Gilbert Sorrentino Sorrentino, Gilbert (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gilbert Sorrentino 1929–2006

American novelist, poet, critic, and editor.

Sorrentino is a leading proponent of experimental techniques. Jerome Klinkowitz considers his fictional works "examples of the novel's renaissance as it turns from … belief-suspending conventions back toward the truths which those conventions slight." While other critics are divided in their evaluations of Sorrentino's success, they do laud his imaginative dexterity in novels such as Mulligan Stew.

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7, 14, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5: American Poets since World War II.)

Denise Levertov

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The prose criticism that Sorrentino has published in little magazines shows his power of making lucid distinctions. In poetry [as evidenced in The Darkness Surrounds Us] he still sounds too much like those from whom he has learned, especially Creeley, but what happens to him happens to him, indubitably, and he uses Creeley's mode with such virtuosity that one feels he is doing so as a temporary expedient, as a man may borrow another's good saw until he has one as excellent, and yet be cutting wood that is his own. He has moral force, a kind of angry pride as if he had been much hurt but never downed, and a notable intelligence. That these qualities make themselves so felt even though formally he has not yet achieved his own variation on the ground base, seems to me a measure of how much one may expect from him in the future. He has it in him to be one of the best poets of his time. (pp. 251-52)

Denise Levertov, "Poets of the Given Ground," in The Nation (copyright 1961 by the Nationa Associates, Inc.), Vol. 193, No. 12, October 14, 1961, pp. 251-53.∗

Duane B. Schneider

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Perfect Fiction] is a surprising collection of intellectual and evocative poems. As the title suggests, the poems are concerned with reality, which is depicted frequently as drab, dark, depressing; relief lies only in the futile dreams of something better which never arrives. Evoking the spirit of "the haunt / grim in sunlight: reality," Mr. Sorrentino taps the cliché, the vernacular, and the vulgar; he resorts to banality and triteness, and obscurity to describe "reality" in verse. The range of the poems is broad, but essentially they express a painful, heartfelt lament for the nature of the reality in which we find ourselves: at times earth and hell seem much alike. The dreary, boring world is speckled with moments of love, but we seldom penetrate the surface to recognize the kind of life we find ourselves in. (pp. 757-58)

Duane B. Schneider, "The Book Review: 'The Perfect Fiction'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, February 15, 1968; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1968 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 93, No. 4, February 15, 1968, pp. 757-58.

Paul Theroux

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gilbert Sorrentino's characters in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things] are like those stick figures that a lecturer sketches on a blackboard to illustrate a point, and his manner of narration is usually the lecturer's, analytical, sardonic, anecdotal when it suits him; he appears to be conscious of the moments when his audience's attention flags. It is sometimes dry statement ("We deal here with …"), but very often it is venomous, and it is always self-conscious.

A chapter is allotted to each character, and we observe their pathetic meanderings. The narrator pities a few of them and loathes the rest. If one happens to live in New York, which I do not, these stereotypes are perhaps recognizable and justify Sorrentino's spleen, his settling the hash of art galleries and trend-spotters, luminaries, little magazines, and what-not. So it is very much an insider's book….

Few people are able to write as well as Sorrentino does here of literary posturing, but the trouble is that the book assumes an elaborate posture of its own, and so does the narrator, who is by turns the embittered lecturer, the failed writer, the sullen loner, the assassin; the book contains many of the affectations it condemns.

And yet there is a truculent intelligence behind it all, one given to outrage and joy. It is not everyone's sort of book—it is not mine—but its power is unmistakable and its design ambitious, the right sort of antidote for the fakery, the foundation men, and the hangers-on in the literary world. Still, one may reasonably wonder whether these third-raters are worth destroying.

Paul Theroux, "Novels: 'Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1971 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), November 7, 1971, p. 2.

Lawrence Graver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things"] is full of carefully planted instructions about how it must be read. Don't expect a story…. Forget verisimilitude…. You need not look for development….

