Saturday, September 17, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Runaway Moon, or The Duchess of Lust (on Sorrentino's The Moon in Its Flight)

by Douglas Messerli

Gilbert Sorrentino The Moon in Its Flight (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004).

As a long fiction and short story writer, an essayist, poet, and teacher, Gilbert Sorrentino has several personas; and in his short stories he uses many voices, but there are two opposing voices I’d like briefly to explore.

In about half the works of The Moon in Its Flight, Sorrentino, creates short linguistically focused tales in which characters are basically, as Martin Riker, writing in The Review of Contemporary Fiction has described them, “wooden puppets whose possibilities of movement and/or choice are confined within their small worlds to the predictable words and gestures available to their narrators.” Indeed, in these works—“The Dignity of Labor,” “The Sea, Caught in Roses,” “A Beehive Arranged on Humane Principles,” “Pastilles,” “Sample Writing Sample,” “Lost in the Stars” and others—the emphasis in not on character but rather on language itself organized around definitions, descriptions, lists and other various structures. “Pastilles,” for example—a satire, in part, on New York School poetry guru Ted Berrigan—is structured around several recurring figures and images: Napolean and his battles, including his defeat by Lord Nelson; optical illusions; and lemons, to name three. “The Dignity of Labor” recounts four incidents between management and employees that reveal the necessary desperation of the latter:

You will discover that the stationery on the shelves is nothing, really,
other than good American paper and nothing but; nothing to be in
awe of, letterheads or no. And you would do well to ignore the rumors
suggesting otherwise. Rumors of all sorts are born and circulate in a
large and virtually omnipotent corporation such as this one. They emanate,
for the most part, from the “creative” divisions of the firm, the Professional
Trash-Fiction Division, the Memoir Division, the Hip-Youth Division, the
Sure-Fire Division, the Dim-Bulb Division, the Texas School-Adoption-
of-Everything Division, the Devout-Christian Rapture-Mania Division,
the Unborn-Child-Series Division, as well as those divisions that support
what the company likes to think of as its old soldiers—those editors,
publicists, accountants, and lunch-eaters who have made their lives into
one long testament to their belief that they have done their best to make
real for all humankind the kind of book that is both an exciting read
and a contribution to the general culture of regular Americans….

In these pieces, which are so sharply satirical that there is no attempt at mimesis, the author empties his tales of any remnant of humanity, going straight for the jugular vein in these short works, or centering his language on Oulipean-like devices that call attention to form over matter. There is no question that these works are tours de force of writing, but ultimately they entertain more than they evoke any substantial emotional response outside of laughter, even though we might recognize ourselves at the periphery or even at the center of the stories themselves.

I prefer, however, what I’d describe as the “other” Sorrentino, a writer who, despite his often caustic demeanor and hard-boiled attitudes toward life in general, at heart, is a poet who detests while being attracted to sentiment, a kind of wise fool who desires to believe what he himself has determined is not worthy of belief. It is almost as if Sorrentino has never recovered from the recognition that many of his early childhood ideals were revealed to be false, an apparently devastating realization that he summarizes in a poem, “Razzmatazz,” the first the stanza of which reads:

Young and willing to learn (but what?) he was the boy
With the sweaty face the boy of the Daily News
The boy of bananas peanut butter and lemon-lime
Who read Ching Chow waiting for the punch line
Who watched the sun more often than not a bursting rose
Swathe the odd haze and clumps of the far-off shore.

The poem ends, in part, where it began, but the tone has moved from one of possibility to cynicism:

Young and willing to learn (but what?) he was the boy
Who found that the fabled dreams were fabled
In that their meaning was their own blurred being
Who suddenly found his alien body to be the material
From which could be made a gent or even life. Life?
Young and willing to learn oh certainly. But what?

In the long, final story of The Moon in Its Flight, “Things That Have Stopped Moving,” Sorrentino covers similar ground in a beautiful description of the narrator’s Sicilian father—clearly with autobiographical overtones—who, dressed in his white Borsalino suit and snap-brim fedora, bets his fellow ship-cleaning workers that he can walk through a Norwegian freighter—in those days Norwegian ships were known for their filthy conditions—“without getting a spot or smudge or smear of oil or dirt or rust on his clothes or hat.” To his then-young son’s amazement, he puts down a wad of cash and proceeds to walk through the Trondheim without a spot. In the context of a tale in which the narrator presents himself as a self-loathing slave to his lust for his friend Ben’s wife, Clara—so well-known for her sexual escapades with men that the narrator himself describes her as “a duchess of lust”—this dream-like image stands in opposition to what his father might have desired for him but which he, in his own generation, cannot obtain—a kind of sureness of self and grace in living. Cast out of Eden, perfection for the son has no appeal; it is the squalid, “filthy” little lives of him and his friends that drive him forward in what he himself describes as a “dementia.”

In “In Loveland” the narrator tells the story of his collapsing relationship with his wife, a perfectly petite doll-like figure of a woman, who ultimately has an affair with the husband’s empty-minded former-employer and friend, Charlie, who finishes off their marriage, with the narrator’s wife’s encouragement, by imitating his friend in costume and manner—in short, by becoming and, symbolically, “replacing” him. In the middle of this typical story of failed love, however, Sorrentino posits a stranger, Hawthorne-like tale concerning an accident that occurred to his wife just before their marriage. Falling down a flight of subways steps—accidentally or on purpose—his fiancée is temporarily scarred with a huge scab over one side of face. The appearance of this scab somehow makes her appear almost as a stranger and, accordingly, increases the narrator’s lust for her. Indeed, from the marriage until the healing and disappearance of the scab, he is sexually aroused by her “new” face, so perfect on one side and so flawed on the other. As the “scar” disappears so does his fervor dissipate. Like the narrator of “Things That Have Stopped Moving,” this narrator is more attracted by the flaws of the woman than by the perfection his wife will later seem to represent to other men.

