Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
The Abyss of Human Illusion
By Gilbert Sorrentino
(Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2009)
Review by Jim Feast
When Gilbert Sorrentino approached Barney Rosset, his boss at Grove Press, with the MS for what was to become Mulligan Stew, he had a number of problems with the text, the most upfront one (at least in terms of position in the book) was that he couldn’t select a title. That was left up to Barney.
I don’t mean that Rosset came up with the name “Mulligan Stew,” but rather – as he mentioned when we were discussing my reviewing Sorrentino’s last book, The Abyss of Human Illusion, for Evergreen – that “Gil” couldn’t make up his mind on which title, of the few he had come up with, to put on his magnum opus.
Since Stew was the only Sorrentino book Grove ever published, and Rosset had a lot to say about it when we discussed this review, perhaps it would be fitting to center my discussion both on Abyss and Stew, as a way to make large statements about Sorrentino’s career in line with what you will see were Rosset’s large (and extraordinary) judgments.
But before getting to that, let me add a personal note. Having been a copy editor for about two decades when (some six years ago), I came to help Rosset with his autobiography, little did I know that Rosset’s loft would be my editorial finishing school for, working closely with him, observing (and trying to imitate) his quick eye and sure hand on the blue pencil, I learned more of the craft of copy editing in a few months than I had in the previous few decades.
But where did Rosset serve his own apprenticeship? While I suspect some of his skills were honed in editing film, where he got his start, one book on which he greatly honed his skills was Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew. As he said, “I worked more on revising that book than any other. I remember editing it for weeks.”
The author and editor clashed on certain points (which I will get to below), but on the whole Rosset saw Stew as a worthy addition to the Grove library.
But how, I wondered, did Rosset assess Sorrentino’s overall career? As we sat in his kitchen, Rosset opened up. “Gil had real talent, but he never quite … Theoretically, Gil had enormous talent, yet it never fully flowered.
“And here’s a curious thing. He was surrounded by people who acted as if -- and he had an aura as if -- it had flowered. You see, he presented himself as if he had delivered on that promise. Yet he never did. In his whole life, he never did.”
I commented, “You could say that about a lot of contemporary American literature.”
He returned, “That is contemporary American literature.
We went on from there to other subjects, so it is hardly my place to extrapolate the details of what Rosset meant by his remarks about Sorrentino’s lack of fulfillment. Instead, on the way to reviewing Abyss, let me offer my own understanding of Sorrentino’s great gifts and his partial failure to take advantage of them.
1 The Two Rules
A great (or even a good) novel should do two things:
1) Render a somewhat integrated view of society and its historical underpinnings, even if this is done in an oblique form as Beckett did in Godot (or so Rosset argues in an memoir in Conjunctions 53, to which I will return).
2) Set out the problems of the characters in a way that taps into the historical problems of a social group, something obvious in writers such as Chekov or (or to take the U.S.’s greatest 20th century novelist) Faulkner.
Let’s see how Sorrentino stacks up on these counts, which, I think, can best be done via comparison.
2 A social world
American satire, as opposed to, say, French, and stretching from Melville to James (of The Bostonians) to Updike and Tom Wolfe, has been predominantly a conservative’s game, and Sorrentino is no exception here. He focuses on issues such as the dangerous excesses of the 1960s and often describes (as he does in Mulligan) a U.S. society unhinged by sexual license and feminism. To get a better grasp of this, let me contrast his book to a similar conservative diagnosis, this time referring to Britain in the ’20s, a nation which is depicted as collapsing due to gender bending and feminism, namely, Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God.
Briefly, Lewis’s novel focuses on the parties and salons of upper crust London “Apes” (his code word for rich dilettantes who fancy themselves creative forces). As he describes their genesis, “The traditional ‘Bohemia’ has changed radically since the War. The reason is this. Everyone who is able to afford to do so has become a ‘bohemian.’ … Paris where there are incomparably more people living on familiar (and naturally contemptuous) terms with Art than anywhere else is in reality a very large club of the well-to-do.”
The shy hero of the book, Dan, is a Candide guided through this menagerie by cynical practical joker Horace Zagreus, and suffers such mishaps as being mistaken for a male model and forced to strip by a lesbian painter, getting booted from a party when Zagreus ranks on the hostess, and being forced to dress as a girl at another party when his scanty (but male) masquerade costume is accidentally lit on fire.
Lewis’s portrait of the spoiled juvenile antics of the haves is cruel, hilarious and jazzy, but underlying the depiction is another meaning strata. It emerges that, in the author’s view, the collapse of standards and ethics does not stem from laxity but is the consequence of the war. As one character puts it, “If within a decade and a half you massacre ten million people in war and another ten million in civil war, it is not easy after that to return to a morality that regards it as wrong to pocket a salt-spoon.” Even so, if this is partial justification, the particular way the reaction against the carnage unfolds is duplicitous. As Zageus explains, “Both the sex-war [feminism and anti-feminism] and the child-parent-war [the generation gap], each of them advance with a romantic bitterness their bogus claimants for the honour of being the arch villain of the European-War. The authentic villain [a state/big business alliance] rubs his hands I should think as he looks on.”
