Aberration of Starlight
At the Shores
In a Manhattan bookstore the other day, a knowing browser in suede picked up a copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s latest novel, turned it about in gingerly appraisal, and said to a friend: “I’ve heard that…this new book of his…, well, supposedly it…tells a story.”
The tone of surprise was understandable. After all, over the past decade this non-storyteller has become perhaps the closest thing around to a hip, neighborhood “anti-novelist”: Robbe-Grillet without tears, Barth without academic robes, an earthy anarchist who believes that anarchy begins at home. In Steelwork (1970) home was the Brooklyn streets, fifteen years of them criss-crossed by two or three dozen characters. True, the microscopic attention to that terrain’s darkest corners may have owed more than a little to Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. But the grim playfulness and compulsive pattern-making—a street kid’s nervy, shrewdly selective appropriation of the dada legacy—were Sorrentino’s own. He cut up his Brooklyn episodes into tiny chapters, fastidiously tagged them with dates, then assembled them in a scrapbook without narrative: a snippet from 1945 followed by one from 1951, then ‘42 or ‘39 or ‘50. And the range of chapter-to-chapter styles included, along with the journalistic and the free-associative, what would become Sorrentino’s specialty—the list. One hundred “facts” from pre-teen 1940 sexology. A list of thirty-five guys who hang out in Phil Yodel’s corner store (as prepared and annotated by one Eddy Beshary).
Still, these joustings with form never subverted Sorrentino’s essential nostalgia in Steelwork, and some readers could come to the end of it feeling satisfactions similar to those of much traditional storytelling. They could even, with a little enterprise and concentration, sort out the chronology, find a key character or two, and splice together a fair measure of linear development. But Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971) was a different non-story. “There’s no plot here to worry you,” Sorrentino advised. He wasn’t kidding. The game had switched from the Brooklyn streets to Manhattan lofts, and Sorrentino’s scorn for the poses of marginal artistes (poets and sculptors especially) rolled out in disjointed scenes, scabrous footnotes, parodies, and lists.
Even so, no one was quite prepared for the monstrous fun of Mulligan Stew when it came along a few years later. The new target wasn’t altogether surprising: this time the literary world, from eager-to-please novelists (avant-garde and otherwise) to venal, ignorant publishers to blathery critics. Now, however, Sorrentino was repudiating the novel’s very premises, not only the virtues of narrative but also readability and coherence—by way of a manic, grandiloquently Joycean inventiveness which itself nearly became the subject of the book. Admittedly, after two works of fiction that tried hard to get along without a hero, Mulligan Stew had one: the disappointed writer Tony Lamont, going mad while struggling to make it big with a “new wave” murder mystery.
But the crazed writer’s brainscape ultimately became just one …