Saturday, September 17, 2011

Douglas Messerli | The Novel Against Itself (on Sorrentino's Aberration of Starlight and Mulligan Stew)

by Douglas Messerli

Gilbert Sorrentino Aberration of Starlight (New York: Random House, 1980).
Gilbert Sorrentino Mulligan Stew (New York: Grove Press, 1979)

In relation to his earlier fictions—Imaginative Qualities, Splendide-Hôtel, and Mulligan Stew—Gilbert Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight is perplexing, not in terms of linguistic style or content, but in its unabashed use of modernist structures and other narrative techniques. His three previous works—representing such genres as the mock-essay, the fantasy, and the anatomy—were explicit declarations against the novel and its domination of prose literature in the twentieth century. Yet Aberration of Starlight not only announces itself as a novel on its dust-jacket (although, one must admit, that the generic differences of which I am speaking have little to do with what the publisher chooses to call a work), but within its pages it generally behaves as one. Except for one section in each of its four perfectly balanced “acts,” this is a story which presents, primarily in objective narration, the viewpoints of four different characters, mimetically grounded in a specific time and place, whose interactions precipitate thematic dichotomies—“love and separation,” “youth and age,” “innocence and knowledge”—similar to those of the majority of works of twentieth-century fiction. The book, in fact, is imbued with a sense of ironic nostalgia that Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren—those doyens of modern narrative theory—might applaud.

It is not that this fiction is “modern” as opposed to “postmodern,” or even “retrogressive” as opposed to “advanced,” that troubles one; it is just these kinds of categorizations and their mindless devotees which Sorrentino so brilliantly satirizes in Mulligan Stew. Rather, the problem is that in the context of the modern novel, Aberration of Starlight is not seemingly an very original work. In such a genre, Sorrentino’s literary fortes—his stunning leaps of logic, lists, litanies, and mimicries—for the most part are missing, and by the reader are missed. This is not to say that the book is without its obvious pleasures. The white-starched, sunlit world which Marie Recco, her son, father, and would-be suitor inhabit, superficially is as loving and longing a portrait of America as are Edward Hopper’s canvases. Like Hopper, Sorrentino captures the spirit of a people so splendidly naïve that, poised on the edge of World War II, they fail to comprehend their own potential to isolate and hate. The very similarities between Sorrentino and Hopper, however, point to what appears to be the novel’s failure. The reader has been here before, and, on the surface at least, Sorrentino has nothing new to say of it. Describing its characters as boorish and banal, Paul West correctly observes that the novel presents literary figures who,

Instead of discovering or inventing compensations that
would free them as characters, from the anonymous pattern
of libido and denial, …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 narrational 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. (The Washington Post Book World, Sunday, August
31, 1980).

With regard to objective narration and its inherently closed structures, it is as if in Aberration of Starlight Sorrentino has attempted to outdo the moderns. It is not that one necessarily demands a more “contemporary” fiction; it is simply that one is less satisfied by an anachronistic one.

If such comments sound contentious, it is the result of Sorrentino having set up certain expectations in his previous fictions, which appear thwarted in this new book. But that very fact encourages one to speculate that this “novel” is not all it seems. There is, after all, that one section in each of the four portraits that does not conform to the prevailing structure of the book, that, in fact, in the prose romance as practiced by the majority of moderns, is clearly out of place. In each of these passages, the narrator intrudes upon his fiction, not only asking direct questions about his characters, but answering them with authorial knowledge not implied in the book’s other parts. For example, the plot of Sorrentino’s fiction gives the reader little indication whether Tom Thebus, the salesman to whom Marie is attracted, is a rakish Romeo “out to get a lay”—as Marie’s father describes him—or whether his interest in Marie is sincere. In most objectively narrative novels such information is conveyed through denouement or is left purposely ambiguous for the reader to piece together from what he or she has gleaned of the characters through their words and acts. But in Aberration of Starlight such impersonal methods are circumvented. “Was Tom indeed a maker of cuckolds?” the narrator asks.

If rumor is to be given credence, the answer is “yes.”
Three men putatively so served were: Lewis D. Fielding,
a junkman of Ossining, N.Y., through his wife, Barbara;
Alfred Bennett Martinez, a plumber of Ozone Park, N.Y.,
through his wife, Danielle; William V. Bell, a shop
teacher of Paterson, N.J., through his wife, Joanne.

