Under the Shadow takes the form of fifty-nine brief sketches with simple nouns as titles. These exquisite vignettes take place on a plane at once surreal, abstract, and ominous, describing a set of people and incidents derived largely from fragments of conversation and gossip gathered here and there. They are reminiscent of Raymond Roussel’s characters amid his inimitable ersatz pastorals, with tableaux both innocent and grotesque. There is something ambiguous about these passages, something deliberately closed and dreamlike. Many of them read like primal scenes of private pathologies; others are memories that, many years later, retain their power to haunt.
From these fragments of memory, half-memory, and smudged images, certain scenes recur with eerie regularity: a half-clothed woman glimpsed through a kitchen window; a mysterious fire set by a maniac intent on the destruction of “official memories”; and most tantalizingly, a shifting, voyeuristic account of three young women in luminous white dresses by the shore of a dark lake.
All of these events seem to have occurred years ago in an unspecified place and are already the subjects of files, case studies, even biographies. At first isolate and puzzling, these vignettes become linked to others as the book progresses; they cohere in the way images in a long poem cohere, or harmonic progressions in music, not in the sense of character and plot development. For Sorrentino’s prose aspires to the condition of music, of painting—freeing the novel from the constraints of realism and entering the realm of pure art.