After hearing Gilbert Sorrentino’s name tossed around on a couple notable blogs, I knew I would have to check him out sooner or later. I had a few books I wanted to get to before Sorrentino, but last week I finally picked up Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things and so far I have not been disappointed.
I’ll say that Sorrentino’s style takes a minute to get used to. Even though I had heard that he eschews plot and is highly experimental, I still was taken aback by the abrupt shifts and long narrator-reader monologues that often come out of nowhere and end with the same suddenness. This is a book that has no problem letting you know that it doesn’t really care about plot and is going to do damn well whatever it pleases.
In fact, in Imaginative Qualities, Sorrentino dishes out plenty of scorn and even some derision for novels and novelistic techniques. This scorn is often quite humorous. For instance, after writing "They lapsed into a bitter silence," Sorrentino annotates his own writing with the dry remark "I have the feeling I’ve read this sentence somewhere." Of course he has! There may not be as much as one novelist who has not had her characters lapse into a bitter silence at some point.
Elsewhere, Sorrentino writes
After, they did many more things, they graduated and Lou moved to Berkeley so that he could do graduate work, Sheila joined him and they married. O.K. (There’s a novel there, if any of you novelists want to write it you’re welcome to it.)
This "novel" that Sorrentino tosses out like a bone to the dogs has some similarities with the "bitter silences" that he can’t help but ridicule. Sorrentino is not interested in filling up his book with pages and pages of description of each character’s state of mind, or the places they live, or the sights they see. When he does, as with the bitter silence, Sorrentino can barely keep from laughing at himself for such an obviously contrived statement. In fact, Sorrentino doesn’t even believe he is qualified to tell us about this stuff, even if he did want to. He repeatedly stresses that although his characters are his creations, he can’t see into their inner psyche any more than we can.
At one point Sorrentino discusses a hypothetical meeting between him and his characters. Not the actual characters from Imaginative Qualities, mind you, but people who are similar to them.
Maybe I’ll meet him someday–he’s not that rare. If someone like, let’s say, Larry Poons, is endlessly reproducible, then certainly Lou Henry is. I’ll say to him that I think I’ve met him before, no? I think I’ve met your wife–Sheila? That will not be his wife’s name, of course. . . . He’ll have read this book, and will not have recognized himself. People who "recognize" themselves in books are never in the books. It is the meticulously woven fabric of the ruthless imagination that makes them think they did what the artist says they did.
Sorrentino is admitting that his characters are just types, 2-dimentional cutouts that anyone, with enough imagination, can see themselves in. That’s they way he likes it. He’s not writing his book to create characters that can "walk off the page" or to place them through trials and see how they respond. In fact, he seems to look on all that with a tired eye.*
Yet the fact remains that with no "realistic" characters and not much plot (although Sorrentino does insist that there is some plot, however subtle) I’ve still enjoyed roughly 1/3 of Imaginative Qualities. This is because Sorrentino has found ways other than plot and empathy to keep my mind busy, to keep me actively engaged with his words. I’m a firm believer that all the plot in the world can’t save a book that doesn’t tell the reader anything interesting, doesn’t keep her mind working on something. If we go back to Cloud Atlas, that’s why I think that book petered out toward the end. The plot and writing was certainly magnificent, but by the last 1/5, the book’s dialog with me had long since ended, and seeing it through to the end was, although pleasant from a mechanical point of view, empty.
Imaginative Qualities, at least so far as I’ve read it, feels like the opposite. There’s no technically well-built plot, but the book abounds in interesting thoughts that keep me reading and thinking. Sorrentino expertly gives me just enough information that, with some thought, I can figure out what he’s doing, but not so much information that it’s as though Prof. Sorrentino is teaching me Imaginative Qualities 101.
Thus far, the book has been compulsively readable, and I’m confident I’ll have more thoughts soon.
* I’m unsure yet if Sorrentino is pro this kind of novel or con it, or if he has no strong feelings. But clearly this is not the kind of book he wants to write.