“Aberration of Starlight” by Sorrentino

Sorrentino, Gilbert. Aberration of Starlight (1980). Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1993.

For readers of this blog, it should already be evident that I think highly of Gilbert Sorrentino. I’ve been reading a lot of him lately, and it’s been a rewarding and enjoyable experience. While certain themes and motifs are becoming more evident across his work, I am still amazed by the variety and inventiveness in his work. Aberration of Starlight is, like many of his works, a highly structured work, and it is within that structure that the novel comes into its own.

In the summer of 1939, somewhere out of the way in New Jersey, a number of vacationers stay at a lodging house. Marie Recco, a mother separated from her cheating husband–along with Billy, her ten year old son, and John McGrath, her recently widowed father–arrives at the house and quickly catches the eye of Tom Thebus, a divorced salesman. After some flirtation Tom and Marie go out dancing one night, against the strong wishes of her father. The whole novel spins around the fulcrum of this one date on a summer night.

Part Ulysses, part Sound and the Fury, the novel is structured in four parts for the four characters within which a variety of styles, forms, and structures are utilized. Each part is focused through one of the characters though not in the traditional “first person” viewpoint. The sections progress through lyrical description, dialogues, letters, questions and answers, fantasies (pornographic and not), straight narrative, and disjointed images/scenes/vignettes/etc. Each section is of almost equal length (about 50 pages in my edition) and, upon closer examination, seems to follow the same order of structuring (i.e. first an objective description, then a letter, then a dialogue, etc.).1

The whole work has been carefully orchestrated (no doubt about that) to slowly reveal the elements of the story, the back-story, and the characters. We first see through naive Billy’s eyes, then through hopeful yet naive Marie’s, then Tom’s (I don’t know what to call it) view, and finally John’s jaded view from old age. The way Sorrentino slowly unfolds the story and characters around a simple date between a man and a woman is impressive, showing us how what has gone before leads all the characters to the place they occupy.

The novel is at times humorous but also sad. It is realism of the less illusionistic variety. He does not try to make us believe the story is actual happening, but the events and situations feel true.

As usual, Sorrentino’s use of language is masterful. He skillfully uses the naivety and colloquialisms of the characters to modulate the language, often incorporating a rather excessive use of clich�d phrases, for instance:

But all the time Tom was cool as a cucumber, his voice nice and calm, a smile on his face, just a gentlemanly difference of opinions. Marie would look up at him once in a while, blushing to beat the band when he caught her eye, my God, she looked like a peach! Frau Schmidt was as busy as a goddamn bee, Christ only knew what kind of baloney she was giving that long drink of water, Mrs. Copan, the poor bag of bones was drinking it all in… (140)

In the end the work exhibits, once again, Sorrentino’s seemingly pessimistic view of people in general and their relationships, or perhaps that is just what makes an interesting story. But, the last words we read in the book are quoted from Brian O’Nolan: “The meanest bloody thing in hell made this world.”

Were I to recommend one Sorrentino novel to an interested reader it would be this one. While it exhibits many of his strong points (structure, language, invention) it also maintains a more cohesive and traditional underlying narrative that will appeal to readers less accustomed to experimental narratives.

1 For an explanation of the structure see Robert L. McLaughlin’s “Teacher’s Guide” to the novel at the Dalkey site. It lists the form of the ten chapters of each of the four sections. The essay also delves more into the novel than I.