Book Review: The Abyss of Human Illusion

April 22, 2010

The Abyss of Human Illusion

By Gilbert Sorrentino

Published February 1, 2010

Coffee House Press

144 pp.

ISBN 1-566-89233-3

Reviewed April 22, 2010

Having spent more than a few years in the world of book criticism and surrounded by literary friends, it’s been my observation that anyone who’s more than a casual reader not only has their favorite author but their favorite lesser-known author. Spend enough time amongst the Hemingways and Kerouacs and Vonneguts who stand astride the realm of what is considered popular literary culture, and you eventually uncover the writers who fall through the cracks, influencing the titans or doing what they do better minus the accolades. They might only have one title to their name, or they might be known only for works published postmortem, but the bond they form with their fans is a devotion frequently stronger than any author with more awards or higher sales figures.

For me, that niche author is Gilbert Sorrentino. I was swayed into reading him back in 2006 by catching the New Yorker‘s review of his “A Strange Commonplace,” a novel they defined as “fifty-two discrete parts—a dazzlingly original deck of cards” (the first review I ever read where one line served as the hook for purchase). The praise proved more than deserved, and since then I’ve been an unrestrained admirer of his books despite the occasionally trying effort of actually finishing one. With a career spanning four decades, Sorrentino was a titan of experimental fiction, effortlessly picking at the genre’s conventions with humor and a mastery for dialogue both internal and external.

Given Sorrentino’s death of lung cancer in May of 2006, I assumed that we’d regard “Commonplace” – published that same month – as the coda to his career, but it turns out he wasn’t quite finished. Early that year he presented his son Christopher with a heavily corrected sheath of typings and a composition notebook, a bundle he referred to as “my last book” and that has now come to life as “The Abyss of Human Illusion.” And while it usurps the place of honor “Commonplace” held, it is every bit as worthy to wear the mantle, a book at turns funny and lonely and one that speaks to the remarkable skill at Sorrentino’s disposal.

“Abyss” follows the same template of Sorrentino’s later works “Commonplace” and “Little Casino,” in that it falls into the shadow between novel and short story collection. The book is made up of fifty vignettes, taken from low points and turning points in the lives of their unnamed characters: a man thinks in disgust of his friend’s new poetry book, a New Year’s Eve party turns into an adulterous brawl, a man seduces his neighbor’s wife and takes her to his pious Oklahoma family to sleep in the bathtub. There’s no stated connection between any of them, though several of the stories do seem to have unsettling overlaps ranging from marital circumstances to salad dressing.

“There are more serious insanities to ponder, surely, but we are, for the moment, caught in the toils of this one,” is how Sorrentino opens one of these vignettes, and this serves as a fitting descriptor for the book’s structure. What we have here are not grand questions and scenes, but moments where characters are facing personal failures, their own mortality and closure not to their liking – the little things that get to them, revealing the pettiness and the loneliness behind their lives. One old man can sit alone in their apartments with his only purpose remembering past slights, and another old man fondly recalls a one-night stand decades ago to an old friend only to have her laugh dismissively (“You’ve been thinking of that all these years?”).

As the saying goes, when you stare into the abyss it stares back into you, and this “Abyss” is no different – it’s a bleak book in many ways and one that takes an effort despite being made up of so many parts. The characters may not seem likeable, but that’s most likely because the lack of names makes it easier for readers to be drawn uncomfortably in, seeing themselves in broken marriages or listening to the radio in an empty apartment. This is a book about the complexities of being human, a “tideless deep” as Henry James put it in the titular line, and one that demands the reader be willing to put their head under. Sorrentino doesn’t even seem to consider himself exempt from the experience, as one story visits an old writer whose “each gluey additional phrase made made more awkward and unwieldy, and worse, egregiously literary and important,” feeling foolish but almost amused at himself for continuing.

But the perceptions of that character translate in no way to the quality of writing in “Abyss,” which has a precision with words on par with Raymond Carver. While Sorrentino’s earlier work was distinguished for its English explosions (his magnum opus “Mulligan Stew” was full to bursting with lists and asides, and “Crystal Vision” sparked with back-and-forth drugstore banter) later books had a greater economy, filled with scenes and images that could be taken in part or as a whole. “Abyss” keeps the trend with no vignette longer than five pages, but each feels so full and vivid as the narrator’s thoughts play out.

