By Gilbert Sorrentino
Coffee House Press. 144 pp. Paperback, $14
After reading Lunar Follies -- 53 brief commentaries on various imaginary yet all-too-real art installations -- any reviewer will find himself in a serious bind. The book is a relentlessly thorough scourging of the rhetoric of criticism. Yes, Gilbert Sorrentino takes easy shots at pseudo-profundity and the effortless power of jargon to cloud men's minds. These are fun. But he also leaves one shaken, wary of language altogether, unsure whether sentences communicate anything at all. Suddenly, words no longer feel like tokens of meaning or things of beauty but like cheap baubles, utterly gimcrack, completely phony. The satire of Lunar Follies hews so close to the bone that it saws right through it and leaves one crippled.
Sorrentino's savagery can be Swiftian, usually exaggerating by just the slightest degree the debased language of the cultural marketplace. Two of his best known novels-- Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things -- send up virtually every aspect of the literary and artistic scene of the 1960s and '70s. Some of this fierceness, as fans of Steelwork , The Sky Changes and Little Casino might guess, may also be a reaction to an instinctive romanticism -- there are few better chroniclers of childhood joys, of young manhood or of love and love's disillusionment. But Sorrentino never lets us forget the authorial intelligence behind his writing. All his work is structurally inventive and exceptionally self-aware. One doesn't so much read Sorrentino as collude with him, as he undercuts both sentimentality and narrative illusion, sometimes with direct asides to the reader. And yet is there a more heartbreaking contemporary short story than "The Moon in its Flight" -- or one that manages to blend so touchingly the wistfulness of adolescent yearning and the embittered wisdom of later experience?
One might think that a writer now in his seventies -- once a youthful correspondent of William Carlos Williams (who quotes him by name in Paterson ), a long-ago pal of Amiri Baraka back when that controversial man of letters was still LeRoi Jones, a former editor at Grove Press in its heyday, and (as if that weren't enough) a Stanford professor throughout the 1980s and '90s -- might be ready just to sit back and daydream over some quaint bound volumes of his beatnik magazine, Yugen, or the Evergreen Review. Not at all. Though he doesn't address blogging or Internet ranting, Sorrentino nonetheless still nails most of the registers of contemporary critical blather. Ultimately, there's not much difference between the earnest, high-toned maunderings on the back-covers of poetry chapbooks and the tirelessly effusive prattle of art-gallery brochures.
Each of the chapters in Lunar Follies takes its title from a geographical feature on the moon. Here is "Joliot-Curie," in which Sorrentino describes the oeuvre of a feminist artist who specializes in "messages" -- slogans such as "My lingerie is worth more than your car":
"Barbrah Joliot-Curie's conflicting and intrusive MESSAGES, all of which tend toward the metaphysical noise that may be termed the emblematic substitute for what was once mistakenly valorized as a value-based system of so-called 'high art,' implicate and suggest a complex, actually, of shifting signs, arranged so as to transgressively subvert modes of corporate anti-colonialist, pre-magicorealist inscription."
Need I add that one of these messages -- taken from an ungramamtical, hand-lettered sign promoting the hoagy as "a meal in itself" -- "boldly insists on the labile, collapsing the symbolic into nothing more than aporia"?
This kind of skewering is relatively simple (see innumerable recent novels about modern academia). More ingenious are Sorrentino's titles for imaginary works of art. For instance, in one chapter he lists the etchings and drawings in Sir Banjo Hyde-Morrissey's private collection of erotica. (Note, by the way, the second half of that last name, echoing that of the Andy Warhol star Paul Morrissey. Lunar Follies frequently incorporates buried allusions to real people and artifacts.) Four of my favorite pieces from Sir Banjo's unrivalled private stock are "The Boys of St. Bart's and Lady Mary Campbell Playing 'Lost in the Gorse' "; "Romberg's Symphony Orchestra in Carnal Frenzy with Toys and Language Poetry Manifesto"; "A Band of Savoyards at Orgy, with Stuffed Kestrel" and, not least, "Norwegian Lutherans Disrobe After Barn-Raising, with Lutefisk and Lingonberries." In still another section we learn about a suite of prints called "the Clitoris Commando Series" and of Dawn Wasserman's Gun Hill Road Gang of Gay Girls. Among the classics of contemporary photography Lunar Follies mentions, to name just two, "Weightlifters at Prayer," by Fincher Leroy Ellerbing, and "Jesus Destroying Pornography," by an anonymous member of the Southern Baptist Corsairs. Of course, no one would want to forget Frankie Texas, "frozen-custard designer and transgressive artist," now exhibiting at Capanato, USA.
