He sought by stress upon construction to hold the loose-strung mass off even at the cost of an icy coldness of appearance; it was the first need of his time, an escape from the formless mass he hated. It is the very sense of a beginning, as it is the impulse which drove him to the character of all his tales; to get from sentiment to form, a backstroke from the swarming “population.”
—William Carlos Williams on Edgar Allan Poe
(In the American Grain 221)
There is no other American writer whose oeuvre remotely resembles that of Gilbert Sorrentino, and it is tempting to say that no other living American can match his artistic achievement. It is the diversity of his artistry that separates him from his peers. As a poet, he has written works of a uniquely American flavor in the lyric vein of William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley; he has also written dazzlingly baroque verse that reveals the influence of the French symbolists and Guillaume Apollinaire. His novels comprise his most important contribution to literature, and once again, it is the sheer diversity that is arresting. Sorrentino has written dark, fatalistic novels like The Sky Changes; hilarious satires like Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things; impassioned aesthetic manifestoes like Splendide-Hôtel; and towering metafictions like Mulligan Stew. Yet this is just the start. To say his later fictions elude generalization is to understate the matter drastically, for as an uncompromising innovator, he has pushed the novel so far that at times it has seemed as if he were writing for no one but himself. Like his best fiction, his criticism is austere, acerbic, and modernist in sensibility. Sorrentino has admired Edward Dahlberg for never praising things “fit for the garbage can” (Something 97), so it is no surprise that he too has denounced acclaimed authors in tomahawking critiques that recall the ferocity of Edgar Allan Poe. Through it all, his essential inventiveness, comedy, darkness, and idiosyncrasy have remained intact, making his work diverse in its techniques yet absolutely of a piece in tone, theme, and motif. Still, after five decades of writing masterpieces as different as Mulligan Stew and “Coast of Texas,” Sorrentino continues to have trouble publishing his work, and it is an almost trite sad-but-truism that his reputation remains smaller than his accomplishments would dictate.
Sorrentino was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 27 April 1929 to August E. and Ann Davis Sorrentino. He attended New York public schools as a child and studied at Brooklyn College from 1950 to 1951 and 1955 to 1957. The intervening years were partly filled by his stint in the U.S. Army Medical Corps (1951-1953). During this period, he married Elsene Wiessner, whom he divorced following a cross-country trip in 1960. Now remarried to Victoria Ortiz, Sorrentino has three children, Jesse, Delia, and Christopher. Despite numerous critical successes, prestigious literary awards—including two Guggenheim fellowships, three National Endowment for the Arts grants, the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, a Lannan Literary Award, and an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters—and his reputation as a talented and tireless innovator, Sorrentino has never supported himself and his family solely by means of writing. Still, for the better part of four decades, the fact of writing remained central to his day jobs, first at Grove Press in the 1960s and then at the New School for Social Research and Stanford University in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Currently retired from teaching, Sorrentino lives in Stanford, California.
He has not, however, retired from writing, a career that dates back to a moment just after high school. According to William M. Robins, Sorrentino was working as a clerk at a textile-banking company during the late 1940s when he read Walt Whitman and thought, “Well, I can do that too” (279). When he left the Army in 1953, he determined “I am going to be a writer or I am going to be nothing” (O’Brien 7). His first serious attempts at publication came during his Brooklyn College years. Upon its appearance in Landscapes in 1956, his first short story, “Last Rites,” sparked a campus controversy due to its allegedly anti-Catholic depictions. With his boyhood friend Hubert “Cubby” Selby, Sorrentino began the little magazine Neon later that year. Selby attributes the success of this venture primarily to “Gils [sic] creative energy” (49), which motivated those around him. “There was a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” Selby writes, “a feeling that we were doing something important.” Though Selby admits that some of this was naive “self-importance,” what was most important for Sorrentino and him was that Neon got them “actively involved in the literary world.” Partly through Neon, Sorrentino came into contact with William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams, and LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), four figures who would influence his vision and help him publish its products. Then came a deluge of friends, acquaintances, and influences, including Joel Oppenheimer, Fielding Dawson, Dan Rice, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ed Dorn, Paul Blackburn, Robert Kelley, John Wieners, Frank O’Hara, Robert Duncan, Bob Thompson, Charles Olson, and Edward Dahlberg, among many others. To read of Sorrentino’s life during this period is to see a man working feverishly at the center of an incredible artistic ferment. