Frequently Grim: Daniels Parseliti on Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Abyss of Human Illusion

The Abyss of Human Illusion, Gilbert Sorrentino, Coffee House Press

For a writer of his exceptional talents Gilbert Sorrentino is depressingly under-read and underrepresented. No longer possessing a copy of the flower of mental gore that is “Red the Fiend” and seeking instant gratification in its cruelty, I recently made my way to St. Mark’s Books in NYC’s east village to pick up a copy. If anyone has a copy, I figured, St. Mark’s, their shelves stuffed with Oulipians (though Sorrentino is not an Oulipian, he’s frequently associated with them), would. Not only did they not have a copy of Red, they failed to have a single Gilbert Sorrentino title. I found Sorrentino’s final book, the posthumously published The Abyss of Human Illusion, in a Barnes & Noble, the sole, lonely copy and the only Sorrentino title they had.

The Abyss is not the masterwork of scope that is Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew. Its satiric eviscerations are not as thorough or satisfyingly grisly as those in his Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. And while it employs commentary on each of its chapters as a metafictional tool, it does not do so with the immediacy and robustness of the commentary in his Little Casino. These are not necessarily negative criticisms. After all, Sorrentino was a highly inventive writer who frequently experimented with the form of the novel. Consequently, we need not, and indeed ought not expect him to cleave to prior forms. What then to make of The Abyss of Human Illusion?

The Abyss is composed of 50 short narratives, presented as chapters, from 130 to approximately 1300 words in length, the length of the narratives increasing serially. They range over familiar Sorrentinean topics: the success of mediocre artists/writers (and the ensuing jealously of their friends), cuckolded men, the disintegration and ruin of relationships, ambition curdling to bitterness and despair in the wake of failure.

Each chapter presents small, frequently grim moments pierced by the greater arrow of the character’s (frequently grim) lives. A woman stands in her kitchen, in her underwear, imagining someone watching her through the window, but knowing it’s not the case:

She puts on her robe, wishing, perhaps, that someone would look at her, that someone in the courtyard, in the living room, some nameless phantom were waiting for her, someone to whom she could abandon herself, some beast, some animal, some sex fiend, for whom she could throw herself away, for whom she could recklessly damn herself to pleasure and hell.

But of course no one is coming, and there will be no reckless damning. There is only the grind of age to look forward to, a tepid hell, minus the reckless pleasure. Each of these pieces lays bare bleak lives, leaving the reader with a sense of sadness and futility:

It was, he knew, certain, that had he not known, in any way, all the people he had known, but had, instead, known as many wholly different people, his life, such as it was, would have been the same in its vast panoply of error and carelessness. He had indeed blundered through his life, as he would have blundered through any life given him. Had he been born anywhere at all—he knows this—he’d still be standing at a dark window, alone, wondering who, through the years, precisely he was.

The 50 iterations with their gradual lengthening seem to echo this futility. In each we are given different characters, with different lives and (often, but not always) different problems. But more characters, more mini-narratives, and more textual space (though we’re never granted very much), all lead to similar outcomes in each case: anger, sadness, despair, frustration. Expansion along the line of the story, Sorrentino seems to be saying, won’t help us. In that direction there is just more of the same.

If you can’t go horizontal for a little relief, go vertical. Appended to the 50 chapters, at the end of the book, is a section of “Commentaries” on each of the chapters that have come before. These commentaries are often quite funny, written from an authorial high ground, poking fun at the constructions and clichés of the main text, speculating on the text’s meaning and various confusions, and adding ironic detail.

The work takes on a much different feel after the inclusion of the commentary. Sorrentino has been dishing out small emotional punishments with his chapters, his masterful capacities of compression accomplishing in one or two pages what most authors are unable to achieve in ten to twenty times the length. Towards the end of the main text the repeated exposure to these punishments builds a sense of futility and tension in the mind of the reader. The arrival of the commentary offers welcome ironic insulation from the main text, and in this offers a sense of relief. The placement of the commentary at the end of the main text is integral to this relief. The delay of commentary in The Abyss allows for a build-up of the sense of futility and bleakness, and a sense of gratefulness in that there is a metafictional reveal.

It is illuminating to look at the “Commentaries” offered in The Abyss compared with the commentary offered in Sorrentino’s Little Casino, published in 2002. Little Casino also consists of short chapters, though they vary in length and present scenes less complete than those in The Abyss (they are, however, frequently linked through character, not simply through themes). Each chapter is followed by a break, after which commentary (which is to a large degree metafictional) is given. The commentary (it’s not actually labeled as such, as it is in The Abyss) occasionally seems to outdo the preceding chapter, both in length and in the quantity and power of what is expressed therein. Compared with the “Commentaries” in The Abyss, those in Little Casino are both more expansive and feel closer to the preceding text. Along with the more robust commentary, in Little Casino Sorrentino employs irony more liberally within his narratives, resulting in more humor and a fluid sense that the narrator is present.

Reading The Abyss next to Little Casino brings up the urge to speculate as to why Sorrentino gives up this fluidity and robustness in The Abyss. The tension of The Abyss and the relative austerity of the stories and prose make for a “sharper” book, one that functions with a more noticeable mechanistic element (the break between body and commentary the placement of the commentary) than much of his previous work. Sorrentino was a master craftsman in the art of fiction. Consequently, it makes sense to view this exposure of mechanism as deliberate. In exposing this visible seam, in drawing into view the distance between fiction and metafiction, Sorrentino has not simply used metafiction to achieve a goal, but has given the reader (intentionally or not) the opportunity to realize a value of metafiction.

