The Shape of the Gesture: Three Pieces On Gil Sorrentino

Douglas Messerli


that past

our wish

for it

—from “(pentagram),” New and Selected Poems 1958-1998

I was at work on a piece for the 2004 volume of these “cultural memoirs,” when the news came that Gil Sorrentino had died. For the last few nights, I had been rereading his collection of short stories, The Moon in Its Flight, and been thinking a great deal of Gil’s contributions to literature. I must admit that some of the joy of writing this piece was taken away with the sad news. What was to have been a celebration seemed now more like a summation.

Los Angeles, May 20, 2006

In some respects Gilbert Sorrentino was responsible for my having become a publisher. In May 1975 I had determined to begin a small magazine, Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art [the ampersands were Marjorie Perloff’s idea], but I was still debating what format it was to take. With no money to invest in the project, I was leaning towards a Xeroxed publication. I sent out a few requests—having very little idea what kind of literature I was seeking—when one day I received two or three poems by Sorrentino. I was thrilled, and when I shared my excitement with Howard, he insisted the magazine had to have a print format. His father helped with the finances of the first two issues, with issue number 1 appearing on February 13th, 1976.

But Sorrentino was, from the start, more involved than simply sending some work. In the very first issue I published an essay on John Wieners, which I had written for Marjorie Perloff’s course on modernist poetry which resulted in her The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage of 1981. Sorrentino wrote a long letter in response to that short Wieners piece, pointing out what he saw as its short-comings and adding some important insights; for example, he mentioned that the green light shining in the distance in Weiner’s poem “Long Nook” was the same green light of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In any event, a literary friendship grew up between us which resulted in my reviewing
his Mulligan Stew in The Washington Review three years later in 1979. As I continued to focus my attention on modern and contemporary fiction, I wrote a longer essay on Mulligan Stew and Aberration of Starlight, published the next year in 1980.


Gilbert Sorrentino Aberration of Starlight
(New York: Random House, 1980).
Gilbert Sorrentino Mulligan Stew
(New York: Grove Press, 1979)

In relation to his earlier fictions—Imaginative Qualities, Splendide-Hôtel, and Mulligan Stew—Gilbert Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight is perplexing, not in terms of style or content, but in its unabashed use of modernist structures and narrative techniques. His three previous works—representing such genres as the mock-essay, the fantasy, and the anatomy—were explicit declarations against the novel and its domination of prose literature in the twentieth century. Yet Aberration of Starlight not only announces itself as a novel on its dust-jacket (although, one must admit, that the generic differences of which I am speaking have little to do with what the publisher chooses to call a work), but within it pages generally behaves as one. Except for one section in each of its four perfectly balanced “acts,” this is a story which presents, primarily in objective narration, the viewpoints of four different characters, mimetically grounded in a specific time and place, whose interactions precipitate thematic dichotomies—“love and separation,” “youth and age,” “innocence and knowledge”—similar to those of the majority of works of twentieth-century fiction. The book, in fact, is imbued with a sense of ironic nostalgia that Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren—those doyens of modern narrative theory—might applaud.

It is not that this fiction is “modern” as opposed to “postmodern,” or even “retrogressive” as opposed to “advanced,” that troubles one; it is just these kinds of categorizations and their mindless devotees which Sorrentino so brilliantly satirizes in Mulligan Stew. Rather, the problem is that in the context of the modern novel, Aberration of Starlight is not a very outstanding work. In such a genre, Sorrentino’s literary fortes—his stunning leaps of logic, lists, litanies, and mimicries—for the most part are missing, and by the reader are missed. This is not to say that the book is without its obvious pleasures. The white-starched, sunlit world which Marie Recco, her son, father, and would-be suitor inhabit, superficially is as loving and longing a portrait of America as are Edward Hopper’s canvases. Like Hopper, Sorrentino captures the spirit of a people so splendidly naïve that, poised on the edge of World War II, they fail to comprehend their own potential to isolate and hate. The very similarities between Sorrentino and Hopper, however, point up what appears to be the novel’s failure. The reader has been here before, and, on the surface at least, Sorrentino has nothing new to say of it. Describing its characters as boorish and banal, Paul West correctly observes that the novel presents literary figures who,

Instead of discovering or inventing compensations that
would free them as characters, from the anonymous pattern
of libido and denial, …back off into the twaddle that surrounds
them. Their heads, and what little is in them, dominate the
narrative, and keep on coming through direct, without much
of the narrational intervention that could render shades of
feeling they feel but can’t express. Indeed, the narrator, who
shows up rarely, seems even more buried in the stuff of their
lives than they are. (The Washington Post Book World, Sunday,
August 31, 1980).

