The Abyss of Human Illusion

The Abyss of Human Illusion


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“To the novel—everyone’s novel—Sorrentino brings honor, tradition, and relentless passion.”—Don DeLillo

“Sorrentino [is] a writer like no other. He’s learned, companionable, ribald, brave, mathematical, at once virtuosic and somehow without ego. Sorrentino’s books break free of the routine that inevitably accompanies traditional narrative and through a passionate renunciation shine with an unforgiving, yet cleansing, light.”—Jeffrey Eugenides

“For a compelling, hilarious, and ultimately compassionate rendering of life in mid-20th-century America, forget the conscientious subjectors and take Gilbert Sorrentino at his golden Word.”—Harry Mathews

“One of [Brooklyn]’s most intriguing and authentic homegrown talents, Sorrentino’s Bay Ridge deserves to be appreciated alongside Malamud’s Crown Heights, Arthur Miller’s Coney Island, Henry Miller’s and Betty Smith’s Williamsburg, Hamill’s and Auster’s Park Slope, and Lethem’s Boerum Hill.”— Bookforum

Titled after a line from Henry James, Gilbert Sorrentino’s final novel consists of fifty narrative set pieces full of savage humor and cathartic passion—an elegiac paean to the bleak world he so brilliantly captured in his long and storied career. Mirroring the inexplicable coincidences, encounters, and hallmarks of modern life, this novel revisits familiar characters—the aging artists, miserable couples, crackerjack salesmen, and drunken soldiers of previous books, placing them in familiar landscapes lost in time between the Depression era and some fraudulent bohemia of the present


A luminary of American literature, Gilbert Sorrentino was a boyhood friend of Hubert Selby, Jr., a confidant of William Carlos Williams, a two-time PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, and the recipient of a Lannan Literary Lifetime Achievement Award. He taught at Stanford for many years before returning to his native Brooklyn and published over thirty books before his death in 2006.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566892339
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 02/01/2010
Pages: 151
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

A luminary of American literature, Gilbert Sorrentino was a boyhood friend of Hubert Selby, Jr., a confidant of William Carlos Williams, a two-time PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, and the recipient of a Lannan Literary Lifetime Achievement Award. He taught at Stanford for many years before returning to his native Brooklyn and published over thirty books before his death in 2006. The son of Gilbert Sorrentino, Christopher Sorrentino is a novelist and short story writer whose fictional account of the Patty Hearst saga, Trance, was a finalist for the National Book Award. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt


— I —

Mundane things, pitiful in their mundane assertiveness, their sad isolation. Kraft French dressing, glowing weirdly orange through its glass bottle, a green glass bowl of green salad, a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, its paper wrapper still on. All are in repose, in their absolute thingness, under the overhead alarming bright light of the kitchen. They may or they should, they must, really, reveal the meaning of this silent room, this silent house, save that they won't. There is no meaning. These things will evoke nothing.

In years to come, almost three-quarters of a century, they still evoke nothing. Orange, green, incandescent glare. Silence and loss. Nothing. There might be a boy of four at the table. He is sitting very straight and is possibly waiting for someone.

— II —

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?," the Shadow asks, and answers himself, "The Shadow knows." The Shadow knows everything. "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay." The soft and eerie voice states these opinions as fact. As truth. As the law. Then the Shadow begins to laugh, a terrible, monstrous, haunting laugh, and then steps softly out of the Philco floor-model radio, amazingly and terrifyingly out of the little orangeglowing arc of the dial.

He stands in his black cloak and black slouch hat, his face covered save for his vengeful, burning, hellish-black eyes. The boy turns pale and his heart stops beating for a moment. "The Shadow knows," the phantom says, and begins, again, mercilessly, his unearthly laughter, laughter that his dead grandmother would laugh, were she able.

— III —

He had blundered through his life. He often thought of all the people he had known: those he had touched briefly, those he had loved or hated, those whose names or faces he clearly remembered, their voices. He considered how these people had not managed to ease or simplify his life, his way through life, perhaps, was the more accurate phrase, save for a moment here or there. But what had he expected, what had he wanted? It was, he knew, certain, that had he not known, in any way, all the people he had known, but had, instead, known as many wholly different people, his life, such as it was, would have been the same in its vast panoply of error and carelessness. He had indeed blundered through his life, as he would have blundered through any life given him. Had he been born anywhere at all — he knows this — he'd still be standing at a dark window, alone, wondering who, through the years, precisely he was. "Or who I am." It was going to snow again.