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example, he was to write poetry on the periphery of three new but very different schools of poetry, viz., the Black Mountain school of Olson and Creeley, the New York school of O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, and the Beat school of Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; he was also to interact with San Francisco poets, including Duncan. And his artistic exposure was hardly confined to the literary. Some of his most formative ties were to painters like Rice, whose work he first witnessed in the painter’s loft in 1957, and Morton Lucks—and this during the ascendancy of abstract expressionism, when one might, and often did, run into the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline at the Cedar Street Bar. Innovators like Thelonious Monk and John Cage in music and Merce Cunningham in dance completed the feeling of a pan-aesthetic revolution. By the time Neon expired in 1960, Sorrentino was entrenched in the East Village scene and had formed affiliations with Kulchur and Yugen, two little magazines that suited the young writer in that their demand for quality work was just as insistent as their rejection of the “official” literary conventions of the time. According to Sorrentino, finding journals that conformed to those two criteria was no simple thing during the 1950s. On the one hand were the established journals like the Hudson Review that often resisted modernist innovations. On the other hand “were the ‘experimental’ little magazines that would publish anything—anything at all” (Something 242). Sorrentino notes in “Black Mountaineering,” his paean to Creeley and other contributors to the Black Mountain Review, that one as a result “worked in a kind of numb solitude, unpublished and unread, and, more to the point, without access to those works that could have acted as direction and buttress to one’s own false starts and scribblings.” But after discovering the Black Mountain Review, and especially after the advent of Neon, a publishing world that would accept him—and, equally important, that he could in turn accept—slowly opened to him. In 1958 his correspondence with Williams on behalf of Neon led the elder poet to excerpt a portion of Sorrentino’s jazzy sketch “Bordertown” in Paterson V. Sorrentino’s rigorous and frankly elitist opinions about then-underrated writers like Williams, Spicer, and Dahlberg found their first important outlet in Kulchur during the early 1960s. As for his art, Sorrentino was publishing mainly poetry. Between 1956 and 1960, his poems appeared not only in Neon and Yugen but in Emergent, Shenandoah, Spectrum, Supplement to Now, White Dove Review, Nomad, Hearse, and numerous collections, of which the most important was Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). Clearly, Sorrentino was gaining an audience in select avant-garde circles. His self-financed The Darkness Surrounds Us (1960) received an important if qualified review from the late Denise Levertov in the Nation, prompting his halting movement toward a wider audience, one that would be less automatic in its acceptance of his modernist tendencies. Black and White (1964), his second poetry collection and one published through his friendship with Jones, who ran Totem Press, continued this trend, as did his novel The Sky Changes (1966), with each successive work gaining more positive recognition than its predecessor. The publication of Sky marked a crucial moment in Sorrentino’s career. Not only was he publishing his long-awaited first novel, he was doing so with Hill and Wang, which would promote the novel in the New York Review of Books—and which just missed securing a laudatory review in Newsweek. Though it had lost an opportunity, Sky still garnered more notice than Sorrentino’s poetry collections, partly because of the publisher’s efforts and partly because Sky was prose, which in America has always reached a larger audience than poetry. The notices were mostly enthusiastic, with reviewers reacting more to the emotional excruciation evinced by the novel’s storyline than to its innovative techniques.
Since 1966, Sorrentino has published seven collections of poetry, thirteen works of fiction, and Something Said, a book of criticism. His prominence as a literary figure appears to have peaked in 1980 when he published Aberration of Starlight, a critical success that followed closely on the heels of two very different successes, The Orangery in 1978 and Mulligan Stew in 1979. It should come as no surprise, however, that over the past twenty years, his star has waned even as his accomplishments have broadened. During that period, mergers in the publishing world have decreased the number of outlets for serious literature and sharply reduced the willingness of editors to publish avant-garde fiction, which has, financially speaking, always been a risky proposition. That, combined with the increasing radicalism of Sorrentino’s fiction through the 1980s and early 1990s, made it difficult for him to publish his work long after he had established himself as a writer. The best example of this is Crystal Vision, which was rejected by several publishers during the late 1970s—and which the New York Times Book Review did not even bother to review. Even after Grove profited from the publication of Mulligan Stew, a book that, among other things, parodies the publishing world, the press twice rejected Sorrentino’s next, more radical novel. Not until 1981, three years after its completion, was Crystal Vision published by North Point, a young, relatively small press.