With regard to objective narration and its inherently closed structures, it is as if in Aberration of Starlight Sorrentino has attempted to outdo the moderns. It is not that one necessarily demands a more “contemporary” fiction; it is simply that one is less satisfied by an anachronistic one.
If such comments sound contentious, it is the result of Sorrentino having set up certain expectations in his previous fictions, which appear thwarted in this new book. But that very fact encourages one to speculate that this “novel” is not all it seems. There is, after all, that one section in each of the four portraits that does not conform to the prevailing structure of the book, that, in fact, in the prose romance as practiced by the majority of moderns, is clearly out of place. In each of these passages, the narrator intrudes upon his fiction, not only asking direct questions about his characters, but answering them with authorial knowledge not implied in the book’s other parts. For example, the plot of Sorrentino’s fiction gives the reader little indication whether Tom Thebus, the salesman to whom Marie is attracted, is a rakish Romeo “out to get a lay”—as Marie’s father describes him—or whether his interest in Marie is sincere. In most objectively narrative novels such information is conveyed through denouement or is left purposely ambiguous for the reader to piece together from what he or she has gleaned of the characters through their words and acts. But in Aberration of Starlight such impersonal methods are circumvented. “Was Tom indeed a maker of cuckolds?” the narrator asks.

If rumor is to be given credence, the answer is “yes.”
Three men putatively so served were: Lewis D. Fielding,
a junkman of Ossining, N.Y., through his wife, Barbara;
Alfred Bennett Martinez, a plumber of Ozone Park, N.Y.,
through his wife, Danielle; William V. Bell, a shop
teacher of Paterson, N.J., through his wife, Joanne.

Similarly, the reader is told outright that Marie is sexually afraid of men (p. 67), that her father “had energetically conspired in his own defeat (p. 175), and numerous other pieces of trivial and useful information that radically work against the objective point of view which dominates the rest of the book.

More important, in these four sections, Sorrentino occasionally permits himself the lists and litanies he scrupulously avoids elsewhere in the text. Concerning Marie, for example, the
narrator asks:

The names of some of her favorite poets?

Ella Wheeler Wilcox; Blanche Shoemaker Wagstaff; Captain
Cyril Morton Thorne; Burelson St. Charles MacVoute; Dinah
Maria Mulock Craik; Edgar A. Guest; Josiah Gilbert Holland,
Lorna Blakey Flambeaux; H. Antoine D’Arcy; Emma Simpere
Furze; Alaric Alexander Watts; Mary Artemisia Lathbury;
Blanche Bane Kuder; Jean Ingelow; Carruthers Sofa-Jeudi;
Maltbie Davenport Babcock; Nixon Waterman.

This is the stuff of Mulligan Stew and other earlier fictions. Not only are some of the names the same (an entire sheaf of poems by Lorna Flambeaux appears in Mulligan Stew), but the structure of such a listing is of the same kind of pattern that controls Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities.
One understandably is surprised in encountering such structures in the midst of a novel; and, accordingly, one is brought to question whether such passages are simply lapses in what is otherwise a carefully composed novel, or whether they are purposeful intrusions, and, if so, to what effect? I do not pretend to have answers to such questions of authorial intent; but it may be helpful to explore some of the implications of such structures, which, in turn, may suggest why Sorrentino uses them.
The following is a typical listing from Mulligan Stew:

What cannot Gold do?

A number of things, the more prominent among which are:
make the pivot, shoot the rapids, differential calculus, speak
Spanish, it in the clutch, carry a tune, get a job, say not, walk
a crooked mile, swim, hold his liquor, support his children,
write a poem, play tennis, pay his bills, trim his beard, shine
his shoes, take a shower, use capital letters, keep his sex life
private, be proud, speak to an angel, take a little walk, boil
lobsters, open clams, like women, cut it out, grow up, move
to Yonkers, cease and desist, jump over the candlestick,
act his age, fly a kite, go two rounds, catch a fish, make a
salad, write a check, wash the windows, eat crow, crack corn,
fly the coop, take a powder, go anywhere alone, bunt, write
a play, stop the shit, cut the comedy, know Brooklyn, mind
his business, sharpen his ax, make an apple pie, honor his father
and mother, be a Jew, shoot crap, make a list, see himself as
others see him, play pool, be joyful and triumphant, take
off his hat, wash a glass, deck the halls, mix a Sazerac, be a
clown, sing in the rain, jump with Symphony side, make ’em
laugh, stand a ghost of a chance, button up his overcoat,
love a mystery, get started, and shudder….

