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Gilbert Sorrentino, photo by Vivian Ortiz

Gilbert Sorrentino feature:
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This piece is 1,800 words or about 5 printed pages long

Ken Bolton

Gilbert Sorrentino: an Introduction

Gilbert Sorrentino is a poet and prose writer. He has been based, except for a few stints of teaching elsewhere, in New York, where he began writing, first publishing in the late 50s. Sorrentino has also been a polemicist of great intellectual force and vigour of expression. These same qualities are found in his own work.

One thinks of Sorrentino’s prose as dividing into two strands: throughout both he is the author of hilarious comic amalgams of parody, pastiche, satire, formalist wit and of social critique. In the first he is affined with Joyce and Laurence Sterne (a fuller lineage would include Kafka, Wyndham Lewis, Nathaniel West even, and Flann O’Brien — among others). In the second strand Sorrentino presents as a much more measured, deliberating analyst of American life — observing changing ethical and moral standards — and the pressures brought to bear on them: a kind of realist.

Sorrentino’s critical writing is collected in the volume Something Said. Much of it was published in Kulchur — and in Yugen (edited by his friend Leroi Jones — now Amiri Baraka) and other small magazines of the early 60s. This writing could be used to reconstitute something of the grain of literary life at its time of writing. It produces very strong defences of many then under-appreciated writers (Selby, Dahlberg, Bronk, Blackburn and others) and damaging and accurate critiques of establishment adversaries. In particular it champions William Carlos Williams: a sequence of essays in Something Said, taken together, make a strong case for Williams and are interesting not just as that case but as a reflection of Williams’ lowly status at the time. They are also perhaps a reproach to current views of Williams as consignable to the category of the safely understood.

Sorrentino’s critical work would seem to align his own with that of Williams, not just as a poet but as prose writer, and, though he is speaking of Williams, it announces aspects of his own central thematic:

something can be kept clean, saved from the general decay. Yet it is only amid the decay that those ‘isolate flecks’ are to be found upon which the imagination can seize to perceive the reality of America. Williams’ vision is essentially bleak and tragic — nothing so fashionable as pessimistic. Here is America, the artist says. Let us investigate it and see what it is. It is dead. What has it done to its people? They are ruined. Who beside Williams, in the context of the Twenties, would say: “The pure products of America go crazy”?

Sorrentino’s poetry, through the faultily synopsizing glasses of retrospect, can seem not to fit within the main currents of The New American Poetry’s revolution, that centering as it did on Olson’s projectivism, the Beats of San Francisco and New York and, less emphatically, on the New York School: so, the spoken line, ordinary demotic speech, an interaction with/ reflection on the everyday. Sorrentino, though, is a New York writer quite distinctly of neither the New York School nor the Beats; his poetry is not patently of the Projectivist persuasion nor does he regularly attempt the immediacy of writing the poem of ‘process’.

On the other hand Sorrentino shares some of Creeley’s moral/ ethical focus and an attention to everyday American life and its intersection with sentimentality, the lie of myth and ideology, and with aspirations and defeat in the face of that life’s material circumstances. No attention to the surface of that life so much as its moral life. Like Creeley’s formal manner Sorrentino’s also serves to test words & usage, though less haltingly and in a language that is slightly less internal. Sorrentino edited the little magazine Neon and himself published in Yugen and other magazines of the time.

Sorrentino must have become known best as a novelist by the late 1960s, after the critically noted early novels Steelwork and The Sky Changes, but particularly with the succès de scandale of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. The material chosen for this Jacket feature on Sorrentino for the most part marks his reception at just that point in 1974 — by which time his reputation amongst writers outside the US was, I think, beginning to take hold. As well as the impact of his work that Vort magazine registers (Barry Alpert’s Vort is the source of the material in Jacket 29) there was appreciation among the UK avantgarde — as evidenced by, say, essays and critiques in Cambridge’s Grossetteste Review, and awareness here in Australia through Kris Hemensley’s The Ear In a Wheatfield.

Sorrentino had published regularly in US small press magazines; his poetry and novels came out with established presses and, as the interview with Alpert notes, the older journals of reputation had suddenly become anxious to feature his work.

There are four pieces in this issue from that number of Vort devoted to Sorrentino and the critic Donald Phelps. The first is an interview with Sorrentino by editor Barry Alpert. The others are an account of Sorrentino’s poetry up to that time — by Eric Mottram, the English poet and editor who was something of a conduit for the flow of influence between the then avant-gardes of UK and US writing; Donald Phelps’s response to Sorrentino’s work — which, interestingly, given that he admires the poetry so much, is aghast at the Imaginative Qualities novel; and a piece by John O’Brien, writing very much as a fan, an inductee into the world, the vocabulary, the tics and prejudices and phobic drolleries, of Sorrentino-land. Once won over by Sorrentino’s writing this is what every Sorrentino reader becomes.

The concerns, and the developing arsenal (or logic) of Sorrentino’s critical attack & formal innovation, were by this time announced and (probably) apparent — if not signalled in detail. His writing has continued to trace the depradations on its citizens of a culture out of control, caustically remarking and analysing the bad faith of its language and social mores through four or five decades now, and playing cruelly, dispassionately and uproariously with genre expectations, genre conventions and narrative norms.

