Thursday, October 12, 2006
It’s ironic that I should find myself in a dust-up over the question of blurbs right at the moment when I am reading what I at first took to be a novel written entirely as a series of blurbs. As it turns out, that’s not quite what’s going on in the late Gilbert Sorrentino’s Lunar Follies. Rather, the book is a series of 53 short texts, some of which might be blurbs, some of which might be reviews, at least one of which is nothing but a lengthy list in the form of a paragraph, and some of which might just be gallery guides for imaginary (and sometimes impossible) art exhibitions. Here is “Gassendi,” which carries the subhead, “Banville Teddie:Late Works”:
This small, exquisitely mounted exhibition shows works from the Gassendi Foundation’s collection of Teddie’s last miniatures. It is provocatively, if somewhat inaccurately presented under the title “In the Months of Love,” a phrase from the juvenilia of Ingelow MacGonagall, a Scottish poet much admired by Teddie, and comprises a group of late paintings from the mysterious “Primavera” series. They are hopefully dreamy, their microscopically gestural bravura “in love,” so to say, with the notion of ideal beauty, their colors almost vengefully Parassian. And yet, this dreaminess is quite proper, perhaps, to aesthetes, while not yet quote so to poets, to whom, en masse – as we know from Teddie’s recently discovered diaries – these delicate miniatures were dedicated, and for whom they were most certainly executed. This dreamy quality of Teddie’s work is often thought of as a flaw, and yet one cannot remotely conceive of the paintings otherwise. Teddie increasingly thought of himself as a poet, and of his colors as words, his forms, as he once put it, “[as] a shifting syntax, of sorts,” and his canvases as his “well-thumbed, scratched over, blotted” manuscripts, all brushed by the hand of the Muse, “yet no more than her hand, no more, no more.” The canvases, one must declare, are much smaller, even, than miniatures, and are each dominated by a cool, sherbet-like color, although other colors, tints, shades, tones, and highlights, lurk everywhere. These are, perhaps, after all, “the months of love.” Perhaps not. The pictures, so small as to be made out with no little difficulty, are madly ambitious, a kind of paean to a strange Teddiean spring, to his beloved primavera, and to the sun, the sun of the artist’s cherished Ringo Chingado Flats, the side of his last isolated studio; and, of course, to flesh, the flesh of his fellow humans, mostly women, that he honored and adored, even as he exploited, brutalized, and despised it.
Not unlike some of the work of Kent Johnson & Gabe Gudding, this is a high concept mode of satire – if you read such reviews, particularly in off-brand art journals of the sort one finds at some distance, say, from New York City, a piece that is at once both this pretentious & this vague is utterly plausible. Indeed, there are a few blogs out there of which one might say the same. It’s not the sort of laugh-out-loud humor of the New York School 2.0, but I find the silliness here quite delicious: Ringo Chingado indeed! And that’s exactly what this book is, one long & extremely rich dessert, richer still if you catch all the allusions Sorrentino makes in his work. For example, there was a 19th century French poet by the name of Théodor de Banville.
Perhaps Lunar Follies feels to me like a novel because the chapters are all in alphabetical order (this makes for a positively spooky table of contents!), so you sense the procedural logic from beginning to end. Each chapter title is taken literally from the surface of the moon. Gassendi is the name of a crater as well as that of Pierre Gassendi, 17th century philosopher and mathematician.
Yet each piece, like the above, is perfectly capable of standing on its own, and indeed without any knowledge as to its indirect or sly references. There is nothing to suggest any inherent continuity between sections, at least at the level of content. For example, there is nothing to suggest that the same authorial voice stands behind each piece – in fact, there is a lot to suggest otherwise, as the tone seems to lunge from one vocabulary & diction to another. Lurking behind all of these is a lifetime of reading critical prose & art prose intensely, understanding where they fit together &, even more important, where they merely pretend to do so.
But if there isn’t a single voice to this project, then in fact we have something quite unlike the novel with the fictive’s obsession with character. Imagine a book with no narrator & that’s not so far from what you’ll find here. This gives Lunar Follies much more the feel of a prose poem, such as those written by Aloysius Bertrand early in the 19th century. Bertrand didn’t know he writing prose poems – Baudelaire had not yet declared the form – and I don’t think Sorrentino did either. Rather, I think that Sorrentino may have had a more fixed concept of the prose poem & that this project, lying outside it, therefore was/is something different.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter. What does is that many readers will find this book to be scrumptious – tho Sorrentino expresses attitudes, as he does at the very end of the piece above, quite consistent with the New American Poetry’s sense of gender relations (and, beyond that, a 1950s’ conception of these relations) – LeRoi Jones, the editor of Four Young Lady Poets, after all, was a close collaborator with Sorrentino during that period. All of which is to say that women here often are placed on a pedestal, but sometimes are found up there naked & prone. In this regard, Sorrentino may be a “guy’s writer” simply because history & his own limitations have closed him off to subsequent generations of female readers. Given that Something Said may be the one of the two or three best critical books to come out of that period & that Sorrentino subsequently developed into a master of the novel, this is a shame. But this is not a week in which I want to ignore the obvious (see aforementioned dust-up).