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Foregone Inconclusions : MISTERIOSO by Gilbert Sorrentino (Dalkey Archive Press: $19.95; 282 pp.)

December 10, 1989|Larry McCaffery | McCaffery is co-editor of Fiction International

Because fiction offers readers an imaginative encounter with an alternative world, one would assume it usually would be a liberating form--a form whose displays of other possibilities would encourage readers to recognize the provisional nature of their own lives and the world they inhabit. Alas, too often fiction winds up closing more doors than it opens, in part because it typically imposes upon the messy disorder of daily life the aesthetic illusion that events and personalities can be analyzed, that conflicts have resolutions, that mystery and ambiguity can be penetrated.

Gilbert Sorrentino, however, wants no part of that particular form of novelistic illusion. In "Misterioso," his 13th work of fiction and the final volume of a trilogy that began with "Odd Number" and "Rose Theater," Sorrentino shows just how disjointed, trivial and enigmatic the lives of most Americans really are. And as was true with the two earlier novels, he does so by devising an unusual formal approach that radically subverts the notion that the dots of reality can be connected to form a coherent picture.

"Misterioso" is a bewildering, encyclopedic catalogue of all the people, places and objects from the two earlier novels. This survey is arranged both temporally (the book is set on Aug. 29, 1982) and alphabetically: The opening sequences involve elements that begin with the letter "A" (a seemingly well-read copy of "Absalom! Absalom!' is incongruously discovered atop a bin full of Granny Smith apples at a neighborhood A&P supermarket; the lurid contents of Action, Anal Fantasies and other magazines are described; a woman sculptor sitting in an Adirondack chair notes of her recent work, "Amber Glass," that she wishes "to deconstruct the notion of comic-strip characters as figures of contempt").

Gradually we move on to "B" and "C" until we eventually reach "Z," where characters named Zet, Zippyt, Zepar, Zoot and Zuzu display Zippo lighters, examine execrably bad novels such as "Zeppelin Days," fumble with glittering zippers, and so on. These sections are composed of snippets of conversation, lists, scenarios, recipes, authorial asides and dozens of other improbable sources (including extended sections of a surreal, ludicrously overdrawn text, "Buddy and His Boys on Mystery Mountain," which occasionally interrupts the alphabetical progression).

This alphabetical approach to structure (which can be found in Walter Abish's "Alphabetical Africa" and in Sorrentino's own early masterpiece, "Splendide Hotel") would seem ideally suited for carrying out "Misterioso's" apparent mission: an orderly, candid exploration into the mysteries of character and plot raised in "Odd Number" and "Robert Theater." These earlier novels had presented a dissolving welter of conflicting materials, lies, coincidences and versions of events--as with the ambiguous circumstances surrounding the (possible) death of Sheila Henry (in "Odd Number").

Presumably, then, an account of all the people, places and events connected to her should shed light on what has occurred. Likewise, since the identity and background of nearly all other characters in the earlier novels remained maddeningly (but deliberately) unknowable, what better way to penetrate this veil of uncertainty than for Sorrentino to present "The facts, ma'am, just the facts"?

But in "Misterioso," Sorrentino is in fact playing an elaborate but challenging literary game with his readers--a game in which ambiguity and enigma masquerade as fact and information. Much like a meteorologist, the reader soon senses that no matter how much new information is gathered, the actual pattern of things remains unpredictable. Indeed, as each new section supplies further "facts" and revelations, the essential mystery underlying these characters and plot elements deepens as new possibilities interact and wildly mutate.

Ultimately, of course, it's the specific nature of these possibilities that makes journeying through "Misterioso's" labyrinth of episodes, literary in-jokes and verbal chicanery so intriguing. What unites most of this disparate material is Sorrentino's remarkable eye (and ear) for detail and his savage but hilarious wit, which he directs at the life styles and values of America's middle class with Swiftian rage and accuracy.

Sorrentino is one of our greatest stylistic virtuosos, and "Misterioso's" encyclopedic form allows him to move in and out of an astonishing range of voices and styles. Puns, anagrams, bawdy jokes (of which there are many), literary quotations and allusions, set speeches, lists, snatches of poetry and philosophical musings (mostly bathetically and revealingly awful), letters, pastiches of other literary forms--Sorrentino inhabits all of these signatures with remarkable exuberance and inventiveness.

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