After such disclaimers, the reader is almost prepared for an austere anti-novel in which he may have to do most of the work. But instead he gets eight conventional portraits of marginal figures in the New York literary world 15 years ago…. Writing and painting badly, they spend much of their time trying to make it professionally or in bed with a wretched parade of equally fraudulent and unfulfilled partners.

Sorrentino finds these counterfeiters so contemptible that he shows little interest in telling their stories or exploring the reasons for their desperation and failure. Instead, he offers himself as the satiric observer driven to expose falsity because of his passion for genuine art; and he intends his book "an antidote … full of ingredients … to ward off the poisons that abound." The main remedy is his own malicious wit, and at times the exposure of pretense is apt, irreverent and harshly funny. But a true "Dunciad" is among the hardest of all books to write. The fakery of incompetent artists is a quickly depleted subject, and only fierce moral passion, comic inventiveness and wide verbal resources can sustain interest in their antics. Sorrentino relies mostly on rancor and strong opinions. At best, his novel reads like a mordant letter from an intelligent friend….

Lawrence Graver, "Three Novels and a Novella: 'Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 2, 1972, p. 6.

Gregory Rabassa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things captures] the feel of the fifties, an aimless decade nurtured on nostalgia, a time which of late and for some hollow reason has itself become the focus of nostalgic maundering. This book, among its other contributions, should help to stanch that dismal backward flow of warmth. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, horror, like its practitioners, is most often drab and gray and inward, not black and bold as the cliché demands. That is the tone and setting of the novel. The people are artistic: writers, painters, and the like. Artistic, not really arty, although maybe that's what they really are.

Sorrentino has given himself the Cervantine prerogative of doing what he damn well pleases with his characters, going back to where the novel got its start as a new form—old as it came to be soon thereafter. His purpose is creative, not destructive, even though his creation will destroy some myths and haze any number of real people who care find themselves embodied here. (p. 123)

The forties begat the fifties which begat the sixties, and so on. It would seem that an uncomfortable period survives by looking back fondly on what had been just as bad, and looking forward oneirically to some utopia of progress. Something devastating has been happening in recent times with writers like Orwell and Burgess who have left us with only darkness at the end of the tunnel—more of the same, even...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Jerome Klinkowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gilbert Sorrentino is a veteran poet who began publishing fiction just about when critics were announcing its demise. The Sky Changes (1966), Steelwork (1970), Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971), [and] Splendide-Hotel (1973) … are examples of the novel's renaissance, as it turns from an attempt to capture life through belief-suspending conventions back to-ward the truths which those conventions slight. (p. 154)

Sorrentino sees time as the enemy … and seeks the same actuality beyond it, but without abandoning the novel. Revealing images are well expressed in shorter forms, but life is large, its truths are larger still, and it would be a shame to sacrifice...

(The entire section is 1628 words.)

The Atlantic Monthly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A master of so-called experimental fiction, Sorrentino [applies in Aberration of Starlight] his impressive technical skills to the tale of a vacationing Brooklyn family in 1939, with mixed results….

Using a series of short narratives, letters, questions and answers, and internal monologues, Sorrentino artfully delineates a world in which desire is constantly thwarted by convention and fantasy is restricted to the suggestions of pulp magazines. His language is brilliant, exposing the sentimental, evasive mode of thought of the time through a seemingly instinctive use of slang, cliché, and radio-show humor. Unfortunately, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the characters are banal, dull, and unthinkingly brutal with one another. Sorrentino has drawn them well enough so that we turn away from them in disgust and concentrate on the style; as good as that is, it should not be the most interesting thing about any novel.

"Short Reviews: 'Aberration of Starlight'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 246, No. 2, August, 1980, p. 83.

Garrett Epps

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino's last novel, was an over-stuffed, aggressively avant-garde portmanteau bulging with allusions to James Joyce and Flann O'Brien; it enjoyed not only critical success but some popularity as well. Barely a year after publishing that behemoth, the prolific Sorrentino has produced a different kind of triumph—a tightly focused novel [Aberration of Starlight] that is by turns funny, sexy, and sad….

