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 of the dozens of conventions to be knocked down in this literary shooting gallery: there was never any doubt that it was Sorrentino’s offstage rage and mischief, rather than Lamont’s pathological condition, that generated the chaos of print piled up around the writer’s desk. Chapters (in assorted, lampooned styles) from Lamont’s hopeless manuscript. Pages from his notebooks and scrapbooks. The complaints and games and musings of Lamont’s fictional characters—who demanded fiercely independent, non-Lamont lives of their own. Letters. A Jonsonian masque. Wretched erotic poems (sent to Lamont by Lorna Flambeaux). Parodies of reviews, interviews, publishers’ catalogues, and footnoted academic discourse. Earnestly detailed answers to rhetorical questions. Lists, of course: imaginary authors and titles (sophomoric but irresistible); fifty phrases to be used in publisher’s rejection letters; thirty-one ice cream flavors at “Kreemworks.”
And, even before the title page: a presentation of the rejection letters (or convincing send-ups thereof) elicited by the Mulligan Stew manuscript; a fatuous, glowing mock-reader’s-report from Grove Press (the book’s actual publisher); and a letter from a lawyer at Hasard (Random) House—Grove’s distributor—to explain why Hasard had chosen not to distribute the book, “nor to have anything to do with that work.” That work, of course, did quite all right for itself, drawing unprecedented attention to Sorrentino’s subversive comic genius.
So it’s only to be expected that a new Gilbert Sorrentino novel is going to provoke skeptical whispers if it seems to have a “narrative”—one of the dirtiest words in the Lamont/Sorrentino world of “Sur-fiction…Ur-fiction, and Post-Modern fiction to boot.” A veteran of Mulligan Stew might do a particular double-take, too, at the new book’s title page: Aberration of Starlight is published by Random (Hasard) House. Is this the same Gilbert Sorrentino? Now that he’s buried the novel (along with most of its critics), is he back to rob the grave?
One thing is unquestionable: whether or not Sorrentino intended to be telling a story in Aberration of Starlight, he definitely has one. And there’s not a single poet or other literary sitting duck on the premises. No, this is close-up family drama, unmistakably autobiographical—the sort of material that many first novelists find themselves locked into. Moreover, the structure here is almost flagrantly shapely: conflicts and reversals and recognitions are neatly packed into a period of less than two days at a rural New Jersey boarding house in the summer of 1939. And there are only four low-budget vacationers in the Jersey foreground, all operating on approximately the same levels of reality. Marie Recco, an attractive but sexually timid divorcée. Her father-hungry, cross-eyed son Billy, age ten. Her derisive, possessive Poppa, John McGrath. Plus: a gentleman-caller-in-residence who will unleash Marie’s fantasies, raise Billy’s hopes, and yank McGrath’s incestuous gnawings to the surface—rakish, possibly swinish Tom Thebus.
This certainly could be a story Sorrentino wants to tell us, and surely it would be a mistake to let his reputation for parody become an excuse to snicker at Marie and Billy and John McGrath. Nor should the fact that he makes use of the Rashomon device—the book is equally divided, with virtually to-the-line precision, into four angles on the same events—throw doubts on his sincerity; many a hack novelist would take the same tack. After all, the tiny clutch of episodes here—an invitation to a local dance, a half-consummated car-seat seduction, an ugly 1:30 AM father-daughter confrontation, a dribble of secondhand farewells—might not support novel-length exploration from any single point of view.
But Sorrentino goes far beyond what seems needed to bring out the psychological nuances in a sad, simple story. In fact, what Horace Rosette, the Grove Press reader in Mulligan Stew, would call Sorrentino’s “Sur-Neo-fiction” design is far more conspicuous in Aberration of Starlight than in any other of his novels. Those four exactly equal sections are further divided into groups of observation angles, a gauntlet (nearly identical for all four) of literary games: an opening by an omniscient narrator; two bits of documentary evidence (an actual letter, a precisely recorded swatch of conversation); a distancing, mock-clinical question-and-answer period; fantasies (a letter full of unmailable sentiments, aglow with period clichés, a rewritten past); and a working-back, through memories, to narrative neutrality.
Are we meant, then, to read this story as we do a chapter of Tony Lamont’s manuscript in Mulligan Stew? Have these four people, their pigeon-hole-able imagery, and their case-history problems been set up—like Lamont’s desperate lineup of literary conventions—so that Sorrentino’s tough modern sensibility can come along and knock them all down? So you might conclude if you concentrated on the dialogue section in Marie’s quadrant of the book. It’s a conversation between Marie and a German widow, Helga (who has her eye on Marie’s father), and Sorrentino annotates the women’s platitude-ridden chat with smart-alecky footnotes full of multilingual allusions, weak puns, and arch asides.
