ROSE THEATRE

By Gilbert Sorrentino

The Dalkey Archive Press. 139 pp. $20

GILBERT SORRENTINO's new novel, Rose Theatre, begins thus: "Baal, the cat, King of the Invisible. In France, the girl on a rock in a field, thighs pressed modestly together. Off-white raw silk shift, a peach-colored silk slip with white lace hem and bodice. A full bottle of Bromo-Seltzer. 'What a girl!' Go slow."

Go slow indeed. Rose Theatre, the second part of a projected trilogy, is a torrent, a furious and often obscene account of artists, pornographers, and other denizens of a world that has obsessed Sorrentino for years. It washes over you, the language soaks in, and you find yourself in a place instantly familiar and utterly repellent. In that way, Rose Theatre is typical of Sorrentino's recent novels: witty, bitter, baffling replies to the modern age -- "the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling" (a Shakespearean phrase admired by Sorrentino).

It is a place where voices emerge and recede: "How many times a year do I enrage Lou by suggesting that professional football players are probably fairies? Why does Lou become angry when I tell him that I'll never read Finnegans Wake?" Sorrentino's teasing sensibility is rarely absent: "There is nothing that can take the place of sincerity. Craft and sincerity. Craft and sincerity and the need to, the real need to tell stories." And quite conventional narratives are begun and instantly abandoned: "Olga Begone, a very thin poet who had kept hidden, for some years, a novel, Zeppelin Days, written while a student, took a good look at Ellen one day as the latter chopped shallots and cabbage for one of her special dishes . . ."

To be sure, Rose Theatre is a novel, the author's 11th, but for Sorrentino that means a prolonged flirtation with our expectations of realism and continuity and all those elements that make up conventional fiction. "There's never any rush," Sorrentino writes, "the truth, the facts, are all here, they do not have to be hurried into prominence. Serenely, they'll assert themselves . . ." And so, sometimes, they do.

Perhaps Rose Theatre is, as claimed, even part of a trilogy (its immediate predecessor was Odd Number, published two years ago), but in fact the trilogy or tetralogy or whatever it becomes is rather an impressionistic extension of Sorrentino's 1971 book, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things -- one of the funniest and very likely the meanest novel we have about the lives, lusts and vanities of artists and writers.

In Rose Theatre, apparently set two decades later, many of the characters from Imaginative Qualities have become all the worse for wear. Someone called Dick Detective has, for example, acquired an addiction to marrying women named Karen, or renaming his new wives Karen. A sculptor is apparently still in a coma after 25 years, an injury that came "as the direct result of his penchant for donning women's clothing."

It is a very strange bunch that has seized Sorrentino's imagination, and they pass in a rush as the author chronicles their memories, artistic pretensions and sexual proclivities. But what he is up to, finally, is not anything approximating a narrative, or even a meditation. He wants to engage us, through glimpses of life, in life itself.

"{I}t may be seen," he writes, "that rigorous attention to the most pedestrian details of human relationships may yield surprising data if not any decent 'yarns.' Such data, while probably of little use to any understanding of the people involved in said relationships, may, however, allow us to draw certain conclusions about the truth behind the facade of social, public intercourse."

Rose Theatre should not be labeled "experimental" (no one is more experienced at this sort of thing than Sorrentino), but it is incomprehensible if one attempts to connect one section to another, or even follow a person from one page to another. You may, for example, find yourself wondering whether a number of people with French-sounding names (Le'onie Aubois, Sylvia Lacruseille, Annette Lorpailleur) are separate characters, or one and the same, or perhaps both. A great many folk pass through this slim volume, and so do a great many names without people attached to them.

An impatient reader might find this self-indulgent nonsense; or, coming upon the lists and puns and rhythms of popular songs, judge it neo-Joycean arcana. Sorrentino might not disagree -- bumpy roads often lead to the mountaintop; or he might cite the lawyer in a previous book, whose plagiarism defense "lucidly and penetratingly argues that any one work of popular fiction is substantially the same as all other works of popular fiction."

Rose Theatre certainly is not popular fiction. But Sorrentino's ear for dialect and metaphor is perfect, his creations, however brief their presence, are vivid, and much of his writing is very funny and clever, often piled with allusions: "She knew that she looked good, even fetching, in her severe tweeds and flannels, chastely cut, sure, yet alluringly contrasted with her strong and beautifully molded legs, encased, in the time-honored phrase of Wordsworth, 'in nylons taut like gold to fairy thinness beat.' "

AS A NOVELIST, poet and occasional critic, Sorrentino has established an artistic beachhead over the past 20 years; one could think of him, with his rigorous clinging to a very private imagination, as a sort of American literary conscience. His last few books are a struggle, but you go along because, when they are taken together, he is constructing something unusual. He makes you want to return to his other work, to more closely inspect the novelistic world he's made and is making.

In his collection of essays, Something Said, he writes a bit about creating fiction very much like Rose Theatre: "If {the writer} is lucky, information long lost, or partially remembered, or completely forgotten by the 'ordinary man,' is held gingerly by the 'other man,' the man inside, and released as it is needed. . . The process might be compared to working a jigsaw puzzle which not only does not have an illustrative paradigm as guide, but one in which the pieces themselves are continually changing shape."

Rose Theatre, like Odd Number and the remarkable Mulligan Stew, is made up of some very peculiar pieces indeed. Bibliophilia, pornography, frenetic monologues and lists of female undergarments take up pages; one section maddeningly connects only the sentences of every other paragraph.

Sorrentino attempts some awfully daring leaps, and at the end, he may not have landed safely, or even landed at all. But you marvel at the simple, precarious moment when he is aloft.

Jeffrey A. Frank is an editor in the Style section of The Washington Post and author of a novel, "The Creep."