The Abyss of Human Illusion
by Gilbert Sorrentino
Reviewed by Scott Bryan Wilson
It begins with a depressing description of a bottle of Kraft French Dressing. And what better way to open up The Abyss of Human Illusion, the final book from the late Gilbert Sorrentino? Like several of his other novels (e.g., Under the Shadow, Little Casino), it's composed of brief fragments, many of which are narratively unrelated to each other, all depicting a sort of nostalgia for things past versus the repetitive patterns of regrettable human behavior. Abyss is different, however, in that Sorrentino added "commentaries" at the end of the book, creating a need for Infinite Jest-ish double-bookmarking while reading. These commentaries work in really interesting and deceptively complex ways, often clearing up meta-points about the story itself, or -- in an unconventional move which only Sorrentino seems able to pull off -- making a joke funnier by explaining it.
For example, in the third fragment of the book, one that is tinged -- like most in the collection -- with a sadness, as the narrator of the story is aware that he's nearing the end of his life, a man is seen "standing at a dark window," and the commentary informs us: "Fictional characters who stand at dark windows are often constrained to look down at streets gleaming with rain. But not here." As he did often and without mercy in most of his books, Sorrentino takes every opportunity to attack cliche and bad writing and especially "creative writing." In fragment XXVIII, he writes about a man taking a course called Writing for Publication who obsessively reads the fiction in The New Yorker, "trying to absorb and internalize, I suppose is a just word, the strained sophistication of the prose, its nervous hipness, aloof disingenuousness, its remote, somewhat bored whimsy." In another fragment, a fundamentalist Christian dies, and at his home are discovered "some 1,500 pages of pornographic writings . . . rife with solecisms, tattered grammar, bad spelling, and a syntax seemingly borrowed from a lost language."
Sorrentino returns again and again to marriages in disarray, and there are several fragments in Abyss that deal with cuckolded husbands or relationships that have almost completely decayed. In one fragment a woman leaves her husband, taking the kids and moving to St. Louis with another man and returning, humiliated, with a new child: "Her husband, perhaps understandably, treated the new child as if he were a demanding visitor who would soon miraculously disappear. As for his wife, he thought of her as a stupid maid whom he occasionally and quite gently, he thought, raped."
Nearly every fragment, however, is infused with the sadness, pain, and boredom of old age. Whether describing lonely men, all of whose friends are dead, or remembering brand names and fashions from times past (on Flagg Brothers shoes: "These shoes were highly popular among high school boys ca. 1945-1947. They had to be dyed cordovan or were considered beneath contempt and unwearable"), Sorrentino manages to make it all terribly funny, even if only in the saddest manner possible. In various commentaries we see how times have changed through phrases like "Philco radios have not been manufactured for many years," "the term 'highball' is no longer in general use," "a checker cab, one of the small, lost pleasures of New York life" and, regarding the word "swell," "a word that is no longer in use, save ironically. The late painter and writer, Fielding Dawson, however, used the word without a trace of irony." In fragment X, Sorrentino sums up life perfectly, saying, "life is, essentially, and maddeningly, a series of mistakes, bad choices, various stupidities, accidents, and unbelievable coincidences." In another fragment, he ends a brutal account of the loneliness and savagery of old age with the hopes that his own old age would have been so different than he'd always imagined, only to find that "he was no better, no cleverer, no more insightful than any shuffling old bastard in the street, absurdly bundled against the slightest breeze."
There are several moments in the book where Sorrentino may have been looping Abyss in with the rest of his body of work: in one fragment, a man's friend sleeps with his wife during the day while he's at work (echoing the chauffeur in Sorrentino's first novel, The Sky Changes); in another fragment there is an alternate version of the memorable "metal zeppelin accident" from Aberration of Starlight (in which a man's buttocks is sliced open by the fin of a toy zeppelin); another fragment, features a sense of doom-laden paranoia ("The hospital is nothing but a den of thieves. Worse than the goddamn firemen") that calls up Grandma from Red the Fiend. Whether this shows an artist unconsciously recycling themes and situations or a deliberate effort to unite his body of work together doesn't really matter: The Abyss of Human Illusion is a monumental final work from one of America's greatest writers.