Aberration of Starlight (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
In a recent interview, Gilbert Sorrentino observed thatAs a writer of fiction, it has always seemed to me enormously boring to achieve a style and then continue it forever. Every one of my books is an attempt to solve another fictional problem that I set myself. And one of the ways I solve that problem is by inventing another voice or a group of voices.
This attitude certainly explains the reason for the blizzard of styles, of “voices,” through the novel. What Sorrentino tries to do, like other new novelists, is to make a separate world into which the reader can enter and feel that “in terms of literature,” it is “a reality and that’s all it is.” He wants to create “another world” with the language and the voices he creates. That is, said in another way, he wants to go beyond, even to avoid, the old novel of realism. This is no mean ambition, yet it is shared with a number of other “new fictionists” such as Donald Barthelme, Ronald Sukenick, Robert Coover, John Barth, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Sorrentino has been weaving layered fabrics of language to create other worlds for some time. He began his career as a poet, publishing five books of poetry, and then moved onto publishing fiction about the time some critics were announcing its “death.” His novels have been The Sky Changes (1966), Steelwork (1970), Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971), Splendide-Hotel (1973), and Mulligan Stew (1979), a Moby Dick of a book that should earn him a place as one of the major new novelists of our age. In his only short story, “The Moon in Its Flight,” Sorrentino tries to guide his characters through a romance in the historically lost year of 1948, knowing full well how conventional fiction so easily misleads the reader. “This was America, in 1948. Not even fake art or the wearisome tricks of movies can assist them [the lovers].” Even worse, fears the narrator, how can the contemporary reader of his paperback magazine piece appreciate the meaning of this constructed world? Such a fear is appropriate for the conventional reader of Aberration of Starlight. His new fiction needs a “new” reader.
A “traditional” reader expects a realistic narrative, presented in sequence, with one voice maintained throughout the fiction. A shape, often with mythic overtones, confines the plot actions. Tone is likewise consistent; the switch from a serious or even pathetic tone to a comic one is unlikely. Characters reveal themselves through successive scenes with other characters, and the author tells a great deal about the effects of the character on others, his thoughts, and other matters—so as to lead the reader to the attitude and idea the author desires. This is the realistic novel of modernist sensibility, as practiced from Henry James, Joseph Conrad, or Thomas Mann up to William Styron, James Baldwin, or John Gardner. Sorrentino himself regards the work of these writers as “clotted, thick, and graceless; it’s intent on telling you something, it’s intent upon instructing you in the truths of life, it’s intent upon getting a story across to you so that you will be moved or warmed, it’s clearly rubbish.” What Sorrentino and others of his interest are doing is part of a literary, if not cultural revolution. Certainly, he—and others—are no longer trying to get “. . . information and ideas through to you.” Thus, a large part of becoming a new reader is to shift one’s expectations of the experience and purpose of reading fiction. As Sorrentino puts it, when one reads works by Styron or Baldwin or Mailer, “you are being given the wisdom of Norman Mailer’s enormous experience of the world; you are not being given literature.”
Aberration of Starlight is, therefore, one of Sorrentino’s efforts to give the reader literature, a separate world that may be as real as the one in which the reader lives—more real than “realistic,” as in the older, but still popular style of fiction telling. While these other, more popular writers are “. . . burning to get a message across to you, burning to tell you the truth of life,” as Sorrentino puts it, he is interested in “. . . how prose sits on the page in terms of its music, its elegance, and its grace.” Judged by the experience readers have with Sorrentino’s work, he succeeds in these terms. Readers may have difficulty...
(The entire section is 1854 words.)
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