Saturday, September 17, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Writers from the Diaspora of Truth (on Davenport's The Jules Verne Steam Balloon and Sorrentino's Rose Theatre)

by Douglas Messerli

Guy Davenport The Jules Verne Steam Balloon: Nine Stories (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987)
Gilbert Sorrentino Rose Theatre (Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1987)

Over the last two and a half decades, Guy Davenport and Gilbert Sorrentino have come to be recognized as two of the leading postmodern fiction writers, that is as fiction writers working against the normative patterns of psychological realism established by authors of the 1940s and 1950s such as Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Cheever. Of course, even 20th-century fiction has always included far more than the psychological novel allowed, as Davenport and Sorrentino are well aware. In this sense, perhaps, it is a disservice to confuse these writers with something standing entirely apart from the modern tradition. For Davenport's interconnected stories, The Jules Verne Steam Balloon owes more to the high modernist collage-fictions of Max Ernst and to the pre-modern philosophical treatise-fictions of Søren Kierkegaard than to the self-referential modes of much of contemporary writing. And Sorrentino's Rose Theater is, as is all of his fiction, deeply steeped in the modernist novels of Flann O'Brien and James Joyce.

Indeed, Davenport's story-series might be best illuminated in the context of a modern masterwork of interrelated tales such as Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples. True, where Welty and writers like her use myth and history as symbols to reveal the psychological complexities of the lives of ordinary characters, Davenport employs outlandish figures who inhabit a world in which myth and history are demeaned, forgotten, or downright dangerous. In "Pyrrhon of Elis" the Skeptic philosopher Pyrrhon levels all meaning—in an ironic reversal of Descartes—by doubting the existence of everything around him, including himself: "I may not be, I think." In "We Often Think of Lenin in the Clothespin Factory," the characters speak nostalgically of art and artists from Pushkin, Canaletto, Rilke, and Robert Walser to the Aleksandr Deineka paintings, “Workers' Summer Vacation Pool” and "Lenin Taking a Walk in His Car”—as if all were equal. And in “Bronze Leaves and Red,” Davenport approaches the unforgivable in writing a tale in which our century's monster, Adolf Hitler, is represented as living in an idyllic world of social calls to Wagner's widow, chess games, music, macaroons, and metaphysical discussions. These stories present, in short, exactly that world which Welty and so many other great modern writers feared for us.

But these are purposeful intrusions of possible evil in a world that otherwise is as idyllic as that of Welty's King/Zeus figure, while Davenport's Hugo Trevmunding romps in a world alive with sexual excitement and desire. Through the interleaving of botanical descriptions and the actions of his various Scandinavian pan-sexual lovers, Davenport's Sweden literally throbs with an adolescent agitation of its sexual parts. Brother and sister, brother and brother, sister's lover and brother, brother and sister's lover's students—everyone gets into the act in Davenport's panegyric to free sex. And indeed, living as we do in an AIDS-conscious culture, Davenport's liberated 1960s Sweden becomes as mythic, as magical and desirable, as the Greek myth embedded in Welty's 1940s small Southern town.

And as in Welty's world, the worst dangers to the boys of Hugo's NFS Grundtvig lie not in the past-in outmoded laws or in parental displeasure-but in a loss of the present made meaningful by dreams of the future and understood through the past. The villains of The Jules Verne Steam Balloon are those levelers of meaning as exemplified by Hugo's mysterious bicycle rider, a young man he encounters, falls vaguely in love with, and attempts to teach. But the bicycle rider, lost in neural hallucinations of LSD, marijuana, cocaine and the promises of a fraudulent Transcendental Meditation Group, will not be taught. In that throbbing world of the living, the bicycle rider experiences nothing but the phantoms of his own non-acts. It is Hugh, like Welty's Virgie Rainey, who can see clearly the signs of the heavens, who has the vision to transform his acts into meaning in life. For Virgie, the vision is represented in the image of Perseus severing the head of Medusa; for Hugo, it is a wonderful contraption of the 19th-century, the stream balloon, inhabited by creatures of some science-fiction future: here the present truly meets the future in its past.

One wonders how these "stories" read apart from each other; together they make perfect sense.

Gilbert Sorrentino's Rose Theatre explores similar terrain. Focusing on issues and characters that appear in several of his previous books, Sorrentino also attempts to uncover truth. But like Davenport's Pyrrhon, the author strongly doubts whether it exists; or perhaps one should say that he is intensely sensitive to how it can be manipulated. For Sorrentino does not have the faith of a Davenport or of a Welty in the human race. As our most brilliant social satirist-censorious and vituperative as Rabelais—the most he can do is to demonstrate our follies and forgive them. But in a society that separates myth even from its religions, that is no mean feat. Try as they might, the shallow women and sadistic men of Sorrentino's world can find no way out of either the fictions of their own making or the fiction of the book. Trapped in language, they can merely speak, aping the linguistic society that has created them. But what hilarious verbal portraits they serve up!

Giving a real voice to the “less than zero world,” Sorrentino wakes us to our own inanities. We feel we do "sort of know" all about our culture's easy assimilation and acceptance of everything from new cuisines to kinky sex. In Rose Theater, as in his other fictions, sex seldom results in either pleasure or propagation of the species, but is a tool of domination and destruction. Sex for Sorrentino's ten ladies, trotted out in the Roman sunlight, is a spiraling vortex into what his character Joanne Lewis dreams is the mouth of Hell opened for her.

These may seem like trivial questions, but put within the context of thousands of small and large lies, misunderstandings and contradictions, they become important clues in the diaspora of truth. Rose Theatre is the second volume of Sorrentino's projected trilogy, and what he has done here is to bring into question nearly all the information of the first volume, Odd Number. Thus, he makes apparent how impossible it is to comprehend reality, let alone to believe in it.

Perhaps Sorrentino summarizes this predicament best in his fable of the seven wives who marry seven husbands. Upon their marriage, the sisters decide to secretly nickname each of their seven husbands; the husbands, in turn, secretly nickname their seven wives. It so happens that these wives each acquire lovers whom they also nickname: And the husbands, having evidently uncovered their wives’ secret names for them, insist their seven lovers call them by the same nicknames. Who is who? If even the name—that which ancient cultures held sacred and eternal—changes from instant to instant, how can language, which after all is the way we think, be expected to reveal anything but itself, its own shifting and slippery track? The chapter in which Sorrentino tells us this tale is titled "Tree of Golden Apples." The tree, which for Welty (through W. B. Yeats) represented truth, the ideal of human experience, is mocked in Sorrentino's satire as sticking in the mind of his character because he liked “images.” No steam balloon appears in Rose Theatre as a sign—vague as it might be—of meaning. For Sorrentino's fiction does not reveal a world of sense, of reason, but portrays with equal brilliance our fall into nonsense, into the babel of our everyday lives.

Los Angeles, 1987
Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times Book Review (Sunday, December 6, 1987)

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