Sorrentino was obviously careful with his word choice, but he was even more meticulous with the details. To make up for the loss of his father as final editor, Christopher Sorrentino included his father’s loose thoughts from the notebook rough draft, which expand the stories’ depth in the spirit of the excellent afterthoughts to “Little Casino’s” vignettes. Commentaries show that he considered every detail and phrase closely, from the trivial details cut in editing (the exact brand of green paint or English muffin) to the significant social context behind the scene (the predilections of the Devil and the decline of the Lower East Side). The reader is warned that “some of these commentaries may not be wholly reliable,” but even so they force one to go back and reconsider each of the chapters’ minutae.

And reconsideration is something that “Abyss” invites in droves – not just reconsideration of the brief scenes, but reconsideration of the reader’s own life and reconsideration of Sorrentino’s books that have come before. This is a stunningly potent book, one that not only shows the culmination of its author’s career but also creates what could be his most accessible work, distilling his language and plot points to the core exploration of how strange it is to be human. Sorrentino closed his career in perfect fashion with “The Abyss of Human Illusion,” and once again secured his place as my favorite niche author.


News Announcement: The Centennial Review

April 22, 2010

A few words have to be shared before we continue with our regularly scheduled programming.

Recently, while doing a bit of general maintenance on the site, updating links and forwarding reviews, I was struck by curiosity and decided to take stock of how many reviews have been posted. After scrolling through the content and piecing together content for various outlets, I found – to my stunned surprise – I have somehow managed to write enough book reviews that the next one will reach the coveted milestone of 100.

Yes, ever since learning my craft at the Daily Cardinal student newspaper and serving as a freelancer for before dismal management led me to strike out on my own, 100 books have been reviewed in detail either by themselves or in joint articles. Also note, this isn’t even counting other writings like my Cardinal literature columns, the Text-to-Screen series and other random articles printed under the essay umbrella. And to make it a hat trick of achievements – after a double-check on the months of articles posted – come next month TLOTE will have been online for two full years, not missing a month since founding.

How the hell did I do that?

In any case, while I don’t plan to devote a lot of time to retrospectives and anniversary specials, I did want to take a moment for two things. First of all, I do feel something special should be done for the anniversary, reviewing a title or author close to my heart.

Coincidentally, the book already queued up for review fits the latter. “The Abyss of Human Illusion,” the last book by postmodern author Gilbert Sorrentino, whose “A Strange Commonplace” I reviewed back in 2006 and who also happens to be my favorite author no one else has heard of. So even without the honor of centennial title it’s a review that’s getting a lot of attention from its writer, and one I hope showcases the vast gulf he’s crossed since his first review of “Liverpool Fantasy” as a naïve freshman.

And looking back over that gulf leads me to the second point of this post. I make a lot of half-serious jokes to friends of mine about how my site’s audience is slimmer than a Popsicle-stick model of an anorexic supermodel, but session stats prove that the site does get some traffic and occasionally a comment or compliment that switches my expression up to beaming. When my busy non-writing life overwhelms me (which is often) I sometimes debate packing this in for something that results in an actual paycheck, but I always push ahead for love of the craft – and always get a positive reaction from those paying attention.

So, with the occasion in mind, I wanted to thank those who have helped me take these efforts as far as I have. Thanks first and foremost to my contributors/Cardinal daughters Anna and Carrie, who have brought two new perspectives and commentary I’d have never been able to offer or have even considered; to my varied editors at the Cardinal who gave me suggestions, pushed my boundaries and gave me the page space to review for an audience; all authors and publishing houses who have trusted my opinion and reach enough to send or offer to send advance copies; and to everyone who’s taken even a moment to read and reference my thoughts on literature. This website takes a lot of reading on my part to keep functioning, and the fact that it is read itself means more than I can express.

And as a closing note that both transitions to our 100th review and also shows how much more I have to learn, please share my consideration of this quote from Mr. Sorrentino on literary criticism. When I finally manage to understand what he’s saying here (I think I do but I’m half-certain I’m wrong), maybe I’ll cross another big divide.

“The professional literary critic finds himself in a curious, even awkward position. The rationale for his writing is that it serves to explicate or illuminate the texts of others; it is useful. What a fine ambiguity arises when we read that critic who is most gifted, most serious in sense of his vocation. His writing, as it strives toward the most precise and unique subtleties of revelation in the writing under review, begins, oddly, to detach itself from its cause, and to float free of it. It begins to move, that is, toward the literature that it purports to be ‘talking about.’ It as if it wants to be literature too, as if it cannot countenance its function as that of the useful but wishes to approach the condition of the useless. What is most perverse about this phenomenon is that the best criticism is by definition the most useful: it is somehow that which it would prefer not to be. And that criticism that is useless, fashionable, a compilation of gossip, opinion and causerie, criticism, that is, that speaks of everything but the work before it, pretends to be absolutely utilitarian. So we are left with this dilemma: useful criticism would like to be, indeed, strives to be, useless; and useless criticism seems superbly, aggressively useful.”

