Monday, March 30, 2015

Currently Reading 3.30.15

Gilbert Sorrentino's The Abyss of Human Illusion

So my friends and I have this running joke, that every time I start to work on or obsess over some project I really like and am really excited over, I will immediately begin reading a book with the exact same plot. I am not so egotistical to suggest I was writing stuff comparable to masterpieces, just that they shared some of the same focus or elements. Previous examples include: Crime and Punishment, Oryx and Crake, an episode of "Hey Arnold" (that last one really stung).

So of course, having recently finished a group of very short, imagistic, nonlinear but possibly connected, numbered short stories, I read Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Abyss of Human Illusion, a collection of short, imagistic, nonlinear but possibly connected, numbered short stories. Oy. 

All that aside, I really like the collection, and thought I’d share the entirety of one of his stories, just for a little taste:

- I -
         Mundane things, pitiful in their mundane assertiveness, their sad isolation. Kraft French dressing, glowing weirdly orange through its glass bottle, a green glass bowl of green salad, a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, its paper wrapper still on. All are in repose, in their absolute thingness, under the overhead alarming bright light of the kitchen. They may or they should, they must, really, reveal the meaning of this silent room, this silent house, save that they won’t. There is no meaning. These things will evoke nothing.
        In years to come, almost three-quarters of a century, they still evoke nothing. Orange, green, incandescent glare. Silence and loss. Nothing. There might be a boy of four at the table. He is sitting very straight and is possibly waiting for someone.

I love how focused this story gets on the objects, but the very presence of a person is almost entirely inconsequential. I also love the circular logic here; these objects are meaningless and therefore that becomes their meaning. How can something be meaningless when he devotes the entire first story to it? He is simultaneously questioning their value and also elevating them to a strange level of mythos. In a sense, this is also very similar to a zen aesthetic, the sort of insight gleaned from the imperfections of daily life; but it is also an antithesis, a sinister-ization of those elements. The Kraft French dressing exists as something that has become only a signifier of man, the suggestion or form of mankind without the actual humanity. That’s right, he forces you to confront the crushing philosophical consequences of condiments. Sign me up. More malaise on my burger please.

In a way it reminds me a bit of William Eggleston’s photography:
William Eggleston, Untitled (Louisiana), 1980

William Eggleston, Untitled, 1968
They are beautiful but sad, funny but dark, heavy and somehow static, like there is something totemic and unchanging about these subjects.

Sorrentino’s work feels a bit like Raymond Carver or John Cheever, obsessed with the emptiness of modern suburbia, but more aware of his medium. (Aware might not be the right word. Confounded by? Frustrated with? Delighted with? Less respectful of? More reverent of? Yeah. All those.) In his best known work, Mulligan Stew, the narrative turns into a conglomeration between a story about an author and the story he is working on writing, and includes multiple characters stolen from other novels (the title too is a pun, a reference to Ulysses’s Buck Mulligan). A later book of his, Gold Fools, is written entirely in questions.

Abyss is less blatantly experimental than those, but his fascination with falsity and language remains. The events in the stories are blatantly referred to as cliches, and he will give a single character multiple names (suggesting that the names don’t really matter at all). The stories are sometimes mundane, sometimes blatantly surreal (for example, a story ending with a wife “emit[ting] a low drone” or a story about a doctor, not a dentist, inexplicably tearing at patient’s gums and then mounting him). They invoke a sense of supreme familiarity and ennui while simultaneously provoking a foreboding sense of jamais vu, a sense that something is not quite right underneath it all.

And then, once you’ve gotten through the 50 unnamed stories, you find a series of footnotes for each story. These are unmarked within the actual texts of the stories, so unless you knew beforehand that they're there, you have no inkling they are coming. Sometimes they elaborate a certain, often totally mundane point, specifying that it was A&P peanut butter that a character was spreading; other times they completely change the entire tone of a line or story (for example, one of the notes for the final story: “…sunny, blue Los Angeles day…the sort of day that rapists and mass killers come out to pursue their interests”). Some are even deliberately ambiguous, or in fact purposely obscure objects or events (“…the shade of a birch tree…It may have been poplar, or whatever you prefer”).

The notes operate in a couple different ways. They reinforce the stories as objects of your own memory; they operate as memories of stories that already existed because they were already somehow so familiar, but manipulate those memories, perhaps forcing you to reconfront a story with an entirely different stance. Last, and I think my favorite, they can operate as a separate set of disconnected thoughts and images and micro narratives, perhaps inspired by the story, but not inherently connected, as one might think. The clarifications are made meaningless by becoming disconnected and therefore gain their own context and meaning.

Gilbert Sorrentino died in 2006, finishing this book by hand a few weeks before he died. And so he may be gone but this remains, his signifiers remain. The cover of this book reminds me of a Magritte painting (what is this, The Canvas!?); the author removed and an empty hat that must be examined for what it is: empty.

Rene Magritte, The Pilgrim, 1966

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