Lunar Follies is an
incendiary pastiche, no make that 'obliteration', of the North American
contemporary art world. A ludic, fragmentary novel (which could, like all
Sorrentino's novels, be interpreted as prose poetry), it takes the form of 53
fictional reviews, gallery brochure blurbs, promotional articles and museum
catalogues. It is a difficult book to review because Sorrentino unpicks the
very language of criticism. Furthermore, the press-pack includes twenty-plus
glowing reviews of the book - all of which make the very same point I made in
the last sentence, and make it better than I did. The whole act of writing
about something and assuming anyone is interested in my stupid opinion begins
to feel distinctly Kuthian:
passages in the letters, from over twenty years' worth of
studies and criticism; the criticism, in full, itself; Kuth's remarks
criticisms, and the commentary on the commentary
Every sentence is suspect, every stylistic trait is a clichˇ, all of our
sarcasm and self-awareness are just thin disguises for our insecurity and
appears to be in the gallery, save for an attentive guard, in
an (but of
course!) 'ill fitting' uniform that could 'use the services'
course!) of a dry cleaner.
'Sea of Tranquillity' is not so much a critique of the lousy, ponderous
'concept' of displaying a gallery security guard as the 'art' itself as it is
a critique of writing, whether that's fiction or non-fiction. Take out the
inverted commas and the parenthetical 'but of course!'s and that sentence
could come from the pen of any half-assed journalist or indeed, half-assed
novelist. The unmistakable tone of smugness: the rookie error of confusing
authorial voice with coy pomposity. Probably using the word 'somewhat' a lot.
Like all the best satire, Lunar Follies is as true and elevating as it is depressing.
In 'Fra Mauro', subtitled 'Our Neighbours, the Italians: Myth and Reality',
Sorrentino questions the unexamined profundity of photography; the
powerlessness of the subject in the face of the photographer's Apollonian
detachment. (Did I really just write that?) Naturally, every portrait is as
crude a stereotype as possible:
Whitey Bromo, who could play fuckin' Hearts for a year and
never win a
Beppo, who ate fifteen calzones at the St. Rocco's feast.
Black Sally, who cut some mook's nose off in Sunnyside,
Jimmy Trey, who took a little of the vig off the top as a
thing, who they found shot fulla holes on Neptune Avenue.
The catalogue concludes: 'more
photographs of these irrepressible and hard-working americans , who have
helped to build our great nation, or so they say, on the second floor, rear
gallery.' The tone runs from razor-sharp parody to the obscene, the
profane, the pornographic, sometimes just for the fun of it. 'Sea of Nectar'
motherfucking beer bottles are fucking haphazardly arranged
next to an
off-white shitty wall on the left. Six fucking more are fucking
lined up in front of the fucking off-white wall on the
right, in the
you got it, cuntface?
Quite. The tendency of the installation artist to imagine he or she is
brutalising and shocking an imaginary bourgeoisie. Each piece is named after
one of the moon's geographical features. And the whole thing is brilliant.
The only word I have left ('exuberant', 'bitingly satiric', 'hilarious' and
'playful' have all been taken) is incendiary. I was just going to write
'Incendiary' in 72-point and submit that as my review. Sorrentino's books are
difficult to get hold of in this country because we are so lamentably and
irredeemably rubbish. The day Sorrentino gets picked up by a British
publishing house is the day I nail my tongue to the sun. (Having said that,
it would be inaccurate to say that we don't have anyone like Sorrentino; what
immediately comes to mind here is David Kennedy's brilliant 'Art Texts' from
his recent Salt collection The Roads; but it's fair to conclude that we don't give them enough attention.
And our conceptual artists deserve just as much scorn as the Americans).
The pieces that delineate a museum catalogue of imaginary paintings are among
the most satisfying, calling on the reader's powers of visualisation, as in
'Sea of Cold':
get started. Death in high heels. [...] Death goes to
Death is marching on. [...] Death fries eggs.
