Sorrentino, Gilbert (Vol. 7)
Sorrentino, Gilbert 1918–2006
Sorrentino, an American poet, novelist, and critic, and an editor of Grove Press, values, for his own work, "a verse dense in its particulars, but flexible in its total structure."
Gilbert Sorrentino's second novel, Steelwork—a novel not about Gary, Ind. but about the steeling work of living and dying in Brooklyn between mid-depression and the Korean War—is most interesting primarily for the inventive and skillful way in which it tells its story.
If a novelist plans, as Jane Austen did, to tell of two or three families suffocated by "domestic life in country villages," then he could do no better than to follow her method; that is, write a tight, narrowly focused, chronological novel which moves through what Kurt Vonnegut has recently called the three stages of fictional development: "?, !, ." However, if a novelist wishes to range more widely—encompassing a vast social group and tracing the shifting relationships within that group as it moves through a generation of time—then he must devise a different method. He can, as Harvey Swados has recently and brilliantly done in Standing Fast, expand the size of his novel in keeping with the diversity of his group of people, and increase its scope to convey some of the effects the past thirty years have had on his characters, living through the rollercoaster ride of recent American history.
Writing a novel with the same social and temporal scope as Standing Fast, Sorrentino has devised an utterly different, quite original method of narration, and one that is equally successful. Apparently, his aim was to combine the intensity of a Jane Austen with the sweep of a Swados. Sorrentino's brief novel is made up of ninety-six separate but interlocking dramatic vignettes, scenes which, in their arrangement within the novel, scramble chronology. (pp. 790-91)
The almost arbitrary arrangement of revealing incidents in the narrative has the effect of destroying the sense of coherence one might extract from time and circumstance. Sorrentino's method convinces the reader that he, along with the novel's characters, is caught in a great web of senselessness. That is another way of saying that Steelwork unfolds in a manner that suits the author's theme and strikingly conveys its mood.
The vision that emerges from Steelwork's kaleidoscope is perhaps less original than the novel's structure. Sorrentino is at times too much under the sway of that other chronicler of Brooklyn lives, Hubert Selby. Many of Sorrentino's characters seem derivative from Last Exit to Brooklyn. Like Selby, Sorrentino sees a world circumscribed by unrelieved frustration and senseless violence. However, Sorrentino is able to go beyond Selby's insular view of the world. He is quite able, for example, to create moments of personal release, small triumphant times amidst the tawdriness, in a style rich with the details of the past recaptured. The glorious and smelly world of Saturday afternoon matinees in the late thirties:
Sometimes a free creamsicle, a comic book with the cover ripped off, anything, get em in! A double feature, five cartoons, coming attractions, a Pete Smith specialty, a Robert Benchley short, a travelogue Wonderous Waves of Waikiki, some theaters a race, the winning ticket got a bicycle, a pair of roller skates, an Erector set.
Sorrentino, a writer of considerable stylistic range, is able, too, to rein in this headlong, galloping prose—evocative of the breathless hysteria of kids at those matinees—and show in lyrical detail the kind of minimal satisfactions these same boys can find for themselves as they grow up in the forties.
But to say that is to suggest Sorrentino's limits. He has chosen to plunge us into an alien, underwater world, bringing us to the surface now and then to contemplate that most fashionable of clichés, American civilization as terminal ward: "the cumulative effects of Americanism, eating at the soul, thence spreading throughout the whole organism in symptoms of alcoholism or other social despairs." That gloss is, I think, too easy. But, if the vision of Steelwork is, in the end, somewhat circumscribed and pat, there is more than enough richness in Sorrentino's flexible style and inventive narrative to redeem his novel—artful, compressed and striking. (pp. 791-92)
Shaun O'Connell, "Just What Grows in Brooklyn," in The Nation (copyright 1971 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), June 21, 1971, pp. 790-92.
Gilbert Sorrentino's Splendide-Hôtel … is a discussion, in the form of an extended personal essay on motifs from Rimbaud and Williams, of the role of the poet in history and civilization. Sorrentino is a fine writer. His book is thoughtful, lucid, wide-ranging, witty, in many ways a work of originality and imagination; I read it with pleasure. But I was aware all the time that his view of the poet—namely, as a person apart, somehow special and superior, exempt from practicality in his vocation, and better qualified than others to deal with the real world (in effect by creating his own super- or anti-reality)—is both antiquated and dangerous. It was dangerous when it was not antiquated, a century ago when it was the esthetic underground of the Victorian era, and it is equally dangerous, if not more, today. (p. 475)
Hayden Carruth, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1974.
The image arises out of contemplation, the mind turned in upon itself, the present turned in on its own past. Yet the image pertains neither to the present nor to the past, but to what Sorrentino calls Fiction. "The Buick in the driveway / or parked on the road" ("1947 Blue Buick Convertible") is no less a fiction than a Unicorn or a Hippogriff. At the same time, it is no less a reality, for its existence is predicated upon nothing outside itself. The "perfect fiction" (the title of Sorrentino's previous collection of poems) is reality. (p. 41)
Time can only be encountered within the stasis of the image; which is to say, when it has been removed from time…. And again and again Sorrentino returns to the image of the photograph, to that bitter metaphysics where the self stands in its final isolation, locked within its own boundaries, its ultimate discontinuity with the world.
come from the town Sam, you are
burning. I call you Sam to
come, gazing at the photo where you stand
while all around you rages
("Land of Cotton")
The image can be passionately invoked, but ultimately it can never be exorcised; and indeed, the passionate nature of the utterance arises from the fact that this is so. The image is not an intimation of immortality, for in the search for lost time what remains is the "corrosive sublimate," the bitter salt, the poem. (pp. 41-2)
Henry Weinfield, "The Image in Time: An Essay on 'Corrosive Sublimate'" (originally published in Mysterious Barricades #3), in Vort (copyright © by Barry Alpert), Fall, 1974, pp. 41-2.
Certain of [Sorrentino's] poems are primers of feeling. He has the compassion to include you as you usually won't include yourself. He lives in this world. It comes as a rude, necessary shock to sanctify your feelings. Your life against the moronic feast of apathy and disgust we move through in the week. What he does is construct a form of care, the poem. A world of fidelities and allegiances, some so deeply buried in the strata of his heart that he can only trace a dim impression but that too yields up precious substance, some abstract demonology of manhood. (p. 42)
He's a master of the urban blues, the hard surfaces of the modern city and is studied in the lives of men who recognized this occasion to tear through and use with quick, agile softness. So that he delights in the world's arbitrary creation of trash and formal beauty, allows both into the poem. Only the grace is real…. The fact of anyone's life, whether they know it or not, is not to be trifled with…. He talks about coming at the subject of the poem obliquely, which doesn't mean not getting there or less sharply. But a sensing and gathering of direction. The energy you've got as entrance, discovering. His is an exacting task which may leave you breathless. Not many poems teach. Some of his have given me the experience of knowing the truth holds surprises which fall as hard as blows…. (p. 43)
Roy Skodnick, "'Corrosive Sublimate' / Beauty Is a Rare Thing," in Vort (copyright © by Barry Alpert), Fall, 1974, pp. 42-3.
