CRYSTAL OR AMBER? The novelist of memory must choose how best to enclose and preserve the past: in clear glitter or colored filter, as it was then or as it was now. Crystal Vision is a remarkable work of transparence, both artfully faceted in its construction and vital--full of speaking fossils--in the life it remembers. Crystal, too, because with his micro-minicosm of a Brooklyn block circa 1947 Gilbert Sorrentino predicts a future we recognize as our present, newly understood through the novelist's ball.
Sorrentino, now 52, has been publishing poetry and fiction, mostly with small presses, usually with little recognition, for two decades. In 1979 his Joycean encyclopedia of parody, Mulligan Stew, brought him critical attention. Since then, Sorrentino has moved away from high literariness and self-regarding performance to what can be called ethnic experimentalism. Last year's Aberration of Starlight is a Catholic Sound and the Fury, the album of an Irish-Italian family escaping the Brooklyn summer of 1939 in a rural New Jersey boarding house.
Now, in Crystal Vision, Sorrentino goes back beyond print and pictures for his models: tribal talk; candy- store gossip, story, and dreaming aloud; the late-afternoon chatter that defines kinship and success in a street-corner civilization. Other ethnic writers--Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Leslie Silko--have returned to ancient oral models to create innovative fiction. Sorrentino unearths Brooklyn discourse before TV and before the Dodgers, with the rest of America, moved to the Southern Rim.
Crystal Vision has 78 short chapters, almost all of them wholly composed of conversations among a central group of six to eight voices and perhaps 20 peripheral figures. Setting is only mentioned; Vogler's store and Pat's tavern are auditory, not visual, space. Stories abound, wonderful anecdotes about futile horse-playing and heroic girl-chasing, family eccentricities and accidents, the daily activities of the under-employed and self-educated; but no single narrative develops as the talk yarns on through Little Mickey's tale of seeing the Pope in a San Francisco Macy's, "Doc" Friday's theory of time, Big Duck's erotic fancies, and choral stories of religious and ethnic competition.
Names, tropisms, and verbal habits recur but in Crystal Vision character is composite, tribal rather than personal and bourgeois. Though "The Arab" used to be an auto mechanic and Drummer has an unhappy marriage, their essential experience is belonging to this culture, hearing and being said by other voices. All quotation, the text has no quotation marks, no elegant variations of he says, she says. The dominant illusion is tape, authorially unmediated speech. This is crystal's transparent authority.
But Sorrentino is no Studs Terkel. Crystal is artifice too, magic. Rummy Gene Phillips dresses up as a magician but fails to transform the block into a flowering garden. Here magic is collective and daily, the power of the central group of speakers. They are all men, most middle-aged or older, history-minded: priests. They don't just record their culture; they make it up and revise it day to day. As the novel progresses through its several months, what these elders say increasingly changes the actual world, not the way gossip has effects, but literally, physically, impossibly, and truly. They give others thoughts; others unconsciously speak their words. Though three blocks away, Irma Huckle begins to talk with an Irish brogue when, in a story about her, someone mentions Mamie Mullins. Eddy has a dream of stabbing characters, and they feel the pain. In Crystal Vision the vertiginous fun-house effect of much experimental writing by Barth, Coover, and other WASPs finds an appropriate cultural analogue. In their walled block, Sorrentino's people are characters in the on-going, polyphonal story they tell themselves and Sorrentino tells us.
Dramatizing the neighborhood myth-making process, the novel also examines the materials with which these Brooklyn bricoleurs create. Movies, as in Aberration of Starlight, provide large and stupid images; print, whether the Daily News or popular novels, is almost as false. Somehow the characters all share a vision of a pastoral princess, perhaps a distant memory or forecast of the suburban housewife idealized. This vision and movie-love dreams interfere with the mundane matter of sex and marriage. Tribalism, like crystal, constricts as well as protects.
Though harsh on manufactured dreams, Sorrentino is more often a comic anthropologist, collector of street wit, repertory routines, and some Bowery Boys antics. Several of his main voices are literary; they are made funny by malapropism, sentiment, or naive responses to pretence: "As a member of the vast working-class audience," complains Irish Billy, "I like to know if I'm getting the straight dope." Sorrentino somewhat improbably puts into his dummies' mouths literary parodies, critical apercus, and the lists the author loves. As Gene Phillips, speaking for Sorrentino, says after foreseeing the deaths of all the characters: "I'll look at them differently, anyway. With more kindness. Maybe. But after all I still have to do my magician things."
Kibitzing on each other's stories, the characters raise the objections to his book that Sorrentino chances: "such small slabs of life," "strictly private stuff," "sophistry and cant," "literary bullshit," "fake nostalgia." The criticisms are contradictory (if not quite canceling) because Sorrentino gives up the middle ground of probability to join extremes of verisimilitude and artifice. While his intents may at first be ''obscure," and his meanings "crepsular," as "The Arab" puts it, Sorrentino's risky methods work to balance fondness for his folk and recognition of their limitations. Near the novel's end, one of the rare speeches by women extends this recognition of limits to the suburban society that replaced the neighborhood, the popular culture now purchased instead of heard for free. Looked at and listened to through Crystal Vision, the freedom of front yards and machine-delivered messages seems small. Small and quiet.