23 may. 2006

Sorrentino Notes

In Sorrentino there is that fundamental seriousness about writing. Not seriousness as opposed to the comic, because of course he was a brilliant comic writer in the Beckett/Flann O'Brien mode. I'm talking about a fundamental integrity of the WORD. If postmodernism means a kind of softness or weakness, a relaxation of modernist rigor, then Sorrentino is no postmodern.

There's a kind of working class realness to his aestheticism. It's not the aestheticism of the leisured class or the WASP gentility of Harry Mathews. (Of course, he also liked Mathews' work, as do I.) An attack on Marianne Moore pegged her as a writer out of touch with reality. He also loved WCW's prose fiction, which is in the realist mode as well. There's a paper to be written disambiguating his particular committment to the real from his distance from other modes of literary realism that he despised.

Is he a better metafictionist than Barth? I think his metafiction is oriented in a different direction, toward an ethical critique of the fake, the unreal, the sham. So if fiction is a sham too, then you better write a kind of fiction that doesn't pretend to be something it's not. It's going to advertise its artificiality.

Are some of his fictions "thinner" than others? Possibly so. I wouldn't put all on an equal plane, and there are some that I haven't re-read in many years. There are even a few I've never read.

I discovered him from Imaginary Qualities of Actual Things. I recognized the book's title as a phrase from WCW, so I pulled it down from the stacks. Then Mulligan Stew came out. If you only know Mullgian Stew, you don't know Sorrentino. You might peg him as a writer of postmodern fictions of the Barth, Gass, Barthelme ilk. You wouldn't be wrong, but I think there are other dimensions of his work you'd be missing. I don't want to make invidious comparisons and say Sorrentino was better than most of these others. He's certainly closer to my sensibility than most of them, maybe because of his connection to the Great Moderns and the New American Poetry.

His poetry often struck me as the poetry of someone who knew how to write but was not a poet per se. He's better than a lot of other poets, of course. His sequence of poems about Corpus Christi Texas is priceless. It was place he hated, and he make it known. He hated Reagan, all forms of hypocrisy and bullshit.

He admired Williams, Spicer, Bronk, Creeley, O'Hara, Koch, Olson, Beckett, Joyce, O'Brien, Borges and Cortázar. He liked the novels of Henry Green. He liked Roth but not Updike. You definitely knew he liked and didn't like. His piece on John Gardner is one of the classic attacks in literary criticism.

How about that undercurrent of misogyny in his work? It's an interesting issue. I certainly sense it enough so that it becomes an annoyance, if I'm reading large swaths of his work. On the other hand it's possible that it's part of a larger pattern of satiric misanthropy.

He hated all forms of "PC," and had a difficult time with students from the Modern Thought and Literature Program at Stanford, with their Marxist Theory. Maria Damon was one of them at the time. I always liked Maria, but was not too fond of some of the others in that program.

Perloff recounts that Gil had reservations about hiring a certain Joycean, and a member of the English dept. said "What does Gil know, he's only a writer." But of course his knowledge of Joyce was immense, as Marjorie points out. If all writers were like that, we wouldn't need critics at all.

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