Thursday, July 3, 2014
GILBERT SORRENTINO'S IMAGINATIVE QUALITIES OF ACTUAL THINGS
I had tried to read Sorrentino ever since I first encountered his work in the 1960s, and tried again in the 1970s when my downtown friends praised his work, and then when Selby and I became friends in the '80s. Sorrentino would come up in conversations with Selby in ways that assumed I knew Sorrentino almost as well as he did, and was familiar with his work. But I found Sorrentino's writing not that engaging.
Years later I was talking to a West Coast book critic with a very bright and insightful intellect, and he started talking about how important Sorrentino was and how his work would last and would be admired by the avant grades of the future and all that while Selby's wouldn't, except maybe LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, but he said the other books of Selby's were "disappointing" and added even Selby's old friend Gilbert Sorrentino thought so, according to this critic, and had said as much in conversation.
I was kind of stunned but not entirely surprised. This stuff is pretty predictable much of the time. The difficult and distancing and full of literary tricks and loaded with irony is generally what gets the critical acclaim and the avant nod. And Sorrentino's IMAGINATIVE QUALITIES OF ACTUAL THINGS is all those things.
Not that the tricks aren't sometimes fun, and certainly all the insider references in this "novel" to the downtown scene of an era—which I was part of in my own way—long gone kept me interested as did trying to figure out who some of the characters were based on...but the idea of a story being told by an unreliable narrator whose characters are based on real characters who might not be real etc. etc. can sometimes grow tedious for this reader.
It may turn out to be true that the novels of Hubert Selby Jr. with perhaps the exception of LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN will not be remembered or considered important in the future, or maybe even now (I know Selby was disappointed when his later novels didn't even get reviewed in this country, and were mostly put out by a British publisher) and Sorrentino's will be. And Sorrentino certainly seemed like a good guy and I know my friend Selby loved him, but...IMAGINATIVE QUALITIES OF ACTUAL THINGS and the characters in it, including the narrator who sounds a lot like Sorrentino, did not leave a lasting impression on me, whereas every narrator and character in every Selby book he published has stayed with me even till now, and I'm sure will till I'm gone.
I hope I didn't disappoint whoever gave me the book. Let me make clear I enjoyed many aspects of it and even felt engaged in it for a while. But in the end, I'll be passing it on to someone who might dig it more.