— IV —

Three windows look out on a cold, sunless street. A toy metal zeppelin, silvery in color, with a rigid vertical fin, rests on the floor on two bright red wheels. There are people in the room, there is laughter and conversation, a Christmas tree in the corner, situated so as to be seen from the street, projects its insistent multicolored lights into the room. A two-year-old boy sits on the zeppelin so as to ride it, to push it with his feet across the floor to where his mother sits with a highball, talking to another woman. The boy slides backwards on the zeppelin and feels a sharp pain as his buttocks strike the sharp fin. Blood seeps through his short pants and he begins to cry, holding his hands against the hurt. The blood runs down the boy's legs and into his socks.

His father jumps up from his place on the couch where he has been talking, quarreling, really, with his father-in-law, his highball spilling on his trousers. He steps toward the boy, his arms thrust out. His face is white.

— V —

The party was in a very dark apartment. It wasn't much of a party. There might have been twenty people there, or many more. There was a drone of what seemed to be conversation. There seemed too a drone of music coming from the walls. Sam was looking for his wife. She had gone into a little room off the living room with some people whom she apparently knew. Sam didn't know them. He knew one of them. He left the apartment and went down the stairs to the ground floor. His wife was at that party, he remembered. In the kitchen. He knew her friends. Or one of them. The door to the apartment was open. The apartment was just as dark as the other one. He went upstairs and got his coat. The cab was waiting right in front of the building. Somebody called down the stairs to say that it was only Saturday. His wife was sitting in a leather armchair. She was smoking a cigarette. Her coat was across her lap. He knew she wanted to leave. This woman was not his wife. She didn't look like his wife. She was wearing his wife's clothes. There were six people sitting on the floor in front of the woman. Their backs were to her. They looked at him with amusement. His wife began to emit a low drone. She wasn't his wife but he knew she was.

— VI —

Most of his friends were dead or far away, staggering into the apathy and complaint of old age. He was, that is, virtually alone, his wife dead for many years, his children distantly attentive, formally so, but no more than that. When he thought of his youth he could scarcely believe that his memories had anything at all to do with the absurd life he was now living, an observation, he knew, that was far from original. Somehow, he had thought that his old age would miraculously produce finer, subtler notions of — what? — life? But he was no better, no cleverer, no more insightful than any shuffling old bastard in the street, absurdly bundled against the slightest breeze.

He didn't know, or knew but refused to believe, that the celebrations and joys, the razzmatazz, so to speak, of his youth and young manhood, were perhaps perversely, yet precisely, what had brought him to this disquiet, this discomfort, this hidden and unacknowledged longing for oblivion. Had his youth been another sort of youth.... But it had not been, it had been his and his alone, and its clichés and blunders had led, almost sweetly, to the clichés and blunders of his senescence. Time to go and leave the world to the young, happily wallowing in the mess he'd left as a small part of their general inheritance.

— VII —

The girls are on the beach at about three o'clock on a sunny but cool July afternoon. Carol and Marsha and Sheila. Berta and Minna, Nina and Ellie, Bea and Diana and Natalie, Sydelle, Gloria, Margie, Marianne, and Lona. They are all, this summer, in love, first love. They look wonderful, they look pretty; they're beautiful. Young and bronze and almost perfect in their absolute lack of experience, their innocence that they think of as secret, unique knowledge. They think that they have lived, but life is waiting for them just beyond the beach, just past this particular summer, life with its loss and disillusion and tears, its disease and pain and death. They are beautiful and fading into oblivion.

He stands in the shade of a birch tree on the little island separated from the beach by a shallow and fast-moving rill of water, and he looks at the girls in their varied glamour: he sees them. He sees, too, the girl with whom he is in love in this disappearing summer, and who is in love with him. He will not say her name; he has his reasons, demented though they may be: he has his reasons. She, of course, is the most beautiful of all the girls and will always be so, he mistakenly thinks.

