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mercredi, mai 24, 2006

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"Gilbert Sorrentino Dead at 77

MAY 2006—Gilbert Sorrentino died yesterday, May 18, at a hospital in New York. He had been diagnosed with cancer late last summer.

Aside from these bare facts, there is not much more to say about his death. He was the most important novelist of his generation, inventing and reinventing styles and forms with each new book. A comic genius who was also able to write what is perhaps the bleakest novel in American fiction, The Sky Changes (1966)—a novel about divorce in America, and his first—Sorrentino set himself challenges with each new book, generally indifferent to how critics would react.

The range of his work and his absolute dedication to inventing and exploring character are unequalled by any of his contemporaries. Although oftentimes facilely grouped with such writers as Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, John Barth, and John Hawkes, Sorrentino was, unlike these writers, never embraced by academics and was usually overlooked by the critics. His singular aesthetic and his lifelong tendency to criticize the very authors who could have helped his career placed him outside both the mainstream and the fashionably avant-garde.

The author of numerous novels, as well as books of poetry, short stories, and criticism, Sorrentino may be best known for the rollicking, Flann O’Brien-inspired Mulligan Stew (1979), in which characters migrate out of their stories and into the lives of their authors (who are themselves fictions), bringing a cacophony of comic styles and voices to bear on the form of the novel; as well as the PEN/Faulkner nominated Aberration of Starlight (1980), in which a variety of narrative approaches (question and answer, monologue, inventory) are used to tell the story of four people on a harrowing summer vacation during the Depression.

Sorrentino’s second novel, Steelwork (1970), introduced a number of motifs that would be revisited in his work to come: a particular concern with the working class inhabitants of a South Brooklyn neighborhood during the ’30s and the quarter-century that followed, as well as a precise, vignette-like structure, presenting characters and situations in short, individually titled chapters. These “snapshots” are each unified by Sorrentino’s characteristically hilarious and pitiless style, which nonetheless originates from a perspective of total empathy with his characters: the author displays a command and understanding of his material that is almost never found in more traditional works of fiction, and it is here that his love for lists and outrageous slang first comes to the fore. Steelwork is nothing less than a blueprint for a new and better kind of realism, written for adults. As Joel Oppenheimer said on its initial publication, “At least one live man knows Brooklyn—and our universe.”

His concern with the structures of fiction itself was first evidenced in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971), which moves into Manhattan and brings the author’s eye for hypocrisy and waste to the art scene of the ’50s and ’60s, telling the story of a number of more-or-less sleazy writers and artists working very hard to avoid creating anything of note. As is appropriate to the material, the book takes the form of an exorcism for the worst tendencies of novel-writing: Sorrentino’s frustration (and occasionally rage) regarding the laziness of most fiction—the received ideas that pass for characterization and plot, and the concomitant thinness they bring to the lives of readers—here is channeled into some of the simplest and funniest criticisms of contemporary fiction ever put to paper, and this in a sarcastic and finally harrowing comedy of bohemian life. The narrator often hesitates about how best to proceed with his story, and even imports characters from other novels (Lolita, in this case) to help out with the action, and illustrate just how interchangeable such constructions usually are. It is a novel about “the way life and art feed off one another—and starve one another too” (Robert Scholes), and one of Sorrentino’s greatest achievements.

At home in virtually every mode, from fantasy (Under the Shadow [1991]) to Oulipian experimentation (the Pack of Lies trilogy, Gold Fools [2000]), Sorrentino later replayed the tragedy of The Sky Changes as farce in the absurdist Blue Pastoral (1983), and the pathos of Aberration of Starlight as outright nightmare in Red the Fiend (1995). Over his long career, and in his more recent works, such as Little Casino (2002), Lunar Follies (2005), and A Strange Commonplace (2006), he was a tireless re-inventor of literature, and a champion of all the pleasures—and even pitfalls—that are unique to fiction. The loss of his voice is staggering and irreparable."

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