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Crystal Vision

by Gilbert Sorrentino

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671298,345 (3.14)5
Both comic and haunting, ?"Crystal Vision"?invokes the world of magic and the arcane as filtered through a group of characters gathered on the streets and in the stores of their Brooklyn neighborhood to gossip, insult, lust, brag, and argue. In a series of seventy-eight short narratives, Gilbert Sorrentino perfectly captures the speech, illusions, and confusion of The Magician, Ritchie, The Arab, Irish Billy, Big Duck, Doc Friday, Fat Frankie, and many others. Through formal inventiveness, Sorrentino liberates these characters from the confines of realism and gives us their world--zany, vulgar, hilarious, and exuberant.… (more)

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In the past year or so I have become interested in post-modern literature. I am particularly intrigued by the playfulness of some practitioners of this genre. But gameplayer that I am, even I have limitations to my tolerance for literary gamesmanship if it is not accompanied by some other qualities. For example, I love Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler. The playfulness begins on page one and continues apace, but there is something wonderful about the way Calvino engages with the reader that goes beyond mere entertainment. The same is true of his Invisible Cities and of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and of Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, to name a few examples.

So it is with mixed emotions that I attempt to report on my reading of yet another postmodern work, Crystal Vision by Gilbert Sorrentino of whom I had never heard until last year. I am guessing, although I don't know for sure, that he would be considered as a second or third-tier postmodern writer since hardly anybody reads him these days. However, I approached Crystal Vision with some enthusiasm because I thought I was going to get a two-fer out of it — that is, it is postmodern, and it has at least a tangential connection with my interest in archetypal images. The connection there is that it consists of 78 chapters which are evocations of the 78 images in a deck of tarot cards. And from my point of view, Tarot cards are nothing if not archetypal.

The first twenty or so chapters of Crystal Vision are pretty entertaining. Sorrentino gets full marks for inventiveness. He is another writer who enjoys playing with the language. His characters are a collection of blue collar types who are prone to misuse words, and there is one character known as "the Arab" who is a veritable reincarnation of Mrs. Malaprop. Here is a typical sample of the Arab's loquacious outpouring (carefully proofread to preserve all misspellings and the lack of punctuation):

While it is not my wont to discuss my philosophy of life willy-nilly and in whatever environings at all—particularly on this offensive and odiously cockaroachish street corner, the Arab says, you tempt me sorely to present a briefly compendous sketch of my basic creedo because of your remarks anent the vague nature of good and evil and their effect upon the homo known as sapiens, in short, us.

Go ahead, Fat Frankie says. Me and Big Duck are all ears. Right, Duck?

Big Duck grunts into a glassful of vanilla malted.

Allow and permit me then to present my ideas in simple wise, and the Arab takes up a position midway between the candy counter and the soda cooler. Psychologocal behaviorism suggests with stern puissance that people who tread paths of evil, however disguised, tend to fall, or get pushed, a posteriori, into disrepute. Holistically, and tautologically, this is sometimes given the terminology of "falling on evil days"—odd contradition! Allow me then, for a brief sec, to give you a rather puerilitous phenomological example, invented out of wholesome cloth, yet still basically a mere outline. Still and yet, it obtains a certain odd logic that draws me. May I go on?

Onward! Fat Frankie says, keeping his place in
Sexology with an index finger.

It all makes for a barrel of laughs. And I confess to laughing out loud at first.

But . . . after a while, it begins to wear thin. It turns out — and I did not know this at the outset — that the characters who populate Crystal Vision first appeared in an earlier Sorrentino novel called Steelwork published in 1970. So Crystal Vision is in some ways a sequel or at least a companion piece. But the problem is that this so-called sequel really amounts to a collection of 78 encounters among various characters in which dreams, gossip, letters, jokes and earlier conversations are reported. Someone described all this as vaudevillian, and I cannot disagree with that. Each chapter is contrived to reflect the elements of a particular tarot card. And Sorrentino deserves a gold star for his fanciful attempts to turn the tarot cards symbols into something that a collection of bawdy-minded lumpens could relate to. However, the emphasis on form over substance in this instance falls flat after a while. There are no luminous insights, no special effects that raise the novel above the pedestrian. The hilarity at the beginning becomes, to this reader anyway, rather boring and repetitious in the end. Even the rather tenuous connection to the tarot card images was not enough to hold my interest.

So the bottom line is that I pronounce this novel a disappointment, on balance. It is very clever in concept, but 78 fairly mindless conversations, dreams and bits of gossip end up being about sixty too many. ( )
2 vote Poquette | Apr 14, 2012 |
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Both comic and haunting, ?"Crystal Vision"?invokes the world of magic and the arcane as filtered through a group of characters gathered on the streets and in the stores of their Brooklyn neighborhood to gossip, insult, lust, brag, and argue. In a series of seventy-eight short narratives, Gilbert Sorrentino perfectly captures the speech, illusions, and confusion of The Magician, Ritchie, The Arab, Irish Billy, Big Duck, Doc Friday, Fat Frankie, and many others. Through formal inventiveness, Sorrentino liberates these characters from the confines of realism and gives us their world--zany, vulgar, hilarious, and exuberant.

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