In relation to his earlier fictions—Imaginative Qualities, Splendide-Hôtel, and Mulligan Stew—Gilbert Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight is perplexing, not in terms of linguistic style or content, but in its unabashed use of modernist structures and other narrative techniques. His three previous works—representing such genres as the mock-essay, the fantasy, and the anatomy—were explicit declarations against the novel and its domination of prose literature in the twentieth century. Yet Aberration of Starlight not only announces itself as a novel on its dust-jacket (although, one must admit, that the generic differences of which I am speaking have little to do with what the publisher chooses to call a work), but within its pages it generally behaves as one. Except for one section in each of its four perfectly balanced “acts,” this is a story which presents, primarily in objective narration, the viewpoints of four different characters, mimetically grounded in a specific time and place, whose interactions precipitate thematic dichotomies—“love and separation,” “youth and age,” “innocence and knowledge”—similar to those of the majority of works of twentieth-century fiction. The book, in fact, is imbued with a sense of ironic nostalgia that Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren—those doyens of modern narrative theory—might applaud.
It is not that this fiction is “modern” as opposed to “postmodern,” or even “retrogressive” as opposed to “advanced,” that troubles one; it is just these kinds of categorizations and their mindless devotees which Sorrentino so brilliantly satirizes in Mulligan Stew. Rather, the problem is that in the context of the modern novel, Aberration of Starlight is not seemingly an very original work. In such a genre, Sorrentino’s literary fortes—his stunning leaps of logic, lists, litanies, and mimicries—for the most part are missing, and by the reader are missed. This is not to say that the book is without its obvious pleasures. The white-starched, sunlit world which Marie Recco, her son, father, and would-be suitor inhabit, superficially is as loving and longing a portrait of America as are Edward Hopper’s canvases. Like Hopper, Sorrentino captures the spirit of a people so splendidly naïve that, poised on the edge of World War II, they fail to comprehend their own potential to isolate and hate. The very similarities between Sorrentino and Hopper, however, point to what appears to be the novel’s failure. The reader has been here before, and, on the surface at least, Sorrentino has nothing new to say of it. Describing its characters as boorish and banal, Paul West correctly observes that the novel presents literary figures who,
Instead of discovering or inventing compensations that
would free them as characters, from the anonymous pattern
of libido and denial, …back off into the twaddle that surrounds
them. Their heads, and what little is in them, dominate the
narrative, and keep on coming through direct, without much
of the narrational intervention that could render shades of
feeling they feel but can’t express. Indeed, the narrator, who
shows up rarely, seems even more buried in the stuff of their
lives than they are. (The Washington Post Book World, Sunday, August
With regard to objective narration and its inherently closed structures, it is as if in Aberration of Starlight Sorrentino has attempted to outdo the moderns. It is not that one necessarily demands a more “contemporary” fiction; it is simply that one is less satisfied by an anachronistic one.
If rumor is to be given credence, the answer is “yes.”
Three men putatively so served were: Lewis D. Fielding,
a junkman of Ossining, N.Y., through his wife, Barbara;
Alfred Bennett Martinez, a plumber of Ozone Park, N.Y.,
through his wife, Danielle; William V. Bell, a shop
teacher of Paterson, N.J., through his wife, Joanne.
Similarly, the reader is told outright that Marie is sexually afraid of men (p. 67), that her father “had energetically conspired in his own defeat” (p. 175), and numerous other pieces of trivial and useful information that radically work against the objective point of view which dominates the rest of the book.
The names of some of her favorite poets?
Ella Wheeler Wilcox; Blanche Shoemaker Wagstaff; Captain
Cyril Morton Thorne; Burelson St. Charles MacVoute; Dinah
Maria Mulock Craik; Edgar A. Guest; Josiah Gilbert Holland,
Lorna Blakey Flambeaux; H. Antoine D’Arcy; Emma Simpere
Furze; Alaric Alexander Watts; Mary Artemisia Lathbury;
Blanche Bane Kuder; Jean Ingelow; Carruthers Sofa-Jeudi;
Maltbie Davenport Babcock; Nixon Waterman.
This is the stuff of Mulligan Stew and other earlier fictions. Not only are some of the names the same (an entire sheaf of poems by Lorna Flambeaux appears in Mulligan Stew), but the structure of such a listing is of the same kind of pattern that controls Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities.
The following is a typical listing from Mulligan Stew:
What cannot Gold do?
