David Katzman's Reviews > The Abyss of Human Illusion

The Abyss of Human Illusion by Gilbert Sorrentino
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Feb 09, 11

Read in February, 2011

An aptly named book. The Abyss of Human Illusion made me feel as if I were watching a pale naked body fall in slow motion onto a bed of nails.

Gilbert Sorrentino is an acclaimed experimental writer who combines elements of formal Modernist experimentation (ala James Joyce) with tropes of postmodern writing (ala John Barth). In this particular “novel” the Modernist construct takes the shape of precisely fifty “chapters,” each chapter a little longer than the previous one, the first chapter being half a page long while the final chapter being four and a half pages long.* There is no plot that connects the scenarios in each chapter, making them seem rather more like collected short stories than a novel, however, they are united by a common authorial voice, a theme, and a set of Endnotes written by Sorrentino. A light postmodern sensibility perks up occasionally when Sorrentino makes offhand comments that acknowledge the “author” of the work within the text as well as acknowledging the fictional quality of the characters he is writing about and the reader who is reading them. For example, he might refer to a character with a description such as, “She might be blonde or brunette, it doesn’t matter. Imagine what you wish.” His Endnotes are pomo as well because they comment on phrases within the chapters, sometimes adding new details about the characters as if they were “real” while undercutting that reality with a wink in his tone. And sometimes he comments on his own writing—“a rather clichéd phrase there.”

Despite the lack of through-line to these stories, they are certainly united thematically in that they all brutally skewer our human illusions and foibles. In fact, I would go so far to say that there is no joy in there, only emptiness—thus the abyss. He skewers the fictions we’ve crafted to attempt to define ourselves and the illusions of family ties, but the majority of the stories lay bare the deluded beliefs we carry about our lovers, husbands and wives or partners.

And make no mistake, this isn’t a light book that allows you to shrug off the illusions. Somewhere in here you are likely to feel a pang of recognition, an echo of an illusion in your own life. Sorrentino dangles his characters above that eponymous emotional abyss, shows us the sort of horror in their loneliness and the falsity of beliefs by which they’ve defined themselves. Although he does so in such brief snippets that they don’t quite gel as real people so much as representation of real people (which is what characters are anyway.) But he manages to provide enough detail that there is both distance and intimacy with these creations. And the intimacy is what makes this book so painful to read. Reading it was like seeing the body of my emotions shredded mercilessly.

You know how some books are described as presenting unlikeable or somehow despicable characters “with sympathy”? No such sentimentality here. The light shown on our illusions is cold. Even the author doesn’t escape his own contempt—there is an implication that writing is for naught. Yet of course he wrote this book, his last as a matter of fact.

The preface notes that Sorrentino finished the first draft of this book in 2005 when he was diagnosed with cancer, a very potent cancer that nearly incapacitated him. And yet he finished this book a few weeks before his death in May of 2006. Wow. The implications boggle the mind. He’d already published more than thirty books, so it’s not like he didn’t have a legacy. But I wonder, was it more important to him to finish this book than spend his last year with family? Did he love his family and did they love him? Undoubtedly, we do live with many illusions about ourselves, our friends, our lovers, husbands and wives, and our families. Does that mean love isn’t real? When it’s based on responding to an illusion? Does it matter? Isn’t our Self an illusion anyway? So our constructions of others in our minds are illusory, too. The “truth” comes in how much our beliefs might correspond to the actual behavior and (unknowable by us) inner thoughts of these others. Further, we are always changing so there is no consistent Self to “truly” love. Do I think love exists? Well, I do. It’s an emotional truth, but it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not a solid thing, and it certainly can be transitory. Destroyed by a change in others or ourselves. Destroyed by a revelation—“You are a different person than I thought you were.” So is it real? As real as any idea is, because it influences and shapes our behavior. So, where’s the love, Gilbert? Where’s the love?

* Side-note: There is one paragraph in my first novel where each sentences that follows the first is one word shorter than the previous. Little Easter Egg for you there, from an atheist Buddhist.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by MJ (new) - rated it 4 stars

MJ Nicholls This one is painful. You can see him limping to the end, the old wry smile on his face as death approaches. Love Sorrentino. You should read Crystal Vision, it's better than life.


David Katzman Yes, i just completed it. Working the review up in my head. It is a well named book.

I'll have to look for that one! i read Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, which was impressive but not mind-blowing.


message 3: by MJ (new) - rated it 4 stars

MJ Nicholls Sorrentino is, for me, the most impressive "experimental" (or whichever label you prefer) writer. Really no bad books in his canon.


message 4: by David (last edited Feb 08, 2011 11:22AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

David Katzman He is certainly a great experimentalalist, although i haven't read enough to know if i would call him the best! William S. Burroughs is probably my favorite because Naked Lunch is in my top 10 books. Here's another experimental book in my top ten that you've probably never heard of: The Alphabet Man http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13...

And i'd have to say i love Flann O'Brien most of all because he's such a joy, while still experimental.

oh, i was debating whether to consider Sorrentino a Modernist experimentalist or a Postmodernist. He does acknowledge the author, but his writing style seems more modernist. What do you think?


message 5: by MJ (new) - rated it 4 stars

MJ Nicholls Oh, looks awesome, thanks. I recently discovered FC2 after a long ignorance. They have less distribution over here than Dalkey Archive.

I'm a big Flann fan too. Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew apparently uses the structure for At Swim-Two-Birds. I'd argue he swings between modernist/post. A great number of his books are classic metafiction, others have realist elements. I suppose "experimental" covers it.


David Katzman Oh, wow. I didn't even realize that book was published by FC2. I entered my second novel in the FC2 Innovative Fiction competition. The award is announced in May and it includes being published. I'm certainly not counting on it--the competition manager told me they usually receive about 350 entries--but i think i have a shot at it.


message 7: by MJ (new) - rated it 4 stars

MJ Nicholls 350 certainly gives you a shot, definitely. I'm surprised it's so low. Best of luck!


David Katzman I don't know if they will consider it "the best," but it's definitely innovative. And now that i know they published Alphabet Man in the past, i think they will like the visual text poetry found in some parts of the book. Alphabet Man has very dramatic visual text poetry representing different personalities of the main character. *Fingers crossed!*


message 9: by Paul (new)

Paul Great review. This is a new author to me - which one of his books should I read first?


David Katzman Thanks, Paul! I think you should take MJs reco and read Crystal Vision first.


message 11: by MJ (new) - rated it 4 stars

MJ Nicholls Crystal Vision is a favourite of mine, but I'm thinking Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things might be more fun for the newcomer.


David Katzman IQOAT is best suited though if you are fascinated by New York literary culture in the...60s was it? Sure, i think it says a lot about artists in general! But still, if you're particularly interested in that period, then i think it's more interesting. It's also very cynical....


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