The verbal extravagance and formal pyrotechnics of Mulligan Stew are here; so is Sorrentino's enthusiastic but unsentimental view of the human sexual urge and his hilarious compassion for the self-deceptive daydreams of ordinary Americans. Aberration of Starlight begins with laughter, but ends in tears. Its haunting theme is the spiritual devastation wrought by life's compromises and disappointments.

Garrett Epps, "Fiction: 'Aberration of Starlight'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 12, August, 1980, p. 62.

Guy Davenport

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Aberration of Starlight" openly steals from Joyce, O'Nolan [Flann O'Brien], and Doctorow's "Ragtime." It is fashionably a study in nostalgia…. Mr. Sorrentino sees in the early reign of Roosevelt and in the Depression an America that resembles Joyce's Ireland (and Chekhov's Russia, perhaps Maupassant's France). He sees a shoddy, caddish provincialism, a touching innocence and vicious meanness.

The plot is there for form's sake: a tacky love story in which everybody's motives are tainted. What makes the novel interesting is its psychological angles of vision. We get to see all the characters as they think of themselves and as they appear to others….

What Mr. Sorrentino brings off...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Paul West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Aberration of Starlight Gilbert Sorrentino uses procrastinated seduction not as voluptuous delay but as a gamble that just wasn't in the cards….

This is a tease novel, then, and not very gratifying at that. Tom is a bore and Marie is banal. Instead of discovering or inventing compensations that would free them, as characters, from the anonymous pattern of libido and denial, they back off into the twaddle that surrounds them. Their heads, and what little is in them, dominate the narrative and keep on coming through direct, without much of the narratorial intervention that could render shades of feeling they feel but can't express. Indeed, the narrator, who shows up rarely, seems even more...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

John Morse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mulligan Stew was surely a remarkable book. Brawling and sprawling over hundreds of pages, it seemed to want to take on the world, satirizing, lampooning, and railing against all that it saw. Now comes Aberration of Starlight, and if it is to lay any claim to the remarkable, it will be to a very quiet kind. Aberration tells of the events of one weekend during the summer of 1939, during which Tom Thebus, a traveling salesman, attempts the seduction of Marie Recco, a young divorced Catholic woman, and in so doing provokes hope and dread in Marie's son Billy and her father John McGrath. The story is retold four times, each time focusing on one of these four principal characters. In contrast to...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Josh Rubins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It is] only to be expected that a new Gilbert Sorrentino novel is going to provoke skeptical whispers if it seems to have a "narrative"—one of the dirtiest words in the Lamont/Sorrentino world of "Sur-fiction … Ur-fiction, and Post-Modern fiction to boot." A veteran of Mulligan Stew might do a particular double-take, too, at the new book's title page: Aberration of Starlight is published by Random (Hasard) House. Is this the same Gilbert Sorrentino? Now that he's buried the novel (along with most of its critics), is he back to rob the grave?

One thing is unquestionable: whether or not Sorrentino intended to be telling a story in Aberration of Starlight, he definitely has...

(The entire section is 1097 words.)

Frank Cioffi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mulligan Stew] is a crazy quilt of popular culture, "sub-literary" genres, and unusual narrative voices. Its basic story of a novelist writing his most recent work is interlaced with all variety of playful, parodic, and fictive allusions. Eventually this motley production exemplifies Sorrentino's main concern: "Surfaces, I'm interested in surfaces," he remarked in a 1974 interview. "For me, life is right in front of you. Mysterious because it is not hidden. I'm interested in surfaces and flashes, episodes." While many surface glints and flashes in Mulligan Stew spring from popular forms and suggest the "folk mind," many also spring from more sophisticated sources. The end product is more than a mere...

(The entire section is 959 words.)