A number of things, the more prominent among which are:
make the pivot, shoot the rapids, differential calculus, speak
Spanish, hit in the clutch, carry a tune, get a job, say not, walk
a crooked mile, swim, hold his liquor, support his children,
write a poem, play tennis, pay his bills, trim his beard, shine
his shoes, take a shower, use capital letters, keep his sex life
private, be proud, speak to an angel, take a little walk, boil
lobsters, open clams, like women, cut it out, grow up, move
to Yonkers, cease and desist, jump over the candlestick,
act his age, fly a kite, go two rounds, catch a fish, make a
salad, write a check, wash the windows, eat crow, crack corn,
fly the coop, take a powder, go anywhere alone, bunt, write
a play, stop the shit, cut the comedy, know Brooklyn, mind
his business, sharpen his ax, make an apple pie, honor his father
and mother, be a Jew, shoot crap, make a list, see himself as
others see him, play pool, be joyful and triumphant, take
off his hat, wash a glass, deck the halls, mix a Sazerac, be a
clown, sing in the rain, jump with Symphony Sid, make ‘em
laugh, stand a ghost of a chance, button up his overcoat,
love a mystery, get started, and shudder….
The immediate purpose and effects of such a list are quite obvious. In this case, the narrator, punning on a cliché, transforms the thing, gold, into a person incapable of actions, triggering a series of new clichés, common expressions, song titles and idioms signifying acts. A listing such as this—this one is from a character’s scrapbook—has little to do with plot, character, place, or theme as readers of twentieth-century fiction have come to think of them. Attempts to relate these actions to characterization, to understand these things of which the character Gold is incapable, would miss the point: Gold has no substance as a character, he/it is merely a thing of language, a pun. There is an “idea” behind this combination of words: that of inaction, which Sorrentino expresses quite concretely; but one recognizes that this “idea” is far less important than the structure it takes. One might suspect, knowing Sorrentino’s writing, that there is a kind of Oulipean logic to this list. But, although one might contrive to find a thematic link in the passage, the very order of these verbal constructions work against any such attempt. For these do not represent a particular kind or even context of acts. “Sing in the rain” may relate to “deck the halls,” “be joyful and triumphant,” “be a clown,” “button up his overcoat,” and even “carry a tune,” but such musical references have little in common with “mind his business,” “sharpen his ax,” or “make an apple pie.” It quickly becomes clear that the focus here is on verbs and little else, on their everyday and idiomatic usages (“shine his shoes” and “stand a ghost of a chance”), on their rhythms and other patterns of sound (“wash the windows, eat crow, crack corn, fly the coop…”) and their syntax. And while there is a beginning and ending to this list of verbals (it opens with the clause, “A number of things,” and closes with the conjunction), one understands it as something akin to a catalogue, as something that, while complete in itself, retains the potential for continuance. The reader, therefore, does not experience the passages as something whole, as organic, even as developmental, but recognizes it as a linguistic sequence capable of being repeated indefinitely, as a pattern of language which—although operating within certain organizing principles—inflects no subordinations upon its constituent parts.
The sides of the buildings, the roofs, the limbs of the
trees are gray. Streets, sidewalks, faces, feelings—they are
gray. Speech is gray, and the grass where it shows. Every
flank and front, each top is gray. Everything is gray: hairs,
eyes, window glass, the hawkers’ bills and touters’ posters,
lips, teeth, poles and metal signs—they’re gray, quite gray.
Horses, sheep, and cows, cats killed in the road, squirrels
in the same way, sparrows, doves, and pigeons, all are
gray, everything is gray….
Superficially, Gass’s writing here seems to have much in common with Sorrentino’s; it is a list of things that share a syntactical relationship, that of noun to adjective, with the color gray. But a closer look reveals that Gass’s list functions in a very different structural context. Although they may seem potentially infinite in number, Gass’s nouns are made finite because they are secondary to repetition, are subordinate to the word “gray.” These nouns all point to the word “winter” (mentioned one sentence earlier in the passage) and refer the reader back and forward in each sentence to their adjective. The listing, accordingly, reveals itself as developmental, organic, and whole. Because the list is self-referential within Gass’s work, it is finite and complete. One experiences it less as a catalogue than as an inventory or compendious description. In other words, while progressive structures such as Sorrentino’s may contain repetition, structures of repetition such as Gass’s are not necessarily progressive.
The structure of Gass’s listing, in its organicism and self-referentiality, is perfectly at home in the novel. In its potential of continuance, the structure of Sorrentino’s catalogue points away from its type; it is a sequence of a kind of construction; and, in that fact, it directs the reader’s attention from the temporal context of narrative towards space, towards the world of things he himself inhabits. Mimesis, the heart of modern prose, is undermined as the imitation is transformed into a thing itself: a catalogue of actions, a syntactical grouping of language.
