Published February 1, 2010
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.