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Gilbert Sorrentino. A Strange Commonplace.

Gilbert Sorrentino. A Strange Commonplace. Coffee House, 2006. 154 pp. Paper: $14.95.

Sorrentino had a shtick, always had the same shtick, a simple and wonderful shtick that is almost impossible to reproduce. He made it look effortless, and writers young and old go right off the cliff following in his wake, trying to emulate him (whether or not they know it); trying to have it both ways like he always did: that is, to write fiction that never pretends to be anything other than a contrivance, and yet still breaks your heart ... that devastates you, in fact, like clean, quiet, epiphany-based fiction never can. Sorrentino never pretended--was probably the least dishonest of any great writer we had, never allowing himself the ease or the comfort of a readymade phrase without showing his hand, acknowledging like Flaubert that even our starkest misery tends towards the form of the cliche. A Strange Commonplace is, like Little Casino and Lunar Follies before it, a compact, episodic novel; but where Casino tended towards grim comedy, and Follies towards mercurial satire, this book gives Sorrentino's prickly pessimism full play. It consists of fifty-two chapters, evenly distributed between a Part One and a Part Two: the chapter titles of the first half are repeated in the second, though with the sections rearranged, and the events initially described now slightly askew, clarified, re-imagined. In Part One characters are rarely named, and we're introduced to personalities, histories, objects, and locations (a foolish-looking Homburg hat, an old copy of Bomba the Jungle Boy, Rockefeller Center) that migrate from one chapter to the next, ciphers in a dream. In Part Two there are more names, and the connections between the characters become clearer, more "realistic," but no less wraithlike for this supposed substantiality: the names don't quite fit, seem to be referring to people with different--if similar--stories, and the characters are all still in their familiar hells, waking and dream-lives likewise caught in closed circuits of desire, regret, resentment, and self-loathing. A Strange Commonplace is a book of the dead: a worst-case scenario for the hope we nurture that what's best in us will endure and one day find a voice. Somehow, Sorrentino's impatience with the betrayals of life, his ruthlessness in depicting its casualties, radiates a sympathy far more satisfying than compassion. His every book--as the phrase goes--is a gift. [Jeremy M. Davies]
COPYRIGHT 2006 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Davies, Jeremy M.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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