Gilbert Sorrentino

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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

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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

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[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

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[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...

(This entire section contains 292 words.)

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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

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["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

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[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 worse. Sorrentino has done this to the past, tying its meanness to that of the present which it spawned. He reminds us that. "This is a book about destruction. No tools to be found here with which to build the new society." But it is also a liberation: the emperor has no clothes on, never did, never will.

The characters are likely people deliberately made unlikely by the dark way in which they are limned. (pp. 123-24)

The richness of this book is hard to describe, just as "It is difficult to accept life as nothing more or less than the pattern it makes." Sorrentino gives the essence of what he is doing when he says, "This trait of the artist [the refusal ever to forget how things felt] is often confused with bitterness or cynicism, but it is simply an insistence upon remembering the specific emotional responses that were once actual." This is what separates him from his manikins and what they represent…. (p. 124)

Gregory Rabassa, "There Goes the Neighborhood," in The Nation (copyright 1972 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 215, No. 4, August 21, 1972, pp. 123-24.

Jerome Klinkowitz

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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 novel's great scope simply because its methods have been abused. "In the mind there is a continual play of obscure images which coming between the eyes and their prey seem pictures on the screen at the movies," Sorrentino quotes from William Carlos Williams as the epigraph to Imaginative Qualities. "The wish would be to see not floating visions of unknown purport but the imaginative qualities of the actual things." To keep hold of these qualities within the novel's broad expanse is Sorrentino's aim. His work has characters who refuse to be drawn, action which will not be resolved, and a theme which resists statement—instead, his novels are rich in the materials of life which will not let themselves be perverted into the mistruths of conventional signals, those instructions to the reader which lead to a presupposed meaning and hence obscure the writer's truth. Sorrentino tells us constantly that it is all made up, that his truth resides not in some moral we draw from the life he has imitated but rather from his invention before us on the page…. (pp. 154-55)

Throughout Imaginative Qualities the author comes at us, raging at the restraints of his art yet breaking them hilariously at will. God save the character he comes to dislike. It's only a story, he keeps reminding us, to counter fiction's congenital defect of the illusion becoming real.

No art can succeed when it is willingly mistaken for reality, as the strategy of Sorrentino's story, "The Moon in Its Flight", demonstrates. Therefore in his novels truth lies not in the facts of life, but in the author's design from them. Against the novel's habitual limitation to the linear and domination by time, his innovations offer the possibilities of space, where meanings—and not merely our suppositions of meaning—may at times reside. (pp. 155-56)

[Steelwork] is a spatial portrait of a South Brooklyn neighborhood during 1935–51. The subject is change, and the book's form comes to terms with this reality, grasped imaginatively. Sorrentino is taken with the imaginative possibility of things…. [For this, he] draws upon the imaginative substance of a childhood and adolescence…. [Foremost] is the sense of loss, the feeling of missing an empty lot or of seeing one there where something else used to be…. Although they are dated, the sections are not arranged in chronological order, for … true emotion follows space more accurately than time. Hence the book ends not in 1951, when the neighborhood has been destroyed, but back in 1939, on a cold night when the protagonist has a sense of what is to happen…. Steelwork is a collage of moments, of no time because they are all past. As Sorrentino concludes with an after-epigram, "'They are all gone into the world of light.'"

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is Sorrentino's most fully realized expression of the novelist's proper role. Throughout he fights against the poor writing and misguided aesthetic that characterizes so much of recent conventional fiction. "Television and the film are by some thought to be more subtle and sophisticated than prose," he claims, "because they can register [the] cliche in one swift image, that is, the cliche is somehow ameliorated because it passes swiftly. One bad still worth a bad short story." All Sorrentino as novelist can do is constantly remind the reader that these are not scenes from real life, that he is constantly making them up before one's very eyes. For this his techniques are various: when a character mentions in a letter that "I don't want to hurt Lou any more than I've already hurt him" the author responds with a footnote—"∗This sentence is an example of automatic writing."… Other times he speaks directly. "These people aren't real. I'm making them up as I go along, any section that threatens to flesh them out, or make them 'walk off the page,' will be excised. They should, rather, walk into the page, and break up, disappear: the subtlest tone or aroma (no cracks, please) is all that should be left of them. I want you to remember this book the way you remember a drawing."… Most of all, he tells the reader, "you don't need to know anything—see a movie,"… or "If you're interested in the kind of bag Dick would carry, check it in O'Hara—he'll tell you unerringly."… As for what happens to his characters in time, "it is all mixed up, how can I tell you what I don't really know?" Sorrentino's aesthetic for fiction is different: "In this book, I'll muddle around, flashes, glints, are what I want. It's when one is not staring that art works, In the middle of all the lists and facts, all the lies and borrowings, there will sometimes be a perfect revelation. These curious essences. The shape and weight of a sentence that lances you."… These are the heart of Sorrentino's fiction, "because these things themselves are the plot. They carry all the meaning. Isolate flecks."… (pp. 158-60)

