One of the interesting things about Gilbert Sorrentino’s Lunar Follies is how little I can say about it, despite its formal structure, without departing for the subjective.
It consists of 53 brief pieces, few more than a handful of pages long, named after features of the moon, ordered alphabetically. (In fact, its formalism and almost total abandonment of conventional narrative seem as much like experimental film – early Greenaway, say – as anything I’ve read. It’s fiction mostly by virtue of not being nonfiction (or poetry or drama).
Broadly, the pieces concern art. Some mimic text from an exhibition catalogue, some adopt marketing rhetoric, some are framed as pseudo-academic criticism. Some of the art described could well exist, and some of it is fanciful unless the description of it is understood to be metaphorical, e.g., sculptures incorporating intangible elements. One piece unambiguously parodies Jenny Holzer’s work, which gave me license to wonder whether Sorrentino intended to specifically evoke Sarah Sze’s intricate assemblages, or whether that was something I brought to the table. Much of the art is kinda dirty, in a male-centric way, which for me raises questions about the difficulty of commenting on objectification of women without perpetuating it.
One or two of the pieces might be read as essays placing the artist’s work in a particular context; then again they could almost be read as something like short stories. But mostly these prompted the realization that if you follow conceptual art to its logical extreme (or reduce ad absurdum, as you like) virtually any narrative could be construed as a description of a conceptual installation.
Some of the language in the vignettes is beautiful (Sorrentino also writes poetry, and presumably applies a poet’s care to his prose). Several of the pieces are quite funny (one including a list of imaginary football positions in particular made me snort). Some of the language is perhaps intended to be shocking or transgressive, but I just found it crass (both of the “c” words make several appearances).
Similarly, some of the art described sounds thrilling, and some of it sounds like baloney.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that repetitive references (to artistic types mostly, but also other public figures) occur throughout the book, suggesting some personal taxonomy. There are also some obvious errors of fact, like misidentifying the director of The Big Sleep as Robert Altman.
The title Lunar Follies and the dismissive tone of some (but by no means all) if the pieces might suggest a satirical reading, but I suspect an element of misdirection in the title. I reject a priori the notion that Sorrentino intends to say anything as simplistic as “artists are pretentious,” “modern art is hogwash,” or “art criticism is pointless.” I refuse to accept that a mind responsible for anything as willfully abstruse as this would dismiss other challenging forms of art, and likewise it seems unlikely to me that any writer would subscribe to the unsuitability of words to communicate about a specific nonverbal domain. I also think that too much work went into the book for it to be “just” a joke.
I’m inclined to think that it’s fundamentally about the difficulty of communication in a much broader sense: that my interpretation of Sorrentino’s meaning can never match his actual intent. And perhaps it’s also about the allure and elusiveness of the ineffable. But quite possibly that’s just me.
Regardless of what it does or doesn’t mean, I certainly found it thought-provoking, and I’m decidedly glad I read it.