Despite the inevitable variations in its reception, Sorrentino’s work has to this point remained consistent in its primary thematic concerns and its insistence on formal innovation. Indeed, the variation in reception is inevitable because of the emphasis on innovation, which in effect means that Sorrentino has rarely followed a critical success with a work that much resembles it. According to the author, he does not write in order to succeed critically, popularly, or financially. As he emphatically, even irascibly, reminds his reader, he is not for sale. If he writes for any reason beyond the sheer joy and relief of writing itself, he writes for aesthetic reasons, with each new venture bent on solving a formal problem of his own invention. He has pointedly complimented his favorite writers, Pound, Williams, Dahlberg, and Spicer among them, by noting that they put art before audience, which to his mind is the prerequisite and guarantor of literary freedom. All of this makes the resounding praise lavished on Sorrentino for three successive works between 1978 and 1980, three works utterly dissimilar in style, structure, and voice, the more astonishing. Now in his early seventies, Sorrentino is going strong, with his long-delayed novel Gold Fools having been released in March 2001 and with other projects on the verge of completion. Obviously, though, if he hasn’t entered the final phase of his career, he will do so relatively soon. The time has come to begin examining his work as an established corpus so as to describe it, assess it, and place it as such.
Perhaps the most direct way of approaching Sorrentino is from the vantage of literary history. In this narrative he is the classic modernist, with his artworks at once displaying modernist and postmodernist contours. Philosophically and psychologically, he is a modernist insofar as his overall worldview remains grimly antiessentialist even as his radical aestheticism consistently flirts with essentialism and its traditional goals of truth, beauty, order, and transcendence. His antiessentialism recalls that of the late poet William Bronk. In Bronk’s poetry there is the unstinting awareness that the external world is an uncaring rock that stands iron and aloof amid humanity’s diverse projections of value, as shaped by hope, desire, and other internal necessities. In both his poetry and prose Sorrentino evokes the same awareness, albeit with greater a sense of passion, pain, and especially play than the serenely blunt Bronk. What makes Sorrentino more classical in his modernism is that he combines this basically existentialist view of the universe with a romantic view of art as a source of beauty and regeneration. “One should not,” Sharon Thesen reminds us, “underestimate the visionary turnstile Catholicism is to Sorrentino” (57). As Thesen sees it, the atheist Sorrentino substitutes art for organized religion, and his work proposes Catholic “grace as the proper achievement of the artist at the same time that it proposes darkness and corruption as what we necessarily walk through” (57). This contradiction between antiessentialist worldview and essentialist aesthetic is typical of the modernist sensibility. Sorrentino reconciles it in the manner of Wallace Stevens and Williams, for whom art was a necessary fiction. Art is fiction in that as a product of perception and reflection it is an imaginative construct. It is necessary in that humans inescapably long for truth, beauty, and order, without which they succumb to despair. It is as if Sorrentino is suggesting that autotelic art, which as an end in itself cannot be turned against its creators, is superior to religion, philosophy, politics, and pop culture as a source of illusion. Naturally, this begs further questions. Because he never works these out in a fully logical manner, paradox remains inherent to his aestheticism, indirectly testifying to a paradox at the heart of modernism itself.
