A Strange Commonplace by Gilbert Sorrentino. Coffee House Press, 2006.
I began my review of Gilbert Sorrentino’s 2002 novel Little Casino, noting the growing sense of similarity among his works as I read more and more of them even as they also consistently varied in form. With this, his last novel, Sorrentino continues his work of variation and similarity.
A Strange Commonplace is organized into two parts of 26 chapters (52 total just like Little Casino). Each chapter in part one shares a title with a chapter in part two, though the titles are not in the same order. While many of Sorrentino’s works have identifiable organizational structures, I cannot discern any sense to the paired chapters, as if the author titled the chapters to cause the reader to search for connections between the pairs without there actually being any. Perhaps the pairings were some kind of generative device.
The chapters narrate the stories of numerous characters, tracing small moments from their lives, short periods of time, or outlining their whole lives in a few pages. The reader of previous of the author’s works will find familiar themes and tropes: adultery, failure, nostalgia, irony, dark humour, and the occasional dream-like fantasy. As one reads through the novel, some chapters seem to relate to others: a similar love triangle, the repeated appearance of a grey homburg, repeated names, and other repetitions of object or situation. Upon further investigation one finds subtle differences: one story may tell of a couple and the man’s lover, named Claire, while another chapter seems to elaborate on the same story, except this time the lover is named Clara. I imagine that Sorrentino has peppered the novel with repetitions and variations to give an illusion of coherency on the narrative level that is really a coherency on the level of the writing itself. Similar to the chapter titles, the stories, objects, and characters have coherency in language if not narrative.
In writing this review, I looked back at my numerous reviews of other Sorrentino books. I have the feeling of having said all I can about his work that might relate to this novel. There are no surprises to be had for the fan of Sorrentino, yet that is not to say this book is boring or of lesser quality, rather it is another example of Sorrentino’s prodigous skill with variation.