In some ways Sorrentino is our most “American” writer, cataloguing as he does the psychoses of the child-adults of our society. Like Scott Fitzgerald, Sorrentino seems effortlessly to present a world where men and women merrily delude themselves with art, literature, alcohol and drugs that they are living “happy” and meaningful lives, while in truth their dreary lives are almost completely empty. The author’s most Fitzgeraldian stories in this volume, “Pyschopathology of Everyday Life” and “Land of Cotton,” clearly present the phenomenon.

The self-deluded characters of the latter story, Joe Doyle—who transforms his family name for Lionni or Leone to Lee, ultimately claiming he is a descendent of Robert E. Lee—his wife Hope and mistress Helen, whom he ultimately jilts as she lays dying of cancer, are obviously all self-deluded beings seeking a reality to match.

The first story is representative, once again, of Sorrentino’s fascination with a seemingly Edenic world suddenly revealed as disastrously fallen. The two characters in this fable, Nick and Campbell, represent two aspects of American culture, the ordinary working man represented by Nick and the moneyed WASP, Campbell, living in what appears as an enchanted world. The tale reveals the growing friendship between the two office workers as Nick guides his friend through the lunch-time and after-work dining and drinking establishments of the city, of which Campbell seems to have no prior knowledge and is now fascinated to encounter each day before returning to his Connecticut home or his New York rendevouses at the Plaza, the Pierre, the Blue Angel, or Carnegie Recital Hall.

The friendship flourishes until one day Campbell invites his friend to visit them in Connecticut, shortly thereafter presenting him with a stack of photographs of himself and his wife Faith, one of her which is nearly pornographic. Nick perceives the photo as a sort of tease, a direct assault upon his sexual desires, and is disgusted by what he senses is the husband’s attempt to use his wife as a lure to bring him to their home. Doubting, however, what he has imagined, he soon forgets it until another photograph, even more pornographic than the first is delivered to him, whereupon he recognizes that he is being encouraged to think of Campbell’s wife as a sexual companion. He is quite obviously aroused by the possibility, but continues to delay his visit until it is finally clear he will not make good on his promise. Campbell is depressed and reveals that, after a fight with his wife, he has met a young man who “sucked him off.” Nick’s decision to take a job in another city drives his friend into further despair which reaches its peak on the day of Nick’s departure, when he reveals his love for Nick and attempts to plant a kiss upon his lips.

Sorrentino presents a world, in short, where love is not only impermeable and fleeting but is impossible, a world where passion is unfulfilled and even a kiss is potentially a dangerous event. Perhaps none of Sorrentino’s short tales reveal these facts more thoroughly than my favorite story of the book, “The Moon in Its Flight.” Unlike so many of the later works, trapped in a post-Edenic reality, Sorrentino allows this story of a budding love affair between a nineteen-year-old young man and a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl, Rebecca, to develop in a “summer romance,” when “The country bowled and spoke of Truman’s grit and spunk,” and the whole nation “softly slid off the edge of civilization.” As in Aberration of Starlight, the author here allows youthful clichés into his work, this time, not just for the purpose of artful satire, but as a support for the lovingly naiveté they reveal:

The first time he touched her breast he cried in his shame and delight.
Can this really have taken place in America? The trees rustled for him, as
the rain did rain. One day, in New York, he bought her a silver ring,
tiny perfect hearts in bas-relief running around it so that the point of
one heart nestled in the cleft of another. Innocent symbol that tortured
his blood.

And later:

Stars, my friend, great flashing stars fell on Alabama.

Reality, nonetheless, will not allow these lovers to exist; they have no place to which they might escape in order to fulfill their desires. In one of the most beautiful narrational intrusions he has uttered, Sorrentino cries out passionately (despite being equally mocking):

All you modern lovers, freed by Mick Jagger and the orgasm, give them, for
Christ’s sake, for an hour, the use of your really terrific little apartment. They
won’t smoke your marijuana nor disturb your Indiana graphics. They won’t
borrow your Fanon or Cleaver or Barthelme or Vonnegut. They’ll make the
bed before they leave. They whisper good night and dance in the dark.

No apartment is available, and the couple, a mismatch when it comes to their families, drifts apart, only to meet again years later when they are both married to others. Only now can they finally culminate their love in sex, but despite the tears of joy and shame, they will never encounter one another again.

I don’t think Sorrentino is arguing through these somewhat exasperatingly dreary tales that love is impossible. It is merely the false ideas and notions that surround the vision of oneself and the other that make it so difficult. It is clear that Sorrentino heartily longs for that “spotless” innocence of the past, but that he recognizes, just as surely, that that desire for “innocence” is the cause of the current emptiness and squalidness of his subjects’ lives. It is almost with a cry of despair that Sorrentino asks, “Who will remember // the past is past?” The furious frown he casts upon his characters can be seen as a stern warning to all that is doesn’t help a damn to invoke a childhood vision of innocence: life is not perfect, there is no “dream” to be found, no “rainbow” at its end, no coherent “America” even to be had. It is no wonder his narrators often struggle in their attempts to tell their stories and admit that something is missing in their revelations of the awful truths they find difficult to accept.

Los Angeles, May 25, 2006

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