far shallower than the spirit of man. It was the abyss of human illusion that was the real, the tideless deep.

Dencombe yearns for “another go[...]a better chance” to live the life he assiduously denied himself to concentrate on his work, but at the story’s famous conclusion he is resigned: “‘A second chance — that‘s the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.‚”

I should mention that for a while my father had been describing the books he was writing as “old man’s books.” He was referring perhaps to the less ambitious scope and scale that he was attempting with them — certainly they were coming less frequently, and they had grown slimmer, though I see no slackening of the comic inventiveness, or the corrosive distaste for phoniness, that marked the books he wrote as a younger man, and Little Casino (2002) is, simply, a masterpiece. But Death was asserting itself in his own life; old friends were dying, my sister Delia’s drifting, groping existence met its end in an overdose of Oxycontin, and while my father had no sense of its imminence — he was no prophet — he had become aware of Death’s proximity, and I think he was alluding to the reflective quality, an elegiac turn that sometimes smacked against a self-consciously satirized nostagia, that informed most of these books. In The Abyss of Human Illusion my father revisits the territory he mapped again and again in the timeless void of his imagining, a world spanning the gap between Depression Brooklyn and some fraudulent bohemia of the present; aging artists, crackerjack salesmen, drunken soldiers, tyrannical white collar supervisors and avariciously stupid book reviewers inhabit the same crepuscular urban setting, fall asleep on the wrong trains, fuck the wrong people at parties, fail their children, live lives whose defeat somehow seems to be traceable to a single point of origin — an isolated event, an error of judgment, a single regrettable act — that never quite becomes clear enough to explain or ameliorate anything.

A few words may be in order, at the risk of bathos, concerning the somewhat heroic circumstances under which my father managed to finish this book. He had always lived in a state of robust and uninterrupted good health, and when he began last year to suffer from dizziness and fatigue, and to rapidly drop weight, he ascribed it all to a very hot New York summer. Shortly after Labor Day, however, an MRI revealed the presence of a “significant” mass at the base of his brain, putting him at imminent risk of herniation, an event that itself can lead to massive stroke. He entered the hospital within a few days and underwent surgery to remove the tumor, which his surgeon immediately identified as metastatic, the cells having traveled directly to his brain from the cancer that had been growing in his left lung for an indeterminate period of time.

The postoperative treatment he underwent — whole-brain radiation that ruined his taste for food, his stamina, and his ability to think as clearly as he liked, followed by (ineffective) chemotherapy that inflicted nausea, dread, and the complete devastation of his physical appearance — put him in a dispiriting tailspin from which he never recovered, even as the adenocarcinoma continued its ravaging march through his body, a pincers attack that destroyed him with astonishing efficiency. Looking at it in retrospect, all the optimism I had at the time vanquished, I have to say that my father lived as an invalid from December 2005 until his death less than six months later.

According to the typescript and the notebook he presented me with, he had begun taking notes on the book in October 2003; the first draft typescript is dated 3 July 2005, just around the time my father began to find it too difficult to sit at his desk and work — a certain sign, in him, that something was wrong.

He did, however, return to the book during his illness, correcting the typescript and adding, in a notebook, the “commentary” that appears at the bottom of the following excerpts. These he has no time to type; it’s painful for me to read the notebook entries composed in the weeks before his death, his handwriting so betrays his enfeebled state.

My father never had any of Dencombe’s second thoughts. He was a supremely arrogant man; I say this with more love and affection than I can possibly express. He was shit on for many years, mostly (and, as I leaf through William McPheron’s descriptive bibliography of my father’s work, which cites from every review his books received through the publication of Misterioso in 1989, I am confirming this) by people who were never heard from again, and in favor of people of whom we will not be hearing for long.

My point, though, is not to defend the honor of a man who is beyond being offended by anything. I was saying that my father was a supremely arrogant man, I was suggesting that he navigated his career with the courage endowed by such arrogance, and that with each passing year, as he failed to conveniently disappear, his arrogance justifiably grew (I sometimes realize, when people disparage his work, that it has been read continuously for a half century). In a sense, my father believed he was immortal, and when he discovered that he was not, I believe that he grew bored. There was, in his final days, an ineffable sense that came off him not of despair, but of ennui. Among his last words to me, when I visited him in the hospital the night before he died, were, “I’m sick of this bullshit.” He went the next day at about nine a.m., as I was on my way to see him. The nurses told my mother and me that he had made his mind up; when they arrived at sunup with a can of the high-calorie protein drink they were giving him to keep at least some weight on his frame, he told them, “Keep it for somebody who needs it — I’m dying today.”