THE ABYSS OF HUMAN ILLUSION by gilbert sorrentino


shortly after his great, brutal novel RED THE FIEND came out, i wrote what amounted to a fan letter to gilbert sorrentino, whom i’d had as a teacher. he was kind and always responded to my (shamefully hopeful) letters. in this response, he wrote that if his work had any common theme, it was an ever abiding and complete sense of loss.

it should be noted too that sorrentino was of course suspicious of the very conceit of a “common theme,” and would sometimes demonstrate its feebleness by arguing that a writer had only one or two ideas, really. the implication being that these ideas were not the key ingredient. beckett, for example, he would say sardonically, thought the world was bleak.

and now we have his last, posthumously-published novel — THE ABYSS OF HUMAN ILLUSION — the hint of which was given in a piece published in the spring 07 issue of GOLDEN HANDCUFF REVIEW. that short piece openly announces its autobiography (so much that perhaps we’re obligated to question it) containing admissions like the below short excerpt.

what struck me as i read this last novel was sorrentino’s clear understanding that while he was here (and perhaps throughout his career) dealing with absolutely common, almost bathetic episodes of human misery, each familiar trope nonetheless is relieved (variably, here, certainly–but at times transcendentally) of its mundane moorings and wrestled into artifice.

to me, this transformation is something of great mystery. the furious ravings of a cuckold or drunk, nostalgia, even the confessions of desperate or envious or dying writers are made into something else: something somehow simultaneously witty, inexplicably sad, and determinedly fake. the latter out of a sense of integrity, the moral that art is not a transparent glass through which we can see reality, but an opaque, additional reality (to which, perhaps, we might compare our own).


He wasn’t much good for anything else, and what he did know how to do — even when, he smiled ruefully — even when he knew how to do it, proved nothing, changed nothing, and spoke to about as many people as one could fit into a small movie theater.

And so he continued to do it, correcting and revising each newly made page with a feeling of weird neutrality, with a feeling that he was simply passing the time: this or solitaire — all right, this. Surely, the other old writers he still knew felt precisely this way. Did they? He surely wouldn’t ask such an impertinent question.

He had recently received a letter from a dear friend, who, it so turned out, died soon after. He took the letter from his files one morning, before he started what he now thought of as “work,” scare quotes flaring, and found in it what he was sure he had read. The friend had confessed to him that his last book was, indeed, his last book, that he had given up or lost — it made little difference — the ability and the desire to write another word…

He sat at his desk, and read the letter again. He wished, oh how he wished it wasn’t so, but he was choked with envy of his friend’s sterility: not to be able to write, not to want to write, to be, as they say, “written out,” or, more wonderfully, “burnt out” — lovely phrase! But it was a gift that had not been given him, and, he knew, despairing, that it would never be given him. He was doomed, damned, if you will, to write on, and on and on, blundering through the shadows of this pervasive twilight, until finally, perhaps, he would get said what could never be said.

buy it from the publisher. find it at your local library.

info for an event on 2/20/10 in celebration of the book’s publishing. with reading by walter abish, david markson, susan daitch and others here.

a reminiscence i wrote on sorrentino for the brooklyn rail here.

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