“The Moon In Its Flight” by Sorrentino

Sorrentino, Gilbert. The Moon in its Flight. Coffee House Press, 2004.

Somewhere (sadly, I don’t have a reference), I have seen it written that Gilbert Sorrentino endeavors to never write the same novel twice. At first, this appears as a rather obvious goal — why would anyone rewrite the same novel? — but upon further consideration one can see how easily authors (or other artists) recreate the same works, formally, thematically, stylistically (off the top of my head, consider the novels of Paul Auster (who, don’t get me wrong, I adore) and how similar they are in many of their plot elements and themes). Sorrentino’s novels are an impressive array of variation and inventiveness. Beyond that matter and his consistently high standard of writing, there is little to be said for direct and obvious similarity in his novels. Each one is new and exciting.

Conversely, turning to his short stories and the volume of such at hand, The Moon In Its Flight, one finds a rather depressing repetition. While I am not opposed to the idea of variations on a theme (much can be done with such a project, e.g. Queneau’s Exercises de Style or Bach’s Goldberg Variations), Sorrentino’s lack, I think, a planned variation. Many of the stories in this volume (his only of short stories, spanning from the 70’s to the present) just seem like retellings. And rather uninteresting ones at that.

I should disclaim before I go further that I am not, as a rule, a fan of short stories. It is a rare volume that catches and holds my interest. Perhaps this repetition characterizes the short story collection in general, and perhaps, also, the proximity of the stories as a collection does more damage to these stories than one would wish. Out of the context of the others, no doubt, some of these pieces would really stand out from the work of lesser writers.

On to the stories.

I can’t avoid bringing up the term metafiction. It is inescapable in light of Sorrentino’s style. The most notable feature of his writing is its interrogation of language and narrative. He doesn’t let the reader forget that these are stories and they are created with language, an often ambiguous and comic system which we use to communicate. He plays with narrative realism (“That the poems were indeed accepted has little bearing on this story–although I suspect that it is not so much a story as a minor change upon a common fable.” (40)), and he questions language, simultaneously using and disavowing certain terms and uses. Most often, this playfulness is couched within a first person narrator, not, thankfully, the “author” but rather a character, a storyteller who seems to be telling us a story as he heard it or, often spottily, remembers it. That Sorrentino can make these narrators be more than just an authorial voice makes his metafictional style work within the bounds of a certain kind of realism. The stories feel “real” without trying to maintain an illusion of direct representation.

He has a tendency to use words in quotes, blatantly pointing out the clich�d or misused term while employing it (rather, dare I say, like the deconstructionist sous rature). Lists are also frequently used as a playful language game, giving us, for example, three or four words for the same action. Lists vary from the brief one of three or four words to the exaggeratingly huge (see Sorrentino on Lists). For instance the short list in this passage works to bring out Sorrentino’s dark humor:

“Three days later, in a studio apartment in Chelsea, wherein lived a restaurant hostess and her high-school teacher boyfriend–the later an old friend of the husband’s–he [the husband] drank a quart of vodka and cut his wrists with a penknife, a table knife, and a beer-can opener, which, I just now recall, used to be called a “church key.” Those were the days.” (201)

This passage also showcases the ever present sense of nostalgia found in most of these stories. The narrative voice is frequently looking back on the past, often nostalgically, upon the late 40’s or 50’s. The nostalgia is accompanied by an acceptance of the loss of innocence, the facade of the innocence of those times made evident:

“Mr. Pearl had a sad little desk, about as big as a minute, as simple people were wont to say in “a more innocent time” (see: Second World War, the Holocaust, Korean “police action,” etc.)” (51)

As a whole the characters in the stories are failures, frauds, depressives, those that have been cheated on and those that have cheated. The portrayals of people are overwhelmingly pessimistic. I’m not sure anyone comes out in a positive light. The setting is often a New York filled with soi-disant artists who produce nothing or only crap, yet pretend they are doing something. (“He moved in a world of fakes like himself, so that their mutual interest lay in interdependent lying.” (45)). The last sentence of the book brings this to the fore:

“But I know that this is nonsense, nothing but a ruse with which I have been faithfully complicit so as to make the landscape of my life seem more valuable and interesting than it ever was.” (266)

This statement could apply to any number of characters in the stories. One of the great themes of these stories could well be the way we try to give our lives importance, even if it is a sham.

A predominant number of stories also feature a married couple and the lover of one of them, told through the eyes of one of the players involved. “Decades” and “Things That Have Stopped Moving” tell almost the same story, the latter with more embellishment on the part of the narrator. Both feature a married couple, Ben and Clara (Stein in the former and Stern in the latter), and even contain a scene of the lover (the narrator, in both cases) buying a bottle of Gordon’s before a sexual liaison with Clara. In another story we have Dan and Clare, rather similar, in both name and the basics of their story, to Ben and Clara.

Some of the stories do stand out even in their similarity. “In Loveland”, another story about a marriage breaking apart, is an interesting doppelganger story. “Gorgias”, aptly titled, deals, in three short sections, with the way rhetoric can affect people’s perceptions of each other. Some stories bear traces of Sorrentino’s more formal experimentation. “Times Without Number” is noted as being created from 59 sentences from 59 works of 59 authors as well as 118 sentences from his previous stories. “A Beehive Arranged on Human Principles” is written in all questions, similar to his novel Gold Fools. Judging from a number of the images in it, I have the feeling that “Allegory of Innocence” is somehow connected to Henri Zo’s illustrations for Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa (similar to Sorrentino’s novel Under the Shadow). And “The Sea, Caught in Roses” reads as if it were constructed in some odd way, though I am unable to say how (It could be that rare instance of what the Oulipo call a “canada dry”: a story that looks as if it were written under some constraint but is not.).

I read most of one story aloud and was delighted by how well it sounded. The phrasing of his sentences (and his frequent use of commas) makes the writing read beautifully. Regardless of my thematic, conceptual gripes with the volume, the writing is… well… let’s just say that Sorrentino knows how to write, and that is the true beauty of the volume. Too bad that what the words are saying do not measure up to the high standard of the writing.

I’d heartily recommend that the reader of this review, if she is new to Sorrentino, try reading one of his novels first. For those interested in the mid-century New York bohemian art scene, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is an excellent place to start. Aberration of Starlight is another excellent novel that is nearly perfect formally, and Mulligan Stew is perfect for those readers who like the large allusive metafictional novel.

I end with the last sentence of the first story, that for which the volume is named. If anything, this may give some indication of Sorrentino and his relation to art. Something to ponder as one reads his works:

“Art cannot rescue anybody from anything.” (20)

[Originally posted at Dan Green’s The Reading Experience paired with Dan’s review of the same book.]