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Gilbert Sorrentino. Little Casino.

Gilbert Sorrentino. Little Casino. Coffee House, 2002. 220 pp. Paper: $14.95.

A little over halfway through the series of vignettes that compose Little Casino, an interlocutor steps in to remark, about the preceding passage: "`Dolores asserts herself again in this memoir, although I use the word "memoir" as a figure of speech, of course.' "To which another interlocutor, ostensibly standing in for the author, responds:" `Memoir' or not, Dolores and her lady friends are heartbreakers all." The passage is ironic and playful (as is much of the book), but beyond this it may strike the reader as odd, since there's not much about Little Casino that suggests a "memoir" in the first place. The vignettes do follow a roughly chronological progression, starting in the 1940s or fifties and moving toward the present day, but there's no "Gilbert Sorrentino" character to follow through a series of formative adventures. Rather, the book is an ingenious assemblage of stories, jokes, remarks--anything and everything--the "logic" of which is articulated in an epigraph from Joseph Cornell: "Although we may catalogue a kind of chain mysterious is the force that holds the chain together." Stories are told and then commented upon, speculations concerning recalled events in one section are verified in a companion section, only to be called into question again later on. Characters reappear, as do items, for example, a pale blue dress, which may or may not be the same dress that appeared elsewhere, on a character who may or may not have figured into a previous scene. There are also lists of received ideas, narrated photographs, metafictional wisecracks ... in short, most of the stylistic and formal techniques that Sorrentino has developed throughout his career appear, one way or another, in this book. He includes characters and quotes from his other books, along with quotes and intentional misquotes from Joyce, Celine, Beckett, Stein. He includes his most excruciatingly dismal single line of poetry (from White Sail) as well as the ridiculous stewardess voice from Misterioso--"Hi!"--quite possibly the pinnacle of ironized banality in Western literature. What all this amounts to is a meticulously constructed catalog or "chain," but it is also, in fact, a kind of memoir

Throughout Sorrentino's career, life has served as the material for his art--"material" in the sense of what an artist uses to build something--and the same material has often reappeared in new forms, not just scenes and items, but entire books being recast in new language. The result has been a body of work unmatched (since Flaubert, I'd say) for its prolific formal and stylistic variety, each book a unique rethinking of language and its uses. It is in the context of such a lifework that Little Casino becomes most fascinating--a surprisingly personal book. As Sorrentino has written elsewhere: "A writer knows that he is a writer when he has lived long enough to see that his writing defines, as clearly as a graph, his life. The shock of this is not caused by anything so homely and acceptable as `the record of the passing years' ... but by the fact that this `graph' is not a metaphor for his life, but a merciless representation of it." Life is the material of art, but eventually that notion flips, and the artist recognizes artistic forms as the material of life itself (his own). That this same material should then cycle back and be once more claimed for artistic ends seems a logical extension of one of the most profoundly artistic careers (not over, of course) in contemporary American literature.
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Author:Riker, Martin
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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