What follows in this post is the second in what I still hope will be a continuing series of "paired reviews" of current or otherwise relevant books. In this case I have joined with MadInkBeard's Derik Badman to review Gilbert Sorrentino's The Moon in Its Flight (Coffee House Press, 2004). Interested readers are invited to comment on the reviews, or on any issues they might raise, in the backblog.
The Facade of Innocence
By Derik Badman
Somewhere (sadly, I don't have a reference), I have seen it written that Gilbert Sorrentino endeavors to never write the same novel twice. At first, this appears as a rather obvious goal -- why would anyone rewrite the same novel? -- but upon further consideration one can see how easily authors (or other artists) recreate the same works, formally, thematically, stylistically (off the top of my head, consider the novels of Paul Auster (who, don't get me wrong, I adore) and how similar they are in many of their plot elements and themes). Sorrentino's novels are an impressive array of variation and inventiveness. Beyond that matter and his consistently high standard of writing, there is little to be said for direct and obvious similarity in his novels. Each one is new and exciting.
Conversely, turning to his short stories and the volume of such at hand, The Moon In Its Flight, one finds a rather depressing repetition. While I am not opposed to the idea of variations on a theme (much can be done with such a project, e.g. Queneau's Exercises de Style or Bach's Goldberg Variations), Sorrentino's lack, I think, a planned variation. Many of the stories in this volume (his only of short stories, spanning from the 70's to the present) just seem like retellings. And rather uninteresting ones at that.
I should disclaim before I go further that I am not, as a rule, a fan of short stories. It is a rare volume that catches and holds my interest. Perhaps this repetition characterizes the short story collection in general. And perhaps, also, the proximity of the stories as a collection does more damage to these stories than one would wish. Out of the context of the others, no doubt, some of these pieces would really stand out from the work of lesser writers.
On to the stories.
I can't avoid bringing up the term metafiction. It is inescapable in light of Sorrentino's style. The most notable feature of his writing is its interrogation of language and narrative. He doesn't let the reader forget that these are stories and they are created with language, an often ambiguous and comic system which we use to communicate. He plays with narrative realism ("That the poems were indeed accepted has little bearing on this story--although I suspect that it is not so much a story as a minor change upon a common fable." (40)), and he questions language, simultaneously using and disavowing certain terms and uses. Most often, this playfulness is couched within a first person narrator, not, thankfully, the "author" but rather a character, a storyteller who seems to be telling us a story as he heard it or, often spottily, remembers it. That Sorrentino can make these narrators be more than just an authorial voice makes his metafictional style work within the bounds of a certain kind of realism. The stories feel "real" without trying to maintain an illusion of direct representation.
He has a tendency to use words in quotes, blatantly pointing out the cliched or misused term while employing it (rather, dare I say, like the deconstructionist sous rature). Lists are also frequently used as a playful language game, giving us, for example, three or four words for the same action. Lists vary from the brief one of three or four words to the exaggeratingly huge. For instance the short list in this passage works to bring out Sorrentino's dark humor:
"Three days later, in a studio apartment in Chelsea, wherein lived a restaurant hostess and her high-school teacher boyfriend--the later an old friend of the husband's--he [the husband] drank a quart of vodka and cut his wrists with a penknife, a table knife, and a beer-can opener, which, I just now recall, used to be called a "church key." Those were the days." (201)
This passage also showcases the ever present sense of nostalgia found in most of these stories. The narrative voice is frequently looking back on the past, often nostalgically, upon the late 40's or 50's. The nostalgia is accompanied by an acceptance of the loss of innocence, the facade of the innocence of those times made evident:
"Mr. Pearl had a sad little desk, about as big as a minute, as simple people were wont to say in "a more innocent time" (see: Second World War, the Holocause, Korean "police action," etc.)" (51)
As a whole the characters in the stories are failures, frauds, depressives, those that have been cheated on and those that have cheated. The portrayals of people are overwhelmingly pessimistic. I'm not sure anyone comes out in a positive light. The setting is often a New York filled with soi-disant artists who produce nothing or only crap, yet pretend they are doing something. ("He moved in a world of fakes like himself, so that their mutual interest lay in interdependent lying." (45)). The last sentence of the book brings this to the fore:
"But I know that this is nonsense, nothing but a ruse with which I have been faithfully complicit so as to make the landscape of my life seem more valuable and interesting than it ever was." (266)
This statement could apply to any number of characters in the stories. One of the great themes of these stories could well be the way we try to give our lives importance, even if it is a sham.
A predominant number of stories also feature a married couple and the lover of one of them, told through the eyes of one of the players involved. "Decades" and "Things That Have Stopped Moving" tell almost the same story, the latter with more embellishment on the part of the narrator. Both feature a married couple, Ben and Clara (Stein in the former and Stern in the latter), and even contain a scene of the lover (the narrator, in both cases) buying a bottle of Gordon's before a sexual liaison with Clara. In another story we have Dan and Clare, rather similar, in both name and the basics of their story, to Ben and Clara.
