“Consists of fifty narrative set pieces,” the publisher’s back-cover blurb says emphatically, and as if it informs the reader. According to my handy A Handbook to Literature, a ‘set piece’ is, “A work of any conventional kind, designed to impress. In some uses, a performer or contestant must execute both set pieces and optional pieces; in literature, the counterpart would be a formulaic study with little room for originality, innovation, or improvisation.” Whatever these fifty ‘set pieces’ are, they’re anything but lacking in originality, innovation, or improvisation.
Fifty set pieces. Fifty vignettes. Fifty short short stories. Call them whatever you wish. Each piece takes a character, develops that character rapidly, usually less than three pages, and over the course of those brief pages makes that character something more, something else. The reader sees that character, then sees him again differently. The perception changes. The initial impression is the illusion, and the final impression is that illusion falling off the cliff, falling into the abyss.
Sorrentino has a way with language—a gift. His sentences are complicated, heavily punctuated, demanding attention and demanding you slow down, mentally assemble them as carefully as he has. Keep a dictionary handy, so many fine words. Once an editor at Grove Press, before becoming a professor, it’s as if his stories must be told this way, that they’d be something else if told differently. In that regard, if only in that regard, he’ll remind you of the commitment Toni Morrison makes in telling her stories her way, or Cormac McCarthy, or Javier Marías, or Eliot Weinberger, or any of those stellar authors who make a commitment to style and the beauty of the written word.
”The final novel from the postmodern American master,” the back cover proclaims. “A novel,” says the subtitle and the Preface by the author’s son. What makes this a novel? I asked myself over and over. And then it hit me—I do. I, the reader. I’m the thread that links all these characters into a single work, to be made a whole of. The characters have swirled around inside the head of the author, but ultimately they belong to the reader. That’s where they’ll reside, like a family, like a community, like the world we know. What this novel reminds me of most is that glimpse of the world through the Borgesian Aleph.
Sorrentino came to my attention by way of a review by MJ Nicholls; thanks, MJ, I owe you one.