Shooting the Moon

New books from Gilbert and Christopher Sorrentino satirize radical art and just plain radicals

No one gets off the hook in Gilbert Sorrentino's writing—least of all writers. In between noirish fantasies, Algerian coming-of-age caricatures, and a sturdy index of poetry, the prolific Brooklyn author has made a regular habit of taking his own kind to task. But Sorrentino's satires tend to come in such artfully self-aware, Nabokovian packages that they both pry open the capabilities of the medium and let him go scot-free.

Sorrentino's lauded 1979 novel Mulligan Stew, for one, opens with its own rejection letters, then sets about proving their merit in a narrative so flat its characters plot their escapes. His 2004 story collection The Moon in Its Flightcompulsively reports on its own literary tricks. Sorrentino's latest, Lunar Follies, is yet another wily variation on the weaving of narrative betwixt itself: a slim collection of fictional art reviews of nonexistent art installations, each inexplicably named after a feature of the moon.

The dependable banality of Follies' post-everything exhibits is outdone only by their hilariously overwrought write-ups, which struggle to tease meaning out of such displays as "a number of large television sets—seven, to be precise—show[ing], continuously, the same film." No reference is too tenuous for these tortured riffs, which fondly recall the little-remembered field of "Exoconceptualism" and see Mallarmé in a pile of bricks.

Gilbert and Christopher Sorrentino: Everyday objets and the SLA
photo: Vivian Ortiz (left); Greg Martin
Gilbert and Christopher Sorrentino: Everyday objets and the SLA

As with his other meta-works, Sorrentino's skewer of all things postmodern is of course a grandly postmodern piece itself. What prevents Lunar Follies from falling into the tedium that is its own text is Sorrentino's deft sense of the critic's voice—someone likely to announce, "And here at last is Sir Banjo Hyde-Morrissey's private collection of erotica." Grandiose and arch, his critic figure is strangely noble in all his—or her—dumb generosity, and the book has its de facto hero. A hero, albeit, who says of that Mallarméan mortar, "The occasional fly that settles on the bricks serves to recall their primary significatory duties, as if these everyday objets are, indeed, no more than horseshit."

The puffing up of the banal also concerns Sorrentino's son Christopher's second novel, Trance, a hefty—slightly too hefty—period piece thick with its own sort of social commentary. In May 1974, teenage newspaper heiress Alice Galton gets kidnapped by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, a group fond of pipe bombs and the clink of tear gas canisters. As if that weren't good enough TV, a recent bank robbery saw the dewy trustafarian go native, renaming herself Tania and appearing at the helm of a semiautomatic. It's the event of the spring, and the television event of the decade.

We never got a good answer to why Patty Hearst did it, and Trance's premise—a devious one, it will turn out—is to shed light by telling the story of Tania and her comrades. The novel tracks the group from safe house to safe house as they plot bombings, skirt the pigs, and squabble over errands.

It's the squabbling over errands that matters. Early in the novel, as the group runs through a series of carjackings, they find themselves repeatedly running up against comically trivial stumbling blocks. Heisting a Chevy Nova headed to a landscaping job, pouty leader General Teko mumbles, "You can, ah . . . keep the lawn mower." Later, his compatriot Yolanda needs a hacksaw to cut off Teko's dangling handcuffs but is stymied by leering, misogynistic hardware store owners. Even more than DeLillo's Libra (about Lee Harvey Oswald) and Doctorow's The Book of Daniel(on the Rosenbergs), Tranceworks to strip the "event" of its historical cover, to not only humanize it but reduce it to the mundane and everyday.

These quotidian logjams greatly aggravate Teko's brigade, whose revolutionary image needs the mythic plane. (The group ends its "actions" by parading Tania's famous face in front of gaping victims, as if to announce that they have just experienced something larger-than-life.) And it's Tania, most of all, who needs the epic framework to mask the creeping reality of her own crimes. Witness her TV preferences, described la DeLillo: "Tania likes to adjust the color, the tint and the hue. She likes a bright, vivid picture, with unreal shades." But Teko keeps shoplifting sweat socks, and it's becoming harder to see that as damn-The-Man defiance and not adolescent kleptomania.

Trance is powered by this obsessive desire to personalize the symbolic—to scrub off the patina of history by depicting the SLA in terms of Kraft cheese and cuckoldry. And so its response to the Tania/Patty question is to deflate it entirely, ignoring the media query—"why"—and giving the banal answer of "what," merely animating Tania as a teenage girl. When a carjack victim asks Tania her rationale for joining the group, she muses, Valley Girl–style, "it seemed like my dad wasn't trying real hard to get me back . . . I mean, he's cheaping out in this kind of totally obvious way." Elsewhere, her thought bubbles suggest a yen for another group member. We're left, duly chastened, pondering the inane: Could this whole charade have stemmed from teen angst, resentment of parents . . . and a crush? If Tania holds some grander reason, Sorrentino isn't telling. Refusing to transcend the utterly common, Trance doggedly dismantles the pedestal of celebrity and myth.

 
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