IF EVER THERE WAS a writer destined to portray the information glut and babble of voices that are life in the '80s, Gilbert Sorrentino is the one. He has always been a maverick more concerned with methodology than message, constructing fictions that will never be confused with conventional narratives or drugstore best sellers, and which revel in being as artificial, demanding, and non-referential as possible. In Odd Number, his 20th book and eighth novel, Sorrentino investigates yet another formal problem -- the disintegration inherent in the investigative process. By calling into question the whole notion of truth, and trust, he manipulates the very nature of facts. Reality is always suspect.
Sorrentino is a master of artifice. He uses gossip, hearsay, innuendo and confession to disrupt communication. In the era of engaged fiction and new realism, Sorrentino -- like Walter Abish, John Barth, Thomas Berger and John Hawkes -- creates fictions which avoid analysis and instead manipulate language. Sorrentino has always dismissed literature that strives for meaning, for moral, that attempts to reflect the so-called real world. Like other "metafiction" writers, his novels are self-referential in that he cannibalizes or mines his existing work -- here borrowing the red wind-up pig toy from The Sky Changes and Aberration of Starlight, along with Antony Lamont ("well-known cult-coterie-raffin,e author"), the hack writing main character of Mulligan Stew; Lorna Flambeaux (whose erotic poetry chapbook, The Sweat of Love, was inserted into the text of Mulligan Stew); and other characters or titles. Sorrentino fans will have a field day deciphering the text.
Experimenting with disembodied voices is not new to Sorrentino. Steelwork and Crystal Vision read like taped conversations (of a sort), Mulligan Stew featured extensive lists (a Rabelaisian trait Sorrentino embraces) and long epistolary sections, and now the old Q&A urge has led to actual depositions (possibly police statements or court documents).
The depositions refer to a party or several parties, or a script/novel/film called The Party (possibly all of the above -- we're never sure), wherein a large group of characters may or may not be involved in blackmail/pornography/erotic fashion/writing & publishing/the art world, etc. They betray each other or they don't. So much of the remembered dialogue is second- or even third-hand that the narrators can hardly be deemed reliable; the context calls into question every word they utter. The statements have a fragmented, gossipy soap-operatic quality -- we're never sure who's doing what to whom, as characters shift behind fake names, manipulate each other, and recur in different guises.
THE BOOK is designed as a triptych with each section featuring a different style of voice. The book is recursive and inductive in that each section comments on and draws (or perhaps simply transfers) material from other sections. The voice in the first section is stubborn, the responses drawn out with awkward persistence by the interrogator. (A posed series of questions sets the ground and the reader must infer the rest of the interrogator's questions from the responses.) The voice of the second section is ultra hip (something Sorrentino always derides) and talkative. The halting language and repetition of the first narrator clash with the glib, smooth-talking style of the second. The straightforward last section defuses much of the information we've retained and confuses events and conversations still more. The murder that has apparently taken place at the end of section two appearsnot to have happened. The final section is in part a refutation of nearly everything that came before.
"What about the quality of the information given me by other informants?"
"It is somewhat distorted by omissions, exaggerations, inventions, fantasies, confusions, prejudices, egoism, faulty memories, contradictions, and outright lies."
This is Sorrentino's method. Odd Number is a cogent demonstration of how writing gets written. The writing process is "a tissue of lies." His intention is not to convey a message, though the very forms he commands satirize society in ways that lesser writers belabor. Rarely do you get the sense that the author believes what his characters say, what he's made them say. But throughout the book these characters conduct a devastating assault on critics, artistic pretension, traditional fiction, and phoniness, while undermining every tendency toward "abstract lyricism," Sorrentino's bete noire.
Plot is ridiculed (Dr. Plot is "the worst writer the world has ever known"); Sorrentino even includes several variations of the Odd Number plot within the text. The "meaning" or significance of language is separate and distinct from human interpretation. Language is an ikon. The integrity of language itself is axiomatic. And that is precisely the point.
Characters frequently wax eloquent on the glory of a particular word or phrase, the sound of it. And one of the real pleasures of Sorrentino's writing is in the apt-sounding but ridiculous book and movie titles he invents -- Hellions in Hosiery, Baltimore Chop, Mouth of Steel, Isolate Flecks, Jog Your Way to Orgasm, Sythetic Ink, I'll Eat Your Eyeballs, and Hip Vox -- plus character names like Sol Blanc, April Detective, Horace Rosette, Barnett Tete, Lolita Kahane, Sister Rose Zeppole, Harlan Pungoe, Roger Whytte-Blorenge, Baylor Freeq, Annie Flammard, and Annette Lorpailleur. The novel ends with an open-ended coln, creating a moebius strip feeding back to the first paragraph.
Most of Sorrentino's work has appeared through independent publishing channels. These difficult novels defy labeling, and with the exception of Mulligan Stew and Aberration of Starlight, have been overlooked by all but the most sophisticated readers. Perhaps this new novel will bring Sorrentino the wider recognition he deserves.