– Gilbert Sorrentino, “Something Said,” February 1984

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Capturing the Voice

April 14, 2010

As I assume I’ve made apparent in this series of articles, there are a lot of problems inherent in adapting a book to film. Beyond the critical issue of immersion – books require a connection that a flash on a screen can never provide, no matter how much James Cameron might try to convince audiences otherwise – there are questions of detail, the decision on which characters and subplots to cut out, how closely you want to work with the author in developing the film’s storyboard, etc etc. This mix of concerns tends to complicate a lot of releases, either turning them into mediocre offerings that send purists to the streets with torches or creating films that many people have no idea are based on books.

One of the most critical sticking points to getting an adaptation right is the issue of narration, particularly in novels told from a first-person perspective. When the majority of a book is depicted as an inner monologue, reflecting only one character’s reactions and views of the setting around him, the screenwriter adapting it is faced with a particularly difficult choice. Do you change the format to depict other characters, thus moving further and further away from the original version’s story, or do you work that voice in and risk alienating your audience with one voice droning on?

There are plenty of examples of both in film, but in my experience I’ve found that the best adaptations of first-person novels are ones that go for the latter – chiefly on the strength of the actors they’ve selected for that voice. If you want viewers to invest in one character talking through the majority of the film, you need someone who can sell that character, convey in his actions and tone the personality that made the source material such a compelling read.

So with that in mind, please take a moment and review my personal picks for the best actors who perfectly capture the tone of a book’s original narration and perform that wonderful trick of making you hear their voice in your head every time you go back to the source material. I allow that this is based on favorites of mine rather than a broad general view of things, but I stand by each of my arguments.

1. Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Considering this is my favorite film and favorite book, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to start off this list, but from a professional standpoint it’s absolutely essential. Depp’s performance here is the main reason to watch this film – described as “a master of moving as though someone just pulled the plug on his power source” by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, his Raoul Duke is a character soaked in intensity and paranoia. It’s a character that fits the gonzo label, one that can go in any direction, enjoying an anti-authoritarian rant one moment and slouching over a bar stool mumbling the next.

Depp’s tone is noticeably different from recordings of Thompson himself – much more jacked-up with less of the quiet “ho ho” tone – but he’s doing the right thing by varying it. His job wasn’t to match Thompson but the author’s alter ego of Duke, reflecting the strain of no sleep and continual ill-advised self-medicating. Each of the book’s immortal lines on golf shoes and devil ether are nailed, either filled with snap observations or the wisdom of a true dope fiend. In the scenes where he is alone and typing in the hell his hotel suite has become, the tone becomes sagelike, almost omniscient: someone who has fallen over the Edge but miraculously made it back with a report.

Off-screen, Depp’s performance earns bonus points for the level of immersion he took into preparing for the role. A long-time friend of Thompson, he lived in the basement of the Owl Farm compound for a few months to prepare for the role (as chronicled in his excellent obituary “A Pair of Deviant Bookends,” later adapted as the introduction for the oral history “Gonzo”), spending endless hours talking with him and reviewing the original manuscripts. In fact, his outfits in the film were mostly lifted straight from Thompson’s closet, the originals worn by Thompson as he was living the book in 1971. Depp was afforded a rare opportunity to literally step into the shoes of the character, and he took advantage of it in a way only a very talented actor could.

There was a very good reason why 2008’s “Gonzo” documentary featured Depp reading from Thompson’s books, and why the (hopefully) upcoming “The Rum Diary” film has him once again playing a Thompson doppelganger. No other actor inhabits the Doctor or his alter ego so completely.

2. Edward Norton as the Narrator (Jack), “Fight Club”

I could technically call this award a split between Norton and Brad Pitt for obvious reasons, but it’s Norton’s everyman who sells this film for me each time I watch it. A man trapped in a thankless job that quantifies death (automotive safety), he is unable to sleep and unable to cry, nullified by the washed-out mass-consumer world that surrounds him. In every one of his scenes, Norton portrays a caged helplessness, an anger and despair he doesn’t even know how to express anymore.

