Christopher Sorrentino begins Now Beacon, Now Sea: A Son’s Memoir, the meticulous account of his complicated and often fraught relationship with his late mother, with a graphic description of her decaying body as he found it in her Brooklyn apartment. Sorrentino details the recurring scene almost systematically, as if to stave off any immediate expression of emotion or intimacy. It becomes a numbing catalogue both mundane and horrific. “The smell was overpowering,” he writes. “I felt that I deserved it.” What follows from the aftermath of this shocking discovery is a reckoning with his responsibilities as a son to the difficult woman he depicts in this candid portrait.
An accomplished and formally innovative novelist, Christopher is also the son of the prolific and award-winning writer Gilbert Sorrentino, but readers searching these pages for insights into his father’s biography and body of work will find themselves firmly rerouted towards the story of his mother’s private existence spent mostly behind closed doors. The author plays detective in the attempted exhumation of a deliberately opaque life. His mother, Victoria Ortiz, is presented in these pages as stubborn and often seething, depressed, and prohibitively reclusive. The memoir is motivated from the start by Christopher’s sense of complicity in her ultimate decline and retreat from society, and by his inability to transcend the distance she deliberately placed between them.
Victoria was a brown-skinned Puerto Rican woman who claimed her identity as a white woman through sheer force of will, naming her racial identity in aspirational terms that also, in her eyes, represented class mobility. Her denial of the Blackness indicated on her birth certificate—as well as any sense of Christopher’s own non-whiteness—forms a pivotal distinction between mother and son. About the time she told him as a child that he is definitively not Puerto Rican, he writes that “I never felt as if she was protecting some status she’d fought for, but that she was dividing me from her.” The young Christopher instead aligns himself with his father in a relationship sometimes presented as akin to fandom, his eventual pursuit of a comparable literary career almost inevitable from the start, while Victoria is consumed by domestic responsibilities as she succumbs to the rigidity of “a house built on rituals.”
Her husband’s dogged pursuit of his artistic endeavors had always shut down any possibility of pleasures outside of the home—vacations, dining at restaurants, going to the movies—and in his recounting of memories from these years, Sorrentino ultimately questions why his mother remained in the marriage despite her constant objections to it. He arrives at the possible conclusion that his birth had precipitated her entrapment, and thus was at the root of the shared animosity between them over the years. “To me, it was life,” he writes, referring to the domestic routines described in vivid detail throughout the book’s opening chapters. But to his mother, “life had ended the day I was born.” And the push and pull of various loyalties within the family unit form the narrative tension throughout the memoir’s mostly linear progression through time toward its inevitable conclusion, the home often depicted as a battleground where war, on some scale, was always being waged.
The family memoir as a genre inherently flirts with self-indulgence, the details and anecdotes sometimes amounting more to a historical record for archival purposes than as a meaningful experience for a reader not already invested in the larger picture being painted. But Now Beacon, Now Sea is an ambitious balancing act of summary and scene that painstakingly reveals an unsettled mind doing the work of reconfiguring its understanding of the past. “Later it occurred to me that death could begin an unraveling,” writes Sorrentino; “that people themselves, their presence, held things together in ways that the memory of them never could.” In the grace note of his project, there is the careful narration of his own ambivalence as he excavates what’s been left behind after the people he’s writing about have gone.
The impulse to write about our parents is perhaps motivated by the desire to insist upon a version of their lives that preserves what we imagine to be our own origin stories, an act of myth-making that creates a frame for our lived experience and thus legitimizes our claim to significance in a story beyond ourselves. But to really understand who we have become is to necessarily complicate our perceptions of those whose personalities, habits, and worldviews formed us in the first place. The literary memoir is a form that accommodates the unresolved, often leaving purposeful acts of juxtaposition and recursion to generate their own kinds of meaning. Just as Sorrentino finally accepts the remote and distant woman his mother has decided to be in the years before her death—“How much time could she have left to change into something that suits me and no one else?”—he relinquishes control of his family’s story by accepting his implication in its collapse, allowing readers to make what they will of all its messy and beautiful parts.
Now Beacon, Now Sea: A Son’s Memoir
by Christopher Sorrentino
Published September 7, 2021
Richard Scott Larson is a queer writer and critic. He has recently received fellowships from MacDowell and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and he is an active member of the National Book Critics Circle. His debut memoir will be published next year by the University of Wisconsin Press.