Face to Face with CHRISTOPHER SORRENTINO
Highlights from Issue 31: Ode to the South
Photograph by IAN ALLEN
Friday, June 01, 2007
By Alex Abramovich
Christopher Sorrentino specializes in distilling the mess of American history down to tightly coiled, poetically charged moments. His first novel, Sound on Sound, takes place on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. His second, Trance, is a fictional reconstruction of the Patty Hearst kidnapping — it was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award. Son of the late novelist and poet Gilbert Sorrentino, Chris grew up in New York City and studied at Hunter College before dropping out to write full time. I caught up with Sorrentino on the eve of his 44th birthday, to talk about the decline of the American neighborhood, Madame Bovary and Costco.
Alex Abramovich: Trance is one of three novels, published at more or less the same time, by people around our age, revolving around Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. I suppose these confluences happen every day at Disneyland, but it’s strange to see three serious writers drawn to the same story, simultaneously, for what seem to be organic reasons. What drew you in?
Christopher Sorrentino: The Disneyland aspect of it all: It is a Disneyland of a story. The whole thing was like an epic piece of pop art gone wrong, or political theater via Hanna-Barbera. I remember it vividly, but in a cartoonish way, like those rapidly rotating newspaper headlines that dolly toward the camera in old movies. That was certainly the initial pull — this adult memory of a child’s perception of a big news story. What’s funny is that when I began reading up on the story, I realized this was everyone’s perception — at the time it was a story with broad outlines and few details. Even more than 30 years later you have an enormously prominent episode and most of the details are still obscure. There’s speculation, there’s conspiracy theory, there’s spin — you have one participant competing against another to pass the buck or take the credit. The novel began to form itself out of this tremendous void in the known record.
AA: It was a novel, in part, about where we “the people” began to go wrong — to split and schism. Your father wrote quite a bit about communities — the Brooklyn neighborhood he grew up in, the literary and art scenes of the Fifties. But provincial as those worlds might have been, it’s hard not to look back on them nostalgically. These days, people don’t seem to live in Brooklyn so much as live on top of it. They’re just skimming the surface of place.
CS: Community is tied to class sensibility and milieu. “Place” is more of a theme park — the bars and restaurants and boutiques and specialty stores that have clustered in my neighborhood to appeal specifically to the sensibilities of hipster-yuppie-artist types like myself are the same as their counterpart bars and restaurants and boutiques in another city.
It’s all very mobile and portable, and I’ll probably win some kind of Tired Thinking award if I mention that members of contemporary society — or that hipster-yuppie-artist class, anyway — are restless, mobile, adaptive and tend to form wide-ranging networks that are maintained remotely, rather than through daily personal contact. I’m probably going to have more in common with the middle-class writer who went to one Ivy League school and is now teaching at another (which, come to think of it, describes at least four of my friends and acquaintances) than with one of the third-generation Italians who live in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where I’ve been for 11 years. Which is funny, because for them the idea of place is the same as it always was. The true life of my neighborhood, Carroll Gardens, its controlling ethos, resides with the Italians. There are people here in their 50s and 60s who I’d be willing to bet haven’t been to Manhattan in years, even though it’s 15 minutes away. They’re not unsophisticated or ignorant, but they’re truly what Herbert Gans referred to as “urban villagers” — their families are here, their work is here, their friends are here — there’s nothing outside the neighborhood that they require. It’s a deeply working-class attitude — mostly incomprehensible to people who think little of hopping on a plane and flying to Europe for a week, to say nothing of packing up and moving to another city just to give it a try.
AA: Fair enough, but the hipster-yuppie-artist class you describe seems weirdly unmoored — oblivious to what you eloquently describe as “the true life” of their neighborhoods. No wonder the site of a Starbucks, or Costco, makes them feel at home.
CS: Costco becomes our common subject. I’m encountering more contemporary books that draw on mediated experiences we all have in common — what we see on TV or hear on the radio, or that familiarity we feel inside a chain store or restaurant. This isn’t particularly new — Madame Bovary tragically tried to pattern life on the romantic novels she was addicted to. The problem is to see beyond simple collage, and especially to see beyond parody and ham-fisted satire. This is the backdrop of our lives, and simply to make fun of it doesn’t cut it. Parroting degraded language — ad copy or what have you — is fun, but it takes an artist to see the poetry in there. Manuel Puig was a genius at it. DeLillo does it all the time. So do Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders and Curtis White.
AA: Doesn’t this have the effect of turning fiction into a parasitic form, forever dependent on whatever linguistic depravities Madison Avenue trots out? I’m reminded of something another writer I like, J.M. Coetzee, wrote in his novel Disgrace: “Stretches of English code whole sentences long have thickened, lost their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness. Like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened.” Have you found this to be the case?
CS: In the hands of less supple writers, sure. You come across that crap every day. But Madison Avenue, though it employs its share of dimwits, also has geniuses on its payroll. In their abbreviated, adumbrated way, copywriters actually reach out to people in the way they speak. I would argue that writers have an even more urgent duty to meet language at its source. This is the fight the Imagists fought 100 years ago. The language that truly suffers from rigor mortis is the self-consciously “literary” language, the language crammed into some kind of straitjacket, the language that has no regard for matching an adjective with a noun or for similes in which the objects being compared are even remotely alike.
AA: What do you look for from contemporary writers?
CS: I like to read writers who give you a sense they’ll follow a good sentence anywhere it leads, even if it means dismantling some careful bit of plotting. Plotting is for technicians. Writing is for writers. Writing that’s useful to me, as opposed to being merely entertaining or informative or sexually arousing or whatever it is, is usually work that has a very capacious sense of what fiction is or can be.