The insomnia and resignation all match the narrator’s tone, but what particularly sells Norton’s performance is how perfectly suited his style is to the style of the author who wrote his lines. Palahniuk’s writing has always depended on a spartan, borderline nihilstic economy with words, which he described in an intro to “Fight Club”:

Instead of walking a character from scene to scene in a story, there had to be some way to just – cut, cut, cut. To jump. From scene to scene. Without losing the reader. To show every aspect of a story, but only the kernel of each aspect. The core moment. Then another core moment. Then, another.

There is nothing extraneous in Norton’s character, no wasted gestures or extra tangents in his mumblings – we receive instead an excellent focus that seems determined to shut out all the distractions surrounding him, matter-of fact details and observations. When he eventually does snap, such as when he coldly explains to his boss how a hypothetical someone could go postal in the office if pushed too far, you don’t feel like he’s been waiting for this or the tension’s been building, but that some invisible switch has been flipped without warning, setting off the next core moment.

Sam Rockwell made a good effort as another Palahniuk narrator in “Choke,” but Norton set the bar so high he was destined to be compared unfavorably. If the “Survivor” movie ever finds its way out of development hell, the star would do well to study Norton as much as the source material.

3. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, “A Clockwork Orange”

Sigh. Whatever happened to Malcolm McDowell, o my brothers? From a promising start to his career in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Caligula” he seemed to vanish from the right roles, showing up in throwaway films like “Tank Girl” or “Star Trek Generations” where he’s cashing in on his wonderfully creepy voice and evil genius looks. His most memorable roles have been the one where his voice is king, video game roles, be they Admiral Tolwyn in “Wing Commander” or John Henry Eden in “Fallout 3.”

But while his career has gone through what most people would term a decline, he began it with a truly memorable turn as Anthony Burgess’ psychopathic teenager Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” While the most memorable images of him are silently staring out under false eyelashes as electronic classical plays, when he speaks the performance gets its hooks out. His voice had a distinctive lilt, youthful and yet dangerously jittery, as if you could never tell when he would take a knife to you – an almost joyful disregard for truth and consequence matching the book’s rapid Nadsat phrasing. He was skipping towards hell to the tune of the Ninth, and loving every moment of it.

And once the Ludovico technique forced his eyes open to the horror of violence, his performance betrayed the loss of control it delivered. In an ill-fitting suit, arms pulled in clutching his belongings, he had an almost Luke Skywalker-esque expression of dumbness at how the world moved on without him. He becomes almost sickly, his smile even more plastic than the fake sympathy he put on for his parents or his latest rape victim – a performance in many ways harder to watch than the scenes of ultraviolence.

The hiccup in matching this to the book however comes in with the long-debated 21st chapter, excised from the book’s American release and the film script. This chapter sees Alex grow up in a sense, disillusioned from his raping and beating and deciding it’s time to settle down with a nice girl. Stanley Kubrick hadn’t read this version and never considered it for the film, and it’s hard to see McDowell agreeing that “Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.” His character comes across as so irredeemable that such a change is beyond his abilities.

But then again, I’m of the school of thought that the book’s better without that chapter, and honestly McDowell’s performance here makes for a supporting argument. The joyous abandon and manipulative actions he takes here fit the 20 chapters adapted in a most horrorshow way.

4. Mickey Rourke as Marv, “Sin City”

When “Sin City” first hit theaters, what made the posters distinctive – beyond the black-and-white noir shading style – was the alteration of one word in the description of the main characters: the change from “as” to “is.” It was a declarative shift, proclaiming that actors such as Bruce Willis and Clive Owen weren’t just portraying the roles but filling them completely, filling Robert Rodriguez’s vision of “a translation, not an adaptation” of Frank Miller’s neo-noir graphic novels And no actor contributed to that vision as much as Rourke, portraying the nigh-indestructible brawler and gunman Marv.

Willis and Owen were certainly at home in their roles, but it was Rourke who defined the film in “The Hard Goodbye,” the film’s first and best story. Rourke’s Marv had a graveled weariness that spoke of taking a lot of beatings and giving as well as he got, a tone most noir writers would kill to capture on the page. Unlike the nauseating adaptation of “The Spirit” where every line seemed soaked in self-parodied cliché, Rourke made his lines believable, packed with pure investment in his actions:

Hell? You don’t know what hell is. None of you people do. Hell isn’t getting beat up or cut up or hauled in front of some faggot jury. Hell is waking up every god damn morning and not knowing why you’re even here. Why you’re even breathing.

