[published: February 28, 2011]
Reflections on the master of metafiction upon the posthumous publication of his final novel.
I’m sitting in a windowless hotel room in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, having just finished Aberration of Starlight by Gilbert Sorrentino. The book’s final words, a quote from Brian O’Nolan, stay in my head: The meanest bloody thing in hell made this world. I open a Tecate and stare at the place in the wall where the window should be.
In 1964, Grove Press publishes Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. An essay by Sorrentino, The Art of Hubert Selby, Jr., is included with all review copies. The essay serves, in the words of Gerald Howard, “to synchronize the drumbeat of praise and outrage” directed at the book.
In my junior year at Stanford, I enroll in a class called Generative Devices in Imaginative Fiction, taught by Sorrentino. The class is inspired by the constraint-based writing of the OuLiPo movement, and its description in the course catalog sells me:
“Generative Devices” are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the “laws” set in place by the chosen constraint.
In a 1981 article in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Hubert Selby, Jr. pays his friend and mentor, Gilbert Sorrentino, the ultimate compliment:
I believe that Gils genius as a critic lies, in great part, in his ability to read your work from your point of view and not as how he would write it. I have always thought of him as the Ezra Pound of my generation from that point of view.
In class, Sorrentino expresses his love of Pound and the Cantos, and even defends the later Pound, a brave move in the academic world: “His radio broadcasts were a lot of rambling… he said that everyone should read Ulysses. It was wild stuff, you couldn’t really take it seriously.” He has recently completed a novel, the book that will eventually be published as Gold Fools. It is a Western written entirely in questions.
Years later, the book distributor where I work gets copies of Gold Fools, and I read it in one afternoon. While the book could have simply existed as a curiosity—the world’s first and only Interrogative Western—it instead runs the course of an epic catechism: tragic, obscene, hilarious, and beautiful, a work on par with the “Ithaca” chapter of Ulysses:
Had Hank’s somewhat rehabilitated status as leader permitted him to order the party to camp at this spot? Did he really plan to sleep spang in the water hole, or was this remark intended to introduce a much-needed note of levity into the proceedings? After all, had not grim death come purty near? Grim death, in the guise of a bloated tongue, a raspy larynx, a gritty mouth, a sharp scythe, a death’s head, and other powerful symbols of grim death?
In the early years of the 20th century, in a letter to Louis Gillet, James Joyce expresses the frustration inherent in writing about one’s own life. Joyce’s statement stops short of being anything more than an incomplete fragment: “When your work and life make one, when they are interwoven in the same fabric…”—and the sentence trails off.
It’s the summer of 1997, and my band is on our first tour. We’re in New York City in a converted Chevy Beauville, with directions telling us to “exit the Lincoln Tunnel, go right,” and not much else.
Lower Manhattan is a sea of yellow cabs. We drive through parks and across sidewalks, we stop in the middle of intersections, we honk back at cabs. Swarms of New Yorkers see our California plates, shake their heads, and hurry on.
Maybe the West Coast is the child of the East Coast, or maybe this is too simple. Rare is the city that is not a fifth-generation copy of some other city—in the television age, every far corner of this earth is a postlapsarian travesty.
In class, Sorrentino recalls telling his agent about the structure of Gold Fools. His agent’s reply: “Sounds like another bestseller.”
Sorrentino retires from teaching in 1999, and returns to New York. “The happiest day of my life,” he says, “was when I sold my car—the last thing I did in California.”
Mediocre comedy comes from a place of fun, of shared excitement; great comedy comes from the focused application of righteous anger. Put another way: mediocre comedians make us laugh at things that are funny, but great comedians make us laugh at things that are not.
The course description for Generative Devices continues:
Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of “inspiration,” and its idiot brother, “writer’s block.”
Sorrentino succumbs to lung cancer in the spring of 2006.
His final novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, is published in 2010.
