And so, gentle readers, I have done it: in spite of pillows and comforter and the need for sleep fighting me every step of the way, I completed Pack of Lies last night. Maybe not since John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake before that) have I felt such satisfaction at coming to the end of a collection of words. But while those predecessors resembled intriguing sacks of lead, this prolix head-trip never felt like a deadweight.
After this post, I’m guessing I’ll leave the trilogy’s mysteries to themselves,* maybe wondering at stray moments
1) what the intention was behind riffing on my beloved Ethan Frome. I don’t exactly enjoy pondering the long and ruined lives of Edith Wharton’s couple maimed for love. Maybe that was precisely Sorrentino’s purpose: a smirking way of calling out much literary tendency to give a glimpse of something terrible and let us think we’ve really understood it or absolved ourselves of the necessity truly to grapple with its implications. I can envision the author enjoying our despair at being confronted with logical, if absurd, extremes– especially when they deal with just how sour the plight of sweethearts can turn, and when they’re tossed in among a whole sweep of frivolous humanity.
2) what the weird demons who drop in on the scene every now and then were meant to do, beyond just being included for the hell of it. An update on Greek tragedy’s divine interventions– or maybe the result of being left without heroic (or any overarching) ideals: the gods become as tawdry as the people they toy with?
3) what Buddy and Dick and their caricatured Hardy Boys-type ramblings were meant to accomplish. Parody, sure– but to what end, inserted into this particular crowd of characters?
4) whether there was any real plan behind the alphabetizing that took place in Misterioso. My baseless speculation is that Sorrentino was just trying to see who’d notice it, and at what point– and maybe, who’d go back to figure out what the non-existent hidden message was within this arrangement. Again: tossing in a wrench just to see how the works respond?
5) finally, whether Sorrentino was as hostile in real life to John Crowe Ransom as his digs at the poet would seem to indicate– and/or whether said poet/his poem “Janet Waking” was a convenient foil for one of the book titles, Sheila Sleeping, that keeps popping up throughout the trilogy. At any rate, Ransom would probably have been disgusted by this cast of characters and their antics– and they probably would have laughed at his.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned John Milbank, bless his angry and exacting heart. While having to soak up his thunderings for a doctoral exam, I became convinced he’d imprisoned a closet-full of grad students, hopeful noses to the grindstone and racing to be the first to find the most obscure fact about orthodoxy, along with all of its imaginable variations. I could envision Sorrentino having his own horde of willing literary servants working on Pack of Lies– but in this case, they, along with their chief, would all be high, and just tossing index cards pertaining to the characters they’d been assigned into a pile. Had this weird party taken place twenty years after the actual book’s publication, I’m sure Milbank himself could have made a delightful appearance in all these goings-on, railing against the post-modern mischief he’d never deign to acknowledge.
* To bypass all my queries, just see my reviewlette on Goodreads and/or LibraryThing, viz., “Not a clue how to rate this. Did I get it? Is there anything to get? I have no idea– but I never felt burdened, and often cheered on Sorrentino’s frequent jabs at a variety of cultural/academic/societal/publishing world/literary practices.”
As previously discussed, I’m enjoying Gilbert Sorrentino’s Pack of Lies, even if the third volume in the trilogy, Misterioso, is starting to feel a bit like overkill. And much as I can get down with some well-wrought experimentation, this round of innovative boundary-busting has left me with the need for some old-fashioned verbal grounding– something with a more solid, identifiable flow. What could be more appropriate than some 19th-century horror to satisfy that craving– meaning, in this instance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula?
