THE PASTORAL has always been a highly conventionalized, artificial literary form which, though its "content" was derived from nature, had none of nature's muck and stink soiling the shepherd and his sheep. Invented by the Greeks, its vision and style flowered among Renaissance poets, neo-classicists, and romantics. The chief pleasure of such poetry is formal; that is, seeking what inventions are possible within an unreal world whose strictures derive from literature rather than nature.
Gilbert Sorrentino's Blue Pastoral follows the pastoral tradition with a kind of vengeance, twisting and turning the form to comic purposes. As "someone" (the authenticity of the narrator remains in question) gently reminds the reader, there is a story here which ever so slowly unfolds: Serge (Blue) Gavotte, his wife Helene, and son Zimmerman go west in Blue's quest for the "perfect musical phrase." The itinerary they follow may be vaguely familiar: it is the same journey that the family took in Sorrentino's desolute, uncomic first novel, The Sky Changes. With pushcart and piano (Blue's chosen instrument, fascinated as he is by the fact that both the white and black keys produce music), the trio follows the structure determined for them by another book.
Yet a "plot" exists -- as it does for Sterne, Rabelais, and the Flaubert of Bouvard and Pecuchet -- in digression, fabrication, and pretext. If you set characters on a journey (see Chaucer) and if you strip the book of any realistic motive (see hundreds of remaindered contemporary novels), then you have almost endless possibilities for what may happen. So, with the forms and conventions of the pastoral in hand, and the structure of The Sky Changes as the map, Sorrentino executes what is, I think, his true plan in this book -- an anatomy of language.
But here we should distinguish between Sorrentino and the "author" of Blue Pastoral. In some odd way, the novel seems like something that Antony Lamont -- the crazed, failed novelist in Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew -- would have written. Flaubert's ambition was to compose a book without content, and I believe Sorrentino's has been to write a book without an author. The point here is that Blue Pastoral is deliberately "badly" written. Or to put this another way, each chapter appears to be an exercise in how language is abused, tortured, and made senseless, as though the silence towards which Beckett's language strives (i.e. language at a dead-end) has now been filled with sound, though this sound is the ephemera of popular magazines, political rhetoric, advertisements, pop songs, academese, and so on. However, the "author" of this book does not know that he is the victim of this language. Instead, he hysterically and madly goes on employing it, heightening it, glorifying it. In brief, Blue Pastoral is a kind of catalogue of the ways in which already corrupted language proliferates itself, ending in utter chaos.
Consider one example of how all this works. "La Musique et les mauvaises herbes" is a naughty French novel, produced in full, which Blue reads along the way (as I say, this is a book of digressions). As a naughty novel, it isn't all that naughty, and therefore is a failure as pornography. Which makes it doubly bad. Second, its form is that of the dialogue exercises found in elementary French grammars, those in which one student tells another that the Rhone is a river, and the other student asks if the Rhone is a large river.So, we have that kind of nonsense here. Further, this dialogue is "translated" by someone unfamiliar with English idiom, so that it comes out like this: "I will hit his face off him for an insult of this order. I make insistence that I only can find you jolly with your clothing removed, or pieces of it!" Yet, as is his wont, Sorrentino uses this French masterpiece as a kind of mirror for what happens throughout the rest of the book; reduced to its content, the story is one of deceit, infidelity, failed desire, frustration, and illusion, which fairly well describes Blue's heroic travels.
The skewed language of "La Musique" reflects the nature of the languages used in other chapters: Congressman Glubit's speech defending himself against the charge of bestiality with sheep; his wife's discussion of the arts; the stop in Nashville (composed from the titles of pop songs); New Orleans (titles of jass compositions by way of French writers and books -- e.g., "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" by "The Inquisitors starring Bobi Pinget" and that favorite "Black and Blue" by "Zoot Roussel"); Father Debris' talk on sex; the Painted Desert, whose colors, I believe, exist only in the minds and advertisements of paint manufacturers, etc. When the Gavottes enter the Petrified Forest, the chapter is made of dead or petrified language: passive constructions, vague nouns, wandering pronouns, qualified phrasing, and repetitions. In the end, the language and the mechanics of writing become completely unhinged. The last chapter appears to consist of phrases drawn from the rest of the book, now strangely combined. Lines are missing (but missing (from what?); and exclamation points, question marks, and sentence fragments fill the pages. Language has gone mad.
In Blue Pastoral Gilbert Sorrento has done what artists always try to do: he has made and shaped a work whose brilliance -- in this case comic brilliance -- is awesome, pure, and perfectly executed.