Similarly, the reader is told outright that Marie is sexually afraid of men (p. 67), that her father “had energetically conspired in his own defeat” (p. 175), and numerous other pieces of trivial and useful information that radically work against the objective point of view which dominates the rest of the book.

More important, in these four sections, Sorrentino occasionally permits himself the lists and litanies he scrupulously avoids elsewhere in the text. Concerning Marie, for example, the narrator asks:

The names of some of her favorite poets?

Ella Wheeler Wilcox; Blanche Shoemaker Wagstaff; Captain
Cyril Morton Thorne; Burelson St. Charles MacVoute; Dinah
Maria Mulock Craik; Edgar A. Guest; Josiah Gilbert Holland,
Lorna Blakey Flambeaux; H. Antoine D’Arcy; Emma Simpere
Furze; Alaric Alexander Watts; Mary Artemisia Lathbury;
Blanche Bane Kuder; Jean Ingelow; Carruthers Sofa-Jeudi;
Maltbie Davenport Babcock; Nixon Waterman.

This is the stuff of Mulligan Stew and other earlier fictions. Not only are some of the names the same (an entire sheaf of poems by Lorna Flambeaux appears in Mulligan Stew), but the structure of such a listing is of the same kind of pattern that controls Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities.

One understandably is surprised in encountering such structures in the midst of a novel; and, accordingly, one is brought to question whether such passages are simply lapses in what is otherwise a carefully composed novel, or whether they are purposeful intrusions, and, if so, to what effect? I do not pretend to have answers to such questions of authorial intent; but it may be helpful to explore some of the implications of such structures, which, in turn, may suggest why Sorrentino uses them.

The following is a typical listing from Mulligan Stew:

What cannot God do?

A number of things, the more prominent among which are:
make the pivot, shoot the rapids, differential calculus, speak
Spanish, hit in the clutch, carry a tune, get a job, say not, walk
a crooked mile, swim, hold his liquor, support his children,
write a poem, play tennis, pay his bills, trim his beard, shine
his shoes, take a shower, use capital letters, keep his sex life
private, be proud, speak to an angel, take a little walk, boil
lobsters, open clams, like women, cut it out, grow up, move
to Yonkers, cease and desist, jump over the candlestick,
act his age, fly a kite, go two rounds, catch a fish, make a
salad, write a check, wash the windows, eat crow, crack corn,
fly the coop, take a powder, go anywhere alone, bunt, write
a play, stop the shit, cut the comedy, know Brooklyn, mind
his business, sharpen his ax, make an apple pie, honor his father
and mother, be a Jew, shoot crap, make a list, see himself as
others see him, play pool, be joyful and triumphant, take
off his hat, wash a glass, deck the halls, mix a Sazerac, be a
clown, sing in the rain, jump with Symphony side, make ‘em
laugh, stand a ghost of a chance, button up his overcoat,
love a mystery, get started, and shudder….

The immediate purpose and effects of such a list are quite obvious. In this case, the narrator, punning on a cliché, transforms the thing, gold, into a person incapable of actions, triggering a series of new clichés, common expressions, song titles and idioms signifying acts. A listing such as this—this one is from a character’s scrapbook—has little to do with plot, character, place, or theme as readers of twentieth-century fiction have come to think of them. Attempts to relate these actions to characterization, to understand these things of which the character Gold is incapable, would miss the point: Gold has no substance as a character, he/it is merely a thing of language, a pun. There is an “idea” behind this combination of words: that of inaction, which Sorrentino expresses quite concretely; but one recognizes that this “idea” is far less important than the structure it takes. One might suspect, knowing Sorrentino’s writing, that there is a kind of Oulipean logic to this list. But, although one might contrive to find a thematic link in the passage, the very order of these verbal constructions work against any such attempt. For these do not represent a particular kind or even context of acts. “Sing in the rain” may relate to “deck the halls,” “be joyful and triumphant,” “be a clown,” “button up his overcoat,” and even “carry a tune,” but such musical references have little in common with “mind his business,” “sharpen his ax,” or “make an apple pie.” It quickly becomes clear that the focus here is on verbs and little else, on their everyday and idiomatic usages (“shine his shoes” and “stand a ghost of a chance”), on their rhythms and other patterns of sound (“wash the windows, eat crow, crack corn, fly the coop…”) and their syntax. And while there is a beginning and ending to this list of verbals (it opens with the clause, “A number of things,” and closes with the conjunction), one understands it as something akin to a catalogue, as something that, while complete in itself, retains the potential for continuance. The reader, therefore, does not experience the passages as something whole, as organic, even as developmental, but recognizes it as a linguistic sequence capable of being repeated indefinitely, as a pattern of language which—although operating within certain organizing principles—inflects no subordinations upon its constituent parts.