Sorrentino's first book's title, The Darkness Surrounds Us (1960), immediately raises a question: and does it penetrate us? The poems, and those in the following volumes, work continually on that edge between surrounding catastrophe (and its metaphysical and religious context in eternity) and survival by recognizing it and resisting its transforming pressures…. The poetry is necessarily sombre, sardonic, vulnerable within its classicist needs not to yield to the self-ishnesses of the ego…. Sorrentino revolts against the perversion of the polis—New York—and moves only warily into the romantic blandishments of landscape nature. The Darkness Surrounds Us is wary and defensive with a need to establish clear position…. The syntax … is constructed of cautions inside sentences whose completion is a matter of having enough energy and breath within the limited exploration (for example, "3 Quatrains"). These are not poems of leisure among leisure-class entertainments but enact a sense of being rescued from labour for a living. Nor are they exegesis-prone criticism-poems of the Columbia-Kenyon academicism of the Fifties and Sixties. But nor do they have the declamatory rhetoric of certain characteristic Beat forms of the time. A poem about the truths of marriage hardly appeals to bachelor Beats or the university common room, especially if it contains the semantic wit of "Man and Wife"…. Most of the poems move where there is most difficulty, where anger and vindictiveness, in sometimes hopeless uncontrol, are countered by a need for love—it's a raw, vulnerable place for a poem to emerge, and the 'I' of the poem is often lyrically on edge. Some poems generate terror—"the blood raged for blood: and / a waiting" is the end of one combat. But the personal extends into the social: besides miners and Indians, Sorrentino writes of Americans killed in Korea for the flag totem. Urban and political pressures restrict mobility, but that does not give way to grand gesture in some romantic plein air form…. But the last two poems in the book indicate a power to move deftly from local and personal into historical and cultural without self-consciously forcing the issues. The lessons have been learned from Pound and Olson. (pp. 43-5)
Black and White has the form of its urgencies and embattlements; its honesty with the living difficulties leads to occasional awkwardness and stridency. In comparison The Perfect Fiction (1968) has an almost Stevens-like formality of imposed calm. All fifty-two mostly titleless poems have a three-line stanza, whose sentences lead out of each other, and, in some cases, into other poems. The perfect fiction is a platonic idea—perhaps this is related to Stevens as well—of reality, and the poems may be said to come out of lines in Black and White: "What we see is really there, / whether it be there / or not, or a heaped image / of the mind, the focus brings it // to reality" ("Empty Rooms"). (p. 50)
[The] classical principles of completion are exemplified in the best of Sorrentino's … poems. Each work is built to be stable, whatever the instability of its materials, to last against the encroachments of loose literary society and the values of egotism in a culture which stresses anarchic individualism. His career has the coherence not only of recurrent obsession and image which any worthwhile poet will have, but of continuous effort towards inventive craft. His poetry affords the double pleasure of astringent thought and feeling and of shaped measures under the impulse towards proper artifact. (p. 59)
Eric Mottram, "The Black Polar Night: The Poetry of Gilbert Sorrentino," in Vort (copyright © by Barry Alpert), Fall, 1974, pp. 43-59.
[Although] the meaninglessness and ugliness of our lives is a theme that is constantly reiterated in this sequence of vituperations, one realizes, after having waded through the turgid and melodramatic prose of Splendide-Hotel, that the book is nothing more than a palimpsest of our deplorable culture, a reification of those very qualities which its author professes to abhor.
A meditation on the alphabet would not in itself be an indication that either the author or the culture in which he found himself had a great wealth of ideas upon which to draw, and although Sorrentino glibly protests that "at the moment the writer realizes he has no ideas he has become an artist," what he is actually proclaiming is an aesthetics of despair in which the language, denuded of its power to convey real human ideas and emotions, has become no more than a fortuitous aberration whose manipulation by the author is merely formal and without determinacy. And since nihilism is never intelligent, and since it ends by negating even itself, one must consider whether in writing "B. Betty Boop. Boop-boop-a-doop. Babel. Bable" Sorrentino can be exempted from "the mass devastation of feeling that abounds" with which he rightfully charges our culture.
The poet writes, B. In his despair he insists on its right to be labeled a poem: for what does it matter anyway? B. B. It is a poem, all I wish to give you, he says. He mutters. Not enough, this clamoring audience says, it wants answers, it wants action. The language it employs to make these demands is dead, a smell of putrefaction hangs over it.
Indeed, it isn't enough: not because the language is dead, for in the hands of a great poet it can still be the vehicle of that beauty for which the world clamors, and Sorrentino himself has written fine poems; but because the author has succumbed to the self-hatred and impotence that are so characteristic of our time. He has dramatized this self-hatred; he has not gone beyond it, and in the end his book only mires us more deeply in the vacuous corridors of the Splendide-Hotel. (pp. 62-3)
Henry Weinfield, "'After the Deluge': An Essay on 'Splendide-Hotel'," in Vort (copyright © by Barry Alpert), Fall, 1974, pp. 61-3.
Testifying to the persistence of symbolism, Mr. Sorrentino revives and revises it with a distinction that presses us to consider newly its interest and value.
