Description: Okay, what you weren't waiting for: STL returns, (in May, as promised!) with some thoughts on Gilbert Sorrentino's collection of stories.
Date: 31 May 2004
Written, apparently, on my 34th birthday. Sorrentino's best work is his essays, which are collected in Something Said. Perhaps one day I will blog on that work, which are one of the models for what I do here. (To the extent I have models).
In an interview, Sorrentino called Ed Dahlberg "a subversive and destructive master of prose, who is, at his best, so good that he takes your breath away. He is also zany, goofy, loopy, misogynistic, deeply prejudiced, bitter, nasty, paranoid and absolutely unfair... He is a great American writer, astonishingly original, a virtuoso without peers,and probably much too good for us." You might say the same about Sorrentino himself, and that Sorrentino is virtually unknown (like Dahlberg himself, these days) tells you something-- that he probably is too good for us too. Sorrentino was first a poet (some of his work was incorporated into Paterson 5) and a literary raconteur (he befriended Hubert Selby and Leroi Jones early in their careers--if I'm not mistaken, Last Exit to Brooklyn is dedicated to him) and went on to write a stack of novels in the last 3 decades. The Moon In Its Flight collects his occasional short stories from the past 35 years.
Not only is Sorrentino is a master stylist "irreducible" prose ( vide this interview.)--manifested in perfect, acutely observant sentences, but he's a supreme innovator whose range is apparent in this collection. My favorite mode of his work combines metafictional self-awarenesss with a conversational, seemingly off-hand tone.* He works diligently within imposed constraints, such as writing a story only in questions (he actually continued this constraint through an entire novel) or integrating popular song titles into a discursive narrative, as he does in the title story, a moving consideration of nostalgia.
To top it off (so to speak)**, the right-minded reader might find an almost moral satisfaction in reading Sorrentino. He is a cranky Jeremiah who rails at fakeness where he sees it--whether in the insincerity of self-satisfied "fine writing" or in the intellectual laziness of contemporary America. Like Dahlberg, he's not for everyone--like any prophet he can turn nasty, which he does against inconstant women of his own creation, and his art is strongly devoted to artifice, which some might find cloying, if not occasionally befuddling.
And honestly, it's not his best work. His experimental and digressive tendencies need space to develop, which probably explains why he's written comparatively few stories over the years. Those of us who cultivate "oppositional" tastes (read "snobs") get some pleasure from our sure and unprovable knowledge that time will show us right. We would surely have been enthusiastic about Moby Dick, would have bought the first edition of The Way By Swann's, etc. In 2050, GS will have readers, if anyone has readers. Once we get a full picture of his body of work, his stories won't seem major in the way that novels like Mulligan Stew or Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things already do for some of us.
*"Meta-fictional" is an over-used description of an over-used device. Thankfully, in GS it's played less often as a writer sitting at his desk writing than as a story-telling questioning himself, and checking in with and interacting with his audience.
**This bracketing of the cliche is a GS speciality--it accentuates what the cliche glosses over.