The Whole Act of Writing

Lunar Follies, Gilbert Sorrentino
(143pp, $14, Coffee House Press)

Lunar Follies is an incendiary pastiche, no make that 'obliteration', of the North American contemporary art world. A ludic, fragmentary novel (which could, like all Sorrentino's novels, be interpreted as prose poetry), it takes the form of 53 fictional reviews, gallery brochure blurbs, promotional articles and museum catalogues. It is a difficult book to review because Sorrentino unpicks the very language of criticism. Furthermore, the press-pack includes twenty-plus glowing reviews of the book - all of which make the very same point I made in the last sentence, and make it better than I did. The whole act of writing about something and assuming anyone is interested in my stupid opinion begins to feel distinctly Kuthian:

     ...on certain passages in the letters, from over twenty years' worth of
     Kuthian studies and criticism; the criticism, in full, itself; Kuth's remarks
     on the studies, the     criticisms, and the commentary on the commentary
     on the letters...
          (From 'Carpathians')

Every sentence is suspect, every stylistic trait is a clichˇ, all of our sarcasm and self-awareness are just thin disguises for our insecurity and stupidity:

     Nothing else appears to be in the gallery, save for an attentive guard, in
     an (but of course!) 'ill fitting' uniform that could 'use the services'
     (but of course!) of a dry cleaner.
          (From 'Sea of Tranquillity')

'Sea of Tranquillity' is not so much a critique of the lousy, ponderous 'concept' of displaying a gallery security guard as the 'art' itself as it is a critique of writing, whether that's fiction or non-fiction. Take out the inverted commas and the parenthetical 'but of course!'s and that sentence could come from the pen of any half-assed journalist or indeed, half-assed novelist. The unmistakable tone of smugness: the rookie error of confusing authorial voice with coy pomposity. Probably using the word 'somewhat' a lot. Like all the best satire,
Lunar Follies is as true and elevating as it is depressing.

In 'Fra Mauro', subtitled 'Our Neighbours, the Italians: Myth and Reality', Sorrentino questions the unexamined profundity of photography; the powerlessness of the subject in the face of the photographer's Apollonian detachment. (Did I really just write that?) Naturally, every portrait is as crude a stereotype as possible:

          Joyful Whitey Bromo, who could play fuckin' Hearts for a year and
     never win a hand.
          Genial Beppo, who ate fifteen calzones at the St. Rocco's feast.
          Ferocious Black Sally, who cut some mook's nose off in Sunnyside,
     don't ask.
          Perfidious Jimmy Trey, who took a little of the vig off the top as a
     regular thing, who they found shot fulla holes on Neptune Avenue.       

The catalogue concludes: 'more photographs of these irrepressible and hard-working americans , who have helped to build our great nation, or so they say, on the second floor, rear gallery.' The tone runs from razor-sharp parody to the obscene, the profane, the pornographic, sometimes just for the fun of it. 'Sea of Nectar' begins:

     Fourteen motherfucking beer bottles are fucking haphazardly arranged
     next to an off-white shitty wall on the left. Six fucking more are fucking
     lined up in front of the fucking off-white wall on the right, in the
     foreground, you got it, cuntface?

Quite. The tendency of the installation artist to imagine he or she is brutalising and shocking an imaginary bourgeoisie. Each piece is named after one of the moon's geographical features. And the whole thing is brilliant. The only word I have left ('exuberant', 'bitingly satiric', 'hilarious' and 'playful' have all been taken) is incendiary. I was just going to write 'Incendiary' in 72-point and submit that as my review. Sorrentino's books are difficult to get hold of in this country because we are so lamentably and irredeemably rubbish. The day Sorrentino gets picked up by a British publishing house is the day I nail my tongue to the sun. (Having said that, it would be inaccurate to say that we don't have anyone like Sorrentino; what immediately comes to mind here is David Kennedy's brilliant 'Art Texts' from his recent Salt collection
The Roads; but it's fair to conclude that we don't give them enough attention. And our conceptual artists deserve just as much scorn as the Americans).

The pieces that delineate a museum catalogue of imaginary paintings are among the most satisfying, calling on the reader's powers of visualisation, as in 'Sea of Cold':

     ...Death can't get started. Death in high heels. [...] Death goes to
     the movies. Death is marching on. [...] Death fries eggs.

