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Synthetic Ink-quisitions

Anthony Miller

Gilbert Sorrentino
Pack Of Lies ,
Dalkey Archive Press, 1997 $14.95. 564 pages.

Mulligan Stew ,
Dalkey Archive Press, 1996 $13.95. 445 pages.

Christopher Sorrentino
Sound On Sound ,

Dalkey Archive Press, 1995 $19.95. 210 pages.

If the works of Gilbert Sorrentino continue to remain under-recognized, it is because his writing has been so hard to synthesize. He has been both poet and novelist, freelance critic and Stanford University professor, editor of revolutionary literary magazines Neon and Kulchur and Grove Press editor in the sixties (which included his first experience in creating ersatz promotional blurbs and critiques). Influenced most profoundly by modernism but displaying an unquestionably postmodern stylistic exuberance, Sorrentino demonstrates both an aesthete’s impatience for fiction which aspires to verisimilitude and an autodidact’s indignation for many of the "experimental" inanities and self-conscious excesses of the avant-garde. His thirteen novels range from controlled, sublime, and stark studies in character to relentlessly, sometimes infuriatingly, inventive and parodic compositions. In the former mode, Sorrentino’s first novel, The Sky Changes, will be reprinted this May from Dalkey Archive for the first time since the author’s revisions for the 1986 North Point edition.

The best synopsis of the experience of reading Sorrentino is captured by the author himself in his fine out-of-print 1984 collection of criticism, Something Said, with essays on some of the author’s favorite writers such as William Carlos Williams and Jack Spicer and others like John Gardner and Italo Calvino. In one essay he describes the writers with whom he shares his "genetic coding":

They agreed with my own artistic necessities, which are: an obsessive concern with formal structure, a dislike of the replication of experience, a love of digression and embroidery, a great pleasure in false or ambiguous information, a desire to invent problems that only the invention of new forms can solve, and a joy in making mountains out of molehills.
Sorrentino’s works involve unique approaches to inter-, intra- and extra-textual reference. The menagerie of characters in Mulligan Stew and Pack Of Lies, taken from his own novels and those of other authors offers one kind of synthesis between the actual and the imagined, even if some characters are cognizant that they have been stolen from other fictions. In one novel, there is a reference to a character called "Selby DeCubb," a combination of Sorrentino’s childhood friend, the real-life author Hubert "Cubby" Selby Jr., and Flann O’Brien’s crackpot philosopher DeSelby.

Some of his novels are structured according to organizing principles external to the works, from the correspondence of the 78 chapters in Crystal Vision to the cards in a Tarot deck, to the 59 vignettes in Under The Shadow suggested by H.A. Zo’s sketches from a Raymond Roussel book. In "Pages From A Notebook," the poet Robert Duncan writes, "I don’t seek a synthesis, but a melee." Sorrentino’s hilarious and ingenious profusion/confusion of pages taken from not only characters’ notebooks but their fictions, poems, conversations, letters, criticisms, and lists of all kinds is his own contribution to the "opening of the field."

Reading Pack Of Lies, Dalkey Archive’s 1997 collection of Sorrentino’s trilogy of eighties novels, Odd Number, Rose Theatre, and Misterioso, is likely to generate more questions about Sorrentino’s fiction than answers. How do these books cohere as "novels" for example, even those of the self-reflexive/metafictional variety? In what way can these three narratives be said to constitute a trilogy? "I cannot believe that the expression of ideas has anything to do with the making of literature," Sorrentino said in an interview with John O’Brien, taking his cues from William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. "I don't believe ideas are a novelist’s problem." But the fact that these books generate a list of questions does not invalidate this author’s enterprise. From his earliest works, Sorrentino has always posed his own questions about literature by appealing not to the ideas it might convey but to the collocation of styles in which it expresses itself.