The immediate purpose and effects of such a list are quite obvious. In this case, the narrator, punning on a cliché, transforms the thing, gold, into a person incapable of actions, triggering a series of new clichés, common expressions, song titles and idioms signifying acts. A listing such as this—this one is from a character’s scrapbook—has little to do with plot, character, place, or theme as readers of twentieth-century fiction have come to think of them. Attempts to relate these actions to characterization, to understand these things of which the character Gold incapable, would miss the point: Gold has no substance as character, he/it is merely a thing of language, a pun. There is an “idea” behind this combination of words: that of inaction, which Sorrentino expresses quite concretely; but one recognizes that this “idea” is far less important that the structure it takes. One might suspect, knowing Sorrentino’s writing, that there is a kind of Oulipean logic to this list. But, although one might contrive to find a thematic link in the passage, the very order of these verbal constructions work against any such attempt. For these do not represent a particular kind or even context of acts. “Sing in the rain” may relate to “deck the halls,” “be joyful and triumphant,” “be a clown,” “button up his overcoat,” and even “carry a tune,” but such musical references have little in common with “mind his business,” “sharpen his ax,” or “make an apple pie.” It quickly becomes clear that the focus here is on verbs and little else, on their everyday and idiomatic usages (“shine his shoes” and “stand a ghost of a chance”), on their rhythms and other patterns of sound (“wash the windows, eat crow, crack corn, fly the coop….”) and their syntax. And while there is a beginning and ending to this list of verbals (it opens with the clause, “A number of things,” and closes with the conjunction), one understands it as something akin to a catalogue, as something that, while complete in itself, retains the potential for continuance. The reader, therefore, does not experience the passages as something whole, as organic, even as developmental, but recognizes it as a linguistic sequence capable of being repeated indefinitely, as a pattern of language which—although operating within certain organizing principles—inflects no subordinations upon its constituent parts.

The controlling mechanism of such a passage is not repetition, therefore, but progression. And one need only compare Sorrentino’s list with a passage from the work of another contemporary, William Gass, to understand the significance of this. In In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Gass writes,

The sides of the buildings, the roofs, the limbs of the
trees are gray. Streets, sidewalks, faces feelings—they are
gray. Speech is gray, and the grass where it shows. Every
flank and front, each top is gray. Everything is gray: hairs,
eyes, window glass, the hawkers’ bills and touters’ posters,
lips, teeth, poles and metal signs—they’re gray, quite gray.
Horses, sheep, and cows, cats killed in the road, squirrels
in the same way, sparrows, doves, and pigeons, all are
gray, everything is gray….

Superficially, Gass’s writing here seems to have much in common with Sorrentino’s; it is a list of things that share a syntactical relationship, that of noun to adjective, with the color gray. But a closer look reveals that Gass’s list functions in a very different structural context. Although they may seem potentially infinite in number, Gass’s nouns are made finite because they are secondary to repetition, are subordinate to the word “gray.” These nouns all point to the word “winter” (mentioned one sentence earlier in the passage) and refer the reader back and forward in each sentence to their adjective. The listing, accordingly, reveals itself as developmental, organic, and whole. Because the list is self-referential within Gass’s work, it is finite and complete. One experiences it less as a catalogue than as an inventory or compendious description. In other words, while progressive structures such as Sorrentino’s may contain repetition, structures of repetition such as Gass’s are not necessarily progressive.

The structure of Gass’s listing, in its organicism and self-referentiality, is perfectly at home in the novel. In its potential of continuance, the structure of Sorrentino’s catalogue points away from itself of its type; it is a sequence of a kind of construction; and, in that fact, it directs the reader’s attention from the temporal context of narrative towards space, towards the world of things he himself inhabits. Mimesis, the heart of the modern prose, is undermined as the imitation is transformed into a thing itself: a catalogue of actions, a syntactical grouping of language.

When such catalogues appear in profusion in a fiction, as they do in Mulligan Stew, the effect is devastating. Mimesis and its attendant hand-maidens, character and place, seldom survive. And that is just what Anthony Lamont, the character-novelist central to Mulligan Stew, encounters. Like many moderns, Lamont, an avowed “experimentalist,” manipulates style and content, while tying his fiction to organic structures of character and place. Unlike the great moderns, however, Lamont is what Pound calls a “diluter,” a follower of the inventors and the masters of a tradition, who produces “something of lower intensity, a flabbier variant” (“How to Read”). So inane is Lamont’s writing, so constraining his setting (a mountain cabin wherein the narrator, musing over the body of his murdered friend, awaits the police) that his characters rebel and attempt to escape their fictional confines. Unable to “master” his creations, and faced with what he sees as an increasingly valueless and hostile environment outside his fictional one, Lamont declines into paranoia.

