A Strange Commonplace by Gilbert Sorrentino

By Gilbert Sorrentino


Borrowing its name from a William Carlos Williams poem, A unusual Commonplace lays naked the secrets and techniques and desires of characters whose lives are intertwined by way of accident and necessity, possessions and experience.

Ensnared in a jungle of urban streets and suburban bed room groups from the boozy Fifties to the culturally vacuous current, strains blur among households and buddies, violence and love, wish and melancholy. As fathers try and connect to their young children, as writers fight for credibility, as better halves stroll out, and an previous guy performs Russian roulette with a deck of playing cards, their tales resonate with poignancy and savage humor—familiar, tragic, and cathartic.

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In her feminist challenge to the social and psychological traditions of consolation, Woolf also critiques a familiar elegiac theme: the cataloging and passing on of the deceased’s material possessions. Cultural traditions, as the narrator understands, continue from one generation to the next through legal, social, and discursive structures of inheritance; it is not simply the possessions of the dead that are bestowed, but also the social meanings attached to these possessions. Because the inheritance of property and wealth participates in the continuation of a cultural legacy, Woolf’s narrator contests the seamless continuity of English tradition and advances the work of gender reform by setting up the novel as a bulwark against a structure of inheritance she defines as blatantly patriarchal.

In a culture where virtually everyone was related to or knew someone who was killed in the war, even an arsenal of consolatory beliefs appears to have been incapable of severing attachments to loss and relegating the mourning of the dead to the finished work of the past. Read in this context, Woolf’s resistance to consolation cannot be simply discounted as a modernist expression of melancholy and anger; her novel, we might say, offers a vanguard awareness of the need for a mourning practice devoid of consoling figuration and the very expectation of strict closure.

26 In the conventional sense, mourning allows the lost other to be recovered in the language of the symbolic so that the subject can avoid admitting that something of the self has been lost with the other’s departure. Conversely, Derrida shows how what he calls “impossible” mourning, an ongoing relation to loss that forgoes consolation and recovery, clarifies a fundamental decentering of self. He defines the “being-in-us” of the lost other as an absolute excess, a kind of exteriority belonging to the other that resides in a space neither properly inside nor strictly outside the psyche.

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