Sorrentino’s working aesthetic is governed by a consistent set of principles that guide his creative activities and his criticism of other writers. First among them is his avant-gardism, which combines Williams’s idea of the artist as a maker with Pound’s injunction to the artist to make things new. This brand of modernism is linked to a second if not secondary point, his formalism. Sorrentino has been a consistent proponent of a “joyous heresy,” the idea that form determines content, that form literally causes content to appear during the act of creation (Something 200). These twin beliefs determine the rest of his aesthetic: his emphasis on design and innovative technique; his rejection of conventional realism and its central illusion, that language can represent reality in a straightforward way; his preference for artificiality and Eliotic impersonality in art, which likewise implies his rejection of an art of self-expression or self-discovery; and the anti-interpretive stance informing numerous ideas and practices, including a preference for metonymy over metaphor, a distrust of abstraction and interpretation, and the use of his trademark lists to register the “isolate flecks” of experience. Still, understanding either Sorrentino’s philosophy and/or his modernist program does little to prepare one for the wild ride that is his art. What does that art actually look like? The simplest way to answer this is through his idea of obsession. One apparent paradox of Sorrentino’s aesthetic is that he insists that art is artificial and impersonal, a matter of selection, while at the same time encouraging the artist to confront his obsessions, whether artistic or strictly personal. In Imaginative Qualities the narrator, who shares many of his author’s opinions, asks, “Do you think for a moment that an artist selects his theme? It is all simple obsession” (61). The exact wording is instructive. The artist may select his techniques, and if he is skillful, he will wield them with rigor and detachment. But if he is also honest, he may “select” his themes no more than he may choose his memories and lifelong obsessions. Thus Sorrentino’s art contains numerous motifs (e.g., unfaithful wives, dead mothers, and grandmothers of superlative wretchedness; sexualized cars; Christmas trees and tin pigs; toy zeppelins; lonely corners and departing buses; impotence; corsets and other feminine underthings; photographs; art parties; and so on) that appear and reappear with incantatory repetition. It is evident that some of these motifs have real-life models, but because Sorrentino varies his techniques from work to work, his art is neither repetitive nor autobiographical in the conventional sense. He never, that is, offers his readers his life story. What Sorrentino often does instead is recycle and reinvent through repetition, amplification, and juxtaposition the disparate elements of his past, its faces and things, its heartrending processes and emotions, its major emphases as well as its odds and ends. Central to this focus on the past are his Brooklyn relationships with his grandparents, mother, and first wife, as well as with the many acquaintances he met in the art world during the 1950s and 1960s. Just as central, however, are elements of his literary past, which in his view are no less real for being artificial. Hence Sorrentino peoples his later books with characters invented in earlier ones and reimagines images and whole scenes time and again. Inextricably linked to Sorrentino’s obsession with the past is his obsession with loss. People die, love dissolves, things are lost, and the self moves on yet remains still, captivated by imperfect memories that never quite represent the past. Connected to this type of personal loss and psychic paralysis is the linguistic loss that Sorrentino locates in debased forms of language, especially in cliché. Starting with Steelwork, his second novel, his fascination for cliché is abundantly clear, and this fascination runs through Red the Fiend, where whole conversations are fabricated from cliché without any specific information attached, and his most recent novel, Gold Fools. The point seems to be that if clichés communicate at all, they do so as ritualized forms rather than as signs pointing to particular referents. More than other linguistic forms, clichés do not represent reality; they point at nothing so much as themselves. For Sorrentino, this is at once a source of contempt and affection. What he despises is that in saying nothing specific the cliché occludes communication and eventuates in stunted relations with oneself and others, which in turn leads to the inarticulate loss and despair that haunts his characters as well as those of Williams and Nathanael West. By contrast, what Sorrentino loves and hopes to preserve are the specifics assumed by cliché. His recurrent treatment of cliché is, then, a testament to personal and cultural loss as well as an attempt to revivify debased forms of language by paying attention to them as fragile particulars and by giving them meaningful and often brilliantly comic functions. Finally, it is a case of honesty. With Donald Barthelme, Sorrentino shares the belief that it would be dishonest to ignore cliché and other forms of waste when so much of the world is made of the stuff. A final Sorrentino obsession worth mentioning at this stage is his fetish for metafiction. Though metafictional devices are part of the modernist legacy as handed down from writers like Joyce and Flann O’Brien, their comic use in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Splendide-Hôtel, and especially Mulligan Stew once made his defiant avant-gardism almost au courant. Indeed, the emphasis he places on the multilayered, self-reflexive artifice seemed oddly in harmony with contemporaries as dissimilar as John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, and even John Gardner. Sorrentino’s 1980s fiction, however, makes it clear that these resemblances are the accidents of art history. Modernism initiated the slow questioning of linguistic structures and conventions that eventuated in the popular metafiction of the 1970s. Thus a determined modernist like Sorrentino quite naturally found his way to metafiction, but what is more indicative of his sensibility is that he kept going, pushing metafiction to a kind of limit in the novels that form the trilogy Pack of Lies. Not only do Odd Number, Rose Theatre, and especially Misterioso resemble no other metafiction, they do not even resemble each other. What I am driving at, then, is that the postmodernism practiced by Sorrentino is an extension of modernism, modernism by another name. The deconstruction of linguistic authority, of truth and fact, is implicit to his modernism from the start and remains so, for it is crucial to his antiessentialist worldview. If Sorrentino is a postmodernist, then, he is so almost incidentally, for he never accepts the typical “postmodernist program,” which is far more political or “humanist” than his modernism, which is contingent on the notion of artistic autonomy. Indeed, to say that Sorrentino is apolitical is to understate the matter. Even his most political writings are first and foremost aesthetic manifestos. In Splendide-Hôtel, for instance, he critiques political language as a corrupt congeries of cliché in the service of power and offsets that corruption in a small, private way by creating a thing of delicacy and beauty. Even Sorrentino’s most opaque works share this aesthetic agenda, namely, to discredit cliché and other degenerate forms through the creation of art.
