Courting Nonsense

Courtesy Vivian Ortiz

I was about to write a letter to Gil when I heard from my friend Josh the news that he had passed away. Gilbert Sorrentino, who died in May at age 77, was a magnificent author of experimental fiction and poetry, and known as a postmodernist by those who trade in such terms. The author of Mulligan Stew, Aberration of Starlight and many other books, he taught in the English department at Stanford from 1982 to 1999.

Among his lesser legacies was the friendship Josh Krist, ’96, and I struck up years after Stanford, based on our shared enthusiasm for this wise man’s scorching prose, his Alexandrian knowledge and the elusive qualities he stood for in his art. Whenever I got a new letter from Gil, machine-typed and hand-corrected, I would recite sections aloud to Josh, someone who could understand the thrill of knowing Gil. It saddens me to be writing about him rather than to him, and to know that I won’t get anything back to read to Josh.

I walked into Gil’s seminar room 10 years ago and became a writer before two hours were up. His class, Generative Devices in Imaginative Writing, cracked open for me and my giddy peers the mysterious depths of language. It was a master class on meaning and a wickedly good time. His ideas reinforced my doubts (sophomore year was rough) about conventional narrative expression, demonstrating how anything was possible so long as you put the right words in the wrong order, or vice versa.

But the freedom to court nonsense wasn’t really the point. It was about pushing your limits, sharpening your pen, and braving that high wire between dross and brilliance. I suspect Gil always knew the difference, but he would let either one fly in the space around him. He might disclose personal opinions, but only when pushed. And I think he was always right when it came to aesthetics.

Gil recommended the best books I will ever read. His belief in my writing helped nurture my own. He was a living illustration that it is possible to never sell out. His voice and image linger in my head, smoking those cigars in the Quad, expressing his marvelous disdain for that part of me that might be tempted to do so.