The irony, and success, of Sorrentino's method is that in the process of his anti-illusionistic, self-consciously artistic writing, brilliantly conceived persons, places, and things are brought before the reader's eyes. Especially when Sorrentino dislikes a character, his prose is superb…. Sparked by his hate for [a] purely literary character, Sorrentino runs him through scene after scene to his detriment, and the result is wonderful, unexhausted fiction…. (p. 161)

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. What I am trying to do, through all this murk, is to define certain areas of destruction."… Pictures, music, sculpture, practically anything made by the imagination can tell stories, but in conventional terms only fiction must, and Sorrentino finds that unfair. His most recent work of fiction, Splendide-Hotel, demonstrates how the novel may transcend story—how it may exist outside the world it pretends to deal with. The day-to-day passings of life provide the easiest structure for fiction, but as a form it can become so self-effacing that the sense of art may disappear. In order that a day in the life, or a slice of it, may not become confused with the work itself, Sorrentino chooses for Splendide-Hotel a completely artificial structure, the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Like a baseball game, his fiction seeks play and virtuosity within well-defined limits…. And like a game of baseball, the work of fiction "does not stand for anything else. It exists outside of metaphor and symbol," which explicitly disrupts the tradition of Malamud and Roth, who would have the baseball game—and ultimately their novels about it—carry mythical significance, along with lessons for living in our daily world.

"The poet is not an interpreter but a revealer," Sorrentino has written of Jack Spicer, in whose works things do not connect but "correspond"; and in his own Splendide Hotel he shows that "that minuscule flash, that occasion, has more value than the most staggering evasion by explanation of the real. Who will believe it?" Sorrentino's aesthetic is built around language itself, "divorced from the image" and disavowing objective as well as subjective connections, since he will not allow his egoism to impose a lie on what is "true chaos." Beware those who do. Motion exists to be frozen, time to be stopped. (pp. 162-63)

Splendide-Hotel, like all of Sorrentino's work, refuses to be a bland metafiction, recounting in second-order terms a story about another reality. It is, as the author once wrote of Hubert Selby's work, something made—"it won't go away, a new thing has been made in the world." He achieves this result by closing directly with his material, not allowing any of the "conventions" of the novel—originally designed as aids—to stand in the way. In poetry, and in the poetic techniques which spill over into fiction ("They're married," Sorrentino told interviewer Jack O'Brien), the image "is unfortunately more a concomitant of artifact than it is a way of employing the poem as a lever whereby the mind may be moved to apprehend the real." Fictional conventions are even more likely to efface rather than communicate true meaning, and to become almost Pop Art objects in themselves…. (pp. 163-64)

The genius of Gilbert Sorrentino's fiction is that while drawing out reality it ultimately stands for itself, and is therefore rich in the materials of life which will not allow themselves to be perverted into the mistruths of conventional "novelistic" signals. His work succeeds because its method controls its substance, instead of the other way around—which for all the forms of art is surprising and innovative only in the novel. A study not of things that happen but of how things happen, his fiction avoids the bland business of parahistorical reporting and instead represents the imaginative qualities of actual things, the totally artificial place where meanings reside. (p. 167)

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Gilbert Sorrentino," in his Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction (© 1975 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1975, pp. 154-67.

The Atlantic Monthly

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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

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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

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"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 so beautifully is tone of period: He has caught New Jersey in the Depression with Flaubertian accuracy. He begins (lifting with eclectic nicety from David Galloway's brilliant novel "A Family Album" of 1978, which posits its story entirely with descriptions of photographs) by meticulously describing a photograph: a technique that begins with Joyce … and is developed by Beckett. Tone of period, Mr. Sorrentino has learned, is achieved by various devices invented throughout this century by one master or another. To write his novel, he has collected and animated, without disguise, these techniques. Such boldness is in itself an experiment….

To be stuck with the label "experimental writer" is a partial blessing. Nowadays it is apt to designate an unreadable hodgepodge of pretension, dullness and tiresome cleverness. Mr. Sorrentino is, with Paul Metcalf, Kan Gangemi and Brian O'Nolan himself, the rare exception in experimental writing, an author who holds our attention and refreshes our sense of narrative.

The difference between good and bad writing is always the quality of the writer's imagination. Mr. Sorrentino's imagination is rich and fine. All of his characters are essentially types that have been around as basic furniture in novels and plays for all of his life…. It is a triumph to have reseen them so vividly, with such freshness.

The past acts as a counterweight to his experiments, an element of charm … that balances the rigor of his modernity. And he has in great measure the eternal virtues of the novelist, compassion and a good ear. The Depression, like all historical moments, had its own dialect, and for many readers the joy of this novel may be to sit back and be entertained by a man who has it down pat.

Guy Davenport, "In Late Eclectic Modern," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 10, 1980, p. 15.

Paul West

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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 buried in the stuff of their lives than they are…. A list of Marie's favorite poems reveals her awful taste, but not why she likes them—which a sensitive narrator could have explained articulately on her behalf….

The problem with this book is implicit in the title, culled from astronomy. Light from a star comes to us at a seeming angle because we are in motion across the line to the star. There may be an exact fictional equivalent for this heady bit of physics, but a rough one would have something to do with how perceiving a thing distorts it, which of course applies to narrators too. There is even a French notion that narrators who seem to know everything distort the human condition, which perhaps is why Sorrentino adopts a hands-off attitude, giving the novel over the characters' own voices, pretending to suppress the pretense that fiction's based upon. "Make what you can of this," the book implies, "it has just arrived slantwise from some Brooklyn people on holiday in a New Jersey boarding-house in 1939; it's as real as real can be." That's why Aberration of Starlight sounds as if a mediocre stand-up comedian is doing "impressions" of Brooklyn folk in a sort of boardwalk vaudeville that misses its own point.

In the end the trope from starlight seems only an excuse for as lazy a book as possible, with the narrator or sponsor tucked naively into nervous little footnotes…. Imagine what the Faulkner of Absalom, Absalom! might have done with this material and you have some idea of how uninventive American realism has become, and how little virtuosity gets a ventriloquist the label "experimental," when all he has is a twinkle in his I.

Paul West, "Charting the Course of Star-Crossed Lovers," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), August 31, 1980, p. 4.

John Morse

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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 Mulligan Stew, Aberration of Starlight is disciplined in length and form, modest in ambition, and downright decorous in tone.

Sorrentino's epigraph to this book explaining the phrase "aberration of starlight" reminds the reader that to look at the stars is fundamentally to look backwards in time. That concept is apt, for the book looks backwards in some very obvious ways. Most obvious is through subject matter. Aberration takes place in the summer of 1939…. The story is very much concerned with the texture and details of the life of that time….

It is tempting to say that the story is essentially concerned with [the people of the period] …; that, having railed against all literary conventions in Mulligan Stew, Sorrentino has now settled down to write a warm and sensitive story about four very human characters and the stresses they feel during one emotion-packed weekend in the late summer twilight of the Good Old Days (which turn out, of course, not always to be such good old days). But what stands in the way of this reading is the difficulties we face in caring about these characters. They are drawn from very familiar stock—familiar to the point of being banal. (p. 112)

What may keep readers reading the book is the formal challenge that Sorrentino has laid down for himself. For, more than anything else, Aberration of Starlight is a strictly structured collection of the disparate and varied elements that characterize the modernist style. At various points in the book we are offered the scrupulously detailed snapshot, the character beholding herself in the mirror, the question-and-answer catechism, reveries, fantasies, and shifts in point-of-view. And the whole collection is organized along a principle of literary egalitarianism that ensures that the story be retold four times, each time centered on a different character, and each time accomplished in the course of a fifty-page chapter.

