Saturday, July 08, 2017

Gilbert Sorrentino, Blue Pastoral (1983)

Gilbert Sorrentino! It's truly hard to fathom how his wildly avant-garde novels ever had any mass appeal, but there are quotes in this book from mainstream publications like the Atlantic, the LA Times, the Washington Post, and friggin' Newsweek. Still, they're certainly not read now. Once again, let us give thanks to the mighty Dalkey Archive for keeping them in print.

I really enjoyed Mulligan Stew a few years back, so I felt it was time to explore more of his oeuvre. Blue Pastoral is similar, yet different. In theory, there's a story here. Well, I guess more of a premise than a story, per se, but it is this: a man named Serge "Blue" Gavotte is told by his dentist that he needs to go on a quest to find the "perfect musical phrase," so he brings his wife and son, puts his piano on a cart, and heads west.

Well but. How to describe this thing? Well, let's go back to Mulligan Stew. In that novel, you had the hermetic bits that were really just language doing its thing, meant to stretch the definitions of fiction; and then there were the, for lack of a better word "normal" bits, where the language was basically communicating, as language does--the letters from Lamont, and the bits narrated by one of the fictional characters. These served to sort of ground a generally extremely ungrounded novel.

Well, in Blue Pastoral there ARE no "normal" bits. The whole thing sort of describes the journey west, but not in any coherent way. Each chapter, really, is written in a different sort of form--some of them almost-normal loopy narration, but a lot of them parodying poetic forms and plays and a lot of them just collections of names, phrases, and words. Like, when they get to New Orleans, there's a chapter basically listing names of alleged jazz musicians and songs; when they get to New Mexico, there's a sort-of tourist brochure on the greatness of the state. And like that. Oh, and there's a play about college students having sex, allegedly badly translated from the French, that we get bits and pieces of along the way. It's, well, it is what it is.

So there are two things that I think are true about Sorrentino: first, he's madly, unjustifiably self-indulgent. His nonsense can be sporadically beguiling, but if at some point in reading this book you don't want to shout WHAT'S THE FUCKING POINT OF THIS?!?, you are not normal. And second, he does things with prose and the novel form that few would dare to try. These two facts exist side by side, always in tension with one another, but never cancelling each other out. I don't always enjoy him, but I sure as hell can't dismiss him. I think it's important to have people stretching the bounds of the genre like this. I'm glad I read Blue Pastoral, and I did like it more than not--but I can absolutely understand anyone who would hurl it away in contempt and bafflement. They have a point! I cannot gainsay them in any way, except to say THANK GOD for Sorrentino.

Still, for what it's worth--whether or not this is the point--I did enjoy Mulligan Stew more than this. I think the "normal" bits REALLY are helpful in making the book just a bit more readable and engaging. You never get any real sense of character out of anybody here, which may or may not be a problem. Whatever; I'll read some more Sorrentino, probably sooner rather than later.


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