In this passage, the theme of the work appears rather baldly, but I want to suggest that it is Lewis’s understanding of this complex causation, where one conflict appears in a puerile form because it conceals another, justifies Lewis’s unstinting criticism of the elite’s childish antics and guides his highlighting of the silliness of their parties and petty rivalries.
In Mulligan, Sorrentino is not so forthcoming about what has perverted society, although he gives some broad hints in the intrusive The Masque of Fungo. In fact, at one point I strongly agreed with Rosset, who told me he strived in vain to get Gil to eliminate the Fungo play script, which Sorrentino had published separately and which is inserted rather like a sore thumb into Mulligan. On reconsideration, though, Fungo appears to me the fullest expression, or should I say the “baldest,” of Sorrentino’s theme. The playlet recounts how the sex world has gone out of joint because once master batsman Fungo can no longer play baseball with this previous vigor. It is also hinted that he is not performing well with the ladies. In two senses, then, he can no longer get to first base.
With Fungo out of the game, promiscuity reigns. A nymphomaniac insists a man “get down” with her right in the middle of the baseball diamond … during a game! Susan B. Anthony, in the meantime, drops her stays and ruts away in lesbian abandon. Only when Fungo, inspired by male icon Lou Gehrig, regains his power as a slugger, do women cool off and return to chaste domesticity, Anthony (with some irony on the author’s part to be sure) even donning a girdle. “There!” she says, “Suitably bound once more by these cruel unmentionables that make us true women, I stand modestly among those who honor Mister Fungo.”
However, a masque is an idealized fantasy. In the novel’s real world, licentious vixens run riot. In the novel within the novel, the hero Ned Beaumont meets two porn-peddling Mexican strumpets, Corrie Corriendo and Berthe Delamode, who strip him of his fiancé, funds and dignity. And there are no masculine figures, no Fungos, to save him. Certainly, not the author (of the novel within the novel) Anthony Lamont whose lack of masculinity (compared to that of this brother-in-law Dermot Trellis who is writing a manly, rough-and-tumble Western, but despises Lamont) is shown by how he fumbles the one romantic interaction he gets involved in. After the fact, he apologetically writes his date, Lorna Flambeaux, that “my attempt to ‘force’ you into a cab and thence to my studio” was only a playful gesture, though it resulted in his finding himself “struck by your umbrella and then your handbag … knocked into the gutter.”
Certainly, Lewis doesn’t offer a way out either, but one can be pieced together through an understanding of the genesis of the dilemma (the war). In Sorrentino, exactly how women got so much power over men and what social features contribute to maintaining their status are left blank.
And such a lack of historical recreation, I claim, translates into the very thin social architecture of Mulligan’s narrative. So, to give one instance of this, unlike the books Mulligan creatively borrows from, particularly, Ulysses, At Swim Two-Birds, and Lolita, his novel has little ballast in material life. Lamont publishes book after book without selling any copies or having any other visible means of support (such as a grant or an inheritance). Joyce, O’Brien or Nabokov would never be this careless with economics.
But let’s look at Abyss, the book being reviewed, although it might seem I’ve forgetton it. This volume, too, is lacking in a broader clarity. At one place, the author remarks, “Life is, essentially, and maddeningly, a series of mistakes, bad choices, various stupidities, accidents and unbelievable coincidences,” and in “XX” he renders the accidental nature of reality salient. The story tells of the life of young G.I. who miraculously escapes an accident in a careening car only, a short while later, to have this happen. “He died in a monstrous blooming rose of blood and fire outside of Munsai-ni, under a mortar attack.”
The contrast to Lewis couldn’t be more striking. In Lewis, men died in the trenches because of the actions of powerful forces, such as the chauvinist states, but in Sorrentino, things just happen.
But such accidents in Abyss are complemented, though at first they might seem unrelated, by other plot lines in which mundane people have mediocre fates. In “XXXVI,” for instance, a poet, recognizing his lack of talent, becomes a professor, eventually winning a minor reputation as a translator, and ending up eking out his time in this way: “The professor now teaches but one course a semester, a freshman seminar in the English Decadence, in which he assigns his own book.”
This line complements the other in the following sense. If an author has not, as Sorrentino has not, forged a personal view of society’s organization and its genesis, the writer has to fall back on taking its workings to be inscrutable (“various stupidities, accidents and unbelievable coincidences”) or to be set in common-sense patterns (like the one the professor follows, achieving exactly what his qualities determine he should).
