Author: Frank, Jeffrey
Date published: July 1, 2011
About halfway through Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, the author (after gently scolding Norman Mailer for having veered off into nonfiction) writes, "What a long time, what a labor it takes to make an art. Takes just as long to make a failed art. Hart Crane, Weldon Kees, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway. I honor those men because they fell apart in their own work" (128). The name that leaps out in that short list is Weldon Kees (1914-1955), an American writer and painter, who disappeared one day in mid-century San Francisco, either a suicide (his abandoned car was found close to the Golden Gate Bridge) or a voluntary vanishing, possibly rematerializing in Mexico. Kees was an ideal inhabitant of the often cruel world of the unfulfilled (or forgotten) artists and artistically driven outsiders created and/or observed by Gilbert Sorrentino in what may be his most lethal novel. Kees was exceptionally versatile, and indeed he saw himself that way and was proud of it- he published poetry in The New Yorker and criticism in Partisan Review; he published fiction, too, and his paintings and collages were shown at the Whitney. He might not have loved the Sorrentino novel, but to judge from the tone and spirit of his letters, he very likely would have appreciated its wit and the merciless contempt with which the author viewed the numbing parade of other writers and musicians and painters who all too often did not measure up. Herewith a Sorrentino-like warning: Weldon Kees will eventually return to play a minor role in this essay.
Imaginative Qualities has never been an easy book. I've even been puzzled by the line that gave the book its title: "The wish would be to see not floating visions of unknown purport but the imaginative qualities of the actual things being perceived accompany their gross vision in a slow dance, interpreting as they go" (Williams 67) That was by William Carlos Williams, greatly and rightly admired by Sorrentino, and yet: is something missing - a word or phrase - between "perceived" and "accompany"? Sorrentino is not exactly helpful about that or most things. When he speaks about one character (or a notion of a character), he says, "You can skip to the next chapter, if you wishthere's no plot here to worry you. You won't, of course, understand him, since I don't understand him myself" (/. Q. O. A. T. 57). He's right; you can skip around or skip over. But you should resist the temptation.
Much of what Sorrentino wrote- in an energetic, confiding, subversive, and all-at-once lyrical voice- was an act of defiance, a challenge to the idea that fiction is beside the point. He suggests that if fiction matters (and it does to him, a lot), then this matters too, despite any cost to his "career" or his acceptance. "It is this fact, that fiction is an invention of the voice, that tends to make writers' lives a shambles," he writes (216). In the case of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, his third novel, it was pretty clear that it was not going to attract many readers and moreover was going to repel many of those it found. Some were bound to be put offby what at first glance seemed no more than literary self-indulgence, or unnecessary malice, or both. The New York Times reviewed it slightingly eight months after its publication, and the short, unsigned piece asserted that "The fakery of incompetent artists is a quickly depleted subject," adding that the novel at its best "reads like a mordant letter from an intelligent friend" (New York Times 1972, B6). Paul Theroux in the Washington Post was not much kinder, although the review did manage to coincide with the publication date, and Theroux conceded that there was "a truculent intelligence behind it all, one given to outrage and joy" (Theroux 1971) There was no mention of the writer's use of the clichés of camp pornography, employed often enough to make one wonder if under a pen name he might have produced some ofthat stuff elsewhere for amusement and small profits. An undercurrent of sex, most of it unhappy, runs through the pages, starting with the opening lines: "What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems . . . should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you" (/. Q. O. A. T. 3). What if indeed! The fibs that one tells about art may be the tools of seduction, and if there is nothing new about that idea, there was something a little startling in the way that Sorrentino owned up to it. In the sensitized twenty- first century, it may occur to some readers that this novel could only have been written by a man of a certain generation.
Imaginative Qualities is, by the way, nearly forty years old, and yet nothing feels more contemporary than its ironic (post-ironic?) sensibility. From the start, it is like a sudden, almost bracing immersion in another time - a New York of the fifties and sixties, the home to spots like Max's Kansas City - and yet it also turns out to be a time and place filled with people who are, at least as this sentence is written, very much with us, although with varied levels of energy and lasting importance. Among them: Bob Dylan, Norman Podhoretz, LeRoi Jones (as Sorrentino knew him in the sixties), Joe Namath, Gloria Steinern, the Rolling Stones, most of the Suprêmes, Ishmael Reed, and Jimmy Breslin. Through it all, Sorrentino kept his faith in writing and even the romance of writing. He may have been only partly kidding when he evoked the antique furniture of a writer's life: "His desk is remarkable. A stack of canary-yellow paper. An Olivetti. A deep blue vase with three sharply pointed yellow pencils in it. An ashtray, bone white. His coffee mug. His box of cigarettes" (226).
