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Experimental Writer Gilbert Sorrentino

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Gilbert Sorrentino, whose experimental works of fiction were filled with daring and comic turns of imaginative prose, died May 18 of lung cancer at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was 77.

Mr. Sorrentino, a self-educated writer who taught for many years at Stanford University, won the plaudits of critics and scholars while enduring chronic neglect from mainstream publishers. Nevertheless, his influence with younger writers belied his limited appeal in the marketplace.

Mr. Sorrentino wrote 18 novels, several books of poetry, essays and other works. He mined his Brooklyn boyhood in several novels, and his works were often hilarious and sexually frank, but the paramount subjects were innovative uses of language and structure.

"Gilbert Sorrentino is one of our bravest, finest and least-read writers," novelist and editor Jeffrey Frank wrote in The Washington Post in 2002.

Characters from other writers' works wandered into Mr. Sorrentino's novels, he spoofed the conventions of popular fiction, and he sometimes left sentences hanging, presenting a blurred, multidimensional view of life through a kaleidoscope of words.

His 1971 novel, "Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things," was a sendup of the New York art world and included comical footnotes and a narrator snarling at his readers.

Among Mr. Sorrentino's finest works was "Mulligan Stew" (1979), in which he borrowed characters and structural elements from James Joyce, Dashiell Hammett, Flann O'Brien and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novel's central character, a crime novelist, was so inept that his characters plotted ways to escape their literary fate.

In one passage, a parody of hard-boiled detective fiction, Mr. Sorrentino wrote: "I crushed my glass in my hand. I didn't feel the pain except as part of the constant pain that was my whole bitter, shabby life."

Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda called the book "utterly dazzling . . . and perhaps the most corrosive satire of the literary scene since early Aldous Huxley. This is a novel with all the stops pulled out, Gilbert Sorrentino's masterpiece."

"Sorrentino invented ways of doing things in fiction that opened up all kinds of possibilities for other writers to come," John O'Brien, director of the Dalkey Archive Press, Mr. Sorrentino's former publisher, said yesterday. "With young writers that I work with -- writers in their twenties or early thirties -- Sorrentino is the most cited as the writer they love to read and has most taught them something about the art of fiction."

Mr. Sorrentino was born in Brooklyn and developed an early interest in the writings of Joyce, Franz Kafka and Arthur Rimbaud. He attended Brooklyn College and served in the Army Medical Corps during the Korean War. After a variety of menial jobs, he edited a short-lived magazine and worked in publishing before beginning his teaching career in the 1960s.

Mr. Sorrentino did not have a college degree but knew Greek and Latin and was fluent in several languages. In 1982, he joined the faculty at Stanford, where he taught literature and writing for 20 years. He never adapted to life in California -- he learned to drive at age 52 -- and after retiring immediately moved back to Brooklyn.

"The happiest day of my life," he said, "was when I sold my car -- the last thing I did in California."

Every new work of fiction for Mr. Sorrentino became an adventure in invention. In his 1985 novel "Odd Number," he mocked a character called Dr. Plot as "the worst writer the world has ever known." In "Gold Fools" (2001), Mr. Sorrentino wrote every sentence in the form of a question.

He received two Guggenheim Fellowships and was a two-time finalist for the PEN/Faulkner fiction prize. Last year, he received the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award for literature. He completed his final manuscript two weeks before his death.

His first marriage, to Elsene Wiessner, ended in divorce. A daughter from that marriage, Delia Sorrentino, died in 2003.

Survivors include his wife, Victoria Ortiz, of Brooklyn; a son from his first marriage, Jesse Sorrentino; a son from his second marriage, Christopher Sorrentino; and three grandchildren.

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