But is this really such a shortfall? After all, a novelist doesn’t need to be a sociologist, does she or he? The answer lies in the examination of the second needed trait.
3 A social group
I should emphasize that my two aesthetic points are not to be taken as criteria, ones used to judge a work of art, but as sine qua non’s. As I see it, without these features, a novel cannot be great; but having them itself does not make a book good. Such goodness or greatness comes from secondary features, such as plotting, language mastery, creation of interesting characters and other aesthetic elements, all of which Sorrentino’s books had in full measure. His problem, I am arguing, has more to do with initial conception, not his execution, which was always fiery, spirited and brilliant.
The second sine qua non for a novel is that of taking up the possibilities and actions of a social group going forward. This is quite clear in Faulkner as he chronicles the displacement of the traditional upper classes, such as the Comptons in The Sound and The Fury; the rise of the nouveau riche, such as the Snopes; and the struggles of the poor white trash to stay afloat, as in As I Lay Dying.
No one would dispute this or even, I think, the presence of such issues in those I take to be our three great post-1945 novelists: Ellison, Heller and Morrison. But let’s take a more complex case, and, again, I am referring to Beckett. In Conjunctions, Rosset writes about Godot:
During the German occupation of Paris, Sam [Beckett] and Suzanne [his companion], who were part of the Resistance, and were in danger of arrest by the Gestapo, went to the South of France and hid out on an isolated farm … For three years in the Vaucluse, Beckett and Suzanne were mostly alone, and I get the feeling of their being bored with each other, and not knowing how to pass the time … The heart of Godot must be inextricably intertwined with all of this.
Let me remind the reader that when the Resistance group to which Beckett belonged in Paris was betrayed, 50 members were arrested, many sent to concentration camps, and Suzanne herself was picked up by the Gestapo but bluffed her way out.
So, to paraphrase Rosset, Waiting for Godot pictures (in an abstracted form) the options of the displaced lower class in a situation of war and dislocation.
In the complementary words of the always pithy and articulate literary critic Terry Eagleton:
Beckett, then, was one of the few modernist artists to become a militant of the left rather than the right. … What we see in his work is not some time-less condition humaine, but war-torn twentieth-century Europe.
Now Mulligan Stew, to return to Sorrentino, as suggested, also in a very abstracted form, describes the dilemmas of the upper middle class as they strive competitively for position, mostly by wielding cultural capital. However, this group is being undermined by disruptive, déclassé elements, such as the two sisters and a “nut case” psychic who contacts Lamont.
Again, to clarify Sorrentino’s approach, let me call on an example, Doug Nufer’s Negativeland, which covers some of the same territory (the fall of a member of the upper middle class), but with decidedly more hardheadedness than Sorrentino can muster.
As background for both novels, it should be remarked that since the late 1960/early ’70s, the U.S. and world economy went into decline, and since that time various stopgap measures to support the declining fortunes of the elite have been put in place, ones which have drastically weakened the middle class economically, who have had to work longer and rely on credit to maintain their high life. Even these moves have not been able to reverse their incremental, long term decline. Both authors under discussion focus on this situation.
Nufer’s novel is the story of a road trip in which the hero, Ken Honochick, an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, revisits the stations of his decline, which began when he became celebrity spokesman for a chain of health clubs that started out well but went into a steep decline due to embezzlement and a problem with their trademark exercise machines. “This scam [the overpriced clubs] would have gone on indefinitely had the customers not begun to get hurt. It didn’t stop at nagging backache [from using the machines]. Ruptured discs weren’t uncommon. The lawsuits were incredible and unbeatable.” The scandal and court cases bankrupt the company and destroyed Honochick’s reputation and fortune.
It is only on the basis of this sane assessment of how this everyman’s downfall is entwined with hype, incompetence and greed, common American business problems, that the strengths ofNegativeland can emerge. These included a sensitivity to and amazing ability to capture awkward, out-of-kilter situations, as when the hero and his girlfriend enter a bar, interrupting a sing-along of all the locals; and a tight appreciation of social differentiation. The latter quality emerges, for instance, when the hero drives into the parking lot for a rival spa’s restaurant and observes, “Wherever they came from, none of the cars looked as scummy as ours. Power windows, grooved tires, hubcaps, vanity plates, unchipped paint, and interiors you could have slept in like sleeping in a swank hotel were typical.” And, above all, Nufer has a keen ear and ready wit in relation to dialogue. A typical exchange in Negativeland not only reveals each speaker’s character but seems to background them.
Take this passage as an example. The protagonist/narrator thinks back to when Gold Medal Spas were is just getting a start, putting up its first facility, in as part of the corporation’s unusual strategy, in an out-of-way-burg. The hero looks over the proposed site of their club and comments to his father-in-law, the chain’s PR person, “Roger, man,” I said (I never called anyone “man”) “check out the weeds. You’ve never seen such weeds.”