The other aspect so key to this character was the almost amused acceptance he has of his circumstances. Defined early on as a man who’d “be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face,” Rourke displayed no reluctance at dragging someone’s face on the street while driving a car or leaving a quadruple amputee to be chewed up by a wolf. He didn’t revel in it as some of the film’s other violent types, but he was clearly a man who knew his place and enjoyed what he did. Consequences seemed to mean nothing to him – he smirked his way through every beating and smirked even harder as obstacles presented themselves to be knocked down.

“Sin City” remains a testament to faithful adaptations – Rodriguez used the original graphic novels as the storyboards – and its sequels ever come to be, Rourke’s participation will make or break their legitimacy. Luckily despite his electrocution in the first film, Marv still has a role to play.

5. Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, “Dexter”

When a TV show makes unethical actions its central plot point, it seems to be a requirement that an incredibly strong actor or actress serve as the main character to win audiences over. James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos,” Michael Chiklis in “The Shield” and Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” all dominate this field of antiheroes, and Michael C. Hall has carved out a place just below them as the titular lead of Showtime’s “Dexter.” As a serial killer with a strict moral code, Hall keeps his show afloat despite a string of hit-or-miss side sideplots.

What makes Hall so compelling in this role is the fact that he manages to inhabit all the aspects of “Dexter” that Jeff Lindsay writes about. His voiceovers – like many others in the list, a neutral monotone slightly humming with menace – are key to the show, coldly scientific in their analysis of his targets and his sociopathy but also betraying his nervousness at the cracking of his mask. When interacting with friends his character’s openness is convincing but visibly fake to an audience in the know, and when interacting with his targets there is a relaxed savoring of the bloodshed to come.

There’s also some great dark humor that results, as like in the book the audience is privy to knowledge no character beyond Dexter knows, and Hall manages to straightforwardly deliver some wonderful lines that would be throwaway without the context (such as this one with his girlfriend Rita):

Rita: Deb must be a mess. I mean, falling for a serial killer?

Dexter: What are the odds?

It’s a hard combination to be funny and scary in equal doses, but Hall pulls it off with a shark smile and an inner voice both analytical and poetic. You don’t see a lot of books making their way to the small screen, but if they had actors like Hall backing them it’d make for an easier transition.

Honorable Mentions

Ewan McGregor as Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton, “Trainspotting”

While the book is split between a variety of characters and perspectives, Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton is as close to a protagonist as Irvine Welsh’s Scottish drug novel can provide, the most normal one in the group and the one who comes out on top in the end. McGregor has the thick Scottish brogue and the twitching empty junkie look, and his delivery of the “Choose life” monologue is the hook that defines both the film and the book irrevocably.

Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell, “No Country for Old Men”

Again, while not a first-person novel, Sheriff Bell’s speeches open and close the book’s chapters, and are imbued with the language that has made Cormac McCarthy one of our finest living writers. Jones has precisely the right inflection in his tone, and whenever he speaks to a character or to himself you can feel the world-weariness in each sentence: a dry aged quality that tightens the throat in response.

Viggo Mortensen as Everett Hitch, “Appaloosa”

I’ve talked at length about this in my Text-to-Screen review of “Appaloosa,” so I’ll avoid too much detail. What I will emphasize is that Mortensen sets a very solid bar in all of his characters, and his Hitch has the terse attitude necessary to be a Robert B. Parker protagonist. The graveled voice that made him so convincing in “The Road,” matched with the inner reserve of the son of Arathorn, give him a lawman’s bearing even Seth Bullock could take a lesson from.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, “Jeeves and Wooster”

Anyone who only knows Laurie from “House” is missing out on the fact that he built his career on the absurdities of British comedy, and his role as the idly rich Wooster was a key part of it. While the show doesn’t capture the majority of the brilliant text that makes Wodehouse a joy to immerse oneself in, Laurie still conveys Wooster’s dimwitted nature in a very enduring way, nailing the foppishness, goofiness and good nature in turn.

Peter Weller as William Lee, “Naked Lunch”

Again, please refer to my original Text-to-Screen on “Naked Lunch” for the pertinent details on this performance. Briefly, Weller’s poise fits the possession and vision that led Rolling Stone to eulogize Burroughs as “anarchy’s double agent,” and readings of routines like “The Talking Asshole” come very close to the inimitable drawl Burroughs set in his live recordings.