Review: A Strange Commonplace

A Strange Commonplace

By Gilbert Sorrentino

Published May 2006

Coffee House Press

154 pp.

ISBN 1-566-89182-5

Date reviewed: October 16, 2006

Originally published in: The Daily Cardinal

When author and essayist Gilbert Sorrentino passed away on May 18, 2006, it was a tragedy that didn’t even gather headlines outside the literary community. There were no accolades and praise of the kind that followed the deaths of Douglas Adams or Hunter S. Thompson, or that will surely salute the death of Kurt Vonnegut.

This lack of tribute is insulting, for Sorrentino has done as much with the English language as any of the more public authors. In over 30 collections of poetry and prose Sorrentino mastered the art of experimental fiction, with titles such as “Mulligan Stew” and “Odd Number” cutting a manic swathe of words in a way to make any creative writing major fall to their knees.

Thankfully, Sorrentino left a final masterpiece behind to seal his legacy: the harrowing and poignant novel “A Strange Commonplace.” Named for a William Carlos Williams poem, Sorrentino’s work replicates the poem’s image of “Long, deserted avenues with unrecognized names at the corners” with a dreamlike version of his native Brooklyn.

In the vein of his darkly entertaining “Little Casino,” “A Strange Commonplace” blends elements of poetry, short fiction and the novel to create a book that can be read all at once or in various intervals depending on mood. The book, split into two sections of 27 short chapters – each section using the same 27 titles – follows the private lives of adulterers, criminals and the disillusioned.

Human folly is Sorrentino’s medium, and he is unrelenting in how many snapshots he can take. In “Cold Supper” a woman bakes a gourmet meal and dresses in her best, then proceeds to lock her son outside and walk out the front door to never return. An old man decides to kill himself if he draws a flush in “An Apartment,” while three young men devour their meals and molest a waitress simultaneously in “In the Diner.”

Much like the cut-up surrealism of William S. Burroughs, Sorrentino has several recurring elements in each of his pieces. However, while Burroughs used sadistic doctors and rusted revolvers to show junk sickness, Sorrentino’s images are tied with heartbreak – a pearl-grey homburg hat, Worcestershire sauce, a children’s jungle story. These elements give the novel an odd sense of continuity, each possessed by a pained character.

Of course, not all readers will be entranced at the start by Sorrentino’s style, as the experimental prose requires a careful reading to obtain full understanding. Often, as in the ethereal “In Dreams,” his characters become unstuck in reality, the world changing the minute they look away. Additionally, the work’s dark tone leaves not a single character happy at the end, sucked into alcoholism and untimely death.

But happiness is not the image Sorrentino is trying to pull off in this book – these stories are 52 “magical route[s] to oblivion.” In many ways it fits the original meaning of commonplace, a book designed to compile all different forms of knowledge that capture the author’s interest – and at the very end of his life, Sorrentino was trying to compile the sense of “the man in the casket is the same … as the man at the casket.”

It is very depressing that Sorrentino is no longer around to write fiction of this caliber, but anyone who is sucked in by “A Strange Commonplace” can be comforted by the fact that he left a vast body of work behind to explore. As Sorrentino’s final work, “A Strange Commonplace” is like the last bite of an exotic dessert – not suited for every palate, but for those who acquire a taste for it indescribably delicious.

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