[The daughter chimes in.] “No kidding, Daddy, they’re everywhere. You don’t notice, and there they are.”
[The father returns:]“Jill, sweetie, Ken, settle down folks, let’s review some of the Dos and Don’ts. … Number one … no drugs. … Number two, there shall be no act without full regard for image. Don’t breathe without thinking, how do I look, is someone watching me, am I projecting the positivity consistent with the goals of the program …”
“No prob, Rog,” I put my arm around him and led him to the door. It was something I never did.
It’s a quirky, real and ironic dialogue. The father is stressing image. Is that why the hero is suddenly speaking and acting out of character? At the same time, each character’s relaxed assumption that they will succeed if they can muster enough bluster foretells their (and the time’s) hubris.
This is a vivid contrast to Mulligan Stew, come to think of it in that Sorrentino avoids dialogue and, even when it occurs between two people, most often one of the participants barely participates. This occurs, for instance, when Beaumont’s friend Martin Halpin takes him to dinner to warn him about the loose ladies. Beaumont totally ignores this admonishing while mindlessly repeating the names of items from the French menu
I’ve already argued that in this book Sorrentino gives little explanation of why women are gaining maddening ascendancy in society, but it could perhaps be ventured that the victims (men) are to blame. After all, we saw the ostensible author’s (Lamont’s) disastrous attempt to make time with a woman on his first date and also how his character (Beaumont) is ensnared by a team of fleecing dames. Moreover, Beaumont so-called friend, Halpin, is doubly adulterous, in that he is trying to steal his friend’s first love, Daisy, who herself is married to a third man.
Let’s think a little more about Beaumont. When a writer such as Fitzgerald handles a man who is more or less ruined by a woman, as he does in Tender Is the Night, he treats it in a way that, while putting a partial onus on the woman, he co-implicates the man and the whole social scene within which the couple moves as well as larger structural issues, such as that the hero is seduced into living off his wife’s money. In Mulligan, also, both the women, Corrie and Berthe, and the man are guilty, but the triggering effects of social circumstances seem to have dropped out of the causal circle. And by neglecting them, Sorrentino eliminates the need for dialogue and interaction, the kind that so searchingly reveal the influence of the milieu in Nufer and Fitzgerald.
The hilarious or somber high points of Mulligan are monologic: one letter in an abortive correspondence, an excerpt from a character’s journal or (as noted) one-sided conversations in which one of the speakers (listeners, really) stays mute or utters nonsense words.
I suggest that this limitation on the breadth of the novel, stems from nothing inside in the book itself, but from Sorrentino’s initial decision on how to view causation. If the upper middle class’s downward mobility stems from bad choices made by individuals, then a novel organized to highlight these decisions is a reasonable venture. But, on the other hand, this stance of attributing a larger social trend to individual behavior is sociologically bogus and aesthetically crippling. Books that avoid this trap -- Negativeland and The Apes of God were our examples – open a deeper level and, paradoxically, by linking the individual into a more collective circle, offer a more human view.
The same problematic emphasis, which sees no need for dialogue since each person is responsible for his/her own fate, that weakens Mulligan also wracks Abyss.
In a dream piece, XXIII, for instance, in which the protagonist goes to visit his deceased mother to apologize for not being with her when she died, when he gets to her apartment, he finds her saying,”I thought I’d ask you over so that we can listen to Lux Radio Theater.” They listen and no further conversation ensues.
In XXXVI, in a hilarious comic turn, reminiscent of his best pages, a letter to the editor by a Christian fanatic, which complains of the paper’s columnist, “Mr. Dufoy’s secular humanist beliefs and fashionable liberal ideas are not based on the Holy Bible, which alone, he might not be aware of, is the Word of God.” The author died before being able to mail this letter, which was found in a drawer with “some 1,500 pages of pornographic writings by the same author,” which Sorrentino goes on to describe in ribald detail.
Still, here, too, the emphasis is on a person as a discreet monad. When there is an interaction between two people, it is a nonstarter.
Now, to be fairer than I have been, not every one of Sorrentino’s books – I’m thinking of Aberrations of Starlight and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things – has these drawbacks, but, as I’ve said, my search here is for an explanation of Rosset’s attitude and not a thorough examination of Sorrentino’s oeuvre, which, in any case, I’m not qualified to carry out.
My search for an explanation has led me to this. For much of Sorrentio’s work, an inadequate initial grasp of the social moment and the place in it of the social group on which his work is focused partially vitiates the power of his tremendous rhetorical, psychological and lyrical gifts, and blocks Sorrentino’s realization of his burning and then burned-out talent.