Some of the stories do stand out even in their similarity. "In Loveland", another story about a marriage breaking apart, is an interesting doppelganger story. "Gorgias", aptly titled, deals, in three short sections, with the way rhetoric can affect people's perceptions of each other. Some stories bear traces of Sorrentino's more formal experimentation. "Times Without Number" is noted as being created from 59 sentences from 59 works of 59 authors as well as 118 sentences from his previous stories. "A Beehive Arranged on Human Principles" is written in all questions, similar to his novel Gold Fools. Judging from a number of the images in it, I have the feeling that "Allegory of Innocence" is somehow connected to Henri Zo's illustrations for Raymond Roussel's "New Impressions of Africa" (similar to Sorrentino's novel Under the Shadow). And "The Sea, Caught in Roses" reads as if it were constructed in some odd way, though I am unable to say how (It could be that rare instance of what the Oulipo call a "canada dry": a story that looks as if it were written under some constraint but is not.).
I read most of one story aloud and was delighted by how well it sounded. The phrasing of his sentences (and his frequent use of commas) makes the writing read beautifully. Regardless of my thematic, conceptual gripes with the volume, the writing is... well... let's just say that Sorrentino knows how to write, and that is the true beauty of the volume. Too bad that what the words are saying do not measure up to the high standard of the writing.
I'd heartily recommend that the reader of this review, if she is new to Sorrentino, try reading one of his novels first. For those interested in the mid-century New York bohemian art scene, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is an excellent place to start. Aberration of Starlight is another excellent novel that is nearly perfect formally, and Mulligan Stew is perfect for those readers who like the large allusive metafictional novel.
I end with the last sentence of the first story, that for which the volume is named. If anything, this may give some indication of Sorrentino and his relation to art. Something to ponder as one reads his works:
"Art cannot rescue anybody from anything." (20)
Back in the Day
By Daniel Green
Often enough a good way to get a quick introduction to an author’s work is to start with one or another collection of that writer’s short fiction. Frequently the short stories will provide a helpful if preliminary sense of the writer’s preoccupations, strategies, preferred subjects, stylistic tendencies, etc. If this writer is also a novelist, one can then decide whether to devote the greater time and commitment needed to tackle the longer works. Unfortunately, this does not really prove to be the case with Gilbert Sorrentino. Although Sorrentino is in my opinion among the most accomplished (and will, I believe, in the long run be among the most influential) post-WWII American novelists, The Moon and Its Flight, a more or less omnibus collection of his short fiction, does not present Sorrentino either at his best or his most representative.
The book does manage to hang together thematically as a portrait of American life in the twenty or so years following on the end of the second world war, or at least of a certain segment of American society characterized by its aspirations to a pseudo-bohemian way of life vaguely associated with art or writing or the academy. The portrait that emerges of this class of intellectual pretenders is a decidedly sour one, their lives notable mostly for their casual betrayals, petty spite, their lassitude and spiritual drift. Indeed, the overall view of human endeavor that seems to pervade The Moon in Its Flight is overwhelmingly pessimistic, even misanthropic. The narrator of “Decades” writes: “The fashionably grubby artistic circles in New York are filled with people like me, people who are kind enough to lie about one’s chances in the unmentioned certitude that one will lie to them about theirs. Indeed, if everyone told the truth, for just one day, in all these bars and lofts, at all these parties and openings, almost all of downtown Manhattan would disappear in a terrifying flash of hatred, revulsion, and self-loathing.” The narrator of “In Loveland” remarks on his own writing ambitions that “The desire to add some more stupid clutter to the clutter of the vacuous world is virtually unquenchable.”
Of course, one ought to hesitate in associating the comments of these first-person narrators with Sorrentino himself, but the world-weariness and sense of futility these characters express are reinforced in many of the other stories as well. The impression conveyed in such retrospective stories as the title story, “Facts and Their Manifestations,” “Life and Letters,” “Gorgias,” and “Things That Have Stopped Moving” is of failure, lost opportunities, not just regret for squandered lives but a feeling that such lives were always doomed to be squandered. This is one of the ways in which The Moon in Its Flight seems a departure from most of Sorrentino’s other work, which is marked, even when treating similarly disturbing material, by a sense of creative playfulness and an all-encompassing kind of comedy that is missing from most of these stories. But perhaps they are simply the flip-side of such comedy, the more sober depictions of the stupidity and folly that also fuels the comic novels.
Not all of the stories depart from the mode of all-out experimentation one expects from Sorrentino’s novels, however. “A Beehive Arranged on Humane Principles,” written entirely in interrogative sentences, is the obvious precursor to the later Gold Fools (and, it must be said, the technique works better in the shorter form); of “Times Without Numbers” we are told in a concluding note that “the story comprises 177 sentences, 59 of which are taken from 59 separate works by 59 different authors. The remaining 118 sentences are from one of my own earlier stories.” “The Sea, Caught in Roses” seems to be built on some principle of repetition or accretion, taking the initial image named in the title and working it through a series of emendations and authorial comments. Or it may just be a spoof of romantic imagery and “picturesque” subjects.
