“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
By Gilbert Sorrentino
Dalkey Archive

Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971) is, first and foremost, an excoriating satire of New York’s Greenwich Village art scene in the 1950s. Sorrentino was a New York writer, poet and editor, who died in 2006. Although he published more than 30 books, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (which is named after a line in William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell) is both one of Sorrentino’s best works and a great introduction to his particular style. The novel is composed of eight overlapping vignettes, each focusing on a particular artist or writer (Sheila Henry, Lou Henry, Guy Lewis, Bunny Lewis, Leo Kaufman, Anton Harley, Bart Kahane, and Dick Detective, respectively). It contains no overarching narrative thread, although there are points in which characters and events overlap and bump into each other, and even relatively few thematic connections between the various section except that the characters—each in their own particular way—are all failed and fraudulent artists.
Much of the pleasure in reading the book derives from Sorrentino’s scathing wit, which relentlessly lampoons the various sham-artists in the book. Consider Sorrentino’s description of a book of bad poetry:
'I know this book and it has those poems in it, all about Being Alive In The Fresh Air And Living With Your Woman And Eating Good Food And Smoking Pot And Watching Your Woman Getting Dinner Ready The Way Her Simple Skirt Molds Itself To Her Full Hips Outside The Voices Of The Children As The Evening Comes Down On The Mountains [Screw] You America You Can’t Change This.'
Sorrentino’s point is partially to portray these self-indulgent artists who are more attached to their ‘bohemian’ lifestyle choices than trying to make good art. As he himself puts it ‘Rotten poets who think of furthering their careers come to think of themselves as: (1) ahead of their time; (2) important minor figures; (3) part and parcel of the “exciting” art world.’ But these bohemian lifestyles come with complications, too, and much of the novel catalogues the failed relationships that result from the attempt to live like ‘real’ artists (indeed, much of the book goes into great detail about the various characters’ sex lives—this is not a book for anyone who will be shocked by explicit detail).
But Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is also a sort of aesthetic manifesto, in which Sorrentino argues above all for the importance of the imagination and the right of works of fiction to absolve themselves of any obligation whatsoever to reflect or portray the world as it exists:
'Never trust a poet, or anyone else in the arts, for that matter, who says ‘Well, to be alive, to be in life, is more important than any poem.’ When they say this they are first of all insulting you, since they assume that they have discovered some profound idea, and secondly, they are apologizing—in an aggressive way—for the mediocrity of their productions.'
Thankfully, however, Imaginative Qualities is also a book that refuses to take itself too seriously. Sorrentino constantly comments on the main text of the work through footnotes that further satirise Sorrentino’s own satire. Ultimately, this is a hysterically funny book, and its caustic portrayal of the pretentions and self-aggrandisement of artists in urban ‘scenes’ is as dead-on today as it was 40 years ago. This book isn’t particularly well known, except to those who already have an interest in ‘experimental’ fiction, but it’s humour would ultimately appeal to a much broader readership. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is, in every sense, a lost classic.

This review originally aired on Triple R's Breakfasters program. N.B. You are unlikely to find this book in Australian book shops, but you can buy it directly from the publisher here.

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