Friday, May 19, 2006

Gilbert Sorrentino

I learned earlier this evening, via Dan Green, that Gilbert Sorrentino, one of the truly great writers, died yesterday from lung cancer. I feel fortunate to have read a clutch of his work; Aberration of Starlight and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things are favorites (I still have Mulligan Stew and the Pack of Lies trilogy to look forward to, among much else). A great loss. Perhaps the best way to celebrate the man is to return to the writing. Here is a sample, the opening of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things:
What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings? It is an old story. Then she asks you what you think of the trash you have just read—her latest effort. She is not unintelligent and she is—attractive. A use of the arts perhaps more common than any other in this time. Aphrodisia. Powerful as Spanish fly or the scent of jasmine. The most delicate equivocation about the poem, the most subtle relaxation of critical acumen, will hasten you to bed with her. The poem is about a dream she had. In it she is a little girl. Again. Most of her poems are about dreams. In them she drowns in costume, or finds herself flying naked. At the end of the dream she is trapped. Well, critic, tell her the poem has the clear and unmistakable stink of decay to it. Tell her. Is seeing, finally, the hair glossy between her thighs so important that you will lie? About art? You shift your body and hold the poem out—judiciously—before you, one eye half-closed. Reach for a cigarette. Well, you say. Well—this poem…Her eyes are shining, they are beautifully sculptured, and dark. She uncrosses her legs, the nylon whispering, and recrosses them. The nylon whispering. Bends forward to accept a light, looking at you, seriously, intently, waiting for your judgment. I have nothing to say, the poem is unknown to me. Others, that I have read, are watery and vulgar, but perhaps her craft has somewhat improved. She’s been reading Lawrence—a bad sign, but…she understands him. As who does not? Well, you say, again. Penis a bar of steel. We can have a large third-rate abstract expressionist or hard-edge oil behind this scene, or a window with a view of a Gristede’s. If in the country, a small grassy hill falls gently away from the picture window behind which the two figures are arranged, gently away to a lawn on which a group of young drunks is playing touch football in the darkening November afternoon.
See also the notice at the Center for Book Culture, as well as posts by Ed Champion, Scott Esposito, and Lance Olsen. For excellent interviews with Sorrentino, look here and here. A choice selection from the latter:
Outside of the dreary rubbish that is churned out by god knows how many hacks of varying degrees of talent, the novel is, it seems to me, a very special and rarefied kind of literary form, and was, for a brief moment only, wide-ranging in its sociocultural influence. For the most part, it has always been an acquired taste and it asks a good deal from its audience. Our great contemporary problem is in separating that which is really serious from that which is either frivolously and fashionably "radical" and that which is a kind of literary analogy to the Letterman show. It's not that there is pop culture around, it's that so few people can see the difference between it and the high culture, if you will. Morton Feldman is not Stephen Sondheim. The latter is a wonderful what-he-is, but he is not what-he-is-not. To pretend that he is is to insult Feldman and embarrass Sondheim, to enact a process of homogenization that is something like pretending that David Mamet, say, breathes the same air as Samuel Beckett. People used to understand, it seems to me, that there is, at any given time, a handful of superb writers or painters or whatever--and then there are all the rest. Nothing wrong with that. But it now makes people very uncomfortable, very edgy, as if the very idea of a Matisse or a Charles Ives or a Thelonious Monk is an affront to the notion of "ain't everything just great!" We have the spectacle, then, of perfectly nice, respectable, harmless writers, etc., being accorded the status of important artists. I saw, for instance, maybe a year ago or so, a long piece in The New York Times on the writers who worked on some hero-with-guns movie. Essentially a pleasant bunch of middle-class professionals, with the aspirations of, I'd guess, very successful cardiac surgeons. Workmen, in a sense, who do what they're told to make a very good living. Not a shred of imaginative power left in them. But the piece dealt with them in the same way that the paper deals with Sharon Stone, Leonard Bernstein, Mark Rothko, Merce Cunningham, etc., etc. It's sort of all swell! My point, if I haven't yet made it, is that while it's all right to think of something as delicious as Dallas or Dynasty as, well, delicious, it's not a good idea to confuse them with Jean Genet. Essentially, the novelist, the serious novelist, should do what he can do and simply forgo the idea of a substantial audience.

1 comment:

Scraps said...

Oh no, that's terrible! If he was not my favorite living author, I can't think who I liked more, despite his immense crankiness. Mulligan Stew is my favorite; what a huge treat you still have before you.