The pressure he exerts in this direction works by the play of a paradox. Actual life in specifically historical time and place saturates his writing…. In any single page the density of reference to the objects and preoccupations of mobile middle-class and intellectual life in Manhattan makes quotation difficult: any extract would leave out too much. Mr. Sorrentino packs his prose with life. (p. 64)
The authority of Mr. Sorrentino's densely textured knowledge of these wastes of life is ratified by his use of New York idiom—one ought to read Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things aloud in order to feel the thorough live conviction in its tough and very funny satiric talk. But Mr. Sorrentino does not allow either his saturation in observation and idiom or his satiric talent to take an upper hand in his work…. Mr. Sorrentino … turns upon himself and crushes his own effects. In spite of all the convincing specificity of the characters and milieu he evokes, he insists that essentially they are fictive and flat. (p. 65)
[If] symbolism has sinned …, Mr. Sorrentino redeems it…. In Steelwork especially symbolism is shown to be rooted in popular life and popular language: it is an ordinary democratic habit of mind and of feeling. Although Pound and Olson insist that symbolism displaces the ordinary world, Mr. Sorrentino does not see a power struggle between the two….
His mind swings between realms of imagination and reality, but he does not look out for a rescue from the instability. He seems to want to remain giddily situated: as if his honesty as a writer were guaranteed by the pain and silliness of the precarious balance. Art is not a means of grace; for Mr. Sorrentino it does not have a spiritual use either. Fictions and fiction-making are more often than not destructive and frightening, and the artist's strongest temptation is to turn away from that fact. (p. 68)
Like the waiters in Splendide-Hotel Mr. Sorrentino reveals something about life—but he emphasizes the subtlety of the revelation. "This subtlety is the artist's entire achievement." The achievement resides in a poise which illuminates experience, but does not disclose anything absolute about it. Perhaps art and life cry out to each other for secure comfort. I think Mr. Sorrentino believes the honor as well as the terror of both is that there is no saving communion between them, and no definitive revelations crossing from one to the other. (p. 69)
Robert L. Caserio, "Gilbert Sorrentino's Prose Fiction," in Vort (copyright © by Barry Alpert), Fall, 1974, pp. 63-9.
Unlike our National Book Award winners, Gilbert Sorrentino does not speak to our times, sheds no light on our politics, gives neither hope nor despair to our youth, does not, alas, give critics and teachers materials with which to work. This is the critical fallacy that every good writer produces one major work against which the others are measured. Gilbert Sorrentino will never, I suspect, be taken up by the critical industry. It is difficult, unless one fabricates transitions (which is easily enough done) from one book to the next, to talk of his development. He has the special gift of launching into new waters with each book. Were he to write The Return of The Splendide-Hotel, he might, perhaps, arouse critical attention. Or, were he to write a "compassionate" novel in which pseudo-artists were suddenly made objects of pity (i.e. "life is hard and one gets by, sometimes nobly and sometimes not, as best he can"), more than a few critics might take to pen and paper. To write, alas, on the progression of Gilbert Sorrentino.
And if there is no such progression, what is one to talk or write about? What could they do but speak of style, the texture of the prose, structure? In other words, his "art." And to speak of such things, except as mere ornaments of theme, one would need to have been raised in a tradition of American literature which did not view Bellow-Updike-Salinger-Mailer-Malamud et al as the bearers of the American literary tradition. (pp. 81-2)
John O'Brien, "Gilbert Sorrentino: Some Various Looks," in Vort (copyright © by Barry Alpert), Fall, 1974, pp. 79-85.
Sorrentino's fiction emerges from a premise on which much of modern literature is based: that a literary work is an event in itself. (p. 85)
At the same time, Sorrentino's work wishes to respect the integrity of human experience, rather than distort it through literary convention, through subscription to those assumptions which can most readily yield a discrete, ponderable work of fiction: resolution, a structure based on time as chronology, and "character development" as cause and effect. (p. 86)
What seems to me most admirable and noteworthy in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is what strikes me in all of Sorrentino's fiction, although here it is even more remarkable, a greater achievement. It's … the ability to devise fictive situations that possess that kind of power which allows the enactment, the making actual and active, of perception concerning human lives … within a context that is constantly taking account of, and growing out of, what we all must know and accept by now: that a work of literature is not a transcription of experience, but a linguistic construct; that words do not render experience as it is, but as language can make sense of it; that "I" is not I, the Marquise did not go out at five, etc.
