Gilbert Sorrentino's last novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, perfects a technique a decade in the making. In 1997 a story called "Sample Writing Sample" presented literary anecdotes followed by extracurricular endnotes; in 2002 Little Casino, a novel of skewed beauty, featured similar episodes, these about Brooklyn Days—from Bay Ridge love to Coney Island lust—each followed by a brief paragraph of commentary. Abyss marks a return to endnotes, which isolate lines of body text to remark on them after the body itself has concluded.
The anecdote provides the fiction, while the commentary provides the awareness that fiction is being perpetrated. Here, then, is metafiction's most winnowed form, and such posthumous commentary—half Talmudic gloss, half peanut gallery punchline—is Abyss's deftest gesture and Sorrentino's great formal innovation.
It's too bad, then, that the author arrived at his form just as he was departing this life. This is explained in the muted but moving introduction by Christopher Sorrentino, Gilbert's novelist son: "[Abyss] was begun by my father in October 2003, and a first draft was mostly complete when he was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2005. But the disease and its treatment rapidly incapacitated him, and he had little physical or intellectual energy available to sit at his desk and work." Fils, in his tact, is making no excuse for père, just stating facts: This book is about, but also embodies, decline.
So, the short opening chapters are good, while the longer last chapters drag. The title is from Henry James's The Middle Years ("It was the abyss of human illusion that was the real, the tideless deep"), but the subjects are Sorrentino's perennial fixations: artistic failure, sex, divorce, divorce and sex, the homoeroticism of the US Army, nostalgia, and Brooklyn. Rheingold, Four Roses, Three Feathers. French dressing and Worcestershire sauce. Throughout, the mood is one of nightcaps and valedictory cigarettes (Pall Malls, "the whore's cigarette"); there is at least one very good Jewish joke (about an Auschwitz survivor), and a fine sad traducing of a poem by Rimbaud. Reverential mention is made of Bix Beiderbecke, alongside a rueful section about literary prizes (the PEN/Faulkner, which Sorrentino never won despite multiple nominations) and a rumination on the typeface of the New Yorker (Sorrentino's is the second novel published in the last four months to remark on that font, the first being Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City).
The best autobiographical writing comes early and withering: "He had indeed blundered through 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." And the worst appears in the last, and fiftieth, chapter, which concerns Sorrentino's two-decade exile in California: "He didn't understand Los Angeles. It seemed to him a demented collection of buildings scattered haphazardly over a vast area. This lack of understanding was profoundly intensified by the fact that he was not only unable to drive, he had no sense of direction."
After the genius of Steelwork, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Mulligan Stew, Sorrentino's swansong might prove weak stuff, though it tells us that life itself is "weak stuff," too.
Joshua Cohen's new novel, Witz, will be published in May by Dalkey Archive.