In a 1980 review of Mulligan Stew I suggested that Lamont’s insanity was a negative thing that left the reader with a vision of the world in which language is so denigrated that it brought into question his or her own existence. In a response to that review, Sorrentino wrote me that his intention had been to show that “as Lamont gets crazier he gets better.” My mistake had been to look at the fiction more in terms of content than of structure; I had made presumptions which had less to do with the fiction that with lived experiences. But it is in the structure, not in plot that Sorrentino reveals his concerns. As Lamont moves towards insanity, he gradually embraces the very catalogues, lists, indexes, technical manuals, and other enumerations that—while obsessing both his society and him—were seen as signs of the culture’s decay, and thus were separated from his fiction, from his idealized representation of life. As he embraces these, bit by bit, his fiction is invaded by the progressive structures inherent in his scrapbook. The following is a paragraph from the fourth to the last chapter of his novel, Crocodile Tears:

In the meantime, our sinisterly slick magicians were
extracting gouts of applause by a series of tricks that,
so I assumed, were designed to “warm up” the audience,
a large moiety of whom, I assure you, were drunkenly
blasé, and replete with doubts and cynicalities of varying
potency. These tricks were, according to Madame
Corriendo, “wand inspired,” and, surely enough, in her
long fingers she held a curious wooden rod of maybe
a foot and a half long, atip at both ends with pointed
caps of a metallic substance, perhaps metal itself! In
some shape or other, I mean alloy, if you are with me.
At the sight of this innocent-appearing chunk of wood,
Ned Beaumont, his eyes watering in loathsome pusillani-
mousity, and his fingers, how do you say it? “plucking”
on the tablecloth, breathed heavily and began to sweat
onto the rather tasteful silverware that had been placed—
and with inherent correctness, too—before him.

Although this passage may at first seem to be descriptive, it actually has very little in common with conventional descriptive narration. What the narrator describes as a “series of tricks,” functions as a sequence that resists a coherent presentation of reality, that works against mimetic relationships. Although it is a first connected with the character Madame Corriendo, the phrase “wand inspired,” for example, directs one’s attention away from character or even action to a list of things in space: her long fingers, a “curious wooden rod,” and its metallic tips. The tips, in turn, permit the narrator to pun, “alloy” (a mixture of metallic substances and “to debase, to impair”). the object of its second meaning, the object of the transitive verb is the subject of the next sentence, Ned Beaumont, whose actions, once again, point the reader away from the character and his actions to objects, to the table, the tablecloth, and the “rather tasteful silverware.” Whereas the Gass passage continually refers the reader back to its subject, the writing here moves ceaselessly forward in what Gertrude Stein describes as the sequence of counting “one and one and one and one” rather than “one, two, three, four” (“Poetry and Grammar”). By the time Lamont reaches his last chapter—significantly titled “Making It Up as We goes Along”—the progressive structure has taken over entirely. There is little difference between its sequence of dialogue and the list of “what Gold cannot do.” Both point to the world outside the fiction, and, in that sense, both create something “new,” something that follows its own language into being rather than merely using language to express the known or preconceived. And Lamont, in this regard, does become a better writer, an inventor of sorts. Yet he too, obviously, is a thing of words; and Mulligan Stew thus ends not with his writing, but with a three and a half page “will,” one final grand listing of the disposition of things. As in the works of Samuel Beckett, character and character’s characters all are subsumed into the flow of words, are sacrificed to the endeavor of naming the imagined as things of sound and space into reality.

In light of these concerns in Mulligan Stew it is almost unthinkable that such structures in Aberration of Starlight are unintentional “lapses” or even mere intrusions upon what is otherwise a conventional prose romance. The effects of such interruptive and progressively structured passages are too deleterious to the mimeticism inherent in the twentieth-century novel to be disregarded in a fiction that appears to be imitating it. Let us imagine that in The Sound and the Fury—a novel organized as is Sorrentino’s around the viewpoints of four characters—Faulkner suddenly asked of Caddy, as Sorrentino does of Billy, “How did [s]he feel when [her] grandmother died?” and answered, “[s]he was frightened that she was not really dead because of how she looked in the funeral parlor.” Upon climbing the tree in her muddy drawers (the image Faulkner described as central to his novel), Caddy, in fact, is frightened by what she sees: her dead Damuddy laid out on the bed. But the reader is never told that. Faulkner’s reader must come to his or her conclusions based on Caddy’s later actions, her amoral commitment to things of the world. One is forced to evaluate her, in other words, as one would a living being, and the character is made to seem more real by that fact.

Faulkner represents an extreme of objective narration. An omniscient narrator might simply tell the reader in passing how Caddy or Bill felt. But even so, by first asking the question, Sorrentino draws attention to himself, to the author, or, at the very least, to some imagined narrator of the work; and, in so doing he reiterates the fact that his character is merely a creation, a thing of words. When this is done several times, as it is in Aberration of Starlight, the whole begins to function as its own progressive sequence, as a series of authorial intrusions which, like the list of Gold’s inactions, point the reader away from any reality that the fiction is attempting to imitate, towards the world which reader and author cohabit outside the book. The fact that some of these particular questions and commands also are progressive in structure, further helps to undercut the organicism and mimesis of the prose romance.