The task is made more challenging because each chapter relies on roughly the same techniques utilized in the same order. (p. 113)

Such a structure ensures that the same devices be at work as each character's story is told. To borrow from the idea of the title, a similar sort of literary physics will take effect as the light from each of these characters makes its way to the reader. The structure also dictates that Sorrentino adheres to each of these narrative strategies. In this manner the book demonstrates the range and applications of the techniques of modernism. And as each of these techniques and devices is applied to the four characters, we observe how the same strategies are more or less successful for the different characters. Its is not so much that Sorrentino has brought the tools of modernism to the traditional, realistic story in order to provide added insight into character and action; it may rather be that he has used the traditional story in order to enhance our appreciation for the strengths and the weaknesses of the modernist techniques that he displays here. (If this were a dissection of a frog, we would have learned far more about the scalpel and tongs than about the frog.)

However, something more needs to be said, because many readers will probably feel no more interest in Sorrentino's techniques than they will in his characters. Many of these techniques are just as dated as the characters. The snapshot, the mirror, and the Q. and A. have lost their experimental flavor, and, unless a writer brings a new perspective to them, have entered the realm of literary cliché.

Sorrentino is probably well aware of this. It seems possible that he chose such a nostalgic story precisely to point out that the modernist techniques are as dated as the story. Yet it would be wrong to deduce from this that Sorrentino is condemning either his characters or the techniques. Though Aberration of Starlight is often satirical and ironic, a quality of good-natured nostalgia runs throughout the book, with none of the lampooning that distinguished Mulligan Stew. One doesn't grimace at Marie's mirror scene as one might if it were presented by a less self-conscious writer; Sorrentino's catalogue would be incomplete without it. And, after all, many of these devices have served writers well in the past. The feeling of nostalgia lets us look upon them not simply with impatience, but with amusement, and even fondness. Perhaps Sorrentino feels that his long battle with twentieth-century literary manners is now over. If so, Aberration of Starlight certainly offers us a gentle requiem for those manners. (pp. 113-14)

John Morse, "Gilbert Sorrentino's 'Aberration of Starlight'," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1980 by Chicago Review). Vol. 32, No. 2, Autumn, 1980, pp. 112-14.

Josh Rubins

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[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 one. And there's not a single poet or other literary sitting duck on the premises. No, this is close-up family drama, unmistakably autobiographical—the sort of material that many first novelists find themselves locked into….

This certainly could be a story Sorrentino wants to tell us, and surely it would be a mistake to let his reputation for parody become an excuse to snicker at Marie and Billy and John McGrath. Nor should the fact that he makes use of the Rashomon device—the book is equally divided, with virtually to-the-line precision, into four angles on the same events—throw doubts on his sincerity….

But Sorrentino goes far beyond what seems needed to bring out the psychological nuances in a sad, simple story. In fact … Sorrentino's "Sur-Neo-fiction" design is far more conspicuous in Aberration of Starlight than in any other of his novels….

Are we meant, then, to read this story as we do a chapter of Tony Lamont's manuscript in Mulligan Stew? Have these four people, their pigeon-hole-able imagery, and their case-history problems been set up—like Lamont's desperate lineup of literary conventions—so that Sorrentino's tough modern sensibility can come along and knock them all down? So you might conclude if you concentrated on the dialogue section in Marie's quadrant of the book. It's a conversation between Marie and a German widow, Helga (who has her eye on Marie's father), and Sorrentino annotates the women's platitude-ridden chat with smart-alecky footnotes full of multilingual allusions, weak puns, and arch asides.

