Gilbert Sorrentino feature:
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This piece is 3,200 words or about 6 printed pages long.
This piece first appeared in VORT (Gilbert Sorrentino/ Donald Phelps Issue), Vol.2, No 3, Fall 1974 (NY and Maryland, USA) — republished here with the kind permission of VORT editor Barry Alpert and John O’Brien. John O’Brien is the publisher of Dalkey Archive Press.
A severe room at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Uncomfortable, poor acoustics, packed with bearded, blue-jeaned students and professors. Perhaps a few ambitious editors of ‘avant-garde’ magazines. A Conference on the ‘Imagination’. In front, blocked by countless heads, sits the panel: a grizzly yellow haired man who says he “destroys art” (I have no doubt that he at least damages it). Next to him is a slim, half-smiling, always half-smiling “young” (42 yrs. old) novelist who’s in vogue, the novelist one reads after he graduates from Vonnegut and Brautigan, after one puts these aside as aberrations of his adolescence. This man knows that he’s a novelist in vogue whom people read after they put aside Vonnegut. Next a quiet young professor who orchestrates the panel. Then an ‘artist’ (painter, sculptor, photographer) whose beard, when I could manoeuver enough to get a glimpse of it, seems to slide from his chin to under the table and perhaps even out to the edge of the audience. He’s been through this before. A professional of such conferences. He knows how to get the cheap laughs. His profession, while not indulging in his own artistic pastimes, is to make fun of other artists. Next and last, in tie and navy blue corduroy suit: Gilbert Sorrentino. Until he’s asked to speak he sits looking almost ill. When he does speak, the room becomes uneasy. A shuffling of feet. He says things like: “Artists are stupid people. When a writer begins to talk to you about politics, walk the other way.”
An elderly professor and frustrated novelist from the back of the room waves his arms in protest: “We must return to the beautiful chaos of the pre-Socratic world.” Sorrentino grimaces: “The pre-Socratic world was Egypt where the Nile divided the world in half. The living on one side and the dead on the other. It was the most ordered of worlds.” The elderly professor and frustrated novelist, lowering his hands, returns to his seat.
If one is in the in-in-in group these days, he knows that ‘imagination’ is what the critics are talking about. The word is to signify something about the work of Vonnegut, Kosinski, Pynchon, Sukenick, Barthelme, and the whole host of the ‘new fictionists’ who are being taught in English classes devoted to ‘experimental’ fiction. Perhaps like the word “existential” which numbed the minds of university folk ten or fifteen years ago and which meant almost anything an undergraduate wanted it to mean, the ‘new fictionists’ seem to include anyone who does not write novels like those of Theodore Dreiser or Charles Dickens. The group embraces some very bad and some very good writers. The critics of this new fiction are, in fact, usually quite indiscriminate. “Good” is synonomous with “different.” They also lack an historical sense. If Laurence Sterne were to publish Tristram Shandy today, he would be called a ‘new fictionist.’ If William Carlos Williams published today, he would be called ‘new’. And to these critics, who seem to have grown out of the novel-is-dead hysteria of twenty years ago or so, anything not ‘different’ is bad. Thus we have novels which we must turn upside down, sideways, inside out to be able to read. Or there are the ‘concrete’ novelists. In the case of someone like Eugene Wildman, the ‘concrete’ best describes the dead weight of the language. They are also called ‘innovative’, ‘anti-fictional’, ‘sur-fictional’. At the root of this proliferating terminology is ‘anti’ or ‘new’. And at its roots is a great deal of sham, shoddy writing, beggardly imaginations, and talents which would be better spent teaching freshman composition or carrying political posters.
There are resemblances in all this to what was happening among the Beat poets of twenty years ago. There is among these writers a certain transactional-therapy-sense (I’m ok you’re ok). Both the critics and the writers seem to say, “If you say you like me, then I’ll say I like you.” It’s rather pathetic. A recent novel by one of these avant-garde people had as its saleable feature the fact that it forced the reader to accelerate his reading as the chapters of the book became shorter and shorter. At last the book disappears, the most generous gesture the author could make and one which I wish he could have accomplished much sooner. But, they say, Great! Something new! A BOOK THAT DISAPPEARS! Extraordinary’. How new, how innovative, how anti-fictional!
Gilbert Sorrentino is not a ‘new fictionist.’
Pretension is the subject of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. Pretension in art is deadly. It destroys the very fabric of a work. Corrupts it. Makes it become a lie. (One might add that pretension is the endearing earmark of almost all the most critically proclaimed novels since World War II. Our popular novelists, the subjects of many a dissertation.) In previous days, one could talk of such stable things as characterization and plot in determining whether or not a work were honest. One could pinpoint where an author was faking it with a character, where a plot faltered because an author wanted effect rather than integrity. One could say such things about what we call ‘realistic’ novels. It was easier to spot dishonesty in such novels; the blunders were more obvious; the evidence easier to establish. No more.
In the age of ‘meta-fiction’ we are forced to encounter each novel on its own terms because (one must assume) each novel tries to create its own terms. One hesitates to say, “It’s bad.” For that matter, one hesitates to say, “It’s good.” If criticized, any ‘experimental’ novelist can defend himself by claiming that the critic did not understand the terms of his novel; or, he can complain that the critic doesn’t like anything new. Alas, however, much of what we think of as ‘new’ is only as new as Ovid, Homer, and Dante. If these writers know what they are doing, they readily admit their heritage. If they do not know what they are doing, they try to disguise their ignorance and/ or failure by hiding behind their uniqueness.
We have today many really bad, officious writers who think and perhaps (sadly) believe that they are doing something important. These are pretentious people who write pretentious fiction. Though, as I’ve said, they are more difficult to uncover, their emptiness shows through. Unfortunate though it may be, they cannot escape the test of words. That is to say, they cannot escape the test of style. When all the other conventional tests have gone by the board, style remains. Sometimes these writers are capable of a few sustained passages of decent prose, but they are incapable of a coherent book.
One also soon discovers about such writers that they often use their ‘art’ for other reasons. Money, fame, flowers, adulation, admiring under-graduates. A good review, usually written by a friend, in the NY Times.
It is with such pretension that Gilbert Sorrentino is concerned in Imaginative Qualities.
This might be the title of an article to appear at some future time, based, as so much of literary criticism is, upon the principle that a writer ‘progresses.’ Thus such articles begin: “Had the war not robbed him of his promising career, he certainly would have become one of the major poets of our time. The problems that his juvenilia raises remain only problems, brilliantly pin-pointed but never resolved. The adolescent has not yet matured. He would have become . . .” Without such notions of progressions literary critics would be out of business. It gives them a handle with which to test a writer. Wither did his vision go? Usually these are people who are concerned with ‘themes,’ with meaning, with what is being said. The writer begins ignorant, then ‘progresses’ to a vision. Or, he does not progress; thus, a failed writer. These are the people who make a living and an academic reputation writing on the ‘development’ of Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner. Or, on the decline of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the writer of only one mature book (Tender Is the Night did not speak to its times). Gilbert Sorrentino is disturbing. No marked progression. At least, nothing easily identifiable. Not, in other words, a Saul Bellow whom critics, let’s say, can identify as moving from fragmentation to wholeness. ‘From Darkness to Light: Darkness and Lightness Imagery in the Novels of Saul Bellow.’ Let me cite the thesis of this remarkable piece of criticism: “Saul Bellow transcends the absurdist despair of his early work to impinge upon a world of light where man, while yet restricted by his precarious place in history, still can affirm and define a self at the root of his seemingly chaotic experience.” Unlike our National Book Award winners, Gilbert Sorrentino does not speak to our times, sheds no light on our politics, gives neither hope nor despair to our youth, does not, alas, give critics and teachers materials with which to work. This is the critical fallacy that every good writer produces one major work against which the others are measured. Gilbert Sorrentino will never, I suspect, be taken up by the critical industry. It is difficult, unless one fabricates transitions (which is easily enough done) from one book to the next, to talk of his development. He has the special gift of launching into new waters with each book. Were he to write The Return of The Splendide-Hotel, he might, perhaps, arouse critical attention. Or, were he to write a ‘compassionate’ novel in which pseudo-artists were suddenly made objects of pity (i.e. “life is hard and one gets by, sometimes nobly and sometimes not, as best he can”), more than a few critics might take to pen and paper. To write, alas, on the progression of Gilbert Sorrentino.