Yet one must recall it is the extreme objectivism of Faulkner to which the rest of Sorrentino’s book seems to aspire. Such extremes are too radical merely to be sloughed off by calling Sorrentino, as Guy Davenport has, a “Late Eclectic Modern.” For these are irreconcilable systems; as the fiction itself demonstrates, one cannot serve God and mammon both. Made conscious of his or her own world through the progressive structures, faced with knowledge that lies “outside the book,” so to speak, the reader gradually is placed in the role of voyeur in relation to Marie Recco and the other characters in the book. Sorrentino accentuates this feeling by framing several of his scenes as in a photograph. The fiction begins, indeed, with the photographic image:

There is a photograph of the boy that shows him at
age ten. He is looking directly into the camera, holding
up a kitten as if for our inspection, his right hand at
her neck, his left hand underneath her body, supporting
the animal’s weight. The sun is intensely bright, and he
squints at us, smiling, his white even teeth too large
for his small face.

When, moreover, the author alternates such framing techniques with personal letters, interior monologues, and descriptions of intimate sexual encounters (“He pulled his fly open and yanked his hard-on out of his pants, then grabbed her hand and told her to look at him…”), the result is almost pornographic. Peering down from Gulliverian heights, the reader begins to comprehend how completely such techniques—all perfectly at home in the modern novel—close the fiction’s characters within a claustrophobic structure to which there is no direct access, only resemblance to real life.

Such an impenetrable world is Lilliputian, a world inhabited by the near-sighted and small-minded. Each of the fiction’s characters, as Paul West notes, is unable break out of his or her behavioral patterns. But that is just Sorrentino’s point. As do his narrative techniques, his characters represent the extreme of the Romantic dichotomy of self and world; and, as such, they have fallen into solipsism. Those outside the self are transformed from individuals into cliché and epithet. A single paragraph must serve as example in a fiction pervaded by racial epithets, euphemisms, and exaggerated similes and metaphors.

Dare I call you, Marie darling? Or should I address
you, you swell thing, as Mrs. Recco, prostrating my-
self before your tiny feet in formality. Like a monkey
in a tuxedo on a chain held by an old dago? And of
course I beg you to forgive that terrible word knowing
you, dear princess and Queen of sweetness were once
married to a dago and so got your name. But I don’t
hold that against you, not on your life, darling!

Such writing may be funny, it its implications are horrifying. There is little possibility that anyone might escape from such a “prison-house of language.” In so solipsistic a vision, love and communication cannot exist; at book’s end, Marie, her father, son, and would-be lover are as frozen in time and place as the photograph with which the work began.

It becomes apparent that what was first perceived as a bittersweet presentation of post-World War II America, is, in the end, an indictment of the modern novel and the vision inherent in its structures. By exaggerating those structures and juxtaposing them with the progressive structures of contemporary fiction, Sorrentino clearly demonstrates the dangers of any closure. In short, in Aberration of Starlight Sorrentino uses the novel against itself; the organicism of the modern novel turns in to swallow its own tale. Like its predecessors, this fiction explores, through its own telling, the nature of art, which, ultimately, Sorrentino seems to argue, is all any fiction can hope to accomplish. Imitation and ideas, he makes clear, have little to do with art. Writing in The Washington Post Book World, Sorrentino recently argued,

For some reason, incomprehensible to me, [the]
mimetic concept has all but defined the “important”
novels of this country. We love our novelists to be
seers, to have Important Ideas…. (February 13, 1980)

The structures of Sorrentino’s fiction seldom stand for the world, but pointing outward, define and become one with the world; like the last chapter of Lamont’s Crocodile Tears, Sorrentino’s works make up the world as they go along. In his fiction it is as with starlight, what appears to be traveling at an angle to the direction of the observer—what appears as an aberration—actually travels in a straight line between the observer and its source.

Philadelphia and College Park, Maryland, 1980
Portions of this essay reprinted from “The Role of Voice in NonModernist Fiction,”
Contemporary Literature, XXV, no. 3 (Fall 1984)

In rereading the essay above, I am struck again with the academic overstatement of some of my earlier writing.
But one must also recall that “postmodernism” in fiction had not yet been fully established. Indeed, reading it again today, in a time when so many younger fiction writers have returned to a kind of realism based often on their own personal experiences, it is important to reiterate the concerns of a writer such as Sorrentino who, along with others, I have described as nonmodernists of the 20th century. I read this paper (or at least attempted to—I am embarrassed to this day for having read long beyond my allotted time) in a Modern Language Association session on the work of Sorrentino, headed by John O’Brien. Sorrentino was also on the panel, and, I believe, it has been the only time I’ve met him in the flesh.
Over the years, we have continued to correspond. When North Point publishers suspended operation, I suggested that Sun & Moon Press would be interested in publishing some of his work; but Gil had had already a long correspondence and friendship with John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive before I came on the scene. And, in truth, Dalkey Archive’s focus on experimentalism growing out of writers such as Flann O’Brien (one of Sorrentino’s favorites) seemed the perfect match. Ultimately, they published nearly everything he wrote until Red the Fiend, a book about which I wrote a few words upon its 1995 publication, sending the piece to Gil.


