(This review was originally published in Jacket.)
In Barry Alpert’s 1974 interview with him (republished in this issue of Jacket), Gilbert Sorrentino declares that he is “an episodic and synthetic writer. . .I don’t like to take a subject and break it down into parts, I like to take disparate parts and put them all together and see what happens.” Sorrentino’s recent books, works like Little Casino, Lunar Follies, and now A Strange Commonplace, demonstrate that he continues to purse this “synthetic” approach to the writing of fiction, if anything to even more deliberate and concentrated effect. So dedicated are these books to the juxtaposing of “disparate parts,” they seem to have brought Sorrentino to a point where all conventional expectations of continuity and development in character or story are simply irrelevant, vestiges of a prior of conception of fiction that no longer has much force.
Readers whose assumptions about the novel still depend on notions of plot and character development are likely to have trouble identifying A Strange Commonplace as a novel at all. Some might think of it as a collection of sketches and short tales, but even if we were to take the “episodic” nature of the book as far as this, we would, of course, be privileging the “disparate parts” over the effort “to put them all together” and would be missing the aesthetic point altogether. This is a unified work of fiction, however much Sorrentino makes us participate in the act of synthesizing its elements so that, along with the author, we readers can “see what happens.”
The contents page of A Strange Commonplace signals immediately that the reader should be alert to the novel’s structural patterns, to whatever relationships might be revealed through the arrangement of its parts. “Book One” and “Book Two” each consist of twenty-six sections, the titles of which are identical across both books, although presented in a different order. Thus, we can read a pair of “chapters” called “In the Bedroom,” “Success,” “Born Again,” etc., although, as we discover, in the second set of episodes the cast of characters changes and the stories related are different — except insofar as all of the separate tales depict a post-World War II America of faded dreams, dysfunctional families, adultery-ridden marriages, and often wanton cruelty. Inevitably, this device tempts us actively to seek out correspondences between these episodes; perhaps such correspondences can indeed be found, but one suspects that Sorrentino himself would be less interested in leading his readers to the “meaning” that might be gleaned from this approach than in the process — unconventional and unorthodox — by which they are led there.
This process is intensified by Sorrentino’s use of a few recurring names for his characters and recurring images and motifs. Two stories are called “Claire,” but the characters involved are, for all we can tell, not the same Claire, and other characters in other stories also bear the name. The same is true of stories whose characters are named “Warren,” “Ray,” “Janet,” and “Inez.” A pearl gray homburg hat appears in numerous stories, frequently we find ourselves at Rockefeller Center, and Meryl Streep is the subject of several conversations. Surely at least here we might regard the homburg as a symbol of the recognizable sort, the other repeated elements similarly placed to provoke us into reflecting on the deeper meaning to which they point? Experienced readers of Sorrentino’s fiction know that such symbol-hunting leads us down a blind alley, that this approach to reading fiction is relentlessly mocked in many of his books, the very notion of “deeper meaning” made the subject of some of his best jokes.
So what does A Strange Commonplace have to offer the reader willing to allow it its strangeness, its determination to render the commonplace actions of its interchangeable characters in an uncommon way? Partly the same pleasures to be found in all of Sorrentino’s work: mordant humor (although rather less broad in this case), a delight in exploring formal conceits as far as they will go, a prose style that, although entirely free of affectation and ornamental flourishes, is both energetic and inventive, recognizably Sorrentinoesque. Here in its entirety is the first of the two sections called “Snow”:
The tunnel in the snow leads to a warm kitchen, vinegary salad, ham and baloney and American cheese, white bread from Bohack’s and tomato-rice soup and bottles of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, coffee. It leads to heaven. Who is the strange and beautiful man at the far end of the tunnel he has just dug from the black Packard sedan to the white door of the little frame house? And who is the woman, who smells of winter and wool and perfume, of spearmint and whiskey and love? He gets out of the car and the woman holds his arm as he starts down the thrilling tunnel, through the snow banked above him on both sides, to the man in the navy blue overcoat and pearl gray homburg who waits, down on one knee, his arms held out to him. This will never happen again, nothing like it will ever happen again. The child begins to laugh joyously in the crepuscular gray light of the magical tunnel, laughing in the middle of the knifing cold of the January day, laughing since he does not know, nor do his mother and father, in their youth and beauty and strength, that this will never happen again, and that the family is almost finished and done. His father wears a white silk scarf with blue polka dots.
Even this brief passage exhibits some of Sorrentino’s signature stylistic traits: the first sentence with its list, the exposition-through-questions, the mock lyricism, in this instance leading us to the sudden reckoning with reality — “. . .the family is almost finished and done with. His father wears a white silk scarf with blue polka dots.”
As playful, even extravagant, as Sorrentino’s fiction can sometimes seem, his best work always represents a reckoning with reality. Books like Crystal Vision and Red the Fiend perhaps address hard-bitten realities somewhat more directly (but only somewhat) than books like Mulligan Stew and Blue Pastoral, but ultimately all of his books are aesthetically provocative efforts to get at the prevailing features of postwar American life, at what the title of one of his best books calls the “imaginative qualities of actual things.” A Strange Commonplace indeed. This new book will probably strike readers less familiar with Sorrentino’s work (for whom it would make a perfectly good introduction) as especially concerned with depicting these prevailing features, most of them disturbing if not actively repugnant, as well as the ways in which its characters attempt to cope with their circumstances. If the novel seems unfamiliar in its method of portraying these characters, their mostly unsuccessful strategies will undoubtedly seem very familiar, the kaleidoscopic picture of ourselves that emerges all too recognizable.