Interview with Christopher Sorrentino

by Alexander Laurence
(c) 1995


Christopher Sorrentino's first novel, Sound On Sound (Dalkey Archive), is all-out attack on the music industry, filtered through the stylistic auspices of Modernist writing. It is an ambitious debut as a novelist. He was born in New York City. Since 1985, he has lived in San Francisco. In the Mission, he is known as "The Great Giuseppe." He is the son of novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, so along with Martin Amis, they are beginning a new movement in writing.


Alexander Laurence:
Could you talk about that wonderful time when you first thought about writing Sound On Sound?
Christopher Sorrentino:
I took some notes outlining its structure, etc., basic conceptual stuff, back in 1982. Then I stopped writing altogether until I was about 25, and after writing rotten short stories for a year or so, I unearthed the Sound On Sound project, which seemed like a sufficiently ambitious way of avoiding the bildungsroman I'm sure I would have wasted my time on otherwise. That was in April 1990; I finished the book Chrismas Eve 1992.
AL:
Are you worried about the fact that some people may recognize themselves in these characters?
CS:
Any of the models for the characters in the book who might recognize that and become insulted are probably too fucking stupid to read the book.
AL:
Let's talk about the technique? The layering of one chapter over another creates tension, meaning, and confusion.
CS:
I've always liked books, and other art, that worked like that--Sound and the Fury, Rashomon kinds of things. I tried to take all those modernist techniques I'd been ogling for years and push them until they fell on top of each other, and I wanted to let the book's structure determine its content as much as possible, and what I ended up with was a self-disruptive stack. I guess what you could call its narrative inconsistencies are balanced pretty much by its thematic and formal harmony, and even in the midst of the inconsistencies readers will find motifs and refrains that pop up throughout the book's five sections.
AL:
Why is placing this novel at the beginning of Reagan's presidency; how does that relate to the 4/4 beat of the 1980s?
CS:
Aside from the fact that the parts of my own life I drew from for material took place at that time, when I realized while writing the book that one of the things I was doing was conducting a running commentary on popular culture, I figured the Reagan parallel fit perfectly. The eighties were really an era of subtle destruction, at least on the home front--I won't talk about the more overt forms of destruction that occurred in, say, Central America--a lot of demonstrably good things were destroyed or co-opted, and the transformations were accomplished in part through the manipulation of a lot of easy-listening, slick-as-snot images and icons; like Ronald Reagan and his prophet, pop culture, like an idea of rock and roll as the theme ditty of rebellion so powerful and pervasive that the form can be used to score a Nazi movie like Top Gun. To me, rock and roll is simply another agent of betrayal.
AL:
Any favorite groups worth mentioning? Or did you write this novel under pharmaceutical influence and/or sonic accompaniment?
CS:
The only group which has consistently held my interest over the past twenty-five years or more has been The Beatles; they sound like everybody who came before them and everybody who came after them sounds like them, a kind of perfect post-modern continuum, even more so because it's rarely acknowledged except as if all parties are conscious of what they're doing. I can't write on drugs, except maybe pseudophedrine, and I can't write if there's anything more alluring, like music, going on in the room.
AL:
Some writers have forged their way by combining the subject of rock music with the art of writing; they end up leaving out the art. How did you achieve this balance?
CS:
I was really interested in technique, and I think it's silly to get tripped up by your own subject. I'm not the kind of writer who runs down to the library to check stuff out on microfiche or does months of fieldwork in the Tundra: you could get eyestrain, you could get frostbite. I'll dump verisimilitude and factual accuracy for fiction every time, and so in this case the idea of articulating some kind of reasoned "judgment" about rock and roll went out the window right away: I started from the premise that it's another pile of shit from the Lite Entertainment brigade and went on from there. I'll leave the analysis to the rock critics.
AL:
You are going on a world tour to promote this novel. Could you say something about your "Sound On Sound Tour 95?" How do you think it will go?
CS:
My publisher's a little concerned that I'll be hitting the road slighty before publication date; I guess they're worried that books won't be available for the thousands of fans who'll be hurdling the police barricades, tearing out their hair, and screaming hysterically. They're also balking at the idea of concert t-shirts, which I'm frankly pissed off at, and the action figure prototypes haven't arrived yet from Hasbro, so it looks like Kay Bee is going to be cancelling all the bookings at its franchises. Other than that, it should go pretty well.
AL:
What do you think about the future sound of America?
CS:
A Noel Coward character remarks somewhere: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," and I would imagine that this could serve very well as a timeless motto for the popular music industry.


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