Having seen and been unjustifiably scared out of my mind by multiple film versions,(1) I’m sort of amazed it’s taken me this long to read the book, prone as I am to finishing written originals before checking out their adaptations in other media. Part of it may have been due to the fear of wasting time on Romantic(-ish) cheesiness; witness copious amounts of eye-rolling, for example, at The Woman in White. Film adaptations of old tales of the supernatural, especially more contemporary ones, can often eliminate the treacly clichés of gender, honor, true religion, and so forth, found in the texts– and although it’s rare that I enjoy movies more than the books on which they were based, those freak cases usually come from the horror or sci-fi genre.(2)
Maybe it’s because I was expecting so little that I’m enjoying Dracula so much. Oh, sure, Lucy is the exasperating epitome of sweetness and light, and her tenderly spurned gentleman callers harbor suspiciously little resentment towards her chosen beau. But Stoker has arranged the many journal entries and letters that make up the novel in such a way that it really does resemble a well-ordered case study, so that the reader can almost believe the format involves no pretense. Along with the story, in other words, I’m enjoying how Stoker is telling it, seeing how he’s orchestrating and organizing what might initially have been a simple idea, so that an originally generic thought about a folk monster was transformed into a tale of many working parts. Admittedly, it’s no hyper-Dickensian world akin to that of Infinite Jest,(3) but there’s something to be said for a quality easy read.
Carl Jung was noted for talking about synchronicity, or meaningful coincidences. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate my calling him into service for the following, but the display I came across on my way home seemed to be a perfect encapsulation of my reading Sorrentino and Stoker at the same time. I’ll end, then, by using one of the good Romantics to caption the picture I took, even though he would also probably be offended. “Look on my Works, [then,] ye Mighty, and despair!”(4)
(1) At this point, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 production is hands-down the most terrifying of all– and that despite my easy ability to laugh at what a friend called the castle-bound vampire’s “butt hair,” as seen in the film still below.
(2) For instance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris blows Stanislaw Lem’s book out of the water. And whichever low-budget adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw I saw as a teenager was so delightfully creepy, I’ve been afraid to spoil that memory by reading the story itself– a probably erroneous move I think I’ll soon correct.
(3) (Best book ever– among other reasons, because how in the world did David Foster Wallace not only come up with, but also keep straight, so many brilliant, complex, enormously textured lives and entanglements?!!?)
(4) That’s from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
I suppose I should be more circumspect than I am about my own ignorance. For instance, it probably doesn’t sound all that sophisticated to admit that I snatched a lovely copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s trilogy, Pack of Lies, off the remainder shelf only because 1) I was aware Sorrentino was a Big, Important Name; and 2) the book is put out by Dalkey Archive, which must mean I’m supposed to be reading it for my own enculturation and cocktail-party bragging rights. I will also freely admit to the fact that, two-thirds of the way in, I often have no idea whether I’m missing something significant, whether my instinctual joy in this carefully designed mess is legitimate, or whether Sorrentino has pulled one over on a lot of literati eager to expound upon all the hues and shades of brilliance in his experiment.
There’s also probably some sense in refraining, at least before the more methodological among us, from admitting that my enjoyment of this tome is mostly grounded in sheer good feeling. Of course, that doesn’t exclude admiration of Sorrentino’s deadpan analyses of certain clichéd literary practices. I wish I could cite the entire section from which the following comes; instead, I’ll taunt you with an exemplary snippet:
Blow, an interesting, depressed person with an awareness of life in our time… packs up his personal, annotated copies of [some non-existent titles], and leaves to save a civilization worth saving from the barbaric hordes. Many of his poems are about the headstrong virility of youth and the slow, dark wisdom of age.
For a change.*
Sorrentino also manages to maintain superb variations on weird image-threads throughout the book. Right when you think you’ve forgotten, say, about lighthouses being brought in as mood descriptors, up pops a new inflection of that theme, as in “Buddy’s smile beamed like a demented lighthouse.”** If you don’t approve of the notion of inanimate objects expressing emotion, you might not share in my love of what the author’s doing here. I’ve never seen a demented lighthouse– but I get it, I totally, lovingly get it.
Then again, I’ll make a final admission about my amateurish approach to Pack of Lies: plowing through at least a couple hundred of its complex pages while flitting through eight time zones in an austere economy seat probably contributed nothing to understanding this thing “correctly.” Diving into a work that should be confronted with all one’s mental acuity, there I was grooving on this stuff through the lens of sleep deprivation and a week’s worth of inept stuttering in a language not my own. But in the end, if anything, whether the work itself or the way you read it, can make you forget about your numb derrière and the oaf in front of you who’s reclined his seat into your face– well, whatever’s going on, I’ll call that a win.
* Gilbert Sorrentino, Pack of Lies (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997), 306.
** ibid., 387.