The slim novel Aberration of Starlight by Gilbert Sorrentino traces the events one summer in 1939 through the perspectives of four different characters. The title is taken from an astrological phenomenon involving the movement of both the observer and the subject under observation. Right from the start, Sorrentino will upend the reader’s expectations. The four characters lives become revealed through various narrative techniques. These include letters, question-and-answer, and stream of consciousness.
The four main characters are Billy Recco, the son of Marie Recco. He idolizes Tom Thebus, a salesman wooing Marie, much to the chagrin of Marie’s father, John McGrath. Each character possesses a fault or a failure.
Billy suffers ridicule from classmates for being cross-eyed. Marie wants to rebuild her life following her divorce. She wants to give Billy a better life and not be dependent on her father. Unfortunately, Marie’s simple emotional and physical desires snarl themselves on her tainted status (a divorcee) and her religious obligations (to behave as a “good Catholic”). Her desires result in a messy assignation with Tom Thebus and her self-loathing projected in a variety of ethnic slurs. Instead of making Marie a sympathetic character, Sorrentino undercuts the reader’s empathy by having Marie spout hateful things against her ex-husband “the dago” and his “shanty Irish” mistress.
Tom Thebus represents an idealized version of a father to Billy, but Tom can’t stand Billy. Tom is a serial philanderer and sees Billy as a means to Marie, yet another conquest. John McGrath wants what is best for his daughter and has serious reservations about Tom’s courtship with Marie. Complicating matters, John is a widower and he remembers his departed wife as a castrating shrew. John was raised an Irish Episcopalian and his relatives thought marrying a Catholic was “below him.” On top of all this, John resents his wife for advising him against signing on to a business partnership.
The interrelations of these characters filter through a variety of postmodern narrative techniques. The novel begins with Billy Recco, focusing on a photograph. He imagines the life of his mother and Tom Thebus as a radio play, the exaggerated happiness and prosperity creating a broad comical stereotype of Depression-era dreams. Each section has a question-and-answer section. At a superficial level, it offers a clinical perspective on the events that unfold. In reality, it plays like a straight man in a vaudeville routine. The anemic questions elicit humorous answers. Letters from each character contrast with the question-and-answer, adding another layer of subjectivity. The final narration in each section is stream of consciousness, pulling the reader fully into the thoughts of the character.
Aberration of Starlight succeeds in two seemingly contradictory ways. It explores the lives of the characters on both archaeological and accumulative levels. Each technique peels back successive layers of the character’s psyche. At the same time, the reader accumulates the various interconnections of the characters after each section. In the first section, Billy sees his mother and Tom and his grandfather John in the broadest terms. By the time the reader reaches the last section, John McGrath’s thoughts and dreams reflect the accumulated details accrued from the other three characters. The novel succeeds because the postmodern narrative techniques actually enhance the reading experience, enriching the reader’s knowledge of the events that occurred that summer in 1939. The postmodernism on display here is not the stereotypical cleverer-than-thou trickery but an emotionally wrenching meditation on family, desire, and truth. And the malleability of all three during the darkest days of the Great Depression.