By Ray Sawhill
Gilbert Sorrentino has the mind of an avant-garde experimentalist and the instincts of a profane showman. His novels overflow with elaborate literary contrivances and games, and the titles he gives them (“Aberration of Starlight,” “Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things”) lead you to expect one hall of mirrors after another. But there’s nothing dry or ingrown about his writing. His novels have the kind of physical charge and excitement more often associated with jazz and improvisational comedy than with literature.
“Blue Pastoral” (North Point), his new novel, is an attempt at a rococo black comedy, and is populated by people who love the sound of their own voices. Virtually all the characters speak in elaborate periods, invocations, apostrophes — bursts of enthusiasm that build and build, then scatter. The questing, Candide-like hero, a New York lens grinder named (Blue) Serge Gavotte, is possessed by a sudden love of music. Encouraged in his mania by a doctor who is treating him for an infection brought on by too much harmonica playing, Blue loads a piano on a cart and sets out with his son and wife in search of the perfect musical phrase. Whenever his zeal falters, the “doctor,” who using Blue as a guinea pig in an experiment, materializes in a new form and eggs him on.
The novel is full of parodies — of speeches, poetry, pornography and intellectual fashions. One chapter opens with Blue and his wife, Helene, inexplicably miles farther along in their travels. Blue: “We have passed through the great state of Mizzoo in a sudden flash, the time it takes to turn a page.” Helene: “I wondered why the so-called scenery zipped by so fast.” Blue: “I suspect that it the ‘text’ is being ‘deconstructed’ beneath our very feets!” Characters turn aside to argue with the narrator. Weeds, lingerie and sheep are only some of the major motifs.
Much of this is good fun, and there’s drive in the gnarled language. So why does “Blue Pastoral” grow tedious? I think it’s because the story, whose outlines Sorrentino used once before, in his first novel, the 1966 “The Sky Changes,” interest him as little but a display case for his pyrotechnics. In his earlier novels, the innovative techniques had a strange, tickling quality. They seemed at once irrelevant and essential, and provided a fresh way of getting inside frustrated lives; the loneliness, anger and humor they released were startling and vivid. Here the devices are no more than ornate excrescences and, in the end, they overwhelm your interest.
- “Blue Pastoral” may be skippable, but why not treat yourself to some of Sorrentino’s really fabulous novels? “Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things,” “The Sky Changes,” and “Mulligan Stew” are the three that I enjoyed the most.
- I loved “Something Said,” Sorrentino’s collection of criticism, too.
- An interview with Gilbert Sorrentino.
©1983 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.