What follows, then, is an attempt to come to grips with seven of Sorrentino’s most impressive and often underrated works by perceiving them as products of his modernist sensibility and by continually relating these works to his larger oeuvre. The discussion is divided into two main sections. The first examines Splendide-Hôtel, The Orangery, and Under the Shadow, while the second contemplates The Sky Changes, Steelwork, Aberration of Starlight, and Red the Fiend. Each of the fictions in the first group consists of a series of interlinked vignettes that largely dispenses with character development and a consistent narrative line. Thus these works foreground Sorrentino’s emphasis on formal invention and penchant for impersonality and artificiality. By contrast, the novels of the second group appear to do the opposite and, partly because they contain consistent characters and obvious autobiographical elements, may be misread as conventional realism. In both sections, however, I emphasize the contradictory aspects of Sorrentino’s sensibility, which result in artworks of subtlety and complexity, artworks that ultimately elude easy categorization. For example, if Under the Shadow, a metafiction, at first appears utterly impersonal, a case of “pure art,” on second glance it betrays an interest in Sorrentino’s most personal obsessions and even contains consistent characters. Similarly, in Red the Fiend, the characters are not only consistent, they are schematic, their ultraconsistency betraying a sadistic, unrealistic flatness. Once a novel like Red the Fiend reveals its basic antirealism, it is easier to perceive its cold, impersonal structure, which depends on repetition and such signature techniques as the list and the question-answer format. If the novels in the latter group seem realistic, it is not because they are not artificial or innovative or because they fulfill realism’s psychological requirements, but rather because they accrete a vast number of accurate historical details.
Splendide-Hôtel, The Orangery, and Under the Shadow
Splendide-Hôtel was first published in 1973. The first thing that stands out about the work is its alphabetical structure, which is peculiar to the point of ostentation. Each chapter save one in this prose fiction (to call it a novel would stretch that term to meaninglessness) takes a single letter as its departure and focus. Such a precious conceit seems destined for failure, which may be why Sorrentino, who has admitted that he is “absolutely obsessed by the idea of failing miserably” (O’Brien 26), chose it, i.e., for the formal challenge, like deciding in advance to write a collection of sonnets each containing the word “orange,” as he does in The Orangery. But above his love of artifice and his habit of inventing formal problems is his desire to make an art that sings, that works in barely perceptible ways. That the book does work was the opinion of most reviewers, although Sorrentino was predictably chided for using an arty structure, i.e., for neglecting the “principle that form extends from content” (McPheron 147). One reason for Splendide-Hôtel’s success is that its alphabetical structure and linguistic theme suit each other. Another is that Sorrentino painstakingly builds his interlinked vignettes until each one is dense with words and images that operate on multiple levels.