The controlling mechanism of such a passage is not repetition, therefore, but progression. And one need only compare Sorrentino’s list with a passage from the work of another contemporary, William Gass, to understand the significance of this. In In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Gass writes,

The sides of the buildings, the roofs, the limbs of the
trees are gray. Streets, sidewalks, faces, feelings—they are
gray. Speech is gray, and the grass where it shows. Every
flank and front, each top is gray. Everything is gray: hairs,
eyes, window glass, the hawkers’ bills and touters’ posters,
lips, teeth, poles and metal signs—they’re gray, quite gray.
Horses, sheep, and cows, cats killed in the road, squirrels
in the same way, sparrows, doves, and pigeons, all are
gray, everything is gray….

Superficially, Gass’s writing here seems to have much in common with Sorrentino’s; it is a list of things that share a syntactical relationship, that of noun to adjective, with the color gray. But a closer look reveals that Gass’s list functions in a very different structural context. Although they may seem potentially infinite in number, Gass’s nouns are made finite because they are secondary to repetition, are subordinate to the word “gray.” These nouns all point to the word “winter” (mentioned one sentence earlier in the passage) and refer the reader back and forward in each sentence to their adjective. The listing, accordingly, reveals itself as developmental, organic, and whole. Because the list is self-referential within Gass’s work, it is finite and complete. One experiences it less as a catalogue than as an inventory or compendious description. In other words, while progressive structures such as Sorrentino’s may contain repetition, structures of repetition such as Gass’s are not necessarily progressive.

The structure of Gass’s listing, in its organicism and self-referentiality, is perfectly at home in the novel. In its potential of continuance, the structure of Sorrentino’s catalogue points away from its type; it is a sequence of a kind of construction; and, in that fact, it directs the reader’s attention from the temporal context of narrative towards space, towards the world of things he himself inhabits. Mimesis, the heart of modern prose, is undermined as the imitation is transformed into a thing itself: a catalogue of actions, a syntactical grouping of language.
When such catalogues appear in profusion in a fiction, as they do in Mulligan Stew, the effect is devastating. Mimesis and its attendant hand-maidens, character and place, seldom survive. And that is just what Anthony Lamont, the character-novelist central to Mulligan Stew, encounters. Like many moderns, Lamont, an avowed “experimentalist,” manipulates style and content, while tying his fiction to organic structures of character and place. Unlike the great moderns, however, Lamont is what Pound calls a “diluter,” a follower of the inventors and the masters of a tradition, who produces “something of lower intensity, a flabbier variant” (“How to Read”). So inane is Lamont’s writing, so constraining his setting (a mountain cabin wherein the narrator, musing over the body of his murdered friend, awaits the police) that his characters rebel and attempt to escape their fictional confines. Unable to “master” his creations, and faced with what he sees as an increasingly valueless and hostile environment outside his fictional one, Lamont declines into paranoia.

In a 1980 review of Mulligan Stew I suggested that Lamont’s insanity was a negative thing that left the reader with a vision of the world in which language is so denigrated that it brought into question his or her own existence. In a response to that review, Sorrentino wrote me that his intention had been to show that “as Lamont gets crazier he gets better.” My mistake had been to look at the fiction more in terms of content than of structure; I had made presumptions which had less to do with the fiction than with lived experiences. But it is in the structure, not in plot that Sorrentino reveals his concerns. As Lamont moves towards insanity, he gradually embraces the very catalogues, lists, indexes, technical manuals, and other enumerations that—while obsessing both his society and him—are seen as signs of the culture’s decay, and thus separates him from his fiction, from his idealized representation of life. As he embraces these, bit by bit, his fiction is invaded by the progressive structures inherent in his scrapbook. the following appears in the fourth to the last chapter of his novel Lamont’s novel, Crocodile Tears:

