A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.
Pack of Lies: a Trilogy
By Gilbert Sorrentino
Dalkey Archive (1997)*
Review by Karl Wolff
*Odd Number (1985)
Rose Theater (1987)
Gilbert Sorrentino (1929 — 2006) is the undisputed grandmaster of the American postmodern comic novel. I discovered Sorrentino when I read Mulligan Stew, a rollicking epic free-for-all pitting a pretentious failed writer against his rebellious characters. Along with Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, Sorrentino also writes large-scale encyclopedic Rabelaisian comedies. Reading Mulligan Stew (1979) was a formative event in my life, along with reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977). I cite the dates, because Coover, Pynchon, and Sorrentino flourished in the paranoid Seventies, creating their comic visions atop the charred remains of Flower Power and the New Left. Sorrentino, Coover, and Pynchon also seemed like a natural progression after a childhood raised on Mad Magazine. Parody, when done well, can be the highest form of art. Working hand in hand with satire, it can be a weapon to use against the assembled idiots, tinpot wannabe dictators, and bigoted scum who share the planet with other more enlightened and tolerant members of humanity. (If it weren’t 2017, I’d have said that previous sentence was rather harsh. What me, worry?)
To cite Brian Berger writing Sorrentino’s profile as Hilo Hero:
“If Sorrentino rarely had the number of readers he deserved, it’s fortunate his most difficult work — three novels (1985-1989) now collected as Pack of Lies — found their brilliant expositor in University of Texas philosophy professor, Louis Mackey. Still, its there for all to discover: “Coarse sexuality. Data and cynical commentary. Nervous and demotic language. Jokes!””
I chose to end my American Odd essay series by looking at Pack of Lies. Little did I know how challenging it would be, even for someone who has read several other works by Sorrentino. Simply put, Pack of Lies is a postmodern metafictional labyrinth. Self-referential, bawdy, cynical, satirical, and parodic, it is a merciless take-down of artistic and literary pretensions swirling about in the Sixties and Seventies. The cocktail party set gets a serious drubbing from Sorrentino’s poison pen. Besides using characters from previous novels, he also has a parody of Barney Rosset, the philandering honcho of Grove Press. (Sorrentino used to work at Grove Press as an editor.) Write what you know, kids!
For Sorrentino newbies, I would suggest beginning with Mulligan Stew or Aberration of Starlight. Both are more accessible and Mulligan Stew is a laugh riot. To be perfectly blunt, Pack of Lies was a slog to read. Unlike his other work, Sorrentino’s trilogy of novels works hard to alienate and confuse the reader.
For most novels, even formally experimental works as challenging and complex as Gravity’s Rainbow, one can explain what a novel is about. Pack of Lies is actually a trilogy of three novels. Each novel has its own set of rules. In philosophy an important question is, “What is truth?” With Sorrentino’s postmodern fictions, the truth is harder to nail down. With its wonky structure and its acid satire, Pack of Lies could be seen as the redheaded stepchild of Samuel Beckett’s famous Three Novels.
Here is my best attempt to summarize the three novels making up Pack of Lies:
Odd Number is a series of interrogations. We never find out the identity of the interrogator. We encounter characters from previous Sorrentino novels. The was a wild party and the interrogations eventually lead up to the revelation of a woman killed in a car accident. Along the way we meet a thinly veiled portrayal of Barney Rosset, owner of Grove Press, where Sorrentino used to work as an editor. There is also talk about a novel about a film about a party where people talk about a novel, etc. It gets really meta really fast. But it is also laugh-out-loud funny in parts, especially those pointing out the foibles and pretensions of the highbrow literary set. Other things like real estate fraud, softcore pornographic films, and suicide get thrown into the mix. The novel eventually ends on a verbal feedback loop.
Rose Theater reads like fragments from a failed “literary novel.” It continues the misadventures of the characters from Odd Number, adding biographies and other detritus.
Misterioso concludes the trilogy in a roughly alphabetic manner. We encounter characters, places, books, and other items as we proceed through the alphabet. One of the main challenges in experimental literature is how to read it. Once I abandoned any pretense of following characters or plot, the novel clicked together like a well-oiled machine. It operated less like a traditional three-act plot-driven novel and more like flipping through TV channels. Characters and situations repeated themselves, a rudimentary plot accumulating over time. But it wasn’t about linear progression written in free indirect style. What we encounter are parodies, lists, corrections, incantations, dating, murder, sex, demons, John Crowe Ransom, a copy of Absalom! Absalom! in an A & P, and a suburban vegetarian couple. It is less a novel than an acidic commentary on modern society and the frauds and phonies populating the literary world.
Here’s an entry on Antony Lamont, the tortured writer from Mulligan Stew, reappearing in Misterioso:
“Surrounded by the three or four thousand intractable typescript pages of the novel on which he has been sporadically working for some sixteen years, Antony Lamont surrenders, finally, to the suspicion, long held in abeyance, that he has no idea what he is doing. For instance, he doesn’t remember what his novel is “about” – is it “about” anything at all? He picks up a handful of sheets and riffles through them, stopping now and again to stare at a totally unfamiliar name. God! He doesn’t even remember the names of his characters!”
This passage is really funny, but it also hits really close to home. Being a writer paints a big target on your back. In addition, the line between Next Big Thing in the literary world and Hack Fraud can get blurry at times. Add publicity, the pressure to “make it,” and the demands of a ravenous fan base, and it can be quite easy to fly up one’s own ass. The aspiring author can wander around with a complete lack of self-awareness and a fanatical conviction of their own genius. (See: Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, etc.). Sorrentino takes a sharpened needle to the hubris of authorial pretentiousness. Did I mention that I wrote two previous books of essays? You should totally buy them!
With its constant shifting perspective and verbal pyrotechnics, it becomes increasingly difficult to nail down the truth of the matter. Characters change names or have names very similar to other characters (for example: Sol Blanc and Saul Blanche). It becomes obvious that we are reading a series of fabrications by an author. Fiction is artifice and Pack of Lies shines a bright light upon the craft of writing fiction. Novels in a technical sense – as in where to place them in the bookstore – Pack of Lies is an extended riff on the art of fiction at the point of total disintegration. Plot, characters, and setting have been totally abandoned, reconfigured into anonymous interrogations, strange narrative fragments, and alphabetical lists.
“I thought I made that clear, I’m sorry. It’s all in the dim past, as Doctor Plot might write, as a matter of fact, he probably has, a few hundred times.” – from Odd Number