As such we have a three part structure. The primary text which grinds down and generates tension in the reader, the commentary, which offers a measure of relief in the form of ironic/metafictional insulation, and the combination of the two (the form of the book), which, in this case, points to metafictional techniques that can add texture and humor to the bleakness of everyday life as portrayed in fiction.

It’s fair to say that The Abyss of Human Illusion doesn’t rise to the same level as Sorrentino’s best books: its technical mastery just can’t makes up for its extremely limited scope. But then again, Sorrentino never seemed like the kind of writer who aimed at outdoing himself. He was, instead, constantly exploring the form of the novel and revealing to us the results. This book will be of value to those who enjoy such exploration.


Daniels Parseliti is a writer living in Saint Louis, MO, where he attends the graduate fiction program at Washington University in Saint Louis.  He has published fiction in The Brooklyn Rail and non-fiction in The Subway Chronicles Anthology.

They Are All Fiction After All: Daniels Parseliti on Donald Breckenridge’s You Are Here

you are here

Donald Breckenridge, You Are Here, Starcherone

When I was an undergrad studying philosophy I had a friend who used to insist that time didn’t exist. “It’s a function of us as organisms, as humans, not an actual property of the universe like mass,” he would say. We would argue; Time a physical dimension. No. Time was simply an illusory conceptual/linguistic construction, with its sense determined by the role it plays in inferential relations . No. Time was more Kantian, to be construed as a metaphysically necessary condition of possible experience. No. After much debate we never came to an agreement about the ontological status of time. However, both of us managed to agree that the perception of time is malleable, and it was this very malleability that gave way to questions about the properties – and indeed, reality – of time itself

One of fictions great freedoms is that definite answers to questions such as these are not required in order to exploit the flexibility of the notions involved. Indeed, one need not even attempt to answer these questions in order to engage with the slipperiness of the temporal – the knowledge that this slipperiness exists, and the ability, and will, to play with it, is enough.

Time, and more particularly, a feeling of simultaneity, permeates Donald Breckenridge’s You are Here. This sense of simultaneity shows itself as a resonance resultant from Breckenridge’s pinging of connections between characters through time, which in turn creates a standing wave of content.

And ping Breckenridge does. Throughout the novel connections abound. Janet and James are dating, she a well-to-do divorcee in her mid 40s, he an aspiring writer in his 20s. Alan and Stephanie are having an affair, he a married man of some wealth, she a temp. Stephanie used to date Cindy, who is directing a two act play entitled An Old Lover and written by a character named Donald. The first act of the play involves two characters, Janet and James, having dinner, based on the first set of Janet and James, and a dinner they shared. Moreover, James has written a short story which involves Alan and Stephanie, based on “something that…almost happened to someone [he] didn’t know very well.” The second act of Donald’s play takes place on a park bench between Alan and Stephanie. The play, however, never actually happens. As the Donald character says when asked if he is turning his play into a novel, “There isn’t really going to be any play…it’s all fiction.”

The metafictional knottiness serves a key role in the book, blurring the distinction between events and their replication/reenactment. This impact is heightened by a technique Breckenridge employs throughout, that of inserting fragments of dialog in the middle, beginning, end, or some variation thereof, of narrative description. Not only does he do this with the conversations and actions at hand, but also with flashbacks and memories, material tangentially related to the conversation or action at hand but directly related to the makeup of the characters. This disruption to the “normal” flow of the narrative and dialog creates a fractured, modular, “slippery” quality to the prose, rendering our curiosity about the status of the text (is it the play we’re reading, or the events the play was based on, or the story which takes place in the second act of the play, or the events the story was based on…) at times almost painfully acute.

Roughly, the novel takes place during two time periods, in the months before September 11, 2001, and in those leading up to the re-election of G.W. Bush, and directly after. However, the book is laced with unannounced flashbacks that penetrate conversation and narrative description, particularly as one reads into the second half of the book, where all the characters have been deployed and their various circumstances brought to light.

Placing the re-election of G.W. Bush and the September 11th attack on the Twin Towers at the end of the course of actions of the characters renders the activities of the characters up until these points the events leading up to just these huge, catastrophic events (though of course not in a causal way – the lives of the characters are not instrumental in the catastrophes, they are simply the lives surrounding them) Consequently, the articulation and reconstruction of the characters’ actions serves as a snapshot of the surrounding terrain.

The snapshot is less than pretty, and the relationships contained within are a reminder of the wages of consumption. James is looking to siphon off of Janet’s life and love experience in order to benefit his writing, while Janet appears for the most part to be biding her time, killing boredom and loneliness for a lack of anything else to do. Alan approaches Stephanie and sleeps with her in a fashion that strikes the reader as a rather garden variety form of sexual predation, which, of course, it is. Stephanie strikes the reader as aimless and looking for a sugar daddy, spending her time shopping and paddling around in her relationship with Alan, then discussing its ins and outs with her friend Karen. These relationships are not special in any dynamic sense, and in most cases their consequences are what we might expect. Janet tells James he’d be happier with someone younger and James is in fact surprised how much he’s fallen for Janet. Alan discards the relationship between himself and Stephanie as casually as he acquired it. No, these are not special lives; they’re just the lives of New Yorkers, and that’s part of the point.

The other part of the point, however, is that they are lives whose events are articulated and rearticulated within the novel, and as such, they accrete ironic meaning within the text. Consequently, intertextual questions of the status of actions and events (what is the play, what is the novel, what is the initial event) become almost if not totally impossible to answer – they are all fiction after all. We see the texture of lives and events not as life but as life reconstructed. This is life as we imagine it, and Breckenridge has provided not a reconstruction of things as they were, because this is impossible, but as things as the novelist must present them. The extra work involved is because he has chosen to let us know.