'Jesus Destroying Pornography' is probably the best one. Elsewhere, the
fawning description of a gallery of self-conscious celebrity portraits ('Al
Pacino, a quiet balletomane, here shown in a candid photo as 'Mister
Hollywood, USA,' a refreshing jape, indeed.') pretty much takes down the
whole self-obsessed, self-regarding shitpile:
...and in one
playful image, we see, if we look closely, Leonard Bernstein
The same narrator draws attention to a portrait of Mozart, adding, 'of whom
much too little has been written of late' and, if you're like me, you just
think yeah. We read this kind
of untruth everyday. They get shoved through our letterboxes, beamed onto our
TVs, computers and radios, they fill our magazines and journals. Sorrentino
has got to the bottom of that nauseous feeling you get from reading
contemporary cultural commentary. Who the hell are these people? This is the late era of the hack
'expert' and we're all drowning in boring, vituperative opinions. And it's
difficult to write about because I'm part of the problem. But at least I don't
get paid for it. Cripes.
lights, however, really mess things up rather badly. 'Might
as well not
be here at all with the moons looking like that,' some have
overheard to say from the polished floor. And many of them were
respectably dressed, and, it is rumored, know all the best restaurants.
to say, the fucking morons always order the wrong things.
Some people will say that conceptual art is an easy target. The people who
say this will probably be conceptual artists and gallery owners. Their
inferiority-complexes notwithstanding, the real target, as we've established,
is writers. The art scene mostly functions as a structure, aside from when
Sorrentino turns his powers on the artists themselves, their sense of
entitlement to a life of exploitation and greed with no comeuppance:
so small as to be made out with no little difficulty, are
ambitious, a kind of paen to a strange Teddiean spring, to his
primavera, and to the sun, the sun of his last isolated studio;
course, to flesh, the flesh of his fellow humans, mostly women,
honored and adored, even as he exploited, brutalized and
'Gassendi - Banville Teddie: Late Works')
You want to know which is my favourite? You're reading this review, so I can
only assume that you do. My favourite is called 'Sea of Rains' and is an incendiary
pastiche or obliteration of the publishing industry. The art installation
here described is a wall covered in editor's letters concerning the current
manuscript from B, a
prospective novelist. It contains such gems as:
B's new novel
is compellingly urgent, but it is not intriguingly powerful
I know how
highly regarded B is among literary circles, but I'm afraid
somewhat difficult work is just not right for Shit House at
As you well
know, I lack the brains and finely honed reading skills
publish B's book with the care it deserves, since I am
sort of really fucked up with a monster coke habit.
It gives me,
as you may know, a big hard-on to regularly read
authors, like B, and as regularly reject them.
I'll have to
say no again, I'm sorry to say, to B's terrific new
as you know, Van Cleef and Arpels no longer publishes
That these are probably variations on genuine rejection letters just makes it
all the better. Maybe some of you are wondering, 'Look here, Kennard, this
book sounds all very well for the Yanks, but what of us chaps and chapesses
on the other side of the 'pond'? Will we appreciate the references? Do we
even enjoy a proper sense of irony since Evelyn Waugh died? It's debatable.'
To which I say, well, there are more than a few parallels. In fact British
conceptual art is probably even further ensnared in its own large intestine
than its US equivalent. And the last piece in the book - an exhibition of
photos of American football stars on the field to fund the building of a new
stadium - should feel particularly piquant for a country which has conflated
its ministers for culture, media, sports and gambling into one corrupt
Sorrentino, who died last year, continues to have a major critical and
popular following in the States - and thank God for that. It's not really
surprising that he hasn't been picked up by a publisher in this country.
Maybe Vintage, one of our only remaining major labels with any sense of
adventure, might consider an omnibus edition of his early work. In the mean
time, support the Coffee House Press. What a great name for a press: I'm
going to go and drink some coffee and read a book.
Luke Kennard, 2007