Sorrentino’s characters make many inquiries of their own. His story "A Beehive Arranged On Humane Principles," which appeared in Conjunctions in 1985, is comprised entirely of 180 interrogative sentences. The first book in Pack Of Lies, Odd Number, is the most explicitly "questioning," composed of three sets of questions asked by an anonymous inquisitor. The first two question and answer sessions are captured first in a disorientingly typeset transcript and then in reverse order in an exhaustive tell-all-style account. By the time of the third and more concise interrogation, even the most patient and intelligent reader remains no less bewildered. As this chronicle of questionable artistic creations and irresponsible amorous and adulterous encounters unfolds, it is revealed that Sheila Henry has been killed just after leaving a gathering known as The Party. The histories of the women introduced in these uncertain scenarios from the first book (a possibly living Sheila Henry included) are the subject of the second volume, Rose Theatre, the most restrained and least satisfying of the books in the trilogy. Misterioso, the final, longest and, as the title suggests, most "occult" novel, traces the "events, occurrences, adventures, conversations and dramas - bathetic and otherwise" of characters (including demons) encountered throughout the trilogy on a single day and indexes them in an architectonic alphabetical arrangement. Dalkey Archive’s binding of these books together allows us to reassess the many interconnections between the tangled and deracinated plotlines of novels that some readers and critics have called "plotless," the parallels and contradictions between characters, even the same jokes told in different variations.

Those approaching the books in Pack Of Lies for the first time or seeking a new way in which to come to terms with Sorrentino’s methodologies can seek out Louis Mackey’s 1997 monograph, Fact, Fiction, and Representation: Four Novels by Gilbert Sorrentino (Camden House). Mackey, the author of several essays on Thomas Pynchon, makes an important distinction between Pynchon and Sorrentino:

A novel like Gravity’s Rainbow whips up a mixture of history and fiction that makes history bizarre and fiction intimidating. But a book like Misterioso (or any book by Sorrentino) is obsessively literary, fascinated not by history, but by the history of literature. Even its references to popular culture - dirty jokes, boys’ books, the lyrics of pop tunes, and the like - do not embed the novel in history but rather implicate all of literature, from the sublimely lofty to the abysmally low, in its own textuality.

Or, as one character tells another in Misterioso, "Bibliophilia leads one to strange places." Pack Of Lies, like Mulligan Stew before it, is unabashed in its bookishness. Characters come across less as stereotypes than as figures of textuality gone awry, many of whom are themselves writers, most of whom are demonstrably - and much of the best comedy in Sorrentino is in these demonstrations - bad. Among their literary inheritances, both novels borrow heavily from the construction of the mystery novel, as even Ernest Larsen detected in his highly negative Village Voice review of Mulligan Stew memorably titled "Colonel Mustard in the Study with the Smith-Corona."

The characters of the possibly deceased Sheila Henry, her husband Lou, Guy and Bunny Lewis, Leo Kaufman, Anton Harley, Bart Kahane, and Dick Detective, will be familiar to Sorrentino readers as the subjects of chapters in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Sorrentino’s comic indictment of New York's artistic scenes of the fifties and sixties. His third novel continues to be among the author’s strongest works, not only introducing these characters (who return in Mulligan Stew) but providing the breakthrough into the revelatory form that influenced much of Sorrentino’s later writing, including the books in Pack Of Lies. The narrator of Imaginative Qualities confesses to the reader: "In this book, I’ll muddle around, flashes, glints, are what I want. It’s when one is not staring that art works. In the middle of all the lists and facts, all the lies and borrowings, there will sometimes be a perfect revelation." If Imaginative Qualities plays with this idea of "revelation," both in the artistic breakthroughs sought by its characters and its narrator’s stated ambition to reveal them for who they really are, Pack Of Lies is invested in the notion of "resolution." The final book, Misterioso, starts with the supposition: "Perhaps a question will open the door to resolution . . ." Although the novel - and the trilogy - never supplies such assurance of closure, it explores facets of the reader’s need for one. In the manner of those two great twentieth-century trilogies of Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, Pack Of Lies does not merely perpetuate the continuation of the narrative and character relations from book to book but interrogates the nature of the perspectives by which these characters are depicted and these stories are assembled. In the course of this questioning, Sorrentino progressively demolishes not only our grasp on their characters but our need for the answers.

