By Ross Barkan
Failure is the phantasm that terrorizes any artist. Laboring in obscurity for a unique vision is supposed to yield recognition, fame, and a place beyond history’s dustbin. When the labor doesn’t pay off—and sadly, it only does for a select few—life itself can become a crippling exercise, curdling any joy left in the body.
This is one of the many themes flowing through Gilbert Sorrentino’s fascinating final novel The Abyss of Human Illusion, published posthumously in February. Sorrentino, who died in 2006 at the age of 77, penned over 30 books of fiction and poetry that electrified the minuscule audience that read and appreciated him. You probably haven’t heard of Sorrentino because he never gained the recognition of a mass audience; his most critically lauded novel, Mulligan Stew (named one of the best books of 1979 by the New York Times Book Review), has sold fewer than 25,000 copies, to date. Critics regarded Sorrentino as a master satirist and postmodernist, a writer capable of toying with narrative conventions to create enthralling works that deftly explored and mocked existential despair. Original, daring and above all, funny, Sorrentino nevertheless struggled to find the audience he and others believed he deserved. He was not a failed artist, but he fought a lifelong battle for recognition.
Bitterness—flushed with humor—permeates The Abyss of Human Illusion, a book that is not a novel in any classical sense. Instead, it’s a collection of fifty short vignettes that grow in increasing length as the book progresses. They range from the surreal (a man stepping off an apartment-sized elevator to speak with his dead mother) to a tender reimagining of the Arthur Rimbaud poem “Winter Dream.” Between the dreamlike absurdities are very real people struggling with the disappointment that a lifetime, both brutally short and exasperatingly endless, can bring. Of a former alcoholic who takes no comfort in his job, friends or God, Sorrentino writes, “If he was sick of himself and waiting for the possible declaration within his body of the presence of some malignant destroyer, why not wait drunk?” Why not embrace destruction, indeed?
For the young aspiring writers out there (like this one), the bleakness of Sorrentino can be discouraging. Following the well-trodden trails of other great ennui-drenched writers like Louis-Ferdinand Celine or Philip Roth can be a daunting task. Luckily, humor keeps us afloat, even as existence continues to hammer blow after devastating blow into our trembling souls. “Hell is other people,” as Sartre told us in No Exit. But hell is also the struggle against the self, against idols of expectation built in an unattainable future.
Straddling that yawning void between optimism and illusion is something anyone, writer or no, will always contend with. Consider your dreams, close your eyes, and ask yourself, when the world around you is finally quiet, do you think you will be successful? In one of the vignettes, a man named Steve, who dreams of publishing a short story in the New Yorker, reads a story published by a woman he knew from a writing workshop. “It is beautiful, I said, classic, traditional, aristocratic, really. Look at the “e” in “Joye.” He nodded, and I knew he was seeing ‘Steven.’” Steve had submitted countless stories, all rejected, wishing for the great breakthrough that he believed was coming. And when a friend gets it instead, he finally succumbs to illusion. What else is left?
This might be the greatest tragedy of the human condition. We are endowed with an awareness of the magnanimous. We are steeped in myth, longing for triumph, groping eternally for golden horizons, no matter how unreachable they might be. And we are told that if we don’t reach these horizons, we are somehow deficient. Sorrentino turns a sarcastic yet sympathetic eye to the ordinary individual who has enough ambition and a shred of talent to know what lies ahead if he maintains his Sisyphean determination, but just enough lacking to feel the brunt force of the boulder barreling downhill, straight at him.
“He loves a girl, who, as it turns out, does not love him, and so he wastes years of his life trapped in wretched cliché,” Sorrentino begins another vignette about a man mired in bad luck. Rather than harp on the tragedies of unrequited love, he delves into the twin clichés of longing and self-deception. Wanting things you can’t have is a classic trope of literature. Sorrentino doesn’t want literature, though. There are no tidy endings, epiphanies and revelations. Cycles don’t end. They continue. The longing drags onward, driving man to illusion or madness.
No balm exists for the individual who hasn’t achieved the dream, the vision. We can’t tell him there’s still hope when he’s near the end of his life, like many Sorrentino protagonists are. (The kids, with the exception of one who cuts his buttocks on a toy zeppelin, aren’t around much in The Abyss of Human Illusion). We can’t tell him that he’ll “get ‘em next time” when there clearly is no next time. We can deceive, but illusions, as we all know, are tragically hollow. “He was a third-rate painter,” opens one vignette that concludes with the predictable collapse of a once-proud mediocre artist, a collapse brought about simply by a lack of talent. He could only swallow his own inevitable failure.
Writers have different ways of coping with this despair. Henry Miller, a failure in his own eyes until he published Tropic of Cancer in his forties, found gems of joy in the muck. Virginia Woolf, who eventually committed suicide, told us to take comfort in moments and fleeting everyday triumphs. Sorrentino nods toward Miller, but forsakes any of the soaring Whitmanesque odes that made Miller famous, a language woven with delirious ecstasy and bright chaos. Sorrentino’s laughter is subtle, more of a chuckle in a dim diner booth among close friends or a sneer from a corner of the Brooklyn boulevards he knew so well. The best thing to do, maybe, is laugh. Make fun of the banalities and the horrors.
“Oh well. What a beautiful day it is any way, right?” says one character to a friend she has just deceived. That could be the greatest irony of all: our wretched world, one that drove Hamlet to soliloquize about the pros and cons of being alive, is, in fact, a very pretty place. Achingly beautiful.