Before continuing, it helps to consider precisely what Sorrentino means when he asserts that form determines content, which might sound as much like a chicken-or-egg argument as its more popular converse were it not for the particulars of his meaning. Art begins as an idea or impulse within the writer. Even an adherent of automatic writing, one of Sorrentino’s bêtes noires, begins either with the idea that such a method is a sensible way to approach the task of writing or with the sheer impulse to write, to write now. In other words, no art begins as form, which Sorrentino defines as the plastic, objective being of art, its appearance and sensuous surface. The form of art is the artist’s objective, but because the artistic process contains so much of the spontaneous, he does not know exactly what that form will look like, what it will reveal, until it manifests itself on the page. This revelation is the content of the piece. By necessity, content exists within a viewer’s mind and is subject to variations from viewer to viewer, whereas the form, physical marks on a page, remains fixed. So how does one get from an idea of form to perceived form, i.e., content? By way of technique, which also begins as an idea before becoming a kinetic, and somewhat unruly, tool of the writing process. Thus Sorrentino has described the creation of Crystal Vision as follows:
All I can say about my books—Blue Pastoral, for instance, being a rewrite of The Sky Changes, Crystal Vision of Steelwork, etc., is that I have always attempted to achieve a formal pattern decided upon before I write, that is, I don’t start with the idea for a story, I start with the idea for realizing a form, e.g. how to write Steelwork again by using the Tarot as an organizing principle and bleeding out the temporal, while shuffling the spatial as needs dictate. OK, then I have all my Steelwork characters, plus all those amazing Tarot images—let’s see what will happen if the two are put together. (Andrews 66)
What may surprise those who view Sorrentino as the ultimate technician, a latter-day Poe, is how integral romantic “unruliness” is to the process. Phrases like “as needs dictate” and “let’s see what will happen” indicate the room he leaves for play and other mysteries. He wants a design, but it should be of the artist’s own invention, and it should be “permissive of and conducive to compositional freedom” (Laurence 1):
In Isaac Babel’s famous story “Guy de Maupassant,” he writes, “A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist. Turn your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice.” It is that turn, that one and only turn, that I try to effect in my sentences. When the turn is just right, the sentence “works,” and when it’s not, the sentence is but a conveyor of information. The kicker in Babel’s sentence, of course, is the remark “not twice,” by which I take him to mean that the second turn is the application of craft and “professionalism” to rescue what is essentially dead. (“Sudden Diction”)
In sum, Sorrentino begins with a technical “idea for realizing a form,” a form that at that point is no more than raw cognition. He then lets the process unfold much as one might read a book: he waits patiently, careful not to destroy through overanalysis whatever is good in the piece, curious to see what happens.
Sorrentino has memorably described “what happens” in interviews and in “The Act of Creation and Its Artifact” (1984). In the latter he characterizes the artist-at-work in romantic terms as a semimagical being who resides within the quotidian man until the commencement of the creative process; during this process, the artist reveals to himself and others knowledge he did not know he knew (Something 3-12). Whatever romanticism is in evidence here is, first, consistent with his essentialist aestheticism, which remains in tension with his antiessentialist worldview, and second and more important, indicates that Sorrentino is not simply a “cold formalist” as has been purported. He does not set to writing knowing everything in advance, nor does he take a set of forms and place them “atop” content or theme—which is a bizarre, impractical idea of what an artist with formalist inclinations actually does. Reviewers who chasten Sorrentino for neglecting that “form extends from content” are themselves neglecting his use of terminology and thus spouting nonsense. How could content determine artistic form if content is defined as form perceived? Such a scenario would require a viewer whose perception of the physical artwork precedes that work rather than proceeds from it. Such critics are also neglecting that Sorrentino’s overall aim differs from what they obviously think every writer’s aim should be. Whereas they think that writers should, first and foremost, say something about something, he thinks that writers should make art.
So Sorrentino remains open during the creative act—open to themes and obsessions that return throughout his work as well as to momentary impulses. He also remains open to whatever elegant correspondences his preconceived design might wring from such obsessions. Sorrentino illustrates this process as it applies to Splendide-Hôtel in “The Act of Creation.” Much as Poe in “The Philosophy of Composition” explains the intention and methods informing “The Raven,” Sorrentino here explains the intention and methods behind the chapter titled “R” in Splendide-Hôtel. His point, however, differs from Poe’s in that he is telling his reader that no rational account of the process will explain exactly how he came upon his graceful conclusion.
