Gilbert Sorrentino Biography
Gilbert Sorrentino comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1929. Educated in New York public schools; Brooklyn College, 1950-51, 1955-57. Military Service: Served in the United States Army Medical Corps, 1951-53. Career: Re-insurance clerk, Fidelity and Casualty Company, New York, 1947-48; messenger, American Houses Inc., 1948-49; freight checker, Ace Assembly Agency, New York, 1954-56; packer, Bennett Brothers, New York, 1956-57; shipping room supervisor, Thermofax Sales, 1957-60. Editor, Neon magazine, 1956-60, and Grove Press, 1965-70, both New York; book editor, Kulchur, New York, 1961-63; taught at Columbia University, New York, 1965; Aspen Writers Workshop, Colorado, 1967; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1971-72; New School for Social Research, New York, 1976-79, 1980-82; Edwin S. Quain Professor of Literature, University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, 1979. Since 1982 professor of English, Stanford University, California. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1973, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974, 1978; Fels award, 1975; Ariadne Foundation grant, 1975; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1975; John Dos Passos prize, 1981; American Academy award, 1985; Lannan Literary award for fiction, 1992. Agent: Mel Berger, William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
The Sky Changes. New York, Hill and Wang, 1966.
Steelwork. New York, Pantheon, 1970.
Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. New York, Pantheon, 1971.
Splendide-Hôtel. New York, New Directions, 1973.
Mulligan Stew. New York, Grove Press, 1979; London, Boyars, 1980.
Aberration of Starlight. New York, Random House, 1980; London, Boyars, 1981.
Crystal Vision. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1981; London, Boyars, 1982.
Blue Pastoral. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1983; London, Boyars, 1985.
Odd Number. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1985.
Rose Theatre. Elmwood Park, Illinois, Dalkey Archive, 1987.
Misterioso. Elmwood Park, Illinois, Dalkey Archive, 1989.
Under the Shadow. Elmwood Park, Illinois, Dalkey Archive, 1991.
Red the Fiend. New York, Fromm International, 1995.
Pack of Lies. Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.
A Beehive Arranged on Human Principles (novella). New York, Grenfell Press, 1986.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Moon in Its Flight," in New American Review 13, edited by Theodore Solotaroff. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1971.
"Land of Cotton," in Harper's (New York), November 1977.
"Decades," in The Best American Short Stories 1978, edited by Theodore Solotaroff and Shannon Ravenel. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
"Chats with the Real McCoy," in Atlantic (Boston), March 1979.
"The Gala Cocktail Party," in The Pushcart Prize 9, edited by Bill Henderson. Wainscott, New York, Pushcart Press, 1984.
Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1974.
The Darkness Surrounds Us. Highlands, North Carolina, Jargon, 1960.
Black and White. New York, Totem, 1964.
The Perfect Fiction. New York, Norton, 1968.
Corrosive Sublimate. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1971.
A Dozen Oranges. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1976.
White Sail. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1977.
The Orangery. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1978.
Selected Poems 1958-1980. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1981.
Something Said (essays). Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1984.
Translator, Sulpiciae Elegidia/Elegiacs of Sulpicia. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1977.
Gilbert Sorrentino: A Descriptive Bibliography by William McPheron, Elmwood Park, Illinois, Dalkey Archive, 1991.
University of Delaware, Newark.
"Gilbert Sorrentino Issue" of Vort (Silver Spring, Maryland), Fall 1974, and Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), Fall 1981; Fact, Fiction, and Representation: Four Novels by Gilbert Sorrentino by Louis Mackey, Columbia, South Carolina, Camden House, 1997.
My writing is the act of solving self-imposed problems.
* * *
Gilbert Sorrentino's novels are dedicated to several anti-traditional propositions: that space, rather than time, is the most revealing principle for narrative structure; that the physical texture of language, rather than its semantic properties, is the key to communication between a novelist and the reader; and that an awareness of the author's act of writing, rather than the willing suspension of disbelief, yields the greatest pleasure in experiencing a novel.
The Sky Changes and Steelwork, Sorrentino's earliest novels (from the days when he was still best known as a poet), are demonstrations of spatial order. The first is the record (told in block sections of separate narrative) of a protagonist's dissolving marriage, framed by an auto trip across the United States. Both the relationship and the journey would seem to imply a temporal order; but at several points Sorrentino self-consciously violates that order to show that the human imagination transcends simple chronology—the trip's emotional resolution comes as early as two-thirds through the cross-country journey. Steelwork is the spatial portrait of a Brooklyn neighborhood over two decades of human experience. On one street-corner, for example, the events of several years' distance are imaginatively rehearsed; and characters' lives are studied in a simultaneity of presence, although by the clock they have lived through much of their lives. Because space—the neighborhood—is the organizing principle, the chronology is deliberately scrambled, so that we move back and forth from 1951 to 1942 to 1949. As a result, the reader experiences the neighborhood as the spatial whole it would be for anyone who lived there all those years. Emotions and the imagination outstrip time.
Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is Sorrentino's wildly comic exercise of his most self-apparent writing techniques. Ostensibly a roman à clef exposing the petty jealousies and seductions of the 1950s and 1960s New York art world, the book is in fact a demonstration of Sorrentino's pleasure in writing a novel. Characters' statements are undercut by rudely sarcastic footnotes; midway through a piece of exposition the author will stop and berate the reader for making him supply such petty details; and when the author hates a character, ludicrous scenes are devised for the unfortunate soul's humiliation and punishment. Throughout, the reader is aware that the real subject of this novel is not its mimicry of a projected real world, but instead the process of its own composition, which the reader witnesses firsthand.