Clearly, Sorrentino could have been an advertising genius, were it not for his playfulness and gallows humor. He tells us, for instance, about the inventor of the Sweet 'n Low Brassiere and of certain Palo Alto restaurants "where dining is a skill." He describes "clothes from Carson Pirie Scott, Lincoln Road," the garments "pulled from their exquisite boxes with sour, grudging acceptance." He imagines a poster for "1937: Germany's Festival Year" and a snapshot of Herbert von Karajan conducting a Hitler Youth band. When he mentions a photograph of New York's old Hotel Astor, he notices its (perfectly named) period orchestra: "Tab Jazzetti and His Melodists." Throughout, Sorrentino associates art with advertising, food and fashion -- the four pillars of linguistic kitsch.
At his most subtle, Sorrentino neatly captures the distinctive phrasings of modern superciliousness: "Although this music is extremely bad, it must be noted that it is not precisely music, but world music . . . . The diner is a perfect replica of an authentic copy reconstructed from the edges of the dreams of those who know what real rock-and-roll is, and, more importantly, what it used to be . . . . as Michelle Caccatanto has trenchantly put it in one of her dazzling occasional essays on popular culture -- which is, as she has noted, 'so much more than popular culture.' " Listen to the smooth gibes and put-downs in these opening sentences from a chapter entitled "Pythagoras":
"A large sunlit wall dominates the top floor of the new Iconocult Museum, the much-visited and remarked-upon New York Times Art & Leisur e wall. We see, just inside the south entrance, and to the left, various manifestations, images, and reproductions of duplications, as well as duplicate reproductions that celebrate, among others, Clint Eastwood, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Philip Glass, Jerome Robbins, and -- at long last! -- the Kronos Quartet, all against a celebrated background of bakhti, rushdie, bezant, and cold-pressed colluvium. This astounding juxtaposition of material and memoir prepares us for the disparate materials on Igor Stravinsky, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Martin, Leonard Bernstein (and the poetry of Carousel and West Side Story ), along with a heavily annotated and revised typescript of an essay by Woody Allen on the 'poetry of David Mamet's dialogue' and the lore of the clarinet. Just beyond these joyously eclectic 'heapings,' the Public Broadcasting System offers a film of crusty Cornish farmers and their heroic struggles with ovine AIDS, set amid the green hills of Bandore and Deodar."
Elsewhere in the Iconocult Museum, one can study the only known photograph of Picasso and Matisse at Chicago's Wrigley Field: "The artists' Continental mouths are stuffed with a Chicago delicacy, rutabaga sausage, and their eyes are filled with the sadness known only to those who follow the Cubs." That sadness reappears in the chapter called "Lake of Dreams." A businessman, high up in an office building, dreamily relives two afternoons in a cocktail bar with his wife, one recent and the other from long ago, when they were first in love. He recalls that gin was once known as "blue ruin":
"He calmly says, 'Blue ruin is a beautiful name,' and looks down at the cocktail lounge from a stingily appointed office, one of whose walls is glass from floor to ceiling. It is through this glass wall that he looks to see his wife, now sitting at a different table, and dressed in a navy blue suit, her legs crossed so that her thighs are discreetly yet provocatively exposed. 'Your skirt,' he says to her, but she cannot hear him, of course. Who is the relentless person behind him, who is talking, talking, talking to him as he tries to think of a way back to the cocktail lounge, to the woman who is his wife, to the glamorous and unearthly drinks, to his youth and her young womanhood?"
Gilbert Sorrentino has never been a popular writer -- he's too sour and bilious for most people -- but his explorations of the corrupted language and cultural shallowness of our age are oddly exhilarating. He is the master of a bitter hilarity. When in Lunar Follies he quotes a rejection letter from a publisher, we know that he speaks from personal experience: "We were impressed by B's sly and ingenious new novel, but we have at least nine really bad books under contract, and are seriously overextended at the present time." Such, all too often, is the world of art and letters. ·
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place each week on Wednesday at 2 p.m. at washingtonpost.com.