This same terminally hip voice intrudes elsewhere, too—explicitly, in many of the queries and responses in the questionnaire sessions, and, implicitly, in the characters' cruelly cartooned fantasies…. At other times, however, Sorrentino seems to be playing things just about as straight as he can…. A Sorrentino aficionado might figure that the master is up to his old tricks, but on territory unworthy of his satiric powers. A less preconditioned reader might see a small but authentic situation being shredded and ornamented by a writer with a horror of his own sentimentality, with too great an investment in his stylistic tics. Just about anybody is going to be made uneasy.

Indeed, if it's a study of four people, Aberration of Starlight is no way to tell a story. Everything we learn about these four and their motives would register more effectively without the footnotes, the parodies, the put-downs, the blatant patterns—all the devices that often seem to push an already distanced treatment one step further away from flesh-and-blood, over into the frozen realm of the literary artifact where "story" is just one element in an inanimate design. (p. 63)

I prefer to read it another way. Sorrentino is telling a story. But the story is about five people, not four, and one of them is a multilingual, smart-alecky Manhattan writer named Gilbert Sorrentino who may or may not be Billy (Gilly?) Recco grown up. "Aberration of starlight," according to the encyclopedia entry provided as an epigraph here, is the distortion in an observer's perception of light from a star, a distortion caused by the observer's own velocity. If Sorrentino is the observer, his past is the star, and his own velocity—the distorting factor—is his unshakable perceptual baggage: the cynicism, the psycho-sexual sophistication, the intellectual superiority, the impulse toward dissection and derision. And all these qualities add up to the novel's fifth character, one whom Sorrentino-the-storyteller tries to regard as dispassionately as he does the other four….

[Perhaps] the brittle, authorial persona that slithers through Aberration of Starlight is not altogether to be trusted [and perhaps] Sorrentino is watching himself, with more than a little anguish and disdain, as he reflexively (defensively?) adopts characteristic postures—parodist, list-maker, designer, question-and-answer man—in order to deal with his most personal material….

When questions are asked about young Billy, too, the replies often come in paragraphs of listed sensations, memories, alternative interpretations. But unlike lists in previous books by Sorrentino, these can be hooked right up to the list-maker's pulse: his need to exert some control over swarms of emotionally charged details, to share his sense of the relentlessly accumulating data of life (and especially of childhood). Feinting and ducking, punching and running, this complex fifth character—separate from "the author" in a way no straight-forward memory-fiction narrator could ever be—finally emerges in tatters, just as much a victim of shackling circumstances and missed connections as the other four….

But if Aberration of Starlight does indeed tell a story of five characters, offering more of the traditional novelistic values—feeling, tension, atmosphere—than Sorrentino has allowed himself in years, it is also his most "experimental" fiction yet, in the sense that an experiment is something whose outcome you don't know in advance. After the bravura of Mulligan Stew, Sorrentino has retreated in order to go forward, and the high-risk/low-yield setup—something like Don Juan at the Junior Prom—is in itself strangely stirring: a writer determined to see if all the dazzling things he's learned how to do can't somehow be applied to a tiny, presumably unresolved patch of memory.

The hazards are tremendous. How much irony can you force onto a fragile situation without reducing it to powder? How much design can a story hold before it becomes a book about a design? From how many angles can you refract starlight and still remember what it looked like to begin with? Aberration of Starlight is fiction as balancing act, and it has to be said that the meeting of anti-novel and novel winds up more often flat on the ground than in mid-air. The attempt, however, is brave and fascinating, and, more than occasionally, insidiously affecting. (p. 64)

Josh Rubins, "Balancing Act: 'Aberration of Starlight'," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 20, December 18, 1980, pp. 63-4.∗

Frank Cioffi

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[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 collection of superficialities: it is a metafiction that is more vital and accessible than much serious contemporary fiction, and more mimetic than "popular" formulaic art.

The overall framework for Mulligan Stew, however, is a conventional one, revealed through letters which the main character, Antony Lamont, writes…. This is the "realistic" level of Mulligan Stew—the straightforward, poignant story of a writer struggling to "find himself" both personally and artistically.