Although most of the stories are metafictional in various fairly minimal ways—Sorrentino always reminds us that such stories have been subject to imaginative re-creation, are at least “twice-told” even when they seem to be sliced from life—few of them are as outrageously and systematically self-reflexive as his better-known novels. “Sample Writing Sample” is a story about making up stories, while several others are directly about writers, and examine the consequences and ramifications of what they’ve written. “It’s Time to Call It a Day” is a fairly thinly-disguised attack on the banalities of conventional fiction as well as current publishing practices, but a rather entertaining attack (and implicit statement of Sorrentino’s own principles) nevertheless:
This latest novel, created to satisfy the desires of an audience, as Clifford’s editor had characterized it, “too hip to actually read a lot,” educated, so to say, and busy, so, so busy, was, he hoped, the very thing to interest those readers among the favored “target group” who had progressed from slop-and-ramshackle best-sellers to the sort of fiction admired by professional reviewers—well-written, with fully developed character, a nicely turned plot, and something important to say. It was, that is to say, designed for a particular kind of success, a “literary” success, and one that was, God knows, long deserved. So Clifford thought in righteous irritation. His first three novels should have been better received than they were—as he often complained to his wife. She thought of him as “neglected,” not, as he was, ignored. The books had been painstakingly constructed, modern in their “sensibility,” whatever he meant by that, accessible and possessed of accessible, contemporary motifs, dialogue, and sex scenes. They were, to be blunt, absolute failures, and each got a handful of mostly snide, semi-literate reviews, featuring the self-satisfaction of the ignorant. These were, of course, the usual, but Clifford was astonished by their blithe savagery.
(Although not astonished enough that he would want to stop trying to please them.)
The two concluding stories in this volume, “In Loveland” and “Things That Have Stopped Moving,” in some ways sum up both the strategies and the themes of The Moon in Its Flight. “In Loveland” begins, “I have attempted to tell this story many times over the past years, the past decades, for that matter. I’ve not been able to bring it off, for I’ve never been able to invent—inhabit, perhaps—the proper narrational attitude. I begin to invent plausible situations that soon enough falsify everything, or unlikely situations that, just as soon, parody everything. I have even, at times, tried to tell the undecorated truth. . .” and goes on to tell a story of marital failure and self-disgust similar to a few of the earlier stories, but it is more amply told, with some compelling details. It concludes with these reflections, which add in a satisfying way to the story’s dramatic resonance and aesthetic implications: “Reality, or, if you will, that which we constrain ourselves to believe is, beyond all philosophies, also that which we make of what happened. Unexpected connections do, of course, sometimes make for unexpected forms. For instance, I see that this story is, essentially, about a set of disappearances. I had not intended that to be its burden, although any further attempt to say what I meant to say is out of the question.”
“Things That Have Stopped Moving” at first seems a retelling of the earlier story “Decades” (Ben and Clara Stern are the principals in the latter story, Ben and Clara Stein in the former), but manages to leaven its narrator’s account of the empty and adulterous sexual encounters between himself and Clara with some rather heart-felt reminiscences of his parents. It, too, comes with a metafictional conclusion:
This story is dotted with flaws and contradictions and riddled with inconsistencies, some of which even the inattentive reader will discover. Some of these gaffes may well be considered felicities of uncertainty and indeterminacy: such is prose. The tale also, it will have been clear, occasionally flaunts its triumphs, small though they may be. I am afraid that the final word about the gluey, tortuous, somehow glamorously perverse relationship that Ben and Clara and I constructed and sent shuffling into the world hasn’t been arrived at, but perhaps the unspeakable has had created some sad analogue of itself, if such is possible. Something has been spoken of, surely, but I can’t determine what or where it is.
Both of these stories seem to me to be successful demonstrations of the way in which self-reflexivity can actually contribute to the emotional impact of a work of fiction, while continuing to draw the reader’s attention to the artificial devices by which, unavoidably, aesthetically cogent fiction must be created.
Still, I do not think that, for readers mostly unfamiliar with Sorrentino’s work, The Moon in Its Flight would be a good place to start. It is a book that fans of Sorrentino’s fiction will want to read, but it is more interesting as a minor side attraction amid the greater pleasures of Sorrentino’s carnivalesque novels. Curious readers would be better off to start with Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, a provocative but also compelling work of metafiction, perhaps then going on to what is in my view Sorrentino’s masterwork, the sui generis Mulligan Stew. Those interested in Sorrentino’s fictional depictions of Brooklyn (in which several of the stories in The Moon in Its Flight are set) might also try Crystal Vision. My most substantial reservation about recommending The Moon in Its Flight is that unwary readers might take some of the more tepid and unfocused stories in this book as representative of Gilbert Sorrentino’s achievements as a writer of fiction and might pass on the more important novels. If they did so, they would be missing out on the opportunity to read one of the most invigorating and audacious bodies of work in 20th century American fiction.