And if there is no such progression, what is one to talk or write about? What could they do but speak of style, the texture of the prose, structure? In other words, his ‘art.’ And to speak of such things, except as mere ornaments of theme, one would need to have been raised in a tradition of American literature which did not view Bellow- Updike- Salinger- Mailer- Malamud et al. as the bearers of the American literary tradition.
1. That he is a defrocked Jesuit priest who was involved in under-ground anti-war activities during the Columbia uprisings of the 1960’s. Confronted with the choice by his Bishop of being either exiled to a Cistercian monastery in northern Iowa or allowed to be an artist, he chose one or the other. It is further rumoured that “Gilbert Sorrentino” is a pseudonym for a Cistercian monk who, for obvious reasons, cannot reveal his true identity. I’ve never met the man, so I cannot say whether there is any truth to this rumour. The crankiness of his novels might lend some weight to the suspicion that indeed he is a monk in disguise;
2. That he wrote himself out after The Sky Changes. His tour de force, they say. But how does one respond to such a rumour? Why would they seize upon that novel for such distinction? The reason is all too apparent. There is a ‘content’ to that novel, something that one can talk about. Indeed, something that one can teach. After it he seemed to go off the deep end. His novels became . . . what shall I say? . . . private. Steelwork is rather arbitrarily structured and thus lacks a certain directness that one would like in an urban novel. Imaginative Qualities, though uproariously funny at times, is pure blood-letting. The characters, though purposely cardboardish, are cardboardish (“isolate flecks,” one might say). Splendide-Hotel is cute, too cute. Filled with inside jokes, and, again, so artificially and arbitrarily structured. Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo is utterly obscure. All words and decorations. In other words, he went off the deep end. Critics, friends or enemies who might say that G.S. has written his one and only important novel are those who are enchanted with The Great Gatsby because it captures the “sense of the 1920’s.” Or, they are those who, when they think or write about Hemingway, like him because he had the “earth move.” Though they might shade their true feelings by giving some attention to other matters (such as style, tone, and structure), they are people who use literature as a substitution for life or ideas. They like the ideas of Fitzgerald or Hemingway. So, though they may like writers whom they have every reason to like, they admire them for the wrong reasons. These are really dead people who would be better off in group therapy than in literary criticism. Alas, however, they are our ‘greatest’ critics; if not ‘greatest’ themselves, they possess the sentiments of our greatest critics.
3. That Gilbert Sorrentino will be America’s next Kurt Vonnegut. One can imagine America’s college students cherishing a copy of Steelwork the way they do or did Slaughter House Five. One can imagine this only if one has never been acquainted with America’s college students. One might, however, envision the time when Gilbert Sorrentino would appear alongside Donald Barthelme in The New Yorker or alongside others in Partisan Review. That bespeaks only something of the absence of taste of such publications. Recognition has little to do with merit.
1. That he has been forced to live in the mid-west where the folks are hicks.
2. That he will be America’s next Kurt Vonnegut.
3. That America will understand what he is saying.
4. That he should have to teach for a living, surrounded by earnest students and professors with answers.
5. That Hugh Hefner would invite him to stay at the Playboy Mansion on State Parkway in Chicago.
6. That someone should detect a note of relevancy in his work.
Talking to bartenders, until they all became unemployed Ph.Ds.
An anecdote from Sheila Henry which she later turned into a poem: “Stretching out his arms toward the ineffable moon, the imperishable, timeless moon that hung like a wafer above the gentle black waters that wafted Milwaukee’s shores on a breathless November evening, he asked, “Is this Lake Erie?”