Imaginative Qualities is, of course, a self-conscious novel. We are given a man composing the book we are reading, and which he sometimes calls a novel, sometimes insists is not. He pulls his characters out of nowhere, saying, Look at this schmuck, we'll call him Lou Henry, maybe I give him a wife, she's a nymphomaniac. Endlessly he tells us the characters are not real, though confuses by saying he has or has not seen this one in five years, sometimes qualifying: or that man he passes for. Obviously they're not real, wherever the narrator—of whom we know nothing but that he's writing this outrageous book, i.e. we know everything—may find their origins. The confusion is never a confusion for long.
Such self-conscious, explicitly invented novels tend to issue in a regressus in infinitum, a labyrinth in which all identities are questionable, the status of all events uncertain….
Sorrentino avoids that regressus in infinitum. He achieves what Williams calls "the intimate caress of author and reader," an illusion of encounter with an actual man. (p. 87)
To return, I think the sense of intimate caress is achieved at least partially through the character of Sorrentino's language. The prose is "non-literary." It is in the vernacular. We have a kind of literate tough-guy voice, apparently careless, like the speech of a poet from Brooklyn in a bar. (p. 88)
The episodes in which the invented characters are presented function similarly. They are the "isolate flecks" Sorrentino so fondly, and so often, speaks of, and they are no less useful or persuasive for the explicitness of their function and the fact of their invention. Shifting tenses and moving in, out of, and back into scenes at will, wreaking havoc with time, and of course discussing its own formlessness, insisting on its elaborate linkages, the narrative again and again yields these painfully incisive, perception-embodying incidents. (p. 89)
Stephen Emerson, in Vort (copyright © by Barry Alpert), Fall, 1974.
To follow the course of Sorrentino's career somewhat evokes a journey through one of his southwestern landscapes in The Sky Changes: a desert country, bleakly elaborate with abutments, mesas, arabesque trails repeatedly ending in dead-stops.
The most imposingly and movingly distinctive feature of Sorrentino's work was always, in some of that word's best and many of its worst senses, its reactionariness. More than the sinuous patter of Leroi Jones' reviews or poems, which, basically reactionary, had their own inquisitive rhythms, Sorrentino's block-like essays, often pummelingly indignant, occasionally hortatory (as, his study of the then-little-known Hubert Selby's fiction) seemed founded on some promontory of sheer affirmation, massive response to particular occasion. In his writing, this reaction was predicated on neither barriers denied, nor barriers created; but rather, on fervent and visceral response against barriers which, correctly or not, he seemed to feel were prescribed and impassible: existing, therefore, only to be identified and either hailed or denounced—usually, the latter. Every such barrier represented, for Sorrentino, an implacable issue of taste, or candor, or esthetic integrity. (p. 90)
In his fine polemics against "The Apes of God Revisited"—the dilettantish mannerists of "Pop" or "Minimal" Art—or some ditheringly eclectic poetry anthologies, Sorrentino can inject one's spirit with calcium by his very "one-sidedness", i.e., his disavowal of glibly omniscient tolerance, by making it plain that his field is a battlefield; that the situation, let alone encounter, is real, the intangibles palpable, and not a phantasmal milling of "relative values."
And this bellicose, downright assertiveness is fortified, in his best work, by his devotion to, his identification with, principles and procedures of craftsmanship. This is the area in which Sorrentino's ethical conservatism and his visceral force of personality find their solidest meeting-ground. When he writes capsule evaluations of fellow authors …, I feel that not only the subject, but Sorrentino's own personality has come into focus. The claims of hard-nosed reportage seem to have provided him not only with a new voice, but with a new geography, as well. What one takes away from these pieces is a sense of process, of active observation and analysis, informing and mobilizing the at times stentorian rhetoric. In such writing, the double ideal of Form and Authority reach as near-complete realization as they ever do in Sorrentino's work, save his poetry, and that on his own terms: a priori justification, the principle that these values exist because they must be, and that they are to be instantly recognized because of their existence. For his estimates of other men's craft do not, themselves, represent justification of Sorrentino's ideals, nor explication of them: only evidence of their existence and, in their existence, their justice.