Originally called Synthetic Ink (a title which appears in his texts), Sorrentino’s deliriously allusive and unapologetically digressive magnum opus, Mulligan Stew, the first of his books I discovered in the Rathmines Branch of the Dublin Public Library in 1989 and still my favorite, is nothing less than his anatomy of textual demolition. The book opens by demolishing itself with an unforgettable array of rejection letters, modeled after the many rejections collected by the author of the "real" Mulligan Stew, followed by a Swiftian "Reader’s Report" of the book prefacing the title page. Printed on tan colored pages in the original Grove edition, they read something like variants on the same movie trailer to catch our attention before the beginning of the film. The effect is altered in the 1996 Dalkey Archive edition which prints these pages without "colorization" for probable monetary reasons and the opening correspondence feels more like a pre-credits opening scene than a coming attractions sequence. Called "one of the few truly significant novels of the ‘70s" by Steven Moore in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the investigation of avant-garde mystery writer Antony Lamont (from At Swim-Two-Birds) into the death of Ned Beaumont (from Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) in his work-in-progress is only a "pretext" to the real investigation into the forms of literature themselves. Mulligan Stew involves more than just a case of murder but continuing acts of breaking and entering into the House of Fiction as Lamont - as well as Sorrentino - plunders characters from Joyce, O’Brien, Fitzgerald, and others to shore up his work-in-progress. For the reader, the question is not where the body is buried but from where the bodies of text have been exhumed - and absolutely no style is above suspicion. Which leads to still another question: How to draw such an impossibly extended ventriloquistic performance to a close? In this case with a quotation from a work extolling the virtues of a synthesis that would endow actual nature with the author’s imaginative qualities:

[Cézanne] attempted to go beyond the sublime balances of nature, not content with the analytical methods that the great artists of the past had considered sufficient to her revelation and interpretation; he desired a synthesis that would allow him to decorate nature with the forms and colors that existed nowhere except in his own secret thought.

I have few difficulties with Hugh Kenner’s assertion in Historical Fictions that Sorrentino’s "parodies of silly rhetoric depend more on silly ideas than on inappropriate tropes." Allowing for the possibility that Sorrentino was motivated by sheer silliness in places does not preclude complexity. Mulligan Stew features a 39-page "Masque of Fungo" featuring James Joyce, Susan B. Anthony, Jack Armstrong and Charles Dexter Ward, that as Grove Press’s Barney Rosset (Sorrentino’s "Horace Rosette") observes, "calls on a knowledge of Jacobean Drama and baseball, two very different kinds of knowledge to ask of the same reader." For all these carefully realized formalist flights of fancy, however achieved, Sorrentino’s works can sometimes read like variations on the same two self-contained voices, one for the word-playing, genre-juggling satiric shtick, maintained without respite through the avant-garde alter-ego Antony Lamont, and another for the more judgmental and authorial omniscience. Although his use of comedy obviates - or ridicules - the desire to use literature, Sorrentino cannot always repress the irresistible urge to cut off a fictional riff before it becomes too central to our understanding of the novel being read. One of the most distinctive forms of expression for Sorrentino is the list. Before lists became an ubiquitous postmodernist shorthand, Sorrentino had already established himself as a great "maker of maddening lists, lister of maddening names" (to cop a phrase from Mulligan Stew). These catalogues that clutter his novels are without question amusing and exacting but also bear an important relation to the author’s theme of inquisition; remember that the first thing a detective - or a reader of detective fiction - does is compile a list of possible suspects. Toward the end of Odd Number, the narrator inquires:

What is the importance of this catalogue to my investigation? If the catalogue, or any catalogue or list, is understood to be a system, its entropy is the measure of the unavailability of its energy for conversion into useful work. The ideal catalogue tends toward maximum entropy. Stick it in your ear.
As a structure that incites its readers to focus on nothing but the arrangement and integration of words, the list might also be a means for Sorrentino, also the author of eight books of poetry, to combine his novelistic and poetic predilections.

