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Odd Number by Gilbert Sorrentino (North Point: $15; 176 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Mark C. Taylor | Taylor's most recent book, "Literature and Philosophy," soon will be published by the University of Chicago Press. and

Imagine a novel that seems to be "about a group of people who go to a party in order to talk about making a film about the very party that they're attending you don't know after a while if what is going on at the party is really going on at the party or will go on in the movie they're supposed to be talking about making." As one of the figures in Gilbert Sorrentino's ingenious new novel suggests, this "so-called modern fiction is confusing you can't keep anything straight bad as life."

"Odd Number" is divided into three parts that repeat and fold into each other in complex and intricate ways. The first section consists of one side of an interrogation about the activities of a group of New Englanders who seem to be involved in pornography and extortion. Snippets of conversation and fragments of notes, diaries and reports form a disjointed account that confuses more than it clarifies. Part two appears to be a more cohesive narrative that helps to make connections between and among events and characters in the preceding section.

Superficial coherence, however, harbors a deeper incoherence. Characters return and events are repeated in ways that dislocate identity and disrupt continuity. Names change, pseudonyms proliferate, doubles appear and disappear in a vertiginous play that leaves who, what and why utterly undecidable.

Relief finally seems to arrive in the form of documents and diagrams included in the last section. But expectations again are frustrated. While some of what we have been led to suspect is confirmed, more is contradicted. What initially seems to be a description that provides the key to the book's puzzling events gradually appears to be derived from the very text it is supposed to ground. As end folds back into beginning, we are left with nothing more than "the names of the demons" who, like Ose, "can change human beings into any shape that the magician may desire."

On one level, "Odd Number" is a detective story--a "who done it" in which both the "who" and the "it" remain obscure. This is, however, an unusual detective story. The events and non-events told and retold provide the occasion for Sorrentino to explore the most mysterious events of all: writing and reading. Reviewing Raymond Queneau's "Exercises in Style," a work that "comprises 99 (n.b. the multiplication and division of odd number three: 99=3x33; 3=99/33) ways of telling the same story (which is not a 'story' at all)," Sorrentino provides something like a commentary on "Odd Number." When he considers the relation of Queneau's "Narrative" and "Notation," a relation that approximates the interplay between the first two parts and the third part of "Odd Number," Sorrentino asks: "How can we now tell what the real story is? What reality is this fiction reproducing? If some omniscient 'Queneau' is writing these two exercises, telling us what he saw, why has he decided to adjust his vision? If it is all a lie, or if one or the other is a lie, does fiction tender us any 'truth' at all? Maybe all facts are inventions."

The "reality" that this fiction "reproduces" is suggested by a strange and fascinating woman named Annette Lorpailleur. Annette appears sometimes as the author and at other times as a character in a book, written "in three parts, each one a different kind of part," which is entitled "La Bouche metallic" or "Mouth of Steel."

There is something "eerie," "haunting," "uncanny" and "inhuman" about Annette. "The way she talked, it wasn't as if she had an accent or anything, it was as if her voice wasn't exactly coming from her --you know, as if somebody was talking and she was moving her mouth in this funny stiff way, just like, well, just like a ventriloquist's dummy."

Annette has a gold medallion that bears the image of the demon Paimon. Paimon, we are told, "speaks with a distant voice, teaches the arts of metamorphosis, gives and confirms the wealth and dignities, and makes human beings subject to the will of the magician." These hints suggest that Lorpailleur (in a manner reminiscent of Rumpelstiltskin) is something of an alchemist who tries to turn straw (a pailleur is a dealer in straw) into gold ( l'or ). Like all of the figures in "Odd Number," Annette is actually a straw woman. She is a dummy through whom something else or someone other speaks. This strangely haunting other is cold and inhuman.

One character describes a room in the metal apartment of the metallic Annette: "All over the walls were these weird hieroglyphics, scribbles . . . and it looked like a little altar in the corner, there were no windows in the room and it must have been below freezing in there, I was in and out in a flash, there was something strange going down there . . . This was heavyweight bizarre."

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