Making fiction its own subject—not a representation of an illusionary world but instead its own artifice as added to the world, an aesthetic Sorrentino learned from his mentor, William Carlos Williams—is the achievement of Splendide-Hôtel. Its brief chapters are named after the successive letters of the alphabet, which provide the topics for composition—the capital letter A's on the page looking like flies on a wall, breeding in decay; the letter K reminding Sorrentino of the baseball score-card symbol for strike-out, and of a headline which spoke volumes just by saying "K-K-K-Koufax!!!!"
In his fifth and most commercially successful work of fiction, Mulligan Stew, Sorrentino offers a full display of novelistic talents at work. Indeed, he wishes to surpass his previous efforts by showing all aspects of fiction writing, from the novelist's act of composition to his notebooks, letters, and even the personal thoughts of his characters. Borrowing his structure from Flann O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), Sorrentino invents an imaginary novelist named Anthony Lamont who is struggling to shore up a sagging career with an experimental novel, a piece of "surfiction" (Sorrentino despises the term) titled Guinea Red. A murder mystery, it features unabashedly miserable writing; Lamont keeps losing the murdered body and forgetting where he's placed the fatal wound, and the prose itself is dreadfully overwritten in a parody of low-brow style. The reader is also given access to Lamont's letters, notebooks, and journal entries. Midway through, his characters mutiny and seek ways to escape Lamont's leaden narrative and find work in a more promising repertoire. A massive novel which by its very bulk and meticulous range of styles immerses the reader in its own subject, Mulligan Stew is Sorrentino's fullest repertoire of writing talent.
Mulligan Stew exhausts the innovative techniques of 1960s fiction, and also clears the way for a new lyricism in Sorrentino's work. Whereas his earlier novels turned to poetic devices as a way of eclipsing the quotidian Aberration of Starlight, Crystal Vision, and Blue Pastoral are able to confront both experience and the act of writing directly.
Aberration of Starlight explains experience as a matter of point of view, fragmenting a summer's experience at a New Jersey vacation lodge into four narratives, much in the manner of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Sorrentino uses these distinct modes of vision in order to highlight language, especially how essentially stupid world views are, in the manner of Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées reçues, created by and not just expressed through banalities of language. Crystal Vision embraces language directly, transcribing streetcorner conversations from the verbally rich Brooklyn of Sorrentino's youth, as the characters of his earlier Steelwork re-emerge from their "world of light" to speak directly. Their language expands the author's previous vision, showing how they have the vitality to survive on their own in fiction, without narrative's customary supporting devices. Blue Pastoral celebrates the stylistics of Blue Serge Gavotte as he creates a pastoral accompanying his journey from New York to San Francisco (a less lyrical trip once made west by the protagonist of The Sky Changes). Sorrentino takes the occasion to parody pastoral forms and satirize stock characters; much of his play consists in delighting with obviously bad writing. But with all conventions demolished by his earlier works, and with unconventionality itself made a sham by the achievement of Mulligan Stew, there seems little else for Sorrentino to do with the novel than continue to write it, even poorly.
Sorrentino's inward turn of narrative is confirmed by his practice in Odd Number, a brief (159-page) reinvestigation of how his earlier novel, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, might have been assembled. In the earlier work Sorrentino had used the well-established formal device of the roman à clef to structure his narrative; his use of footnotes and intrusively parenthetical remarks indicates that the form is barely able to contain his rage against some of these characters drawn from a lifestyle he was now rejecting. Odd Number transposes this volatility to the novel's form itself. Like Aberration of Starlight, the tale is told several times, but here the emphasis is even more on the uncertainty of events. The first time through the reader is given a question-and-answer dialogue, as in detective fashion the voice of the novel interrogates its own resources to discover exactly what has happened. This section's awkward and uncertain rhythm yields to a more fluently conversational account of the book's events—all of which originally transpired in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, now supplemented with coy references to Sorrentino's other novels. But the authority of part two yields to a cross examination of the documents themselves: the contents of dresser drawers, photographs, and other possessions which contradict certain assertions of both previous sections, virtually unmaking the novel which has been read. The novel, therefore, is no more reliable a report on the world than the self-conscious rage of Sorrentino's earlier version, a reminder that truth, if one cares for it, must be found beyond the fiction writer's practice no matter how it might be structured.
That the matters of Imaginative Qualities…can be extended infinitely across time and space is evident from Sorrentino's success with Rose Theatre, in which the female characters attempt to correct apparent misinformation from Odd Number, data now considered errant not because of any mistakes in that particular work but because the questions which generated it excluded certain possibilities of discourse. The very attempt to stabilize reality, however, adds a new dimension to its nature, which invites further uncertainties—a reminder of the continuously evolving nature of fiction, which in its struggles to provide a persuasive account of reality only confounds its unverifiable nature.
Sorrentino's trilogy of responses to Imaginative Qualities … concludes with Misterioso. Here the narrative aspires toward the encyclopedic as a strategy for both inclusiveness and authority. Yet because previous facts can only be clarified by the introduction of new materials, verifiability still remains in dispute. That the novel is set in a supermarket implies both its structure and utility: there is no firm basis for its narrative, but rather a wide variety of materials from which to select, a treasury of stories one can choose according to fancy. Yet no one would ever try to draw conclusive substance from everything; there can even be narratives that threaten to distract by their intrusion, the resistance to which constitutes a sub-theme in itself. Simply to comprehend all that is possible remains the novel's goal, an activity reflecting on Sorrentino's activity in writing the initial work, a novel that can expand infinitely with each reconsideration.
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