— VIII —

He gets up at 6:00 every morning and turns on the radio, so that he can listen to the news, concerning which, he cares nothing. He makes instant coffee and toasts a store-brand English muffin, which he slathers with peanut butter, eats and then lights a cigarette, one of the five or six he smokes every day, despite his doctor's warnings about the early signs of emphysema. After he clears the table and washes his few dishes, he goes into the living room, sits in his easy chair, and waits. He waits for news that the world will be ending by noon, that the president has fallen off a horse and broken his neck, that the mighty of the earth have all been vaporized. He waits to hear that Jesus has returned and has been married in Las Vegas. He waits, the radio blathering and droning, on and on.

His wife is dead, his children estranged, all his friends dead, too, or dying, or living in grim sunny places without sidewalks far away. Far away from what? he sometimes laughs, remembering the old story of the death camp survivor. He waits for everything to what? To get tired, to disappear, waits for all the filth to disappear, every mean fucking cold-eyed bastard to disappear, to be obliterated along with their victims, along with the dogs and cats and whales and showgirls, along with all the mothers and sisters and priests, along with all the money, the computers, the radios and the television sets, the news, the news, the news. BOOM.

— IX —

Each day, he'd sit at the kitchen table looking out the sliding glass door at the little patio that he had slowly grown to hate, he had no idea why. He'd sit and drink coffee and smoke and wait for the phone to ring with someone, anyone on the line to give him some news, good or bad or meaningless, it didn't matter. But the phone rarely rang, and when it did, it presented a message so empty, so anonymous, that it was merely a form of quiet noise.

Many years earlier, he'd had a friend, much younger than he, who had, "out of the blue," as they say, committed suicide. This friend had once told him that when he opened the paper each morning he would do so in the absurd yet overwhelming hope — perhaps even belief — that he'd come across a story in which he would figure as somebody, as anybody at all, as a name in the newspaper. He wanted, he said, to read some surprising news about himself: before he disappeared like all the other ciphers.

He looked out the window at the rain-washed patio and thought that he couldn't recall his young friend's name, nor, for that matter, his face. Then he realized that he'd been, perhaps, remembering another young man altogether, a character in a play or movie. A novel. Someone who had never been.

— X —

He loves a girl, who, as it turns out, does not love him, and so he wastes years of his life trapped in a wretched cliché. This is, as everyone knows, the oldest of news. At the time that he met the unattainable girl, another girl, whom he treated with a distant, friendly formality, tinged with a benign contempt, adored him and would have done anything for him, had he but asked. She was, as they say, "the girl for him." This is but more old news.

But since life is, essentially, and maddeningly, a series of mistakes, bad choices, various stupidities, accidents, and unbelievable coincidences, everything played itself out just as it should have; although a shift this way or that in this young man's life, an evening at a friend's house avoided, a day at the beach cut short because of rain — anything you can dream up, the more absurd the better — would have led to wholly different results, each one of which would have played itself out precisely the way it should have. There is no way to bargain with life, for life's meaning is, simply, itself. Perhaps this is why one society after another relentlessly invents its gods and the byzantine complexities of the religions in which those gods are enclosed forever: somebody to talk to, to cajole, to beg and bribe. That nothing helps doesn't matter, for, most importantly, the gods can be blamed. They "work in mysterious ways."

— XI —

Here is a bed in a room that glows in early-morning light. The new white shades drawn against the sun soften the light to a pale yellow. A woman of perhaps twenty-five sits against the headboard, leaning back against two pillows, laughing. She has on a white nightgown, the bosom of ecru lace; the right shoulder strap has slipped down to her upper arm. Drawn to her waist is a pale-blue blanket and white counterpane.

A man sits on the edge of the bed, at its foot, wearing a white athletic shirt, and blue-and-white-striped boxer shorts. He, too, is laughing, half-turned toward the woman. The bed may be broken in some way, for it tilts at an angle to the floor. The man is a little younger than the woman, but beginning to lose his hair. He reaches toward her and touches her arm softly. She puts her left hand over his, and, just at that moment, the Angelus is heard faintly but clearly on the Sunday morning air.

A boy of three enters the room, and stands, happily looking at the enormous strangers on the bed. He is in Dr. Denton pajamas, of a color almost identical to that of the blanket. The light in the room is a little yellower. It's going to be a nice day, but not a portent of days to come.