Finally, one approach to understanding the whole Pack Of Lies might be found in the trajectory traced by two short, lucid Sorrentino essays, neither of which is mentioned in Mackey’s study, written before and during the trilogy’s composition and involving, among other topics, the subject of lists. In the 1984 lecture "Fictional Infinities," Sorrentino meditates on two prescient proto-postmodern inspirations for his fiction, particularly Mulligan Stew; Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the "centrifugal" exhaustive abyss of everything written, and the novels of Flann O’Brien, whose "centripedal" At Swim-Two-Birds, opens out on the very abyss the Wake circles around, as O’Brien’s own characters sometimes usurp its authorship. Indeed, it is to O'Brien, under his birth name of Brian O'Nolan, that Mulligan Stew is dedicated.  Certainly in American fiction, and perhaps even in contemporary fiction, O'Brien has no greater exponent than Sorrentino.

In the second essay, "Writing and Writers: Disjecta Membra," published in 1988 between the publication of the second and third books of Pack Of Lies, Sorrentino expands upon his idea of the list by positing the idea of a list of questions about a character without corresponding answers as a "kind of system of negative narrational energy." He speculates that "if the writer decides, later, in perhaps another work, to answer them" then "this narrative unit becomes not only a set of answers to a set of questions but a curiously sensible, if slightly skewed, positive addition to the text(s)". Sorrentino goes on to explain in a sentence that might sum up his extraordinarily playful and powerful project of imaginative synthesis.

What is most fascinating about such an enterprise is that the list of questions, despite a lack of cohesion, commonality of themes, unity of concerns, etc., etc., will produce a list of answers that forms a coherence. It is as if the set of questions, drawn from whatever sources and with no expectation of being answered, has within itself a reliable narrative statement.
A series of inquisitions similar to, but more modest than, those that initiate Pack Of Lies takes place in a section of the 1995 debut novel by Gilbert Sorrentino’s son, Christopher, Sound On Sound. Here the New York music scene in the Eighties, a rock and roll "Rashomon," investigates the aspirations, failures, and triumphs of a bar band called Hi-Fi. Orchestrated by acidly self-conscious aspiring biographer Paul Marzio, much of what we learn about this band, its members, and its defining performance on Tuesday, January 20, 1981 (Reagan’s Inauguration), comes from nine conflicting accounts and contradictory outcomes which play against one another in a chapter entitled "Vocals." This section and "Secondary Percussion, etc.," rendered completely in footnotes with undetermined referents, and the biographer’s "Solo," are "overdubbed" above the seemingly banal first description in "Foundation (Basic Rhythm)," which might be reread at the novel’s end to achieve a greater resonance. Akin to his father’s knowing and satirizing backward glance at the literary and artistic world of writing and publishing, Sound On Sound at once celebrates and debunks rock music and its role in the formation of "popular culture."

Saddled as it is with the dual burden of embodying both youthful rebellion and shrewd capitalism, its validity reposes in the hands of the intelligensia, who have, so far, constructed their various dissertations out of anecdotes, present and contemporaneous political and social attitudes, myth, posed photographs, and sales figures; so that in furtherance of his effort to understand, the student is led not to the artifact itself, but instead to the various shards lying near to it these disconnected anecdotes, photographs, and sociopolitical interconnections.  Because these are common to all rock and roll bands, differing only in terms of the scale of their dissemination, it is as instructive to study any band as it is any other.