Like so much of the book, the chapter focuses on Rimbaud. It begins with Sorrentino describing the letter R as a maritime pennant since the letter derives from a Phoenician letter, which in turn reminds him of Phoenicia’s legendary sailing tradition. Sorrentino then ascribes to the consonant his favorite color, orange. This serves as a bridge to Rimbaud, the synaesthete who describes the color of vowels in his celebrated “Voyelles” and to whom Sorrentino thus refers as “the monarch of colors” (43). “In the context of this work,” he writes, the letter R “stands for the poet’s very name.” The chapter then suddenly shifts to Sheila Henry, a character “borrowed” from Imaginative Qualities. In that book she was a false poetess; in this one, she is a false novelist, author of “The Orange Dress,” which concerns Cecil Tyrell, a poète maudit. Sorrentino makes clear that Sheila is as self-aggrandizing as ever. Though she writes her celebrated novel in “great bursts of energy, thirty or forty pages at a time,” she maintains her pose as a fussy-aesthete by telling an interviewer that “I write very slowly, and I’m happy to do a good page in a day” (42). Once again, art is mere plaything, an occasion to play the artist, which results in art’s corruption. Sorrentino closes the chapter by returning to the silent integrity of Rimbaud, the original poète maudit who, in pointed contrast with Sheila, turns his back on the art world, its oysters and Chablis, before his twentieth birthday. “At this point,” Sorrentino notes in “The Act of Creation,” “I stuck” (11). He does not know how to close the chapter but senses the presence of an ending, if only he can find it. Or remember it: “Buried in the detritus of my mind was the dim recollection of something—but what?—something I had long ago read in a biography of Rimbaud, the celebrated study by Enid Starkie.” Following his intuition, Sorrentino looks up the reference, and sure enough, there it is: having given up on art, Rimbaud sailed to Java on The Prince of Orange. The chapter is thus provided the information to “snap it shut as well as coherently incorporate the elements I had already composed.” Sorrentino takes a closed, impersonal pattern, the alphabet, and opens it up, allowing it to fuse with his themes, linguistic degradation and rebirth, and his own personal fetishes, e.g., Rimbaud, Sheila Henry, orange, etc., all while remaining sensitive to the words and images that will create a delicate vignette within a work of increasing density.
What is so striking about Splendide-Hôtel is that it is Sorrentino’s most politicized statement as well as one of his most impassioned, yet this aesthetic Jeremiad is couched within the coldest of conceits. At once a sincere social critique and a subtle work of art, it masquerades as “mere” frivolity, begging to be mocked and misunderstood, as when, in the chapter devoted to the letter C, the narrator describes being showered with Coca-Cola upon reading a poem to an audience that prefers rock and roll (12). Like its author, then, Splendide-Hôtel is stubborn, displaying the intransigence of a man who will not abandon his “egoistic mumblings” and write “a manifesto that all may understand,” a man who unlike Leo Kaufman in Imaginative Qualities does not end up a commodity like Coca-Cola and rock music. Like all manifestos, Splendide-Hôtel has a message, namely, that a culture whose main commodity is cliché is spurious and unhealthy:
A culture that can give no sustenance, and yet the remedies are for still more “useful skills.” Useful skills, and the heart dies, the imagination crippled so that mere boys are become mass murderers or drift blindly into a sterile adulthood. The young, the young! In a stupendous rage of nonbelief—faced with a spurious culture, the art that can give life sullied or made unavailable. What art there is is cheap and false, dedicated to a quick assay of the superficial. Don’t believe for a moment that art is a decoration or an emblem. It is what life there is left, though ill-used, ill-used. The young crying for nourishment, and they are given the cynical products of the most fickle market. “Look at what passes for the new,” the poet says. Put a handle on it and sell it, cotton candy: to be gone in a moment and leave no memory other than the memory of sickening sweetness.
Well, so the country is dying and against its death I can do—nothing.
What little I have to offer, all find useless. A government of scoundrels, a people numb with hatred and fear. Against it, I write, and write what? B? Betty Boop. Boop-boop-a-doop. Babel. Babble. The false poet has written a false novel, the language further corrupted. This rubbish will sour and destroy the soil. I write B. (9)
That Sorrentino invokes Williams here as “the poet” is apt, for Splendide-Hôtel has taken up the central task of In the American Grain and Paterson, artworks that diagnose the American condition by pointing to its linguistic history, that try to reverse the corruption therein the only way possible, through the creation of artistic integrity one precise, if seemingly frivolous, letter at a time. This is the point of Splendide-Hôtel: to make the reader see the language, which, because it is so easy to neglect during the quotidian rush, is prone to blight and casual dysfunction. On the representational level, the book provides example upon example of that dysfunction, while the book’s lyricism, density, and structure are offered as antidotes neither cheap nor superficial—though Sorrentino intentionally invites the opposite judgment. He knows that a cursory glance at the book’s alphabetical structure could, during the Vietnam era, be interpreted as self-indulgence, a contrivance lacking in seriousness. Nothing is further from the truth.