In the meantime, our sinisterly slick magicians were
extracting gouts of applause by a series of tricks that,
so I assumed, were designed to “warm up” the audience,
a large moiety of whom, I assure you, were drunkenly
blasé, and replete with doubts and cynicalities of varying
potency. These tricks were, according to Madame
Corriendo, “wand inspired,” and, surely enough, in her
long fingers she held a curious wooden rod of maybe
a foot and a half long, atip at both ends with pointed
caps of a metallic substance, perhaps metal itself! In
some shape or other, I mean alloy, if you are with me.
At the sight of this innocent-appearing chunk of wood,
Ned Beaumont, his eyes watering in loathsome pusillani-
mousity, and his fingers, how do you say it? “plucking”
on the tablecloth, breathed heavily and began to sweat
onto the rather tasteful silverware that had been placed—
and with inherent correctness, too—before him.

Although this passage may at first seem to be descriptive, it actually has very little in common with conventional descriptive narration. What the narrator describes as a “series of tricks,” functions as a sequence that resists a coherent presentation of reality, that works against mimetic relationships. Although it is at first connected with the character Madame Corriendo, the phrase “wand inspired,” for example, directs one’s attention away from character or even action to a list of things in space: her long fingers, a “curious wooden rod,” and its metallic tips. The tips, in turn, permit the narrator to pun on “alloy” (a mixture of metallic substances and “to debase, to impair”); the object of the second meaning, is accordingly the subject of the next sentence, Ned Beaumont, whose actions, once again, point the reader away from the character and his actions to other objects: to the table, the tablecloth, and the “rather tasteful silverware.” Whereas the Gass passage continually refers the reader back to its subject, the writing here moves ceaselessly forward in what Gertrude Stein describes as the sequence of counting “one and one and one and one” rather than “one, two, three, four” (“Poetry and Grammar”). By the time Lamont reaches his last chapter—significantly titled “Making It Up as We Goes Along”—the progressive structure has taken over entirely. There is little difference between its sequence of dialogue and the list of “what Gold cannot do.” Both point to the world outside the fiction, and, in that sense, both create something “new,” something that follows its own language into being rather than merely using language to express the known or preconceived. And Lamont, in this regard, does become a better writer, an inventor of sorts. Yet he too, obviously, is a thing of words; and Mulligan Stew thus ends not with his writing, but with a three and a half page “will,” one final grand listing of the disposition of things. As in the works of Samuel Beckett, both characters and characters’ characters all are subsumed into the flow of words, are sacrificed to the endeavor of naming the imagined as things of sound and space into reality.

In light of these concerns in Mulligan Stew it is almost unthinkable that such structures in Aberration of Starlight are unintentional “lapses” or even mere intrusions upon what is otherwise a conventional prose romance. The effects of such interruptive and progressively structured passages are too deleterious to the mimeticism inherent in the 20th-century novel to be disregarded in a fiction that appears to be imitating it. Let us imagine that in The Sound and the Fury—a novel organized as is Sorrentino’s around the viewpoints of four characters—Faulkner suddenly asked of Caddy, as Sorrentino does of Billy, “How did [s]he feel when [her] grandmother died?” and answered, “[s]he was frightened that she was not really dead because of how she looked in the funeral parlor.” Upon climbing the tree in her muddy drawers (the image Faulkner described as central to his novel), Caddy, in fact, is frightened by what she sees: her dead Damuddy laid out on the bed. But the reader is never told that. Faulkner’s reader must come to his or her conclusions based on Caddy’s later actions, her amoral commitment to things of the world. One is forced to evaluate her, in other words, as one would a living being, and the character is made to seem more real by that fact.

Faulkner represents an extreme of objective narration. An omniscient narrator might simply tell the reader in passing how Caddy or Bill felt. But even so, by first asking the question, Sorrentino draws attention to himself, to the author, or, at the very least, to some imagined narrator of the work; and, in so doing he reiterates the fact that his character is merely a creation, a thing of words. When this is done several times, as it is in Aberration of Starlight, the whole begins to function as its own progressive sequence, as a series of authorial intrusions which, like the list of Gold’s inactions, point the reader away from any reality that the fiction is attempting to imitate, towards the world which reader and author cohabit outside the book. The fact that some of these particular questions and commands also are progressive in structure further helps to undercut the organicism and mimesis of the prose romance.

