This Week's Reads

Christopher Sorrentino and Jennie Erdal.

Trance

By Christopher Sorrentino (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) It's refreshing the way Christopher Sorrentino wears his influences on his sleeve. Rather than archly raising an eyebrow to nod at his forebears, or worse, smugly mocking them, he revels in the literary style and cultural insight of the greats who preceded him. Trance, Sorrentino's second novel, is a wry meditation on '70s America—as seen through the ragtag wanna-be revolutionaries of the Symbionese Liberation Army—with echoes of Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Hunter S. Thompson. The story of the SLA's 1974 kidnapping of 19-year-old newspaper heiress Patty Hearst is a familiar one: Shortly after being abducted, Hearst publicly proclaimed her support for the disjointed leftist ideals of the group ("Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the People!" Trance's heroine shouts) and began participating in SLA bank robberies. But Sorrentino doesn't take the obvious approach. Instead of retelling only the dramatic moments, he focuses on a 16-month period during which Hearst ("Alice Galton" in the novel) and her two surviving comrades went into hiding after the rest of the gang was killed in a shoot-out with L.A. cops. This is where things get interesting. Picking a time during which nothing really happens in his narrative gives Sorrentino the freedom to contemplate the peculiar era in American history when the idealism of the 1960s dissolved into political corruption and an unwinnable war, and popular media came to define everyday life. Thompson mined this terrain ruthlessly in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, chronicling the bankruptcy of the American dream, and Sorrentino follows the good doctor's lead often, writing about "this sense that somehow American life was basically just a bust." Roth's touch is most evident in an Our Gang–esque anti-Nixon rant delivered by a stand-up comic at a Catskills resort, but over all of Trance hovers the specter of DeLillo, whose influence on Sorrentino can be seen in everything from the invasiveness of pop culture to the ways in which spectatorship and popular media begin to shape reality. "[T]here isn't one single radical in the USA," Sorrentino writes, "who hasn't spent a minute or two wondering who'd play him in the movie." And later: "Day after day in the newspapers, on the television. You lose something. You become a reflection, all detail and very little depth." Trance lives up to its title—it's a brilliant, hallucinatory fever dream of Americana, one that we have yet to wake up from. PATRICK ENRIGHT Christopher Sorrentino will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Fri., July 29. Ghosting

By Jennie Erdal (Doubleday, $24) Jennie Erdal was an editor at London's Quartet Books from the early '80s through the late '90s, yet her most challenging work was in the shadowy field of ghostwriting, a profession she likens to prostitution. Lest we bound into her tale unprepared, she spoon-feeds us its major themes in the prologue: "The story involves deception and self-deception on both sides, a blurring of truth and reality, some bizarre happenings, secrets and lies." Then, as if to compensate for dishing out this unneeded information, Erdal insists on leaving readers in the dark. Fluent in French, she refers to a chauffeur's nod as "decidedly de haut en bas" without cluing in the non-Francophone, pretentiously uses "raison d'être" where "reason" would suffice, and eventually plops an entire exchange en français into the text. Several wanderings into her own family history don't help matters much; here, as in many memoirs, the genealogy just feels like padding. Fortunately, Erdal gets down to business in the book's second half. While at Quartet, she ghostwrites two novels for "Tiger" (who might be based on real-life publisher Naim Attallah). The first, an upscale Harlequin knockoff set in Italy, requires her to compose a sex scene—her worst fear as a writer. Aware of Tiger's dislike of bodily fluids, and hoping to get the scene axed, Erdal pens the most wretched coital copy imaginable ("They play with each other like wet seal pups, their bodies making succulent, slipping sounds"). Her plan backfires, of course: Tiger OKs it all, and the steamy book ends up winning mostly positive reviews, even from the Catholic Herald, which praises Tiger's uncanny skill in depicting female characters. Having proved her chops, Erdal proceeds to ghostwrite hundreds of newspaper columns for him. Though Tiger rarely emerges as more than a buffoonish, fey, obsessive-compulsive cartoon—an unholy mixture of Liberace and Howard Hughes—she bears him little ill will. Ghosting is, for Erdal, simply "a way of gaining a little purchase on some things that happened long ago and not so long ago." Like the author's mastery of French, that's fine and good; I just wish the book felt as useful to read as it was for her to write. NEAL SCHINDLER

 
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