This same terminally hip voice intrudes elsewhere, too—explicitly, in many of the queries and responses in the questionnaire sessions, and, implicitly, in the characters’ cruelly cartooned fantasies, some of which (Marie’s especially) have been embalmed in the stiffly goody-goody rhythms of 1930s radio domesticity and Hollywood happy endings. At other times, however, Sorrentino seems to be playing things just about as straight as he can. From page to page, in fact, it’s almost as if he’s giving his characters a good-cop/bad-cop third degree—kicking them around some, then helping them up and brushing them off, then back to the rough stuff. A Sorrentino aficionado might figure that the master is up to his old tricks, but on territory unworthy of his satiric powers. A less preconditioned reader might see a small but authentic situation being shredded and ornamented by a writer with a horror of his own sentimentality, with too great an investment in his stylistic tics. Just about anybody is going to be made uneasy.
Indeed, if it’s a study of four people, Aberration of Starlight is no way to tell a story. Everything we learn about these four and their motives would register more effectively without the footnotes, the parodies, the put-downs, the blatant patterns—all the devices that often seem to push an already distanced treatment one step further away from flesh-and-blood, over into the frozen realm of the literary artifact where “story” is just one element in an inanimate design. Steelwork, for all its dislocations and grab-bag mannerisms, never made a move that might drain the life out of its people. Aberration of Starlight—as could have been expected, considering the books that followed Steelwork—makes dozens of such moves. It can most easily be read as an exercise in mummification.
I prefer to read it another way. Sorrentino is telling a story. But the story is about five people, not four, and one of them is a multilingual, smart-alecky Manhattan writer named Gilbert Sorrentino who may or may not be Billy (Gilly?) Recco grown up. “Aberration of starlight,” according to the encyclopedia entry provided as an epigraph here, is the distortion in an observer’s perception of light from a star, a distortion caused by the observer’s own velocity. If Sorrentino is the observer, his past is the star, and his own velocity—the distorting factor—is his unshakable perceptual baggage: the cynicism, the psycho-sexual sophistication, the intellectual superiority, the impulse toward dissection and derision. And all these qualities add up to the novel’s fifth character, one whom Sorrentino-the-storyteller tries to regard as dispassionately as he does the other four.
Take that elaborately annotated conversation, for example. Anyone who’s read Mulligan Stew—approximately 80 percent of which is unequivocally hilarious—knows that if Sorrentino wants to be funny, he can be funny. But the sniggering footnotes that try so hard to make fools of Marie and Helga are ostentatiously un-funny. The satiric strategy backfires. Marie and Helga assume an odd silver of dignity while, like any nightclub heckler whose insults come out of a safe, dark corner, the voice in those footnotes finds his smug remarks boomeranging. A bizarre effect—and it is the tip-off that the brittle, authorial persona that slithers through Aberration of Starlight is not altogether to be trusted, that Sorrentino is watching himself, with more than a little anguish and disdain, as he reflexively (defensively?) adopts characteristic postures—parodist, list-maker, designer, question-and-answer man—in order to deal with his most personal material.
Is this unnecessarily devious? Perhaps. But once Sorrentino lets us in on the divided nature of his literary games-playing, the cool devices take on surprising heat. “Give me the titles of some other poems that Marie had, in whole or in fragments, by heart,” the tight-lipped interrogator suggests. The answer is a list, of course. When questions are asked about young Billy, too, the replies often come in paragraphs of listed sensations, memories, alternative interpretations. But unlike lists in previous books by Sorrentino, these can be hooked right up to the list-maker’s pulse: his need to exert some control over swarms of emotionally charged details, to share his sense of the relentlessly accumulating data of life (and especially of childhood). Feinting and ducking, punching and running, this complex fifth character—separate from “the author” in a way no straight-forward memory-fiction narrator could ever be—finally emerges in tatters, just as much a victim of shackling circumstances and missed connections as the other four. (The book’s last page quotes Brian O’Nolan’s—Flann O’Brien’s—“The meanest bloody thing in hell made this world.”)