Sorrentino, on his way to becoming the Sorrentino of Mulligan Stew, published eight years later, and Aberration of Starlight and the rest, also seems determined to make one lose patience, though he never succeeds; his digressions don't annoy - in fact, just the opposite ("Don't tell me that this is a digression, this whole book is a digression: from the novel. I'll write" ). He does everything an accomplished novelist can do to make one lose track of his characters, if only by giving them few distinguishing characteristics apart from an absence of talent. Reading the relatively short Imaginative Qualities, one vaguely makes out the people called Bunny (Christian name Joanne) (89) and Guy Lewis; and certainly the Henrys, Lou and Sheila. But what is one to make of Dick and April Detective, made-up names for made-up characters who actually have other names? Why does Sorrentino bring Dick D. back during an inappropriate moment in the guise of the Rev. Richard Detective, S. J.? There are the Harleys- Anton and Antonia (ha-ha)- and the Mexican bride, Conchita, and I think that I've forgotten some other forgettable characters, along with unnamed "young directors who can kiss three asses at once" (181). The very idea of Vladimir Nabokov annoys Sorrentino, but he has no problem appropriating Lolita as another character who wanders into the book. This Lolita hooks up with, I think, Bart Kahane, a sculptor whose work was praised in an art gallery catalogue that lovingly mimics the prose of all gallery catalogues: "Each piece abounds with contradiction; each piece can be seen ... as a sort of closed, finite, totemic, construct" (185).
Sorrentino's ear for the nonsensical critic, or the hack reviewer (the film had "a pure innocence that had me almost on the edge of tears throughout" ) is always acute. So is his grasp of the perfect rhythm of the rejection letter - "American Vector ... a project we can't see our way clear to publishing at the present time. ... In the very tough fiction market of today" (77)- which reaches its apogee in Mulligan Stew, where a publisher informs Sorrentino's agent that "You know how much I loved IMAGINARY QUANTITIES OF THINGS." Sorrentino understands the covetousness of the art collector - "Rapacity plus taste is a formidable combination since it so often passes for intelligence" (182)- and when he's got past the epigrams, he makes us laugh, sometimes with De Vriesian one-liners: "I know a woman who married a novelist and divorced him two years later, because he was 'always writing'" (136).
Yet beyond the Joyce-like lists and the ambitions of the art world and the jokes, and somewhere past the confusions and seductions, there are always those glimpses of real life and its pathos; behind the author's seemingly pitiless glances, one often senses something softer and sadder. Here, as promised earlier, is Weldon Kees again, holding forth in the late 1940s in a letter to a friend, not yet having written a novel that would be judged as failed art:
A couple of days ago I was uptown, I was waiting on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Forty-Fifth Street for the lights to change when I became aware of the familiarity of the fat neck on the man in front of me. It was Edmund Wilson all right ... He has gotten fatter and much older, but was in one of his rare moods of affability, and kept telling me I ought to resurrect that old project of mine for an anthology of satirical poems. I asked him if he had read Trillings novel, remembering that he and Trilling don't get along . . .
That actual encounter brought to life might have been a moment imagined by Gil Sorrentino.
"Review of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things." The New York Times, 2 July 1972. B6.
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971.
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Mulligan Stew. New York: Grove Press, 1979.
Theroux, Paul. "Review of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things." The Washington Post. 7 November 1971.
Williams, William Carlos. Imaginations. New York: New Directions Books, 1970.
JEFFREY FRANK is the author of four novels, most recently Trudy Hopedale (Simon & Schuster, 2007), and is finishing a book on the relationship between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. A Danish speaker, he was cotranslator (with Diana Crone Frank) of The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Translation From the Danish (Duke Univ. Press, 2003). He was a senior editor at The New Yorker for over thirteen years.