Structurally, The Abyss of Human Illusion is reminiscent of Harry Mathews’ Singular Pleasures, a collection of 61 short vignettes about masturbation. But while Mathews’ book provides a steady (if halting) fulfillment, the cumulative effect of Sorrentino’s is just the opposite: non-fulfillment, frustration, and most importantly, absence.
In 1997, I read Ulysses for the first time. Suffering some initial bewilderment, I think back to Sorrentino’s Generative Devices class, and realize that it’s not about forgoing inspiration entirely, but instead about choosing one’s sources of inspiration. Joyce, who reviled the oppressive conservatism of Catholic Dublin, instead looked to its language for inspiration. I choose the book as the topic for my Master’s thesis. For the next year, Joyce is my Dante and Ulysses is my Comedy.
In the midst of one of his infamous WWII radio broadcasts, Ezra Pound offers a pre-emptive apology, which, devoid of any context, strikes me as one of the most concise descriptions a writer can give of his inspirations:
If anyone takes the trouble to record and examine the series of talks I have made over this radio it will be found I have used three sorts of material: historical facts; convictions of experienced men, based on fact; and the fruits of my own experience.
Like the Inferno, The Abyss of Human Illusion is a book that pulls away the face of the everyday to show the hell underneath, however small and mundane that hell may seem in modern terms. Instead of nine circles, Sorrentino’s hell has 50, each of which holds the reader for slightly longer (in literal word count—one of the book’s structural rigors) than the one preceding it. With each successive dip into the Abyss, the return to the surface is all the sweeter.
The high points are the short breaks between vignettes, and, as a result, the book’s negative space is its only positivity. Missing spouses, missing gods, missing children and children never born, whole armies of the absent: they don’t even turn around to acknowledge us as they march steadily away.
After Sorrentino’s death in 2006, the poet Eavan Boland, his fellow professor at Stanford, writes his memorial on behalf of the English department. She addresses the issue of exile immediately:
Gil Sorrentino was at Stanford as a Professor of English from 1982-1999. For all of those years, he was an ardent New Yorker—in the sense that New York represented an aesthetic sense, an adventure to which he was loyal.
I love Joyce’s vulnerability in his correspondence—especially the ellipsis, that ambiguous trinity. Joyce’s exile, in which he pulled the dark storefronts of Dublin from the whitewashed walls of Trieste and Zurich, is not so different from Sorrentino’s, in which he reconstituted the noise and grime of Brooklyn from the vast, sun-drenched sameness of California.
Reading The Abyss of Human Illusion, I’m struck by its abundance of broken signifiers, of phrases in need of deciphering: a man living in apartment 6&6$6%, a vanity on which is printed HANDLOME IL AL HANDLOME DOEL, a disclaimer casting doubt on the whole book—“Some of these commentaries may not be wholly reliable.”
Boland continues her tribute to Sorrentino:
I liked to believe I had a window into a small part of his mind, because the Irish writer Flann O’Brien was one of his heroes. Like him, Gil was part of the heroic mid-century contest against just one way of seeing things, or one way of writing them, or any way of accepting them.
I read an explanation of the “aberration of starlight” on the NASA website. I learn that the parallax method fails when we ourselves are moving. Like most things I don’t fully understand, it makes me want to read Ulysses.
On page 573 of Ulysses, I read:
What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.
Inspired by the dream-logic of the final chapters of Ulysses, I reread one of my favorite passages from The Abyss of Human Illusion, which describes waking from a dream:
He says that he told one of his students about his father’s catch and that she was very impressed. His father is looking at him with tender, impossibly tender love, and he feels, at that moment, overwhelming, crushing sadness and loss, deep and irremediable, and he begins to cry and wakes, crying.
A crowd of drunks passes by my window. Surreally, impossibly, bagpipes begin to play in the distance.
John Peck is a writer, musician, and letterpress printer. His work has recently been published in Jubilat, Bateau, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He plays bass in the band American Steel, and lives with his wife in Oakland, California.
Copyright Last Exit 2011
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