“Crystal Vision” by Sorrentino

Sorrentino, Gilbert. Crystal Vision (1981). Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1999.

Gilbert Sorrentino is a novelist of fragments. From the unending, unanswered questions of Gold Fools through the mostly disconnected bits of story in Under the Shadow and Little Casino to the broken narrative of the Pack of Lies trilogy, many of his novels come in a shattered disconnected form. Crystal Vision is no exception. The novel consists of 78 short chapters with no explicit narrative connection (beyond recurring characters), though an obscured formal connection can be found.

A number of Brooklynites stand around on the corner, at the drugstore, around the newsstand, or in a bar telling each other stories. The stories in general seem to date from post World War II, perhaps the late 40’s, though the stories often tell of the past or the future. The cast of recurring characters is large and all have rather odd names: Arab, Drummer, Professor Kooba, Doc Friday, Little Mickey, Pepper, Irish Billy, etc. The novel is the narration of these characters’ conversations.

Similar to such old tale collections as The Decameron, The Arabian Nights, or The Canterbury Tales, a framing device surrounds numerous interior stories, but in Crystal Vision the two levels of telling never separate. The characters constantly comment on each other’s stories, on the narration itself, the content, the words or the accuracy. Not only do the characters comment on each other’s stories they often seem to be commenting on the novel’s narration. In other words, this is a prime example of metafiction.

How about this? Willie says, and catches all three eggs and two tangerines [which he had been juggling] in his mouth and swallows them. Whole.

That last smacks of hyperbolic fustian, the Arab says.

Willie catches all three eggs and two tangerines in his mouth one at a time and propels them into a cellarway.

That’s better, the Arab says. Not perfect, but better. Acceptable. (45)

I found the novel rather confused when I first started reading, but the longer I read it, the more it began to work for me, the more I enjoyed it. No story appears, but one slowly becomes familiar with the characters and discovers a depth to these rather disappointed men (the storytelling characters are almost exclusively men, though women appear in most of the chapters). Humor is not lacking — often I found myself laughing aloud, particularly at the Arab’s tendency to misuse or mispronounce words in his attempts to sound smart (“I shall grow a garden, the Arab says, to enableate me to be liberated from the economical and financious stricturations and exigents of the capitalistic system.” (258))– but sadness, longing, and nostalgia prevail over these stories, as well as frequent evocations of memory (both real and imagined).

Sorrentino uses no quotes or dashes to mark dialogue, and this confuses the identity of narrators, blurring the line between the narrator of the novel as a whole (who mostly adds “[someone] says” and the occasional actions or descriptions) and the narrators of individual stories within the novel. The way the characters reply and critique the narrator adds to this blur. They even go so far as to comment on the use of quotation marks on certain words or phrases:

The Drummer ignores him and “strains every fiber of his being” toward Professor Kooba.

It’s a great relief to me that that phrase is in quotes, Curtin says. A great relief. (150)

The mimetic reality of the fiction is further confused by impossible occurrences, such as characters in one (or more) locations commenting on a story ostensible being told by someone at a completely different place. Also, a character known as “The Magician” appears now and then to create strange happenings, though he is not always successful with his attempts; most often he just appears disguised as another character.

I imagine much of this would bother some readers — those who prefer the unbroken fictive dream, but Sorrentino is a master at what he does. This is no mere gimmickry, the results are amusing in themselves and intelligent as fictive devices.

The formal and semantic constraint of this novel is the use of the 78 cards of the Tarot. According to Louis Mackey in his essay, Sorrentino is using the Rider Deck designed by A.E. Waite. While I found the early chapters, related to the Major Arcanum, rather easy to interpret in regards to the card in question, the later chapters were more oblique, excepting the use of numbers of things representing the number of the card. The image of the card is often directly referenced in the story (a character is basically just describing the card as if it were a vision he received), rather than used as an element from which a story is created.

Crystal Vision bears a number of similarities to Under the Shadow (see my review) particularly its fragmented narrative and the initial difficult hurdle to reading, but in comparison, Crystal Vision coheres more as a whole, thanks to the recurring cast of characters and setting.

References:

Mackey, Louis. “Representation and Reflection: Philosophy and Literature in Crystal Vision by Gilbert Sorrentino.” Contemporary Literature 28.2 (1987): 206-22.