Yet one must recall it is the extreme objectivism of Faulkner to which the rest of Sorrentino’s book seems to aspire. Such extremes are too radical merely to be sloughed off by calling Sorrentino, as Guy Davenport has, a “Late Eclectic Modern.” For these are reconcilable systems; as the fiction itself demonstrates, one cannot serve God and mammon both. Made conscious of his or her own world through the progressive structures, faced with knowledge that lies “outside the book,” so to speak, the reader gradually is placed in the role of voyeur in relation to Marie Recco and the other characters in the book. Sorrentino accentuates this feeling by framing several of his scenes as if in a photograph. The fiction begins, indeed, with the photographic image:

There is a photograph of the boy that shows him at
age ten. He is looking directly into the camera, holding
up a kitten as if for our inspection, his right hand at
her neck, his left hand underneath her body, supporting
the animal’s weight. The sun is intensely bright, and he
squints at us, smiling, his white even teeth too large
for his small face.

When, moreover, the author alternates such framing techniques with personal letters, interior monologues, and descriptions of intimate sexual encounters (“He pulled his fly open and yanked his hard-on out of his pants, then grabbed her hand and told her to look at him…”), the result is almost pornographic. Peering down from Gulliverian heights, the reader begins to comprehend how completely such techniques—all perfectly at home in the modern novel—close the fiction’s characters within a claustrophobic structure to which there is no direct access, only resemblance to real life.

Such an impenetrable world is Lilliputian, a world inhabited by the near-sighted and small-minded. Each of the fiction’s characters, as Paul West notes, is unable break out of his or her behavioral patterns. But that is just Sorrentino’s point. As do his narrative techniques, his characters represent the extreme of the Romantic dichotomy of self and world; and, as such, they have fallen into solipsism. Those outside the self are transformed from individuals into cliché and epithet. A single paragraph must serve as example in a fiction pervaded by racial epithets, euphemisms, and exaggerated similes and metaphors.

Dare I call you, Marie darling? Or should I address
you, you swell thing, as Mrs. Recco, prostrating my-
self before your tiny feet in formality. Like a monkey
in a tuxedo on a chain held by an old dago? And of
course I beg you to forgive that terrible word knowing
you, dear princess and Queen of sweetness were once
married to a dago and so got your name. But I don’t
hold that against you, not on your life, darling!

Such writing may be funny, but its implications are horrifying. There is little possibility that anyone might escape from such a “prison-house of language.” In so solipsistic a vision, love and communication cannot exist; at book’s end, Marie, her father, son, and would-be lover are as frozen in time and place as the photograph with which the work began.

It becomes apparent that what was first perceived as a bittersweet presentation of post-World War II America, is, in the end, an indictment of the modern novel and the vision inherent in its structures. By exaggerating those structures and juxtaposing them with the progressive structures of contemporary fiction, Sorrentino clearly demonstrates the dangers of any closure. In short, in Aberration of Starlight Sorrentino uses the novel against itself; the organicism of the modern novel turns in to swallow its own tale. Like its predecessors, this fiction explores, through its own telling, the nature of art, which, ultimately, Sorrentino seems to argue, is all any fiction can hope to accomplish. Imitation and ideas, he makes clear, have little to do with art. Writing in The Washington Post Book World, Sorrentino recently argued,

For some reason, incomprehensible to me, [the]
mimetic concept has all but defined the “important”
novels of this country. We love our novelists to be
seers, to have Important Ideas…. (February 13, 1980)

The structures of Sorrentino’s fiction seldom stand for the world, but pointing outward, define and become one with the world; like the last chapter of Lamont’s Crocodile Tears, Sorrentino’s works make up the world as they go along. In his fiction it is as with starlight, what appears to be traveling at an angle to the direction of the observer—what appears as an aberration—actually travels in a straight line between the observer and its source.

Philadelphia and College Park, Maryland, 1980
Portions of this essay reprinted from “The Role of Voice in NonModernist Fiction,” Contemporary Literature, XXV, no. 3 (Fall 1984).

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