Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250
Sorrentino, Gilbert 1929–2006
Brooklyn-born poet, novelist, and critic, Sorrentino writes experimental fiction and poetry with a distinctly urban tone.
Gilbert Sorrentino's Corrosive Sublimate is worth having for its design. It's an exceptionally handsome piece of book-making. Fortunately, most of the poems are excellent, so it's as good to read as it is to look at….
Like anyone who lives in places intensely, Sorrentino has tastes, likes, and dislikes. His tastes are mainly urban—New York, Baudelaire, jazz, pinochle. His dislikes are equally emphatic—winter, mountains, "floating people with/moony faces," American generals, abstract ideas, and life as it is unlived in the barbaric provinces….
Sorrentino's sensitivity is also urban in its defensiveness. His hard-edge imagery, his clipped and emphatically declarative syntax—both are means for keeping events at a slight distance even while experiencing them. Even when he hallucinates or gets nostalgic, he maintains a deliberately crisp tone….
As the title of the book suggests, Sorrentino's intention is simultaneously to destroy (to be corrosive) and refine (to sublimate), to eat away self-deluding claptrap so that the grain and patina of our actual condition emerges. The movement of his poems is from illusion to clarity….
Sorrentino is very credible when he speaks of life on this earth under American skies…. His earth, sky, and sea are not magic media which one can climb into or fly through, but places which get hot or cold, interesting or oppressive. A bad day in the city is a synthesis of all that can be wrong with self and scene…. The gray images, the repetitions and plain words mesh perfectly to express a mind unhappily and doggedly aware of what is happening inside and outside of itself. Pleasures are rarer in Sorrentino's poems, but when they occur they are communicated as intensely as the pains.
James Guimond, in Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1972, pp. 109-11.
You don't have to be a writer to appreciate Gilbert Sorrentino's latest novel, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, but it certainly helps. His book is not really a novel at all (what serious writer writes an honest-to-goodness novel these days, anyway?), but a series of little and not-so-little asides on Stupidity in the Arts Today. Since there is a great deal of stupidity, there are a great many asides….
But what of the characters who share the book with Sorrentino? The author, unfortunately, does not give them much breathing space. Not only does he break away from them to deliver his little lectures, but he finds it necessary to repeatedly inform us that they are unreal, interchangeable, not worth troubling about. The total effect is … grating and tedious…. This winking at the reader, reminding him that he is reading a work of fiction, that he is in the hands of a literary puppeteer is fast becoming the most overworked technique in contemporary fiction…. The trouble is … that because Sorrentino is so fine and human a writer we keep hoping he will drop the asides, stop the fooling around and simply develop character….
The writer is defeated here by his own cleverness. Since he constantly tells us not to bother with the characters, we begin to take his advice. If the author doesn't feel like spending time with them, why should we? They are not, as written, a terribly interesting lot anyway…. It becomes evident that Sorrentino is only using them for the purpose of digressing from them. It is unfortunate that the digressions, the asides jar with the characters rather than flow with them easily as in Proust or Musil.
Mr. Sorrentino's last book, Steelwork, was a beautifully written, deeply felt (and not properly recognized) novel focusing on a Brooklyn neighborhood and its inhabitants. The "experimental" techniques employed were restrained and welcomed. In Imaginative Qualities they seem imposed and heavy, all too self-conscious. I am not suggesting that Mr. Sorrentino return to Brooklyn, but it does seem that home was where the heart was.
Ronald De Feo, in Modern Occasions, Winter, 1972, pp. 150-51.
The irony, and success, of Sorrentino's method is that in the process of his anti-illusionistic and self-consciously artistic writing, brilliantly conceived persons are brought into being. Especially when he hates a character, Sorrentino's prose is superb. "I've got some stories to tell you about this lame," he begins his chapter on Anton Harley [in "Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things," 1971], "they'll make you throw tacks and broken glass in front of his bike." He hates him so much that "I'll do my best to make him totally unbelievable"—hence he'll be one of Sorrentino's best-drawn people…. Driven by his hate for this purely literary and invented character, Sorrentino runs him through scene after scene to his detriment, and the result is wonderful, pure fiction….
"Steelwork," which came out in 1970, is a much softer book. It's the spatial portrait of a South Brooklyn neighborhood, in decay and death from 1935 to 1951. Although the novel's many sections are all given dates, Sorrentino does not arrange them in chronological order. True emotion, the author argues, follows the configurations of space more often than time. Foremost in "Steelwork" is the sense of loss, the feeling of missing an empty lot or of seeing one where the Boys Club used to be. The novel is a collage of moments, of no time because they are all past. "They are all gone into the world of light."
Sorrentino will not tell stories. "Prose will kill you if you give it an inch, i.e., if you try and substitute it for the world," he remarks in "Imaginative Qualities." And so in that novel he picks a theme, "What I am trying to do, through all this murk, is to define certain areas of destruction." In his latest work ["Splendide-Hotel"] he removes "story" even more. The day-to-day passings of life provide the easiest structure for fiction, but as a form the serial aspects can become so self-effacing that the art may disappear entirely.
So that a day in the life, or a slice of it, may not become confused with the novel itself, Sorrentino chooses a completely artificial structure for "Spendide-Hotel." Upon the 26 letters of the alphabet, he writes novelistic exercises. Like a baseball game, his fiction seeks play and virtuosity within well defined limits. And like a game of baseball, Sorrentino's work "does not stand for anything else. It exists outside of metaphor and symbol."
No stories here, for they are too easily confused with life, fiction's congenital defect….
The deliberately artificial structure of "Spendide-Hotel," 26 sections, each taking off from an idea suggested by the next letter of the alphabet, keeps us right on the pages, like a painter keeps us on the canvas. As an artist, Sorrentino wants us to sense "movement of the line, its quantity, the sifting of vowels, the A's breeding in decay."
All Gilbert Sorrentino's work refuses to be bland meta-fiction, recounting in second-order terms a story about another reality. It is instead something made and placed in the world, standing for nothing but itself. Its method controls its substance, rather than the other way around, which for all the forms of art is surprising only in the novel. A study not of things that happen but rather of how things happen to happen. Sorrentino's fiction avoids the dull business of para-historical recording and is instead representational of the imaginative qualities of actual things, of the totally artificial place where meaning resides.
Jerome Klinkowitz, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1973 by The Village Voice, Inc.), November 22, 1973, pp. 27-8.
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