'Jesus Destroying Pornography' is probably the best one. Elsewhere, the fawning description of a gallery of self-conscious celebrity portraits ('Al Pacino, a quiet balletomane, here shown in a candid photo as 'Mister Hollywood, USA,' a refreshing jape, indeed.') pretty much takes down the whole self-obsessed, self-regarding shitpile:

     ...and in one playful image, we see, if we look closely, Leonard Bernstein
     greeting himself.

The same narrator draws attention to a portrait of Mozart, adding, 'of whom much too little has been written of late' and, if you're like me, you just think
yeah. We read this kind of untruth everyday. They get shoved through our letterboxes, beamed onto our TVs, computers and radios, they fill our magazines and journals. Sorrentino has got to the bottom of that nauseous feeling you get from reading contemporary cultural commentary. Who the hell are these people? This is the late era of the hack 'expert' and we're all drowning in boring, vituperative opinions. And it's difficult to write about because I'm part of the problem. But at least I don't get paid for it. Cripes.

     Fluorescent lights, however, really mess things up rather badly. 'Might
     as well not be here at all with the moons looking like that,' some have
     been overheard to say from the polished floor. And many of them were
     quite respectably dressed, and, it is rumored, know all the best restaurants.
     Wherein, sad to say, the fucking morons always order the
wrong things.

Some people will say that conceptual art is an easy target. The people who say this will probably be conceptual artists and gallery owners. Their inferiority-complexes notwithstanding, the real target, as we've established, is writers. The art scene mostly functions as a structure, aside from when Sorrentino turns his powers on the artists themselves, their sense of entitlement to a life of exploitation and greed with no comeuppance:

     The pictures, so small as to be made out with no little difficulty, are
     madly ambitious, a kind of paen to a strange Teddiean spring, to his
     beloved primavera, and to the sun, the sun of his last isolated studio;
     and of course, to flesh, the flesh of his fellow humans, mostly women,
     that he honored and adored, even as he exploited, brutalized and
     despised it.
          (From 'Gassendi - Banville Teddie: Late Works')

You want to know which is my favourite? You're reading this review, so I can only assume that you do. My favourite is called 'Sea of Rains' and is an
incendiary pastiche or obliteration of the publishing industry. The art installation here described is a wall covered in editor's letters concerning the current manuscript from B, a prospective novelist. It contains such gems as:

     B's new novel is compellingly urgent, but it is not intriguingly powerful
     or astonishingly compelling. Sorry.


     I know how highly regarded B is among literary circles, but I'm afraid
     that his somewhat difficult work is just not right for Shit House at
     the present time.


     As you well know, I lack the brains and finely honed reading skills
     required to publish B's book with the care it deserves, since I am
     currently sort of really fucked up with a monster coke habit.


     It gives me, as you may know, a big hard-on to regularly read
     your better authors, like B, and as regularly reject them.


     I'll have to say no again, I'm sorry to say, to B's terrific new
     book since, as you know, Van Cleef and Arpels no longer publishes 
     anything that resembles

That these are probably variations on genuine rejection letters just makes it all the better. Maybe some of you are wondering, 'Look here, Kennard, this book sounds all very well for the Yanks, but what of us chaps and chapesses on the other side of the 'pond'? Will we appreciate the references? Do we even enjoy a proper sense of irony since Evelyn Waugh died? It's debatable.'

To which I say, well, there are more than a few parallels. In fact British conceptual art is probably even further ensnared in its own large intestine than its US equivalent. And the last piece in the book - an exhibition of photos of American football stars on the field to fund the building of a new stadium - should feel particularly piquant for a country which has conflated its ministers for culture, media, sports and gambling into one corrupt incompetent.

Sorrentino, who died last year, continues to have a major critical and popular following in the States - and thank God for that. It's not really surprising that he hasn't been picked up by a publisher in this country. Maybe Vintage, one of our only remaining major labels with any sense of adventure, might consider an omnibus edition of his early work. In the mean time, support the Coffee House Press. What a great name for a press: I'm going to go and drink some coffee and read a book.

            © Luke Kennard, 2007