rev. of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentinoby
Ho-hum Jesus Christ people are still putting out 200-page prose pieces and calling them novels. Even the publisher gets the joke; the wrapper looks like the kind of mimeographed permission-sheet an editor might put on a manuscript before it went to Production. A description of the jacket front panel labelled "jacket front panel" . . . mirrors within mirrors. "Well if it's not a novel what is it?" I hear myself asking. It's your combination parody of a roman-a-clef and augustan scourge is what it is. The way this is your combination review and exercise in different tones of voice.
Sorrentino's virtuosity as a prose stylist invites this sort of arrogant, frivolous treatment. I've read' the book three times and I cannot remember the characters or who they are in what your grandmother called real life.
The narrative is hung with dazzling insouciance on the sexual couplings of the New York Literary World (Little Magazine Class) of the fifties-sixties. These are literary people, you understand, and therefore dissolute, fumbling, incompetent, lecherous, infantile, impotent, braggarts, tricksters, clowns. Sorrentino despises them as characters in his book (because of their slavish adherence to cliches about themselves) and despises them as people (the complete frauds because they are complete frauds and the rest because they "sold out" or gave in or gave up or somehow compromised their gifts or some such romantic rubbish). In the process of despising his characters and the mechanics of narrative fiction he manages to despise the reader for his common mind and expectations. This more general venting of emotion leads easily to Sorrentino's despising a number of people whom he feels free to name: Tom Clark, Clayton Eshelman, Robert Kelly, Robery Bly, John O'Hara (?) George Plimpton (Gil goes
after the biggies) Vladimir Nabokov . . . And there are abstract classes of people for whom Sorrentino wants to document his contempt: the rich, of course, and reviewers, of course, and Europeans who attempt to describe or explain the United States of America, and, of course, academics. And lordy does he hate journalists; his talk about journalists puts me in mind of how Henry James might react to Alice Cooper.
You probably think that Gil Sorrentino is some kind of aesthete now. You wonder well what does the guy
like fa chrissake? I'll tell ya what he likes. He likes Bill Williams and he likes baseball and he likes jazz. As a matter of fact, what comes through from behind Sorrentino's virtuoso prose and arrogant tone is a very common mind. He comes across as a sort of Charles Bukowski manque; a crude soul ruined in youth by a decent education. (That probably sounds unkind but it's not meant so; I love every man and woman on Earth who practices the serious play of literature.)
To the extent that the book is a parody of a roman-a-clef it is rather interesting. Sorrentino plays with conventions nicely but with an unfortunate edge of contempt (unlike Ronald Sukenick, who plays with them lovingly or John Barth who plays with them in his crisp, prissy brain-surgeon manner). To the extent that it is an actual roman-a-clef I should say that like most sentimental people Sorrentino is cruel. To the extent that it is an augustan scourge sermon it bombs. Despising fraud, venality, and incompetence is as interesting as praising integrity, generosity, and genius. Not even Jean Genet would praise incompetence; not even Hitler would denounce genius.
Now I've said all the bad things about this book I want to say. Now I want to say a few good things. It is
a funny book. Edmund Wilson would have written: it
is a funny book. (He would have been right.) The non-literary reader will take Sorrentino's pastiches to be far broader than they really are. The literary world is full of quacks and fools just like every other profession; it is a shame that literature is so unpopular just now if only because the general public is missing its clown and fraud component, its Nixons and Muskies, its Alice Coopers and Jane Fondas. If Sorrentino's mind is at bottom rather a common one his rage at clots is no less genuine. He has by publishing this book openly proclaimed himself a crank. And you wanna know who today's crank is. And I'll tell ya. Today's crank is tomorrow's genius. That's who today's crank might be. Who cares?