Like The Orangery and Under the Shadow, Splendide-Hôtel succeeds despite its abandonment of characterization and narrative development. Integral to the success of the three works is that they offer a compact system of vignettes, each a pleasure and a surprise in itself. Conventional suspense or a consistent storyline are not required to carry the reader along. The suspense lies in the invention: What will the next segment bring? In Splendide-Hôtel one segment provides a list of schmaltzy WWII-era songs. Another a letter to Rimbaud reimagined as a private in the American army. Another a scorecard from a baseball game in which a virtuoso pitcher records twenty strikeouts against an all-star team of politicians and politically minded writers, hacks who take their hacks. There are poems from Sorrentino as well as from others like Rimbaud and Williams. There are fake book blurbs and bits of “real” critical analysis. If any one segment disappoints, a rarity to be sure, there is no chance for boredom, for the length of each vignette will not permit it. Sorrentino has noted that, since he has trouble bringing off long poems, he instead writes serial poems, i.e., cycles of short, lyrical poems, and I believe the same principle is at work in his decision to break so many of his prose works into vignettes. Though these provide no storyline per se, they do provide a structural development that the larger work slowly teaches its reader to read. “R” provides an example of this sort of development. The chapter gradually builds the significance of its motifs through passion and subtle irony—as when Sorrentino allows Sheila to use orange, his favorite color, in the title of a mediocre novel that corrupts the linguistic soil. More important, “R” is one interesting element in an interactive system. As “B” indicates, the falsity of the popular novel is thematically established well before the reader arrives at “R,” as is the regenerative significance of Rimbaud and his fellow poet, Williams.
As motifs, Rimbaud and Williams meet on several occasions, the last being in “W,” which begins with the author bemoaning the fact that people love Rimbaud for the wrong reasons, that is, for his boorish behavior, his tantrums and moods (55). “In these external ‘realities’ they purported to see the artist,” Sorrentino writes, “So that the artist becomes a waiter who deftly and unobtrusively serves what is ordered.” This passage resonates in barely perceptible ways with others from Splendide-Hôtel, including the section in which Sheila is given what she wants, oysters and Chablis and flattery, by a waiter as she gives her interviewer what he wants, her external “reality” as a fussy, Nabokovian aesthete. Sorrentino then segues, using the artist-waiter metaphor as an excuse to discuss the waiters painted by his friend, Morton Lucks. Lucks’s paintings represent a triumph of imagination in that his waiters, defeated men, are neither real nor realistic, yet they still affect our perception of reality, teaching us “to ‘read’ the activities of ‘real’ waiters acutely.” “This subtlety,” Sorrentino asserts, “is the artist’s entire achievement. Through the employment of the imagination he lays bare the mundane.” This in turn allows him to segue yet again into what I take to be the point of the chapter, a quotation from “To Elsie,” perhaps Williams’s greatest poem:
The painter, who may have seen the necessity for his project in the brief, single turn of a waiter’s wrist, must certainly agree with the poet who writes, in a work specifically concerned with the imagination:
It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off
So I come again to Williams, another w for this chapter.
William Carlos Williams was eight years old when Arthur Rimbaud died. It pleases me to see a slender but absolute continuity between the work of the damned Frenchman and the patronized American. (56) Readers familiar with Imaginative Qualities will recognize the Williams reference as crucial both to Sorrentino’s aesthetic and to the narratives themselves, in which the idea of “isolate flecks” is both a method of seeing a larger reality through an art of miniscule specifics, e.g., “the turn of a waiter’s wrist,” as well as a failed roman à clef by the poet-turned-waiter, Leo Kaufman, himself an isolate fleck. In other words, Sorrentino not only builds his motifs across each chapter and across each work but across his entire corpus. Even the reference to waiters, which is less important than the idea of “isolate flecks” or that of Rimbaud, resonates in this way. Imaginative Qualities, a work dedicated to Lucks, contains allusions to artists whose greed and ambition make them waiters serving their audience. More substantively, Corrosive Sublimate contains a poem called “The Insane Waiters” that is dedicated to “Mort.” There waiters are metonyms of the self-destructive greed by which a culture consumes itself. Though garbage themselves, the waiters “are the entire world before us,/supplying, supplying the goods, the good/so good, good goods” (22). Thus we readers find ourselves back in Williams’s native New Jersey, where sky and earth are cultural excrement, and “we degraded prisoners/destined/to hunger until we eat filth” (17). What Williams does not say directly is that we enjoy such filth, so Sorrentino says it for him decades later in Under the Shadow. In “Waiter” debased waiters oblige their hip clientele by urinating on them, but only if given advance notice. Like that of “W,” the comedy is precise, accurate, and sad.
This article originally appeared in the The Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. XXI, no.3 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the RCF and the author Dave Andrews.