But if Aberration of Starlight does indeed tell a story of five characters, offering more of the traditional novelistic values—feeling, tension, atmosphere—than Sorrentino has allowed himself in years, it is also his most “experimental” fiction yet, in the sense that an experiment is something whose outcome you don’t know in advance. After the bravura of Mulligan Stew, Sorrentino has retreated in order to go forward, and the high-risk/low-yield setup—something like Don Juan at the Junior Prom—is in itself strangely stirring: a writer determined to see if all the dazzling things he’s learned how to do can’t somehow be applied to a tiny, presumably unresolved patch of memory.
The hazards are tremendous. How much irony can you force onto a fragile situation without reducing it to powder? How much design can a story hold before it becomes a book about a design? From how many angles can you refract starlight and still remember what it looked like to begin with? Aberration of Starlight is fiction as balancing act, and it has to be said that the meeting of anti-novel and novel winds up more often flat on the ground than in mid-air. The attempt, however, is brave and fascinating, and, more than occasionally, insidiously affecting.
Thomas Rogers is up to a very different but equally perilous sort of balancing act in his third novel, At the Shores. Like Aberration of Starlight, this too is a memory-book, palpably autobiographical, reaching back to the late 1940s. The setting is also a lakeside vacation spot, though Rogers’s summer cottages at Indiana Shores, thirty miles across Lake Michigan from Chicago, have little in common with the Reccos’ drab boarding-house accommodations. Again the scope is small—a single summer, a crucial time for a kid who’ll probably grow up to be a writer. But while Sorrentino holds an inquisition on memory, testing for frailty and impurities with every probing, fragmenting shake-down device he knows, Rogers intends to embrace every bit of the past—and even, in fact, improve on it—through the deft marshaling of all the storytelling artillery at his command.
Adolescence. First love. First sex. First “broken heart.” First twistings away from the comfortable family niche. Jerry Engels, in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, is going to brush up against each of those milestones, and Rogers means for it all to be…well, beautiful. But idealizations of common experience are likely to meet resistance unless they’re carried out somewhat surreptitiously; we have to be half-convinced that “this is how it was” before we’ll let ourselves be fully seduced by “this is how it should have been.” And the traditional central feature of an idealized coming-of-age—an insistence on fundamental innocence, a denaturing of actual sexuality—won’t convince readers in 1980, when television toddlers in designer jeans seem to know everything that Judge Hardy could never quite manage to tell Andy.
So if Jerry Engels’s summer is to be better-than-real but never risible, Rogers needs to find a stretch of adolescent sand somewhere between Ah, Wilderness! and Endless Love. For every archetypal gesture he makes, he needs to make a dozen that plant Jerry on rough, specific, verifiable ground. One false move and the whole idyllic confection will turn into treacle. Fortunately, Rogers has the narrative abilities required for such a chancy proposition, and his near-fable has the textured authenticity of a photo-essay.
The too-true-to-be-goodness is tempered—but never negated—by the kinks in Jerry’s character: his narcissism, his flirtatiousness, his passion for women of all ages (with just the slightest dark shadow over his attachment to his older sister Anne). Operatic flights are brought down to size, tenderly, with moments that capture the drifty, fickle nature of adolescent attention: in the midst of a careening life-and-death meditation, Jerry finds himself face to face with a blueberry bush and happily transfers his energy to a burst of berrypicking; Jerry’s lyrical suicide attempt (after his heart has been duly broken by guilt-ridden girlfriend/lover Rosalind) is cut short when he thinks of the lambswool suit just bought at Marshall Fields (“The pants were being altered for him now. Abruptly he stopped swimming”). And, most importantly, the dangers of free-floating romanticism are averted by some genuine eroticism and concrete sexual detail, though the fierce selectivity here does tend to draw attention to the idealizing process. (There are no dirty words in Jerry’s sexual world, and only the most reluctant, oblique references to masturbation.)
Again and again Rogers’s substantial gifts—comic, intuitive, evocative—neatly conspire to bring Andy Hardy and O’Neill’s Richard Miller thoroughly up to date. When Jerry’s near-perfect mother attempts to comfort her mysteriously mopey son, Rogers tells us that Jerry “felt like throwing himself into her arms and sobbing out, ‘Oh Mom, I’m so horny.”‘ That’s a lesson in how to revalidate an archetypal scene with one piercingly specific, immaculately chosen detail.
A lot of readers will no doubt welcome At the Shores as realistic fiction—simply one young man’s story vividly remembered and re-created. Rogers is, after all, a far gentler juggler of conventions than Sorrentino, but for both of them writing a novel seems to have become the equivalent of taking a dare. You’d think that would be true of most any novelist; it isn’t. These two books have an inner motion, a sense of risk, that you’ll find in very little recent fiction.
December 18, 1980