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“Under the Shadow” by Sorrentino

Sorrentino, Gilbert. Under the Shadow. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.

Under the Shadow, like many of Gilbert Sorrentino’s novels, is a novel of fragments, so much so that at first I was skeptical it was a novel at all and not just a collection of vignettes with some hidden relation to each other. The first chapter is a scene at a memorial service. The next tells about an arson at a publishing warehouse. In the third, a number of characters in a house look outside and see a snowman. The fourth discusses a man who has been trying to find a passage he remembers from a book. An unnamed catastrophe of some sort leaves behind nonsensical clues in the fifth chapter, and the sixth is an oddly written description of a house. By this point, thirteen characters have been named, none appearing in more than one chapter (a number of other characters go unnamed). Twenty pages into a 140 page novel and it’s not looking much like a novel at all. I was a little frustrated, but I kept reading and elements in the chapters started to cohere: some names became familiar (ah, reoccurring characters!), images repeated, running themes became evident. When I got to the end I went right back to the beginning and started again. The second time through the early chapters took on new light. The characters were familiar, rather than just empty names, and there was a context to the events.

The novel is made up of fifty-nine chapters named with short non-descriptive nouns (Memorial, Fire, Snowman, Dusk, and Clues are the first five). The copy on the back of the book says, “They remind us of Raymond Roussel’s characters amid his inimitable ersatz pastorals…” The reference to Roussel is not coincidental, as the chapters are based on the drawings Roussel commissioned Henri A. Zo to create as illustrations for his New Impressions of Africa in 1928. Fifty-nine pen and ink drawings described for Zo by Roussel in a phrase or two. While this constraint is not explicitly stated in Sorrentino’s novel, a number of clues are offered. In the chapter entitled “Book”, just before the middle of the novel, a character pages through a book with 59 illustrations and captions which have nothing to do with the text of the book. Sorrentino lists the captions, parodic captions of the real illustrations and Sorrentino’s use of them. I also noticed a number of name allusions to Roussel, Zo, and Roussel’s characters.

The novel itself has a Rousellian feeling about it. Mysteries abound, as do strange circumstances and odd characters. But, while in Roussel the mysteries are explained, demystified, as soon as they are offered up, in Sorrentino the mysteries remain unsolved, perhaps unsolvable. As one reads through the novel (perhaps more so on a second reading) connections between the chapters help illuminate some aspects of the mysteries, but in the end, they remain open. Sorrentino uses Rousselian elements but in a way different than Roussel, his work is Rousselian on the surface but not at a slightly deeper level.

While a number of images recur in the novel — objects made of “blue metal”, unexplained translucent “spheroids”, Worcestershire sauce — one maintains a higher level of prominence. Throughout the novel references are made to three women in white, often at a lake. These women appear in relation to numerous characters as memories, dreams, artistic images, never exactly the same and never explained.

Of all the chapters and the seemingly endless proliferation of characters that fill them, a proportionately large amount of chapters is devoted to a man named Tancred who burns down a publishing warehouse early in the novel. Most of his appearances put him in a mental hospital where his psychologist also figures as a character. Tancred is obsessed with the idea of destroying “official memories”. The prominence of this storyline becomes more important as one notices how the rest of the novel is based on memories, half or falsely remembered. Every chapter is looking back at some event from a future time. This looking back and the unreliability of memory create the unsolved mysteries of the novel. Randomly selecting a chapter, I find:

Being a historian, he believed, of course, that the past is history, and that history, that which happened somewhere, can be retrieved, almost whole. But as the months and then the years passed, he revised, then doubted, and finally discarded these beliefs. The tortured scrawls on his stacks of paper, he came to know, were not the way to the past. They were the meaning of the past. (77)

Reading this novel, I began to think of a diagram, a map to pull together the various strings of story. I wondered if in some way it would all connect together to give some answer, but pragmatically, I think the point of the novel is that it won’t all make sense in the end. There is no closure, just the reiteration of a new mystery.

While the main constraint of the novel is the formal and semantic adherence to the 59 Zo drawings, there are chapters that seem to be written under other constraints. The sixth chapter by all appearances is an example of “semo-definitional literature”, wherein one replaces words with their dictionary definition (and looking it up in the Oulipo Compendium, I see that Sorrentino has used that procedure before as evidenced by a number of examples (pages 224-5)). This leads to such sentences as:

One of the female persons turns the eyes, as if for viewing, out an opening in the wall, and comments on the particular excellence of the partly destitute-of-light, considerable inland body of standing water, which they have, on every occasion, conceived of as theirs. (17)

I can mostly reconstruct that as: One of the women looks out the window and comments on the beauty of the dim lake, which they have always thought as theirs. Or something like that.

Perhaps other constraints are hidden in the chapters waiting to be found.

Once again, Sorrentino has amazed me with his work. Getting past the initial difficulty of the early chapters is the challenge to reaching a better understanding of the novel as the pieces fall together. He makes us work at the reading, but this reader finds it worth the effort.