In the spirit of its epigraphs from metafictionalist Robert Coover and music journalist Lester Bangs, Sound On Sound is part meditation on compositional perspectives, part pop music-inflected cultural screed. In some ways the younger Sorrentino’s wilfully disconnected but interconnected "case history" of the band recalls his father’s ingenious characterizations in Imaginative Qualities.  Among his amusing and insightful details and passages are texts within the novel which allow us to go backstage with the band song lyrics from the Hi-Fi repertoire, the band’s press release, a list of potential band names and the reasons for their rejection, and one interviewee’s list of Hi-Fi’s albums, including a William Carlos Williams-inspired album called Cora In Hell and, in a nod to his father’s Synthetic Ink, an “early experiment in sampling the works of others, which despite critical acclaim, sold poorly” entitled Synthetic Wax.  Ultimately, the book’s creative organization into its “various shards” may work against itself by absolving the author of having to imagine the band’s “sound” as well as he does its characters “sounding off.”  Christopher Sorrentino’s first “recording” does capture well the simultaneous fascination with and mythologization/commercialization of the pop culture that his characters inhabit.  His Sound On Sound also demonstrates a determination to follow his father in his own decades-long inquries into the strictures and artificialities of fiction.


Works by Gilbert Sorrentino

"Neon, Kulchur, Etc.," Triquarterly 43 (Fall 1978), 298-316.

"Fictional Infinities." Review of Contemporary Fiction 4:3 (Fall 1984) [Camilio José Cela Number].

Something Said: Essays by Gilbert Sorrentino. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984.

"A Beehive Arranged On Humane Principles." Conjunctions 7 (1985), 189-196.

"Writing and Writers: Disjecta Membra." Review of Contemporary Fiction 8:3 (Fall 1988) [Novelist As Critic Number], 25-35.

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.

Mulligan Stew. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.

Pack Of Lies. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.

By Christopher Sorrentino

Sound On Sound. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.


O’Brien, John. "Imaginative Qualities of Gilbert Sorrentino: An Interview." Grossteste Review 6:1-4 (1973), 69-84.

Gontarski, S.E. "An Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino." (www.quertyarts.com/sorrentino2.html)

"Working at Grove: An Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino." Review of Contemporary Fiction 10:3 (Falll 1990) [Grove Press Number], 97-110.

Laurence, Alexander. "An Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino." (www.qwertyarts.com/words/sorrentino1.html)

Silverblatt, Michael. Gilbert Sorrentino. Lannan Literary Videos 32. Lannan Foundation, March 2, 1993.

Laurence, Alexander. "An Interview with Christopher Sorrentino." (www.qwertyarts.com/words/sorrentino1.html)

Selected Reviews

Armstrong, Peter. "Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities Of Actual Things." Grossteste Review 6:1-4 (1973), 65-68.

Heise, Ursula K. "Text And Nothing But." American Book Review 19:3 (March-April 1998), 24-25.

Henry, Rick. “Pack Of Lies.” Rain Taxi 2:3 (Fall 1997),44.

Kenner, Hugh. "The Traffic In Words." In Historical Fictions. Athens and London: U of Georgia Press, 1995, 256-265.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. "Gilbert Sorrentino." In The Life Of Fiction. Illustrations by Roy R. Behrens. Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 7-15.

Larsen, Ernest. "Colonel Mustard in the Study with the Smith-Corona." Village Voice (May 28, 1979), 81.

Mackey, Louis. Fact, Fiction, and Representation: Four Novels by

Gilbert Sorrentino. Columbia: Camden House, 1997.

McPheron, William. Gilbert Sorrentino: A Descriptive Bibliography. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.

Moore, Steven. "The Sky Changes/Mulligan Stew" (Review). Review of Contemporary Fiction 8:2 (Summer 1988), 313.

Wright, Martin. "Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things." Grossteste Review 6:1-4 (1973), 61-64.

Review of Contemporary Fiction 1:1 (Spring 1981) [Gilbert Sorrentino Number]

Thanks also to Barney Rosset at Grove Press for our phone conversation.







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