“Little Casino” by Sorrentino

Sorrentino, Gilbert. Little Casino. Coffee House Press, 2002.

In a previous Sorrentino review (See here (off site)) I mentioned the difference in his works. The more I read though the more I begin to see the underlying sameness in content. The novels are consistently different in form, but beneath the ever changing structure lies a certain similarity. In this, his most recent (and I believe 16th if I count correctly) novel this similarity is apparent. Perhaps I am particularly susceptible to it, since I have read so many of his novels in the recent past. We find again the Brooklyn of the mid to late 20th century, the failed characters, the memory and nostalgia (be if often ironized), the indeterminacy from the narrator. The work holds a particular feeling of looking back and remembering, and evokes a certain youthful nostalgia, especially in regards to the first experiences of sexuality.

The novel is disjointed, held together by few of the strings that one looks for in a conventional plot. Characters come and go, sometimes their whole life in a few pages, never to be heard from again, or mentioned again in such a way as to leave one wondering whether it is the same character or another with the same name. Some review I found claims that the novel tells the story of a young man growing up, but I find this theory specious, an attempt to create a unified plot where there is none. The novel relies on setting, theme, and form to hold it together. Many might not call it a novel at all.

Fifty-two short chapters divided into two parts. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Sorrentino explains the chapters:

“I had to stop it somewhere, so I stopped at 52 chapters–the number of weeks in the year. That determined the length of the book. I don’t believe in organic form. All form is utterly artificial.”

Each chapter tells a short vignette first and then after a mark of division (three small black squares) the chapter continues with a second voice directly or tangentially commenting on the preceding story. Again from the same interview:

“One day I wrote a chapter… It was a vignette. It was the work of a professional writer, which was all right. But it didn’t interest me. Then, a few days later… I came across the thing. I was not enchanted. Underneath it, I drew a line and made some wise-ass comment like, ‘What is this crap all about?’ as if another voice was talking about what I had written. And as I was doing this, I thought, I’m going to write the primary text, and then I’m going to write a commentary on the primary text, and I’ll use my commentary to comment on earlier primary texts and on other commentaries. In other words–open all the doors…”

The effect of all this is interesting and often rather confusing. The commentary can be quite obscure in its connection or meaning, even within its context at the end of each chapter. I quote some of the last commentary, which among other ideas brings up the title of the novel itself:

A casino is a “little house.”

“Little casino” is a neat tautology.

Hoyle, on the card game, Casino: “Suits are of no importance.” And yet, in the game, a Little Casino is the Two of Spades, and is worth one point. Such contradictions and blithe disruptions are the stuff of poetry.

Like many things, the game is no longer in fashion. Just as well. There are many instances and objects of value and beauty that should be kept private, even secret… (213-14)

Occasionally the vignettes echo some of Sorrentino’s other novels and stories. For instance, chapter 51 right from the beginning sets a scene quite similar to the novel Aberration of Starlight:

He has on navy blue woolen trunks, cinched by a white canvas belt with a tarnished nickel-plated buckle, and a white cotton athletic-style shirt, on the chest of which is embroidered a navy-blue anchor to echo the embroidered white anchor on the white leg of his trunks. His mother and grandfather are with him, as are two teenage girls, Helen and Julia Carpenter. They have small breasts, which he looks at surreptitiously as often as he can, the little degenerate… (209)

And it continues. Readers of the previous novel might recognize the characters: mother, grandfather, and the two teenage girls, as well as the boy, except here, characteristic of this work, an element of sexuality has been injected into him. In a way it is also cut from the same cloth as Crystal Vision: the stories come from the same milieu, are disconnected but related, and comment on the narrative is incorporated into the text (in LC it is a second voice, while in CV it is the proliferation of narrators that comment on each other).

I don’t have a lot to say about this novel. Recommended? Yes. For most readers? Probably not.

References:

Barbato, Joseph. “A Writer’s Writer Returns.” Publisher’s Weekly. May 27 2002: 30.