Friday, June 4, 2010

The Abyss of Human Illusion by Gilbert Sorrentino

The Abyss of Human Illusion is aptly titled, given that Sorrentino develops so many of his narrative pieces with the focus on the illusions in everyday life: the assumptions we make, or the events we mentally rehearse for but never act out. This collection is fifty-some short vignettes, not quite a collection of short stories, but still packing just as much of a punch. Most are just two or three pages, and what he can accomplish in so few words is amazing.

This was my first Sorrentino collection, and it’s honest and pure without being depressing. Even the parts about depression were somehow unsinkable. A great deal of humor is within it, a sweet humor as well as snarky realism. For example, in one section, an elderly man pities his upstairs neighbor, another elderly man with a crippled foot. They have no connection, but the downstairs neighbor imagines an entire life for the poor man above, embellishing it with sad little details about war injuries and ungrateful children that allow him to ignore the terrible noise the upstairs man makes. Finally, unable to stand the noise much longer, he goes upstairs and finds a scantily clad woman at the door, who looks at him disdainfully, as he is an old man. Thus the noise is explained and the downstairs neighbor is chastened. Isn’t that how it goes?

Another man is set to review his friend’s published poetry collection, one of several in a successful artistic career. He can’t make himself get to it, and keeps putting it off. Finally, he has to admit it to himself what prevents him: the realization that his friend is “an arrogant, selfish, cruel, egocentric yet charming man of sociopathic bent, to put the very best face on it, changed, oh yes, transformed his public presence into one of a subtly nuanced and delicate humility, transformed his entire life and world into the very picture of the sensitive artist.” And the larger revelation? His friend was a terrible poet in the first place. Immediately you imagine that the reviewer would justify the poet’s corruption if only he had more talent!

Sorrentino makes some pokes at my beloved New Yorker magazine (I feel kind of guilty for enjoying it so much!).  He makes more than a few allusions to famous people who lacked the talent to back up their legend, but I couldn’t place exactly who he meant (I’m sure they know!). He's uncanny at noting the little details that make each person tick.  In fact, given the seemingly trivial details he explores, you’d assume the stories would be longer. But it’s the specificity of what he describes that allows you to immediately know what he means without pages of descriptions. An amazing gift, because none of the pieces feel short-changed or hurried; all are exactly right.

The introduction of this novel is also quite touching as it is written by Sorrentino’s son, explaining how his father completed the work despite his debilitating illness, just weeks before his death. I’m eager to see if Sorrentino’s other novels are this style, as it’s an addicting style of prose.  Best of all, it's not so sophisticated that the reader feels ignorant (as frequently happens when I read some celebrated writers).

Special thanks to Esther Porter at Coffee House Press for the Review Copy.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to read this author. He seems like the kind I would enjoy.
    I do know, BTW, what you mean by feeling ignorant sometimes when reading celebrated writers. I just finished the new book by David Mitchell, who's apparently some kind of a modern cult writer and I disliked this books greatly and it made me feel like I wasn't getting something because everyone else loved it (it's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet).