(This review was originally published in The Quarterly Conversation.)
In his last works of fiction, beginning with Little Casino (2002), Gilbert Sorrentino began composing slim, fragmented texts that he continued to identify with the designation “novel,” but that more or less dispensed completely with the elements usually associated with novels, especially narrative continuity and extended character development. Each of these works presents instead a series of episodes, anecdotes, memories, or observations—in Lunar Follies (2005) pieces of critical discourse about art—that are tenuously connected as narrative, although Little Casino ultimately does a provide a kaleidoscopic portrayal of a Brooklyn neighborhood and Lunar Follies unites its parodic discourse in a scathing satire of the “art world.” (A Strange Commonplace (2006) makes an ostensibly more direct effort to relate its narrative fragments through a Oulipian repetition of chapter headings and character names, but the connection is still more suggestive than definitive.) “Character” is equally, and literally, in name only, as individual figures, often anonymous, make brief appearances but refuse to “jump off the page,” as Sorrentino has previously and mockingly described the hallmark of “believable” characters in fiction.
In his now posthumously released (and presumably final) novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, Sorrentino again offers a relatively brief work (150 pages) built out of narrative fragments. As Christopher Sorrentino points out in his introductory note, the most obvious features of the novel’s formal structure are its division into fifty numbered sections that gradually increase in length, from sections comprised of only a paragraph or so to the final sections extending to three or four pages. The Abyss of Human Illusion also echoes Little Casino in its inclusion of textual notes, in this case labeled “commentaries” and appended to the “main” text.
Given Sorrentino’s longstanding predilection to formal experiment and manipulation, already it is tempting to look for clues to the novel’s formal patterning, which might ultimately provide the key to interpreting it, in these immediate characteristics of the text. Why fifty sections? Do the sections increase in length according to some identifiable principle governing the “rules and procedures” that Christopher Sorrentino reminds us have always been partly determinative of the formal qualities of his father’s fiction? If in Little Casino the notes discretely follow each section while in The Abyss of Human Illusion they are listed together at the end of the text, does this mean we should read the two novels differently, in the latter case first reading the main entries and then moving on to the commentaries as a whole? Would this make for a significantly different reading experience, adding or altering meaning in the process?
One is almost compelled as well to read each of the fifty sections looking for apparent correspondences between them, whether of character, setting, action, or image. And there are indeed correspondences—an orange glow in the first few sections, the perspective through a window in many of them, references to the Milano restaurant, characters who move to St. Louis, an aging writer figure who keeps writing because it’s all he can do. Most of these correspondences are probably either trivial or accidental, while others are simply consequences of the setting of many of the episodes in Brooklyn and of characters no doubt in one way or another created from the experiences of the author. Perhaps these motifs were conjured by Sorrentino to help him develop the book’s structure organically, from episode to episode, but one can also imagine Sorrentino taking delight in the possibility they would lead some readers on a hunt for “meaning” that would ultimately prove fruitless. Even so, following along through his formal and stylistic turns, even when they entangle us in their convolutions, has always been one of the pleasures of reading Gilbert Sorrentino’s fiction, and so it is also in this novel.
The most consistently maintained correspondence linking the condensed stories related in The Abyss of Human Illusion is thematic. Each of the stories tells of characters caught in the “abyss” named in the book’s title. Some of the characters realize the depth of their illusions, while others remain possessed by them. Some are elderly, most often male, facing what now seems to them the emptiness of their lives, while others are still in the midst of carrying out their illusions. Infidelity, divorce, and general domestic unhappiness play prominent roles, resentment, envy, and an emotional numbness often the accompanying states of being. The overall tone conveyed by the stories is a fairly brutal frankness about the disappointments and futility that frequently enough define human existence.
While such a disabused portrayal of his characters’ motives and behavior is common in Sorrentino’s fiction, rarely is it made quite so relentlessly the focus of interest as it is in The Abyss of Human Illusion. Sorrentino’s view of the role of “theme” in fiction has always been that it undercuts the aesthetic integrity of the work when conceived as the act of “saying something” through the work rather than as simply “something said,” thematic implications that arise from the work as it pursues its own aesthetic logic. It is entirely possible that Sorrentino began this work with the brief image described in the first section—a young boy sitting at a kitchen table on top of which are placed a bottle of French dressing, a bowl of salad, and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce—and that all of the succeeding sections developed from this base and in imaginative interaction with each other, but the ultimate effect of the central conceit is to leave the impression the novel is a “commentary” of sorts on our capacity for self-delusion.
The coherence this conceit provides could make The Abyss of Human Illusion perhaps a more accessible work than some of Sorrentino’s other fiction, in which complexity is built out of simplicity. This last novel more nearly reverses that process, producing apparent simplicity from a deceptive complexity. Whether this inversion of his normal practice is a structural device Sorrentino intended us to notice probably cannot now be known, but it does draw our attention to structure in a way that is consistent with his distinctive brand of metafiction more generally and especially with the three novels preceding The Abyss of Human Illusion. Together, this quartet concludes Gilbert Sorrentino’s career by reinforcing that career’s implicit insistence that “fiction” identifies not a specifiable form but an opportunity for the resourceful writer to further specify through example its yet unexplored forms.