Remembering Gilbert Sorrentino

A writer of constant invention, Gilbert Sorrentino was a maverick artist who, in each of his seventeen fiction works, reinvented the idea of the novel. Entwined with this basic avant-garde helix were Sorrentino’s repeating concerns: the pretension, corruption, and fakery of New York’s art scene; the unyielding and common brutality of poverty, its propagation of sadism; mid-century, working-class Brooklyn; the ineffable artificiality of art.

His criticism and teaching—both of which he took on somewhat reluctantly—next to his fiction and poetry are necessarily smaller legacies. Yet his criticism was deadly precise, entertaining, free of rigid ideology, and generous to the suspected aims of the writer under review. His teaching likewise was legendary and as a former student, it is almost difficult to say how much I came to love Gilbert Sorrentino. And so it is to this I’d like to pay some tribute.

About twelve years ago, I took several classes of his at Stanford. One was called “Innovative American Fiction since 1950” and its reading list consisted of the heroes, mostly unsung, of experimental fiction, including (not coincidentally many of these also Gil’s friends): Walter Abish, Kathy Acker, Robert Creeley, Edward Dahlberg, Susan Daitch, Coleman Dowell, Harry Mathews, and David Markson. For us, a class of young and earnest students, each of these authors inspired a heady remapping of our literary landscapes and pointed to possibilities that had truly not been advertised elsewhere. In the midst of cultural studies’ ascendancy and in an academia dominated by practitioners of the most middle-brow fiction—Sorrentino, a working artist, was a rare and spectacular revelation.

One dazzling aspect of Sorrentino the teacher was the consistency and fluency of his oratory. Not simply that he was a brilliant raconteur—but somehow he had brought an enormous range of reading and erudition into a kind of unruffled alignment. He was not in any way “slick” or reductive; one didn’t think he was ever being disingenuous or otherwise dishonest. But there was a sense that he had mastered his views and could therefore respond to almost any question on literary matters, from discussions of the nouveau roman to the Russian formalists to Thomas Mann, with authority. Published interviews with him I think show a similar off-the-cuff clarity and eloquence. On the other hand, he was open-minded and advocated for and performed a kind of constant bricolage—readily adapting new ideas and examples into his world view.

We were completely taken with him. And it was thrilling too to realize that literary history was indeed made up out of people. He had been at the periphery of several different poetry movements—Beat, Black Mountain, New York—as well as living in the Village when painters and poets were perched stool by stool. That is, he told wonderful stories. I remember particularly his tales of going to visit William Carlos Williams—the elder poet made Gil’s wife turn around, for review—and of his going to poetry readings with his friend, the poet Paul Blackburn. Gil reported that Blackburn would always have a flask of cheap sweet liquor to get you through the often god-awful sessions.

Of course, Gilbert Sorrentino’s achievement and reputation is with his novels. To understate: it is unfortunate his writings have not garnered better and greater attention. In these works, it may be useful to note, though willfully defying the traditional form of the novel, he was clearly master of its requisite skills. He understood the problems and procedures of narrative—and would dramatize or thwart dramatization as his integrity would decide. His command of the telling detail is such that he inverts this skill into the obfuscating detail, i.e. his trademark lists. And though he positioned himself against the traditional novel’s use of characterization—or because of this position—his books teem with “fully realized” characters, which he would then use for non-traditional, at times wicked, and always astonishing ends.

Malice-engined and gorgeously sustained, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is a favorite, eviscerating with hilarity and rage the perennial poseurs of the literary scene. Another is Red the Fiend, a brutally-detailed, ring-side report of a depression era family’s mutually assured destruction. Little Casino takes a page from Williams’ Kora in Hell and while ostensibly about yesteryear Brooklyn, manages to comment upon and to mysteriously erase itself. He had many modes. Other books include his first—the bleak travelogue of divorce called The Sky Changes, the metafiction masterpiece Mulligan Stew, and the Oulipian driven Pack of Lies trilogy. If you care about the novel as art, read him. I can only repeat what others of far better authority have already said: He was one of the best we have ever had.


a good start

A Strange Commonplace
Coffee House Press

Little Casino
Coffee House Press

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
Dalkey Archive Press

Mulligan Stew
Dalkey Archive Press

Aberration of Starlight
Dalkey Archive Press

Steelwork
Dalkey Archive Press

Sky Changes
Dalkey Archive Press

Red the Fiend
Dalkey Archive Press

Contributor

Eugene Lim

Eugene Lim’s writing can be found on the Rail’s website, elimae.com and sonaweb.net. He lives in Fort Greene.

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