Gilbert Sorrentino Red the Fiend (New York: Fromm International, 1995).

The son of an absent drunk of a father and a passive-aggressive mother, Red is offered up as the scapegoat for all of his Grandmother’s rage. Smacked, whipped, systemically humiliated and degraded while his cowed Grandfather stands by, Red’s anything but idyllic childhood mirrors the hardships his Irish-Catholic depression-era family suffers. Grandma’s frustrations stem from a lifetime of disappointment. Before she was consumed by bitterness, life held promise for her. Now someone must bear the burden of blame for the failure of her hopes, and Grandma is ingenious at devising methods to inflict the pain on Red, turning the boy from victim into monster, Red the Fiend.
On one level this is a painful book, as Red is tortured through childhood in various ways. But Sorrentino’s work also functions almost as a fable of American fears, akin to our terror of the political kind of “Red,” directed toward those who seemingly stand in our way of a better life. And on that level, observing the various punishments directed at the enemy Sorrentino’s short novel is hilariously absurd.

Los Angeles, 1995

I know that Gil’s “abandonment” of Dalkey Archive angered and considerably hurt its publisher, but Sorrentino apparently felt it was time to try other venues for his work. That same year I republished The Orangery, his great sequence of poems on all things “orange” originally published in 1978. And in 2001 I published, on my Green Integer imprint, his next novel, one of my very favorites, Gold Fools, an Oulipean-like fiction consisting entirely of questions. Green Integer published New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998 in 2004, which reveals Sorrentino to be not only a great fiction writer but a wonderful poet as well. In The Moon in Its Flight, published by Coffee House, Sorrentino also reminded us that he was an excellent short story writer.


Gilbert Sorrentino, The Moon in Its Flight (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004).

As a long fiction and short story writer, an essayist, poet, and teacher, Gilbert Sorrentino has many personas; and in his short stories he uses many voices, but there are two opposing voices I’d like briefly to explore.
In about half the works of The Moon in Its Flight, Sorrentino, creates brief linguistically-focused tales in which characters are basically, as Martin Riker, writing in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, has described them “wooden puppets whose possibilities of movement and/or choice are confined within their small worlds to the predictable words and gestures available to their narrators.” Indeed, in these works—“The Dignity of Labor,” “The Sea, Caught in Roses,” “A Beehive Arranged on Humane Principles,” “Pastilles,” “Sample Writing Sample,” “Lost in the Stars” and others—the emphasis in not on character but rather on language itself organized around definitions, descriptions, lists and other various structures. “Pastilles,” for example—a satire, in part, on New York School poetry guru Ted Berrgian—is structured around several recurring figures and images: Napolean and his battles, including his defeat by Lord Nelson; optical illusions; and lemons, to name three. “The Dignity of Labor” recounts four incidents between management and employees that reveal the necessary desperation of the latter:

You will discover that the stationery on the shelves is nothing, really, other than good American paper and nothing but; nothing to be in awe of, letterheads or no. And you would do well to ignore the rumors suggesting otherwise. Rumors of all sorts are born and circulate in a large and virtually omnipotent corporation such as this one. They emanate, for the most part, from the “creative” divisions of the firm, the Professional Trash-Fiction Division, the Memoir Division, the Hip-Youth Division, the Sure-Fire Division, the Dim-Bulb Division, the Texas School-Adoption- of-Everything Division, the Devout-Christian Rapture-Mania Division, the Unborn-Child-Series Division, as well as those divisions that support what the company likes to think of as its old soldiers—those editors, publicists, accountants, and lunch-eaters who have made their lives into one long testament to their belief that they have done their best to make real for all humankind the kind of book that is both an exciting read and a contribution to the general culture of regular Americans….

In these pieces, which are so sharply satirical that there is no attempt at mimesis, the author empties his tales of any remnant of humanity, going straight for the jugular vein in these short works or centering his language on Oulipean-like devices that call attention to form over matter. There is no question that these works are tours de force of writing, but ultimately they entertain more than they evoke any substantial emotional response outside of laughter, even though we might recognize ourselves in the periphery or even at their center.

