In Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Gilbert Sorrentino writes “The world is what you want it to be . . . This is necessity in a revolutionary, but disaster in an artist.” Sorrentino is saying that a revolutionary must be blindly idealistic, but an artist’s work requires a grounded pragmatism. This is a very important remark because it baldly states one of the fundamental rationales that Sorrentino’s book is based upon: the falsity of the illusion that a writer has control over what she writes.
It quickly becomes clear to anyone who reads Imaginative Qualities that Sorrentino has no illusions of presiding over his book as a God-like entity. Probably the most forceful way this fact is related to the reader is in the numerous times that Sorrentino repeatedly expresses ignorance as to the details of his characters’ private lives. He literally says he doesn’t know what his characters are doing and sometimes even gasps in exasperation while trying to understand his characters’ irrational actions. The following is typical of the way Sorrentino approaches his characters: “Whatever it was it has happened behind my back, that is, these characters rush about these letters and syllables doing, apparently, as they like. Retreating further and further into the pages, so that my book has become a street guide to some destroyed city.”
The interesting this about this is that Sorrentino clearly presents himself in the guise of the author, not as a character in the story. For instance, he freely annotates his story with footnotes, often referencing a world beyond the book. He uses a third-person point of view, jumping from character to character at will, and when he uses “I” it is never in the sense of one of the characters described within the book but of a narrator above it. At several points Sorrentino even unambiguously remarks that the people he writes about are fictional characters within his book.
But even though Sorrentino presents himself as the creator of his book, he is a decidedly impotent one who is hemmed in by his text and unable to move with an unconstrained hand. Certainly Sorrentino feels it is his right to invent what he can, but the fact remains that his choice is limited. “I don’t know who my characters are. It’s their identity that proffers such difficulties. . . . It must be obvious by now that I’m having a great deal of trouble making things up about [my characters]. (I feel as if I’ve been looking out the window at Stuyvesant Tower for fifty years.)”
It seems that Sorrentino is not at a loss for things to say, but at a loss for the right things to say. In other words, he recognizes that much of what he writes about his characters is imperfect. His text is rigged together out of available parts. It is a tug-of-war between what Sorrentino wants to write and what he is able to write; writing from a disempowered position, it is the best that he can do. “Prose is endless . . . It is the texture I love. Imagine Lou going on and on, the writing of an entire life, thousands of pages, his every day recorded. Useless. You want to do it though. Art is selection. Which doesn’t mean that the writer is content with what he selects.”
In emphasizing his powerlessness, Sorrentino is very clearly stating a fact about stories–they evolve. Stories are not transcribed onto paper from some vision in the author’s head. They are added onto bit by bit, and as new discoveries are made the story is edited again and again. What started out as a random attribute casually attached to a character is suddenly discovered to have great thematic potential, and so the author edits the story to incorporate this discovery. To a certain extent, the author is guided by chance. Good authors are adept at spotting the valuable chance encounters and incorporating them seamlessly into the text.
Sorrentino may believe that somewhere there exists a pristine vision of what each of his characters is, but he knows that what he puts onto the page will be imperfect, a “street guide to some destroyed city.” The facts sketched out in the book do not match up with the messy realities of the characters; they are approximations. Rather than fight this fact, he embraces it. He willfully makes his characters 2-dimensional cardboard cutouts, and, freed from the burdens of characterization, recruits his characters to demonstrate larger themes.
For instance, at one point Sorrentino chooses, randomly, to make Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita one of the characters in Imaginative Qualities. Essentially, Sorrentino is saying that, in terms of the author’s ability to control her text, picking a character at random is the same as inventing one. Both rely on factors outside the author’s control and in both cases the author must work with what is given to her. The author gets to be the one to select what goes into the final text, but her options are limited, and are sometimes less than satisfactory.
In Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Sorrentino is completely upfront about these facts. His tone is dry and his attitude is dismayed by all the pretentious authors who go around acting as though they tap genius as a bartender taps a keg. He knows that writing is fueled by compromise, that books are rigged together out of what the world presents to the author. The question remains, however, if this is all an act. There is no doubt that the best-drawn, most lifelike character in Imaginative Qualities is Sorrentino himself. The book is either a distillation of Sorrentino’s beliefs on writing and art into a virtuoso performance, or a near-perfect character study of a crabby writer with deeply-felt thoughts on literature. In the end, of course, the distinction is immaterial.
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