After J.D. Salinger died in January, speculation began anew about the possibility that his New Hampshire study might be packed with 45 years’ worth of unpublished writings, the fruit of his extraordinary reticence. The question of whether such work should be published is in the hands of his heirs and executors, and I don’t envy them. New work by the dead -- from Vladimir Nabokov to Ralph Ellison -- appears regularly, almost always raising familiar questions: Is this what the writer wanted? Can we know what that is? Does an author’s estate owe posterity what the author might deny it?
In an age when alternative versions of seemingly everything, including songs and TV commercials, are readily available, has the ideal of the “definitive text” been destabilized beyond reclamation? Is there a real distinction to be made any longer between “scholarly interests” and the curiosity of a general readership? You can go on and on with such questions, and there’ll always be another writer, another book, to which they can be applied.
Not quite finished
When my father, Gilbert Sorrentino, died of cancer in 2006, these questions came up in a glancing but personal way. He’d made it clear to my mother and me that he wanted his last novel, “The Abyss of Human Illusion” (Coffee House: 152 pp., $14.95 paper), to be published; that it was finished. But it was equally clear that the book was not as “finished” as it might have been had he been able to revise it until it went to press. What I had in hand was a typescript, filled with sometimes ambiguous corrections and notations, and a notebook consisting of things my father hadn’t had the opportunity or energy to type or revise.
Terminal cancer, I’d learned, is a full-time job, and I was rudely surprised to discover that ordinary life continues to badger even the dying: tax audits to prepare for, a lengthy round of noisy and dirty repairs to the facade of my parents’ building, mundane family dramas. Late one night, my parents were awakened by a loud crash: Their kitchen cabinets had pulled free of the wall, sending their contents to the floor in a heap of splintered wood, broken glass and china, dented cans and spilled food.
Within this blend of the bathetically everyday and profound Last Things, my father finished his final book, that valedictory to which we sometimes attach romantic expectations: We want it to be a summation of a life’s work; a perfect synthesis of the artist’s preoccupations. But it’s rarely undertaken as such, so it’s usually -- to paraphrase Samuel Beckett -- a book like any other, only the last.
“The Abyss of Human Illusion” is written in the manner of my father’s later work: brief and episodic, scrutinizing working stiffs, bored GIs, the literary and artistic establishments, self-styled creative types and midcentury Brooklyn losers, while leveling the differences between them to expose the universal presence of the same human vanities, sins and frailties.
He’d been working in this vein for about a decade, could do it brilliantly (no one wrote more savage satire; no one could be more tender to the ghosts of a forgotten world or to people he felt had never had a chance), and this fertile period had already produced two late masterpieces, “Little Casino” (2002) and “Lunar Follies” (2005). Reading through the manuscript, I knew my father had entrusted me to answer the questions he’d posed in the margins, to complete the occasional gesture he’d begun, even if the follow-through was only sketchily outlined in the text.
I wasn’t comfortable with it. To feel in the abstract that you could alter someone else’s work is one thing, but to have the actual power to do it is something else. Writers walk around all the time kvetching about the various ways they think their work has been maimed, but it’s hard to buy the argument that a living author is as utterly without leverage as a dead one.
The one time I’d “worked on” one of my father’s books was when I was broke and he’d hired me to type the manuscript of his 1995 novel, “Red the Fiend.” I was a young and unformed writer still wide open to influence and awestruck by the infallibility of authors I admired, foremost among them the one who’d raised me. Even if I’d taken it into my head to “fix” something in the book, my dad was 35 miles away in Palo Alto, able to make final alterations of his own.
Now, he was a lot farther away than a drive down the Bayshore Freeway, and I was a middle-aged author whose sense of awe had given way to more a human-scaled admiration. I revered his aesthetic, but it wasn’t applicable to my work anymore, and even if it had been, how could I know what my father would “say”?
Perhaps more crucially, how would I know what he might decide to unsay? I could mimic his style, but could I reproduce his sense of discrimination? “First, revise by deletion,” my father always told me. Great.
What I ended up doing was this: I pulled out a folder full of some of the dozens of letters he had written me over the years, a trove of sarcastic, erudite and very funny theses and digressions on art, letters, money, work, love, friendship, fatherhood, pop culture and 20th century American being -- more or less his habitual subject matter.
Surprisingly, the letters were more helpful than his finished books: Here he was in the raw, robustly speaking his mind, not making art but evincing the intelligence and frame of mind he brought to its creation. Now, beside the hesitant and attenuated pen strokes of the fading writer, I had the profanely opinionated voice that will always belong to my father, saying, in effect, “It’s supposed to sound like this.”
What’s more, I found encouraging evidence of my father’s openness to uncertainty. Writing in 2000 about “Little Casino” -- my favorite of his late books -- he wryly made note of the unsuccessful rounds it had been making among publishers for nearly two years. Then he wrote, “I am reading it through for the first time in a year, very slowly and critically. I thought that maybe if I sneaked up on it I would see its egregious lapses, flaws, solecisms, and passages of putrid writing . . . . " That he concluded that the book was sound is irrelevant; suddenly, I felt less presumptuous and fraudulent about hunting for these things in “Abyss.” What my father had done, he would have done again.
A valedictory address?
The manuscript too, was steeped in a kind of uncertainty. My father had been writing about writers for years, but this time he turned his attention to old writers, burnt-out writers, their imaginations depleted from years of effort:
". . . his current work, beyond its somewhat mischievous, even malign capacity to fill him with an ennui so profound as to exhaust him, appeared to him to cast a shadow on his earlier work, to demean it, sully it, in a sense to sabotage it. With every sentence he wrote, it seemed, an earlier sentence, a glittering and suave sentence, decayed a little.”
Here are the metafictional intricacies my father had mastered so completely: his ability to write “glittering and suave” sentences describing the inability any longer to write them, while appearing to give us, in what he once referred to as “elaborately empty details,” a flash of the author himself. But despite my having always taken note of his lessons about confusing the illusion with the illusionist, such laments partly confirmed a feeling that had begun to creep over me: Maybe this book was a kind of valedictory after all.
In the end, the changes I made weren’t terribly extensive, and the act was less like literary ventriloquism than finishing the sentences of someone you know and love. You don’t always get it right, but you never get it entirely wrong. I refer to my “leaps of conjecture” in a brief preface describing my efforts; that may be so, but they were also leaps of faith. And why not? It seems only appropriate for a novel in which an author is suggesting, after 40 years of aggressively authoritative prose, that nobody really knows if they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and that in making the choice, something else inevitably is sacrificed: not an unsuitable takeaway for the editor of a dead man’s book.
Sorrentino is the author of three novels, including “Trance,” a National Book Award finalist.