Recent publications show that Sorrentino’s powers are not remotely in recession: it seems to me that Gold Fools (2001) and Little Casino (2002) are pitched as high and as rigorously as the other high points in his oeuvre — which I would take to be Imaginative Qualities Of Actual Things, Crystal Vision, Mulligan Stew, and the Pack Of Lies trilogy. The stories in The Moon In Its Flight demonstrate a range of approach, high level of achievement and continuity of themes — or perseverance of attention to these same themes — that places them up there on a par with his other writing. His poetry continues to be as irreducibly strong and non-fade as ever. (Most of Sorrentino’s backlist is in print, republished by Dalkey Archive Press, and there are newer books coming from Coffee House, Green Integer and, again, from Dalkey Archive. ‘New and Selected’ volumes of his poetry were published by Black Sparrow in 1981 and, in 2004, by Green Integer.)

Sorrentino operates — in both the poetry and the prose — partly by avowing certain things as genuine and positing that genuineness as something to stand as touchstone against the drift of standards, and to protest against — or maybe be protest against — oblivion and forgetfulness.

Or perhaps these things are mourned as they are forgotten. For example, in Little Casino, there is a brief paean to the actor Jack Carson (a favourite of mine from Strawberry Blonde, say — and Mildred Pierce, memorably emasculated in his wearing of a small, frilly apron). Carson is usually a supporting actor, sometimes second lead, wonderful at appearing as both bluff and embarrassable. There’s a similar Sorrentino declaration for the value of a Sonny Rollins tune in another part of the book. But, at the same time, a Gilbert Sorrentino work — poetry or prose — is likely to turn on just these things — as sentimentalities, as weak thinking, as emotional shirking, as at any rate inadequate — and will do so in either a vicious or pitying manner. This might take place immediately or at some later stage, or even in another work. (So reader endorsement of these avowals is always wary: wear your heart on your readerly sleeve and you’ll have it savaged!) There is no final or transcendent value allowed — and life, Sorrentino has it, will be lived in terms of these things, that are both real and spurious.

Sorrentino’s work in fact typically establishes an order of just such things and a similarly finite number of narrative turns, runs, or tropes — even mini narratives — as the counters with which it will play. These will be deployed in new formal arrangements, where their emotional valency is magnified or reduced, or reversed from negative to positive say, seen now ironically, at other times as cliché, or as ‘truth’ despite all. Irony is constant, so that phrases such as that last would be entirely within scare quotes — ‘as “truth” despite all’.

The history of these usages remains in the reader’s consciousness, depending on which of Sorrentino’s books he or she has read, how well they remember and recognize each new instance. There is a pleasure in their repetition, in the recognition.

Pack of Lies, for example, reads as revisiting the cast of Imaginative Qualities (which was itself read as a kind of roman à clef detailing the Cedar Bar scene of the late fifties). By this stage Sorrentino’s style had become so pared down and fractured: it works almost like someone recalling with a buddy celebrated weirdos and buffoons of their shared acquaintance. The work basically says, What about that nut Harlan Pardoe, eh? Eh? what about his dreadful blue suit, remember, electric blue? Priceless!

The three books in that trilogy are a series of interrogating questions as to these familiar characters, leading questions that seek confirmation but impart information: followed by answers. Then followed by retractions of those answers and a kind of spoiling, a disruption, providing an overload of information. The effect is quite delirious, and fabulously disorientating: a welter of facts and scenarios is posited and withdrawn or cast doubt upon, but they stick of course in any case.

The shorter and shorter grabs, and mini scenarios or tropes must derive from Sorrentino’s earlier use of lists. The questions of Pack Of Lies turn up working slightly differently in Gold Fools where they have an hilariously ‘withering’ tone of sarcasm and incredulity.

Every sentence in Gold Fools is a question — not so much for interrogative effect but to cast doubt and vast sarcasm on the terminology out of which the work is contstructed: a boys’ Western adventure tale, heavily, impossibly, larded with the vocabulary of the Old West — its fake archaisms — and the falsely hallowed place it has in some version of the US Imaginary as authentic, as foundational. Mulligan Stew toyed with bad, cack-handed writing (“We, as I before hinted, entered” is a favourite of mine). Gold Fools laughs somewhat differently.

The cumulative effect is terrific: it should be like constant tickling but is neither painful nor de-sensitizing.

Every sentence is a question. “Did the five adventurers finally spy the far-off gleam? Was it, according to Hank, a fire, by thunder, for sartain? Did Dick then wonder aloud whether . . .” OR “Who was the squat, hefty, stout, burly, and withal smiling hairpin of a cowpoke in the doorway?”

Is the answer to each question Guess So, Probably, Maybe, or Not Likely even? Does that render the reader complicit in the genre’s cliche, yet amused at the turns the story takes? You tell me?

Crystal Vision seems another masterpiece — and might be a recasting of Steelworks, a revisiting of the realist concerns of the former (which had been the documentation of a passing community and its ethos and ways) but in Crystal Vision turned into a very gentle and surreal fantasy, and very funny. Crystal Vision made some of the same jokes as Gold Fools, though it is centered less on just this aspect: “You made that thing that you just uttered up!” shouts one of its characters. But Crystal Vision is concerned among other things with exactly “making things up”, like Sheherazade, with the variations on and varieties of stories the characters tell each other.

American life is marked by greed and lack of tragedy, of grace, of wisdom, says Sorrentino. This, he says, was Williams’ diagnosis — and for which he has been ignored, his prose particularly, for not giving the Romantic colouring that would redeem these things for the American reader. For Sorrentino Williams showed where the 20s and 30s came from (and the 50s and 60s).

He would hope his own work does the same as Williams’ in relation to the 50s, evoking the tell-tale signs of change as the 50s grew out of the 40s (America in the 40s “became cynical and hip” says Sorrentino somewhere): and subsequently the 60s and the rest of this last century.

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