The Abyss of Human Illusion is a novel only in the postmodern sense, consisting as it does of fifty short narratives. Though the prose in terms of style and diction is traditional, the form challenges literary standards; the fifty pieces progress in size from approximately 130 to 1300 words over the course of the novel, as if the author had planted some verbal seed early on that germinates and sprouts with each successive page. The composition and editorial process is also non-traditional, as Gilbert Sorrentino passed away before fully finishing the novel and his son, Christopher Sorrentino, finished the work for him. Christopher’s preface illuminates not only this particular novel, but his father’s writing process in general, serving as a fitting tribute to a notable career.
Sorrentino’s writing is marked by exquisite, and exquisitely unexpected, turns of phrase, such as when he describes mortar rounds tracking an army squad “across a valley floor with relentless, elegant, fussy precision.” His descriptions seem so right and so off-putting at the same instant. Similarly, his premises in some of the pieces are stunning for their ability to appear both familiar and impossible. For instance, the friend who says “that when he opened the paper each morning he would do so in the absurd yet overwhelming hope – perhaps even belief – that he’d come across a story in which he would figure as somebody, as anybody at all, as a name in the newspaper. He wanted, he said, to read some surprising news about himself.” At its best, Sorrentino’s prose weds the real with the fantastic, holding up some obscure facet of humanity to the light.
Little holds the fifty narratives together except the title. Each piece probes a different human illusion: the author who has lost the ability to write, the painter who believes his talent is exceptional, the newly-weds who think their love is forever. Sorrentino enters the world of the “Evangelical Christian, complete with closed eyes, raised arms, enraptured visage and a well-burnished hatred of Satan….who coveted his friend’s wife.” These characters embody dichotomies, the uncomfortable edges that allow for no relief, so that ultimately, the best they can realize is “it’s going to be a nice day, but not a portent of days to come.”
But life looked at through Sorrentino’s lens is not as bleak as the preceding quote might suggest. He finds a way to look with candor, if not humor, at some of the foibles and illusions that humans hold dear. His volume is most successful on this score when he adopts an almost conspiratorial tone, of the reader as trusted confidant. For instance, he begins one narrative with, “more stories than we care to acknowledge are poignant yet wholly banal and perhaps those that we insist on as poignant are not that at all, but are, rather, bathetic, sentimental, saccharine, or, even more dreadful, creakingly ‘worldly.’ Perhaps this one fits the mold, if it can be called a story.” Sorrentino’s habit of breaking the story’s fourth wall, as it were, draws the reader into pieces that would otherwise be disarming or even alarming.
However, I found the most effective and compelling section of this volume – and here I must admit my bias towards the obscure, towards the footnotes of life – to be the “Commentaries” section included at the very end. Here, certain turns of phrase are illuminated. For instance, a bottle of French dressing that appears in one of the narratives is given its own gloss: “no one has ever discovered why this dressing, with its odd tang of sugary vinegar, was and is called ‘French.’” Other comments are simply quirky, filling in that the peanut butter a character eats in one scene is “the A&P’s own brand.” Throughout these little notes, I kept laughing aloud, delighted by what Sorrentino had selected to expose and expand. The final section is a quick glimpse into the profound world behind each of the very brief narratives.
Those looking for a typical novel experience with sequence, plot, and character would do better to find another volume. But for any reader who likes to explore form, who is willing to forge connections and can handle fragmentation, Sorrentino’s final work will offer delightful possibilities, exposing both the darker and the lighter sides of the human capacity for illusion.