The Abyss of Human Illusion
(Coffee House Press, 2010)
The term “writer’s writer” has always made me uncomfortable. On the one hand, it can be used to refer to a talented minor author who, for whatever reason, has acquired a cult following. On the other hand, it can be employed to describe a writer who is endowed with genius and whose works therefore do not offer satisfaction in the manner to which many readers are accustomed. In the case of the late novelist and poet Gilbert Sorrentino, who seems to have received similar accolades during his lifetime, such praise amounts to an almost absurd form of understatement. Over the course of 40-plus years, Sorrentino crafted a body of work that is formidable in its stylistic variety, intelligence, humor, and beauty. He refused to pander to audiences, the literary establishment, or his peers all the way up until his death from lung cancer at age 77 in 2006, only a month after completing his last novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion. His final book serves to remind one that, even posthumously, Sorrentino remains a paragon of artistic integrity and ability.
Earlier in his career as a novelist Sorrentino became known for his raucous, over-the-top send-ups of American literary culture, particularly Mulligan Stew and, to a lesser extent, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, but, like Philip Roth, a writer of comparable gifts, in his late years he turned to producing increasingly spare, hermetic novels. It is tempting to think of this as a sign of decline. However these later works, especially Little Casino and A Strange Commonplace, both made up of loosely connected vignettes, the former taking place mainly in mid-20th century Brooklyn, the latter in some timeless New York dreamscape, possess a quiet blend of formal complexity and feeling. The Abyss of Human Illusion (Coffee House Press 2010), Sorrentino’s aforementioned final work, adopts the same general form but with a slight twist. The novel’s 50 vignettes are followed by a series of commentaries at the end of the book. These are not like the long, disconnected, and frequently nonsensical commentaries at the end of each chapter in Little Casino. They are short, direct, faux scholarly explications or responses to the primary text. Their main function is to draw our attention to the novel as an artifact, a constructed reality.
Sorrentino’s reality is culled largely from the popular songs, movies, radio shows, colloquialisms, and bric-a-brac that marked America’s Silent Generation. The commentaries explain—with discernible irony—textual references to Bix Beiderbecke, the Lux Radio Theater, Flagg Brothers shoes, long-defunct New York restaurants and stores, early incarnations of corporate products, and so on. This fleeting Americana haunts Sorrentino’s characters as they “blunder through life,” deluding themselves about everything from their artistic talents to the fidelity of their spouses. Sorrentino recycles settings, situations, characters, and themes so that the novel’s vignettes reverberate through each other. In several separate tales we encounter soldiers at some point in their basic training around the time of the Korean War. We meet a series of elderly men and women waiting patiently for death. We are also treated to more than one tale about a cuckolded husband. Perhaps the most unsettling vignettes are about artists, all of whom are failures in some way or another. In one story, an aging writer, repulsed by a friend’s recent book of poems, is led to question whether he ever even liked poetry. There are indeed, a few literal illusions, Freudian fantasies involving repressed lust and fear, such as the surreal episode in which a father and son driving through a “falsely picturesque seaside town” discover two men having sex at a construction site. Often the protagonists of the stories are nameless figures, ciphers vividly captured as they inch toward their particular doom.
All of this is delivered in a terrifyingly icy, elegant prose, as if to indicate that, although all of the characters in the novel harbor illusions, the author remains disabused of false hope and self-pity alike. To be sure, this is a novel about death, but it does not inveigh bitterly against the cruelty of life, God, or the cosmos. Its tone is best exemplified by the following authorial commentary:
“But since life is, essentially, and maddeningly, a series of mistakes, bad choices, various stupidities, accidents, and unbelievable coincidences, everything played itself out just as it should have; although a shift this way or that in this young man’s life, an evening at a friend’s house avoided, a day at the beach cut short, because of rain—anything you can dream up, the more absurd the better—would have led to wholly different results, each one of which would have played itself out precisely the way it should have. There is no way to bargain with life, for life’s meaning is, simply, itself.”
There is nothing comforting about these words, though together they make up a marvelously lucid, sinewy piece of prose. Sorrentino’s truth is unwelcome. He offers no reassurance, no heartwarming humanism, no redemption—not even in art. His work is fundamentally against the times.
The pleasure of reading The Abyss of Human Illusion stems largely from its macabre and devastating humor. In one story a man whose wife has recently abandoned him tries to console himself by receiving oral sex from a stranger on a train: “Someone liked him, even if it was this old cocksucker.” In the same story there is a reference to a “sunny, blue Los Angeles day,” which is further explained in the commentaries section as “the sort of day that rapists and mass killers come out to pursue their interests.” The preceding story revolves around the love-life of an artistic poseur, whose “rickety ‘mystique,’ (such were the times) somehow prevailed, amid the smoke and the perfected ravings of the Stones, the Dead, the Airplane, and other assorted multimillionaire rebels.” Like many of Sorrentino’s novels, this book contains several dazzlingly arrogant authorial voices and is filled with what the narrator of Imaginative Qualities calls “gratuitous opinion.” It is proof that Sorrentino showed no signs of abating his withering attacks on the mendacity, the philistinism, and the sheer stupidity of our national culture. Nor did he, in his final days, relax his artistic principles. His last book is among the finest meditations on death in American literature.