PROCRASTINATED RAPE used to be one of the boldest plots around, but lately its taboo's been talked to death and the plot has lost its secret pull. Procrastinated seduction, however, still goes strong as a plot that appeals to us on a more or less everyday level, mixing collusion with inevitability of gradualness, and sketchily implying the deliciousness of means over end. The means lasts longer than the end, anyway, if tradition is to be believed. The music is from Ravel's Bolero .
In Aberration of starlight Gilbert Sorrentino uses procrastinated seduction not as voluptuous delay but as a gamble that just wasn't in the cards. Salesman Tom Thebus isn't the delaying type; he really lusts for father-dominated Marie Recco, but -- thwarted by fate, the author, and hesitant Marie herself -- has to make do with a series of second-bests, either going halfway with Marie or all the way with a bevy of kewpie dolls who thrust their wads of Juicy Fruit into his open mouth and sometimes involve him in group action in unlikely places. He puts Marie out of his mind only to find her sneaking in again. Fetishism abounds. She keeps his tobacco pouch and he composes a prurient letter asking for a keepsake ("Perhaps a small intimate garment . . . that has lived close to your sweet pure skin"), then takes her dancing at the WigWam, only in the end to think of less desirable women who have served him better.
This is a tease novel, then, and not very gratifying at that. Tom is a bore and Marie is banal. Instead of discovering or inventing compensations that would free them, as characters, from the anonymous patterns of libido and denial, they back off into the twaddle that surrounds them. Their heads, and what little is in them, dominate the narrative and keep on coming through direct, without much of the narritorial intervention that could render shades of feeling they feel but can't express. Indeed, the narrator, who shows up rarely, seems even more buried in the stuff of their lives than they are. Floating into a casino on Tom's arm, Marie decides it was like "being with Clark Gable or George Brent," and that's that. A list of Marie's favorite poems reveals her awful taste, but not why she likes them -- which a sensitive narrator could have explained articulately on her behalf. At the WigWam, we're told, "She decided on a Tom Collins and Tom did too, it was warm and they tasted good, she'd always liked a good Collins anyway, not too sweet." Yards of this, ostensibly to document humdrum lives in the time of the Depression, send you away from the book altogether, or the chapters about Marie's son Billy, who broods on corsets and got a Certificate for Clear Speech from P.S. 170, or her bigot of a croquet-fancying father, who stunts his daughter's private life and is of potential interest, meriting more density and subtlety in presentation.
The problems with this book is implicit in the title, culled from astronomy. Light from a star comes to us at a seeming angle because we are in motion across the line to the star. There may be an exact fictional equivalent for this heady bit of physics, but a rough one would have something to do with how perceiving a thing distorts it, which of course applies to narrators too. There is even a French notion that narrators who seem to know everything distort the human condition, which perhaps is why Sorrentino adopts a hands-off attitude, giving the novel over to the characters' own voices, pretending to suppress the pretense that fiction's based upon. "Make what you can of this," the book implies, "it has just arrived slantwise from some Brooklyn people on holiday in a New Jersey boardinghouse in 1939; it's as real as real can be." That's why Abberation of starlight sounds as if a mediocre stan-up comedian is doing "impressions" of Brooklyn folk in a sort of boardwalk vaudeville that misses its own point.
In the end the trope from starlight seems only an excuse for as lazy a book as possible, with the narrator or sponsor tucked naively into nervous little footnotes that don't tell us half as much about the caliber of this writer as the moment when the narrator, telling us about Billy, writes that lemon Jell-O "possessed a tough and rubbery film on its surface." wBilly might have thought "possessed," but only a narrator infected by him to the point of indistinguishability from him wouldn't have said "had." Of course narrators drop into their characters' idioms, but the trick's useful only when the novelist knows what's going on. Imagine what the Faulkner of Absalom, absalom! might have done with this material and you have some idea of how uninventive American realism has become, and how little virtuosity gets a ventriloquist the label "experimental," when all he has is a twinkle in his I.