Mingled with this conventional dramatic situation are a number of other, less usual documents that surround Lamont's life, influencing it slightly or greatly. They exemplify Sorrentino's drawing upon popular, nonliterary forms to make "art." Lists are used, as in Sorrentino's other novels, but to a much greater degree here. For example, there are five pages of book and magazine titles…. There are, in addition, examples of evangelists' advertisements; writers' school brochures; capsule book reviews; a will; phrases from publishers' rejection letters (as well as a number of rejection letters in their entirety); pornographic poetry …; and a scientific article…. Even a masque … is included. Sorrentino's "rebarbarization" [utilizing techniques from a popular or even primitive art form] is not only diverse but diachronic as well.

In addition to these often hilarious but sometimes self-indulgent parodies of commonly occurring cultural artifacts, the text and notebooks of Lamont's most recent novel, Guinea Red, are included. (pp. 140-41)

Yet the most unusual instance of "rebarbarization" in Mulligan Stew is Sorrentino's use of a science fiction parallel world to show us another side of his novelist, Antony Lamont….

This portrayal of another world interacting with the supposedly real one resembles that in much science fiction—it suggests the existence of a mythical plane (another dimension, time period, alternate or parallel world) which interacts with the depicted or implied actual world…. [This] special kind of ploy is at the center of [Mulligan Stew], and in a way subsumes all the verbal pyrotechnics which Sorrentino's other novels have displayed. (p. 142)

Sorrentino draws from three basic variants of the serious science fiction/metafiction novel: Pynchon's "realistic" fiction that seeks to uncover an informing—sometimes fictive, sometimes paranoid—structure beneath the commonsense phenomenal world (similar to much of the Strugatsky brothers' writing); Robbe-Grillet's novels that suggest there is no objective reality, only different versions of consciousness (much like the themes and concerns in the work of Stanislaw Lem); and finally the self-consciously metafictional Borgesian story that explicitly concerns writers and creators of fictions and posits an infinity of parallel universes…. (p. 143)

As in Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, an underlying and informing structure to reality is anatomized, a system whose workings are as arcane and byzantine as those of PISCES or "Achtung" or the Tristero. As in Robbe-Grillet, there are endlessly self-reflexive sections that in Flaubert's words (quoted by Albert Guerard) are "dependent on nothing external … held together by the strength of … style, just as the earth suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for support." (I am thinking of Sorrentino's extended stylistic experiments such as the chapter written entirely in Shakespearean English.) Too, as in the metafiction of science fiction, there is a sense of infinite universe. (pp. 143-44)

What finally is so impressive about Mulligan Stew is that it achieves a convincing kind of mimesis while simultaneously showing that experience is not, ultimately, transcribable. The glimmers, glints, flashes, fragments, and episodes as well as the operative para-world very much mimic the sensory bombardment an average American citizen must endure every day, complete down to the evocation of the common feeling that there must be a comprehensible system underlying this at once complex and superficial congeries of events. But still, like the characters from Lamont's Guinea Red/Crocodile Tears, the characters and events of Mulligan Stew are—the structure constantly reminds us—only a highly selective, fictionalized offering….

Mulligan Stew is, on one hand, serious fiction made more lively and interesting by its assumption of popular elements. On the other hand, it is a metafiction that parodies itself, presenting a metaphor for the fiction-writer's situation of never possibly knowing or being able to show all sides to his characters. On the third hand—this is acceptable since we are discussing science fiction here—it is a kind of fiction that has a faithfulness to phenomenal reality in a world in which we are bombarded with conceivabilities turning into actualities. But finally what Mulligan Stew most strongly attests to is that when fiction does not work under the burden of mimesis, it is freed to do exciting things. Sorrentino ends his novel with a quotation about Cezanne that no doubt explains his own aesthetic approach: "He desired a synthesis that would allow him to decorate nature with the forms and colors that existed nowhere except in his own secret thought. Thus, his last painting nowhere shows forth nature's splendors, but instead, is a failure precipitated by his surrender to the pleasures of the imagination."… Sorrentino's similar surrender is, ultimately, our gain. (p. 144)

Frank Cioffi, "Gilbert Sorrentino's Science Fiction World in 'Mulligan Stew'," in Extrapolation (copyright 1981 by Thomas D. and Alice S. Clareson), Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 140-45.


Sorrentino, Gilbert (Vol. 14)


Sorrentino, Gilbert (Vol. 3)