I prefer, however, what I’d describe as the “other” Sorrentino, a writer who, despite his often caustic demeanor and hard-boiled attitudes toward life in general, is, at heart, a poet who detested yet was attracted to sentiment, a kind of wise fool who still desires to believe what he himself has determined is not worthy of belief. It is almost as if Sorrentino never recovered from the recognition that many of his early childhood ideals were revealed to be false, an apparently devastating realization that he summarizes in a poem “Razzmatazz,” the first the stanza of which reads:

Young and willing to learn (but what?) he was the boy
With the sweaty face the boy of the Daily News
The boy of bananas peanut butter and lemon-lime
Who read Ching Chow waiting for the punch line
Who watched the sun more often than not a bursting rose
Swathe the odd haze and clumps of the far-off shore.

The poem ends, in part, where in began, but the tone has moved from one of possibility to cynicism:

Young and willing to learn (but what?) he was the boy
Who found that the fabled dreams were fabled
In that their meaning was their own blurred being
Who suddenly found his alien body to be the material
From which could be made a gent or even life. Life?
Young and willing to learn oh certainly. But what?

In the long, final story of The Moon in Its Flight, “Things That Have Stopped Moving,” Sorrentino covers similar ground in a beautiful description of the narrator’s Sicilian father—clearly with autobiographical overtones—who, dressed in his white Borsalino suit and snap-brim fedora, bets his fellow ship-cleaning workers that we can walk through a Norwegian freighter—in those days Norwegian ships were known for their filthy conditions—“without getting a spot or smudge or smear of oil or dirt or rust on his clothes or hat.” To his then-young son’s amazement, he puts down a wad of cash and proceeds to walk through the Trondheim without a spot. In the context of a tale in which the narrator presents himself as a self-loathing slave to his lust for his friend Ben’s wife, Clara—so well-known for her sexual escapades with men that the narrator himself describes her as “a duchess of lust”—this dream-like image stands in opposition to what his father might have desired for him but which he, in his own generation, cannot obtain, a kind of sureness of self and grace in living. Cast out of Eden, perfection for the son has no appeal; it is the squalid, “filthy” little lives of himself and his friends that drives him forward in what he himself describes as a “dementia.”

In “In Loveland” the narrator tells the story of his collapsing relationship with his wife, a perfectly petite doll-like figure of a woman, who ultimately has an affair with the husband’s empty-minded former-employer and friend, Charlie, who finishes off their marriage, with the narrator’s wife’s encouragement, by imitating his friend in costume and manner—in short, by becoming and, symbolically, “replacing” him. In the middle of this typical story of failed love, however, Sorrentino posits a stranger, Hawthorne-like tale concerning an accident that occurred to his wife just before their marriage. Falling down a flight of subways steps—accidentally or on purpose—his fiancée is temporarily scared with a huge scab over one side of face. The appearance of this scab somehow makes her appear almost as a stranger and, accordingly, increases the narrator’s lust for her. Indeed, from the marriage until the healing and disappearance of the scab, he is sexually aroused by her “new” face, so perfect on one side and so flawed on the other. As the “scar” disappears so does his fervor dissipate. Like the narrator of “Things That Have Stopped Moving,” this narrator is more attracted by the flaws of the woman than by the perfection his wife will later seem to represent to other men.
In some ways Sorrentino is our most “American” writer, cataloguing as he does the psychoses of the child-adults of our society. Like Scott Fitzgerald, Sorrentino seems effortlessly to present a world where men and women merrily delude themselves with art, literature, alcohol and drugs that they are living “happy” and meaningful lives, while in truth their dreary lives are almost completely empty. The author’s most Fitzgeraldian stories in this volume, “Pyschopathology of Everyday Life” and “Land of Cotton,” clearly present the phenomenon.

The self-deluded characters of the latter story, Joe Doyle—who transforms his family name for Lionni or Leone to Lee, ultimately claiming he is a descendent of Robert E. Lee—his wife Hope and mistress Helen, whom he ultimately jilts as she lays dying of cancer, are obviously all self-deluded beings seeking a reality to match.

The first story is representative, once again, of Sorrentino’s fascination with a seeming Edenic world suddenly revealed as disastrously fallen. The two characters in this fable, Nick and Campbell, represent two aspects of American culture, the ordinary working man represented by Nick and the moneyed WASP, Campbell, living in a seemingly enchanted world. The tale reveals the growing friendship between the two office workers as Nick guides his friend through the lunch-time and after-work dining and drinking establishments of the city, of which Campbell seems to have no knowledge and with which he appears fascinated to encounter each day before returning to his Connecticut home or his New York rendevouses at the Plaza, the Pierre, the Blue Angel or Carnegie Recital Hall.

