Reviewed by Sam Byrd, Digital Repository Librarian
Readers looking for modern fiction with interesting well-rounded characters and a strong plot (or, indeed, any story line at all) would do well to steer clear of Gilbert Sorrentino. Sorrentino is a brilliant experimental writer whose works of social satire explore the boundaries of fiction. A strong theme of his work is questioning the conventional notion of language's ability to convey the nature of reality. He also has little patience with the misuse of language. Through close parody of all kinds of discourse and a knack for writing "bad" prose (combined with a strong use of formal structure), he is a master at skewering hackneyed fiction writing. His best-known novel (Mulligan Stew) at least has a plot to speak of, but his latest work of fiction, Lunar Follies, is a plotless series of essays in the form of an exhibition catalog for imaginary works of museum and art installations named after geographical features of the moon. In the process of describing these works, he satirizes the elitism of the art world while capturing the tone and attitude of modern art criticism: "the primal, deeply honest, abidingly tough, slashingly calligraphic strokes of famed abstract painter Franz Kline's hommages to unknown Japanese masters, as well as to his Polish-German coal-miner parents, discover a new, quietly content life in the warmly masculine and chastely acerbic spring loungewear collection by Renatita Iglioni." Works described include sculpture, photo montages, erotica collections, and the Iconocult Museum's "much-visited and remarked-upon New York Times Arts & Leisure wall."
Lunar Follies is a tough read, enjoyable in the moment but leaving you with a sense that your brain has been scrubbed out. For a more "conventional" take on the novel, try an earlier work, Gold Fools. This novel actually has a story, something to do with two teenaged boys who go on an expedition in the desert to find gold. The trick here is that Sorrentino has composed the entire book in interrogative sentences, all the while parodying dime-novel boys' adventure stories and westerns: "Did it seem that Billee was, by thunder, a-goin' to jine Hank and the young fellers in their looming quest? Was his remark, to the effect that it 'peared likely that he'd mosey and take his chance on hittin' a grubstake a giveaway as to his intentions? What is a grubstake?"
After several pages of this, can you see why most contemporary reviews of this novel consisted of nothing but questions? Will I continue the rest of these remarks with nothing but questions? No, I won't, but it's mighty tempting. Ostensibly an adventure story, Gold Fools has plenty of passages like the following, where Sorrentino continues his ongoing battle against the effects of shallow, facile writing: "Did Bud sit bolt upright and murmur that he felt summat like he had done asked a question that mebbe the answer to which somebody had hollered at him while he was still asnooze? Did this authentic Western speech pattern accurately reflect Bud's disturbed mental state? Was it somewhat Faulknerian? Melvillean? Conradian? Hemingwayesque? Or a little of each, i.e., McCarthyan?"
The passages above only hint at Sorrentino's subtle but unrelenting humor. The cumulative effect may not be more than a subdued chuckle, but I guarantee that after Sorrentino you'll never read a brochure in the same way again.
For more on Sorrentino, see the April 2006 issue of Jacket Magazine at http://jacketmagazine.com/29/index.shtml. His next novel, A Strange Commonplace, is coming out in May 2006.