In the meantime, our sinisterly slick magicians were
extracting gouts of applause by a series of tricks that,
so I assumed, were designed to “warm up” the audience,
a large moiety of whom, I assure you, were drunkenly
blasé, and replete with doubts and cynicalities of varying
potency. These tricks were, according to Madame
Corriendo, “wand inspired,” and, surely enough, in her
long fingers she held a curious wooden rod of maybe
a foot and a half long, atip at both ends with pointed
caps of a metallic substance, perhaps metal itself! In
some shape or other, I mean alloy, if you are with me.
At the sight of this innocent-appearing chunk of wood,
Ned Beaumont, his eyes watering in loathsome pusillani-
mousity, and his fingers, how do you say it? “plucking”
on the tablecloth, breathed heavily and began to sweat
onto the rather tasteful silverware that had been placed—
and with inherent correctness, too—before him.
Although this passage may at first seem to be descriptive, it actually has very little in common with conventional descriptive narration. What the narrator describes as a “series of tricks,” functions as a sequence that resists a coherent presentation of reality, that works against mimetic relationships. Although it is at first connected with the character Madame Corriendo, the phrase “wand inspired,” for example, directs one’s attention away from character or even action to a list of things in space: her long fingers, a “curious wooden rod,” and its metallic tips. The tips, in turn, permit the narrator to pun on “alloy” (a mixture of metallic substances and “to debase, to impair”); the object of the second meaning, is accordingly the subject of the next sentence, Ned Beaumont, whose actions, once again, point the reader away from the character and his actions to other objects: to the table, the tablecloth, and the “rather tasteful silverware.” Whereas the Gass passage continually refers the reader back to its subject, the writing here moves ceaselessly forward in what Gertrude Stein describes as the sequence of counting “one and one and one and one” rather than “one, two, three, four” (“Poetry and Grammar”). By the time Lamont reaches his last chapter—significantly titled “Making It Up as We Goes Along”—the progressive structure has taken over entirely. There is little difference between its sequence of dialogue and the list of “what Gold cannot do.” Both point to the world outside the fiction, and, in that sense, both create something “new,” something that follows its own language into being rather than merely using language to express the known or preconceived. And Lamont, in this regard, does become a better writer, an inventor of sorts. Yet he too, obviously, is a thing of words; and Mulligan Stew thus ends not with his writing, but with a three and a half page “will,” one final grand listing of the disposition of things. As in the works of Samuel Beckett, both characters and characters’ characters all are subsumed into the flow of words, are sacrificed to the endeavor of naming the imagined as things of sound and space into reality.
There is a photograph of the boy that shows him at
age ten. He is looking directly into the camera, holding
up a kitten as if for our inspection, his right hand at
her neck, his left hand underneath her body, supporting
the animal’s weight. The sun is intensely bright, and he
squints at us, smiling, his white even teeth too large
for his small face.
When, moreover, the author alternates such framing techniques with personal letters, interior monologues, and descriptions of intimate sexual encounters (“He pulled his fly open and yanked his hard-on out of his pants, then grabbed her hand and told her to look at him…”), the result is almost pornographic. Peering down from Gulliverian heights, the reader begins to comprehend how completely such techniques—all perfectly at home in the modern novel—close the fiction’s characters within a claustrophobic structure to which there is no direct access, only resemblance to real life.
Dare I call you, Marie darling? Or should I address
you, you swell thing, as Mrs. Recco, prostrating my-
self before your tiny feet in formality. Like a monkey
in a tuxedo on a chain held by an old dago? And of
course I beg you to forgive that terrible word knowing
you, dear princess and Queen of sweetness were once
married to a dago and so got your name. But I don’t
hold that against you, not on your life, darling!
Such writing may be funny, but its implications are horrifying. There is little possibility that anyone might escape from such a “prison-house of language.” In so solipsistic a vision, love and communication cannot exist; at book’s end, Marie, her father, son, and would-be lover are as frozen in time and place as the photograph with which the work began.
For some reason, incomprehensible to me, [the]
mimetic concept has all but defined the “important”
novels of this country. We love our novelists to be
seers, to have Important Ideas…. (February 13, 1980)
The structures of Sorrentino’s fiction seldom stand for the world, but pointing outward, define and become one with the world; like the last chapter of Lamont’s Crocodile Tears, Sorrentino’s works make up the world as they go along. In his fiction it is as with starlight, what appears to be traveling at an angle to the direction of the observer—what appears as an aberration—actually travels in a straight line between the observer and its source.
Philadelphia and College Park, Maryland, 1980
Portions of this essay reprinted from “The Role of Voice in NonModernist Fiction,” Contemporary Literature, XXV, no. 3 (Fall 1984).