Yet, how can one read any sequence of these reviews and essays, without recognizing that they involve at best as much denial as affirmation? (pp. 90-1)
For Sorrentino the fact represents the mind's sense of its uniqueness, in all the depressive implications of that term…. Sorrentino's poems and novels have little portion—although much common cause—with Beckett's dervishings, his thrashing self-diversions. Sorrentino's motion is that of a regularly-spaced nod, of repeated identification with the fact itself, with neither expectation of any true discovery, nor expectation that freedom will evolve from the distraction.
The most original and absorbing of Sorrentino's writing—his first novel, The Sky Changes; his two major poetry selections, The Perfect Fiction and Corrosive Sublimate, embody, I think, if "triumph" be too euphoric a word, the fullness of his self-articulation and self-definition.
The Sky Changes is probably Sorrentino's most stringently blunt and intense act of self-projection at much length. As such, it embodies, I believe, a nearly-perfect achievement of form and authority: as he both honors and saturninely parodies the chronicle-novel, in a series of glum stereopticon slides. His narrative is, the cross-country via dolorosa of a mutually-exacerbating married couple, who, with the wife's lover acting as driver, are performing the compulsive character of a "second honeymoon". Sorrentino's voice, here, is the blasted consciousness, and soul, of the husband; whose hopeless, jejune perspective turns each American landscape into a horror chalky vulgarity or grinding stasis. This focusing on the man's paranoiacally frozen vision, the relentless stricture of his present consciousness, is what, I think fulfills here Sorrentino's authority: that authority which the author can only entirely realize by attesting to the freedom and autonomy of his form, through identifying totally with it; committing to its advances the assertion of his identity. I would add to this only (but this point is most important, and neglected, I think even in what shamefully piecemeal critical attention has been paid The Sky Changes) that its richest fulfillment is, as a romantic novel. Not in any muzzy or hysteric connotation of the word; but, as a declaration of an identity's absoluteness, by consummately projecting that identity into the novel's universe: here, the haggard flatlands of southwestern America; which are not merely pathetic-fallacy orchestration for the hero's depression, but the very testimony of that depression. I hope I don't seem overly eccentric in saying that The Sky Changes most reminded me of Joseph Conrad; delivering the same sense of huge passivity, of a contemplation which identifies its author by registering the somber inertia of its landscape.
I think the next two novels—Steelwork and Imaginary Qualities of Actual Things—mainly record Sorrentino's insularity, abetted by his romanticism at its distracted worst, skittishly withdrawing from the prospect opened by The Sky Changes. Both, in their way, parade his romanticism at its dangerous closest to sentimentality; with its faith in the ability to fuse, through intensity of will, actually disparate characteristics or devotions; as, here, Sorrentino's devotion to the concrete datum, and his no-less-impelling devotion to the notion of the author's transcendent authority. (pp. 92-3)
If Steelwork was a sentimental meander and disappointment, the work following—Imaginary Qualities of Actual Things—was a polemical stampede, and a disaster. The fundamental error of this utterly unfortunate book could be called that of false presumption: namely, the presumption of a moral authority with full title to harangue and vilify, without once justifying or even identifying itself…. Imaginary Qualities, despite the occasional abrasive infectiousness of Sorrentino's humor—and, yes, his gossip; which my judgment deplores, but my glands welcome—is a far more vacuous and wearing work than Steelwork at its worst, and for similar reasons. For although, here, Sorrentino's voice—opinionated, orotund, arch and massively peevish—is not to be denied, his presence—i.e., the full commitment of his mind and heart, has been denied, by Sorrentino himself. Blatantly clear as his opinions and/or emotions appear to be, they are, in fact, vague and equivocal, just where self-definition is most important….
After the diffuse affectation of Steelwork, the hectoring rodomontade of Imaginary Qualities, the second-gear romanticism of both, one's sense of relief, of deliverance even, steepens the impact of revelation in his last two poetry collections. "Revelation", precisely, I think; despite, but partly too because of, the extraordinary caryatid-like insularity of The Perfect Fiction, which widens only relatively with the reminiscences and landscape studies of Corrosive Sublimate. In these poems, it seems to me, more than in any of his work save The Sky Changes, Sorrentino is declaring the extent of the terrain in which he presents himself, and also its pressures upon him; and, though no less romantic than any of his fiction or, indeed, essays, it affirms that romanticism beyond the evasions or sentimental equivocations of very much of his writing. (p. 94)
Despite the relative insipidness of certain poems—the somewhat Hit Parade-ish love lyrics, particularly—The Perfect Fiction's tough cogency, its firmly gauged impact, honor itself and its author, and gladden the reader.
Corrosive Sublimate, the very latest book of poems, widens appreciably the compass of The Perfect Fiction; and, although more uneven—more notched with lapses, its energies more fluctuating—I think that its very freer variety of achievement, coupled with the unmistakable trajectory of Sorrentino's will, the more generous force of his self-assertion—give this book an importance as accomplishment beyond any of his previous works. More formally expansive, more ranging than the inclusions of The Perfect Fiction, the poems of Corrosive Sublimate also engage a wider latitude of risk than those of the earlier work. For here, Sorrentino is treading open-eyed a sword-edge path through the terrain of memory and past; that very terrain which, earlier, enmarshed him in self-indulgence and equivocation. (pp. 95-6)
The interpermeation of memory and death-awareness, in Corrosive Sublimate, provides these poems, at their frequent best, with a dimensional weight and a locality which is not to be found even in The Perfect Fiction, with its existential forlornness and inertia. Because it acknowledges its author's stance as interdependent, of a piece with this location, Corrosive Sublimate is one of Gilbert Sorrentino's least overtly romantic works; his voice seems less strenuously proclamatory, less muscle-bound, than ever before; more freely delivering itself to the situation to which he constantly refers his presence…. The heroism of Sorrentino's attitude in Corrosive Sublimate, is of the most resiliently stoic kind, counting his resources, checking his defenses. He has at last defined his geography by declaring his vulnerability: his recognition of, and testimony to, the adjoining void as the definition of his own unrealized, undeclared power. (p. 96)
Donald Phelps, "Extra Space," in Vort (copyright © by Barry Alpert), Fall, 1974, pp. 89-96.
The Splendide-Hôtel is an image adopted from Rimbaud—an audacious emblem for the suicidal luxuriousness and unconcern that are, to Gilbert Sorrentino, America now: a flashy, littered arena choked by "a government of scoundrels, a people numb with hatred and fear." [Splendide-Hôtel, a] sardonic book, bristles with Orwellian indignation against the lazy rape of language and signification performed by those who assume our manipulation.
Sorrentino's hero is the writer—a belligerent inventor like Rimbaud, or else, a meticulous artificer in particulars, like William Carlos Williams. What the writer makes out of words, c'est "reality." If the poet is to melt down the irrelevant plasticity masquerading as "culture," he must be an unrestrained, lunatic lover of sensuous specifics, "precise registrations." Accordingly, Sorrentino's meditation vibrates with lively details.
There are twenty-six alphabetical sections, arrayed to show how letters accrete into words, which then conspire together as sentences, paragraphs; how syntax and denotation become acts of defiance against corpulent meaninglessness. Thus: (the article) "A" denotes specifics; it points to things of this world. "J is a hook"—so, we hear of fishing experiences. "V is for Victory"—and there ensues a sardonic semi-narrative portrait of wartime lusts in action. There is some gratuitous overwriting (in anti-academic tirades, especially). But several of the gaudier inventions are wonderful: an unemotional description of the progress of heroin through middle-America; an imaginary novel, with a hilarious matching portfolio of likely reviews ("The finest account of an artist's life that I have read since Lust for Life"); a savage sketch of a trendy U.S. President, who loves the Rolling Stones and never misses a Godard film.
"Through the employment of the imagination," Sorrentino intones, "[the poet] lays bare the mundane." Splendide-Hôtel is, in its quirky way, a noisy technicolor preview of the apocalypse. So why are we all laughing? (pp. 244-45)
The Antioch Review (copyright © by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 34, Nos. 1 & 2, 1975.