— XII —

While he was at work each day, an old friend who was staying with him and his wife until he could find an apartment, and who was, in the meantime, perfectly at home in his hosts' apartment, passed the long days by making love to his friend's wife, whom he didn't much care for, but, well, there she was, vapid and bored and available.

The host felt, rather than knew, that the pair couldn't wait for him to leave for work in the morning so that they could happily get to their rutting. On weekends, the tension in the apartment virtually sizzled. The man had no knowledge, no proof, no evidence of his cuckolding, no hint was ever given, no suggestion, leer, no shifting of eyes.

Every day after lunch, the husband threw up, and every night, he would stare out the kitchen window for hours, smoking one cigarette after another. His friend found another apartment after three months and moved out, taking the husband's Zippo lighter, a gold graduation-gift fountain pen, a can opener, all the change that was in a little bowl on the kitchen table, as well as three shirts, nicely selecting those fresh from the Chinese laundry.

His wife remarked, that first night, with an almost brilliant sincerity, that it was really good to have the place to themselves again. She was, of course, pregnant.

— XIII —

His doctor, surprisingly, not his dentist, is doing something profoundly invasive in his mouth. She's sliced open his gum, and is scraping and ripping and picking, with a sharp metal instrument, at tooth and bone. He doesn't feel any pain, but a remote, muffled discomfort, and a dull, insistent pressure has taken over his right eye and temple.

He realizes that he has, quite helplessly and without volition, gently closed his jaw on her fingers, and she tells him so, but his attempts to open his mouth are unsuccessful. She looks at him and smiles, but the smile is one of patronization, of domination, the same smile that she wears when he lies on her examination table and she palpates and fingers his abdomen, scrotum, and penis for signs of disease or possible malignancy. His concern, at these times, is that he will get an erection and embarrass himself and her.

He looks up at her smile and nods his head, then opens his mouth. Blood slides down his numb chin and onto the paper bib he wears over a plastic apron. She nods in turn and removes her skirt, then recommences her attack on the infection in his gum, her lower abdomen and thighs pressed against his shoulder. Perhaps she will mount him, carefully and silently, when she finishes the procedure. He hopes so, for he is thoroughly aroused.

— XIV —

When his wife of thirty-four years died, he married, soon after, a beautiful aspiring actress who was, in the best tradition of the deathless cliché, half his age. He had met her five years earlier at a party in West Hollywood at a time when there had been "a lot of interest" in filming one of his books on which an option had been taken by an "edgy young producer." The "project" had, of course, come to nothing. The young actress grew bored with the marriage, discovering, after a year or so, that writers are, by and large, even more boring than their books; and so she left him to go back to Hollywood, where she worked in a few cinematic grotesqueries, occasional episodes of divers TV series, and a commercial or two: she made a living.

He is now almost seventy, and shows no signs of illness, lethargy, decrepitude, or depression. He turns out a novel every other year, and while they are no better than his earlier books, they are certainly no worse. Since he was famous for a charmingly mediocre novel published at the age of twenty-eight, he is still famous for his charming mediocrities, all of which serve to recall his first, to the delight of reviewers. And so honors and awards come to him at the rate of one a year. His is a life often held up to young students of "creative writing" by their "widely published" instructors, as the sort of life to which it behooves them to aspire, a life that wearily smiles, so to speak, at the notion of art, which it pronounces "art." He is, so it is said, on the short list for the Nobel Prize, and who is more deserving?

— XV —

The man was sexually and emotionally attracted to young mothers and had spent his adult life pursuing and, when he could, seducing them; he'd left a lot of wreckage behind. He met a woman, the mother of two boys, seven and five, a woman who was the wife of a casual friend. They "ran off together," as they used to say, leaving the two boys with their father, who was, not surprisingly, angry, bewildered, and, for the moment, heartbroken. The new couple soon had a child of their own, but the fact that the young woman was now the mother of her seducer's child ruined everything for him, and he left one day in their old Ford station wagon, a sun-faded lime-green monster that might well have served as a sad counter for their dead amour.


Excerpted from "The Abyss of Human Illusion"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Gilbert Sorrentino.
Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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