“If so you be the authenticated sage
Of our epoch, why aren’t you all the rage?” —
If one wants to be quite accurate, one need see his sense of fiction or literature in a direct lineage from, among others, certain Renaissance dramatists, 18th century novelists, late 19th century poets, Pound, Charles Olson, Flann O’Brien, Wyndham Lewis, and, of course, William Carlos Williams. I should add Joyce and Ford Madox Ford. I do not speak of these as influences but rather a similarity in intention or a shared sense of what literature is. One need only read these writers to see the lineage. Gilbert Sorrentino is a man with a past. He is not a phenomenon of the 1960s. Like Williams, he could have written his fiction in the 1920s; or, like Sterne, in the 18th century. He, therefore, presents some problems for critics who want to understand, not so much him, but his ‘place’ in the 20th century. These are critics who, as I’ve said, believe that art, like technology, progresses.
Eddie Beshary: ‘I Remember Gil.’ Village Voice.
Irving Howe: ‘Steelwork and the Politics of the Urban Novel.’ Antioch Review.
James Mellard: ‘The Myth of the Returning Building: Arthur Hailey’s Hotel and Gilbert Sorrentino’s Splendide-Hotel.’ Journal of Popular Culture.
Helmut Gerber: ‘Gilbert Sorrentino and George Moore’s Architectural Imagery.’ The Explicator.
Raymond Federman: ‘Pre-Socratic Chaos and the Lovely Shapelessness of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Novels: An Autobiographical Note.’ Partisan Review.
Ihab Hassan: ‘Paraplegianism of Don Juan: Metempsychosis in the Fictions of Gilbert Sorrentino.’ Milwaukee Sunday Journal.
Chicago Review Editors: ‘We Don’t Understand Him But He Sure Do Make us Laugh.’ Chicago Review.
Charles Pennel: ‘A Bibliography of Gilbert Sorrentino.’ Vanity Press.
Gil Upon The Shore.’ Sheila Henry. Poetry Magazine.
‘Speculative, experimental, innovative, meta-fictional, avant-garde, sur-fictional.’
Academics; dishonest writers; Irish cops; the great mid-west; people who criticize New York City because of its crime; writers with ideas; ambitious young writers who want to know if they can make a living at writing; those naive folk who speculate on how art can offer them a better life; the romantic young or not so young; and critics who call him “speculative, experimental,” etc.
One, quite perceptively, called him a “crank.” Another complained that had Sorrentino not let his style and structure get in the way, Steelwork would have been quite a good novel; in other words, had Sorrentino been James T. Farrell he would have been a good James T. Farrell. A point well taken. Another perceptive critic called him a “dark figure” who looked like a “disciplinarian at an all-boy Catholic high school.”
“America does not know what I am doing.” Another point well taken, but one which has gotten him a reputation as a ‘crank.’
1. A disciplinarian at an all-boy Catholic high school.
2. A stand-up comedian.
3. The editor of an underground avant-garde literary magazine with a circulation, including gratis copies, of 125.
4. The former editor of such a magazine.
5. The left fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, snaring flies under a lazy summer sun.
6. A bar tender in a local New York corner bar.
7. A critic of the ‘new fiction.’
8. A practitioner of the ‘new fiction.’
9. A popular reader of his ‘new fiction’ on college tours where young co-eds with aspirations would ask him how he makes a living.
10. A spokesman for a radical group of political writers whose company was infiltrated by an undercover FBI agent disguised as Gregory Corso.
11. A sentimental novelist who novel after novel recounted the good old days in Brooklyn and who demonstrated a marked progression in his novels from gentle despair to loving nostalgia.
12. A diocesan priest in an Italian neighborhood where on Saturday afternoons he would hang his black robes on a fence to relive his days on the Dodgers. The rough kids would call him “Fader Gil,” and, later that afternoon, he would absolve them their sins of the flesh in the musty dark of the confessional.
13. A charismatic politician.
14. A wealthy writer.