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Odd Number

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

ODD NUMBER contains three question-and-answer sessions involving a nameless interrogator and different informants. The first informant begins to establish the cast of characters and basic relationships. He is, however, an outsider working from documents and secondhand testimony, and speaks in halting, defensive, partial sentences. The second informant is a participant in their social circle and draws a picture of affairs and blackmail, small-time publishing and pretentious writers, art forgery schemes and pornography. Yet this informant’s sarcastic conversation becomes increasingly subjective and self-contradictory: Characters, relationships, and events seem to exchange places or repeat themselves in barely disguised form. The final informant, smug and authoritative in manner, provides a catalog of additional facts that only compounds the contradictions and suggests that there is no real mystery worth solving.

Sorrentino’s book is a pattern, rather than a puzzle, that delivers something unexpected. The characters are mere data; names and attributes are recycled from other Sorrentino books at least as far back as IMAGINATIVE QUALITIES OF ACTUAL THINGS (1971). The novel fascinates the sophisticated reader, however, even after this fact is realized and the titillation of its events wears thin. The author’s hilarious way with a well-turned cliche of deed or expression, the varied and hypnotic rhythms of his prose, and the elaborate cleverness of the web he weaves are aesthetically engaging. Story elements that are almost interchangeable resonate among themselves but refuse to jell, making a strong case for the implicit argument that a collection of data does not necessarily fix a meaning.

One character accused of plagiarism argues that all works of popular fiction are substantially the same. Sorrentino’s challenging anti-mystery novel seems to support that assertion.