The friendship flourishes until one day Campbell invites his friend to visit them in Connecticut, shortly thereafter presenting him with a stack of photographs of himself and his wife Faith, one of her which is nearly pornographic. Nick perceives the photo as a sort of tease, a direct assault upon his sexual desires, and is disgusted by what he senses is the husband’s attempt to use his wife as a lure to bring him to their home. Doubting, however, what he has imagined, he soon forgets it until another photograph, even more pornographic than the first is delivered to him, whereupon he recognizes that he is being encouraged to think of Campbell’s wife as a sexual companion. He is quite obviously aroused by the possibility, but continues to delay his visit until it is finally clear he will not make good on his promise. Campbell is depressed and reveals that, after a fight with his wife, he has met a young man who “sucked him off.” Nick’s decision to take a job in another city, drives his friend into further despair which reaches its peak on the day of Nick’s departure, when he reveals his love for Nick and attempts to plant a kiss upon his lips.

Sorrentino presents a world, in short, where love is not only impermeable and fleeting but is impossible, a world where passion is unfulfilled and even a kiss is potentially a dangerous event. Perhaps none of Sorrentino’s short tales reveal these facts more thoroughly than my favorite story of the book, “The Moon in Its Flight.” Unlike so many of the later works, trapped in post-Edenic reality, Sorrentino allows this story of a budding love affair between a nineteen-year-old young man and a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl, Rebecca to develop in a “summer romance,” when “The country bowled and spoke of Truman’s grit and spunk.” and the whole nation “softly slid off the edge of civilization.” As in Aberration of Starlight, the author here allows youthful clichés into his work, but, this time, not just for the purpose of artful satire, but as a support for the loving naiveté they reveal:

The first time he touched her breast he cried in his shame and delight. Can this really have taken place in America? The trees rustle for him, as the rain did rain. One day, in New York, he bought her a silver ring, tiny perfect hearts in bas-relief running around it so that the point of one heart nestled in the cleft of another. Innocent symbol that tortured his blood.

And later:

Stars, my friend, great flashing stars fell on Alabama.

Reality, nonetheless, will not allow these lovers to exist; they have no place to which they might escape in order to fulfill their desires. In one of the most beautiful narrational intrusions he has uttered, Sorrentino cries out passionately (despite what we recognize is equally mocking):

All you modern lovers, freed by Mick Jagger and the orgasm, give them, for Christ’s sake, for an hour, the use of your really terrific little apartment. They won’t smoke your marijuana nor disturb your Indiana graphics. They won’t borrow your Fanon or Cleaver or Barthelme or Vonnegut. They’ll make the bed before they leave. They whisper good night and dance in the dark.

No apartment is available, and the couple, a mismatch when it comes to their families, drift apart, only to meet again years later when they are both married to others. Only now can they finally culminate their love in sex, but despite the tears of joy and shame, they will never encounter one another again.

I don’t think Sorrentino is arguing through these somewhat exasperatingly dreary tales that love is impossible. It is merely the false ideas and notions that surround the vision of oneself and the other that make it so difficult. It is clear that Sorrentino heartily longs for that “spotless” innocence of the past, but that he recognizes, just as surely, that that desire for “innocence” is the cause of the current emptiness and squalidness of his subject’s lives. It is almost with a cry of despair that Sorrentino asks “Who will remember // the past is past?” The furious frown he casts upon his characters can be seen as a stern warning to all that is doesn’t help a damn to invoke a childhood vision of innocence: life is not perfect, there is no “dream” to be found, no “rainbow” at its end, no coherent “America” even to be had. It is no wonder his narrators often struggle in their attempts to tell their stories and admit that something is missing in their revalations of the awful truths they find difficult to accept.

Los Angeles, May 25, 200

Even in death, Sorrentino draws fire, it appears, for his courageously bleak assessments of the American way of life. The New York Times obituary hardly bothered to describe his achievements before quoting, at length, a critical attack on the author by a writer from the Financial Times, Martin Seymour-Smith: “[Sorrentino has] 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.” Perhaps I should mention the Seymour-Smith, a believer in astrology as well as in lists of great literature of all time, was a minor Post-World War II British poet and biographer of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Graves—thus assuring his acumen, apparently, on Gilbert Sorrentino’s work.

As I wrote to John O’Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive:

I was distressed the other day to hear of Gil’s death. I had been rereading his stories, at work on a piece about his writing. Your devotion to him has meant so much to the whole literary community. Unfortunately, as today’s New York Times obit demonstrated, he’s still open to abuse by all. I’ve seldom seen such remarks in an obituary, but it is clear the Times, in its continued march toward total mediocrity, is out to destroy most men and women of genius.

John’s response is equally one of utter frustration:

Yeah, fuck. Knew that he has been very ill, and talked with Chris [Sorrentino’s son, novelist Chris Sorrentino] the night that Gil died. He went out in true Sorrentino form, saying to Chris the night before, “Enough of this bullshit.”

And indeed the Times is utterly remarkable. Just in case we didn’t abuse him enough in life, here’s one last attempt. 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.”

What a country, what a culture. And what a paper of record.

Los Angeles, May 25, 2006