IT'S STRANGE TO THINK that novelists ever cared about the conflict between invention and imagination. Backed by mimetic tradition, they typically imagine characters who are like themselves or people they know, coping with realistic problems. Anyone who would invent a new way to tell a story risks being branded experimental. Successful inventors are called unreadable and obscure as they explore approaches to plot, character, and style that challenge conventional assumptions. So, why invent? Why bother readers with novels that call attention to themselves with bizarre forms, unnatural protagonists, and difficult language? For most readers and writers, the inspired imagination provides a richer, more fulfilling narrative than any monkeying around with technique could affect. But for a few, the rewritten conventions of realistic fiction fill a literary graveyard, where craft feeds off the corpses of art that had to die.

"But this story is invention only," and, "These people aren't real. I'm making them up as I go along," and, "Prose will kill you if you give it an inch, i.e., if you try to substitute it for the world," are lines that seem calculated to antagonize, as they hold court in Gilbert Sorrentino's 1971 book Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, a brilliantly cynical examination of the problems facing the artist who would invent or make up an entire, self-contained world within the work. Eight character profiles compose what the author alternately poses as a novel and as "a collection of bits and pieces." Although figures are described thoroughly via details of the elements surrounding them, each remains essentially unimaginable, realized by the author yet not vulnerable to corruption by fantasies of the gentle reader. Things takes delight in disrupting the rules of fiction, in a form that must challenge in order to succeed.

Throughout a career of 15 novels, nine books of poetry, and one book of criticism, Sorrentino has addressed the tension between form and content. While commercial fashion-demands simply assemble plot-driven novels that can pass for memoirs (and vice versa), he continues to be a fiercely inventive writer whose fiction often reaches a depth of feeling for lives truer than what seems imaginable.

In a letter, Sorrentino describes himself as a writer "who has always been convinced that form is actually and inevitably content, that the novel's ideas are inextricable from the novel's structure, and that the novel reveals, ultimately, the novelist. That is, that all his remarks on and opinions of his subject matter, his era, his culture, are filtered through him and cannot be trusted as anything but art."

Those tempted to trace Sorrentino's life story from fiction might heed the warning of the mid-1980s trilogy that has been reissued under the apt moniker Pack of Lies. The interdependent Odd Number, Rose Theater, and Misterioso set out to get a fix on an event by presenting a variety of viewpoints expressed in thought and speech, largely through the allegedly respectable technique of legal interrogation. At the end, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is scarcely more evident than it is at the beginning.

Sorrentino's need to break the mold of his art form has produced a wonderfully maddening variety of work. I love the power and beauty of his best books, but, even after learning that Crystal Vision was based on the tarot deck and that parts of Blue Pastoral are based on fugue forms or the names of Dixieland tunes and French writers, I'm mystified by the commitment Dalkey Archive has made to reprint all of his books, including work that may be superficially repulsive. There's something to admire, though, in this kind of commitment.

Harry Mathews reported in Oulipo Compendium (Atlas, 1998) that Sorrentino's Gold Fools, which translates a 1920s boy's adventure into a series of questions, is forthcoming, but more than a year after Sun and Moon listed the novel in its catalog, that infamous procrastinator of American publishing has yet to release it.

"As for my long and variegated relationship with publishing," Sorrentino's letter continues, "it is much too complex to be written of in any general way. A rule of thumb might be phrased: All publishers say that they are going to do good things for writers. This is absolutely standard, and is, on rare occasions, partially true."

The legendary 1979 Mulligan Stew casts the industry as villain in a morality play where heroes are ridiculous. It flaunts a book-within-a-book structure that exhibits characters who write novels, operate publishing houses, and even "literally" walk off the page. The central figure, novelist Anthony Lamont, is an avant-garde poseur whose work mines that bored-out hole of postmodernist exploitation, the detective novel, in a language fluent with cliché. Fancying himself a true artist, Lamont corresponds with a professor interested in using his novels in a course, and with his sister, wife of an "inferior" novelist who writes popular novels. Chapters of Lamont's work-in-progress show a reason for his developing professional jealousy, but Sorrentino outdoes reason when he includes the story of the characters used by Lamont, as told by one of these characters. Martin Halpin and Ned Beaumont have been taken by Lamont from Joyce's Ulysses and Hammett's The Glass Key and employed, as actors are, in Lamont's book. Comparing "working for" Lamont to working for Mr. Joyce, Halpin vents his complaints in a journal. Both he and Beaumont so despise the dialogue Lamont makes them say and the stupid situations he puts them through that they make a break for the outside world. Sorrentino mixes (without always blending) a glorious profusion of styles, forms, and devices that can overwhelm readers as effectively as circumstances overwhelm Lamont, whose sanity explodes in a world that prizes "hacks" like his brother-in-law and trashes "artists" like himself.

While Mulligan Stew often gets put forth as Sorrentino's great book, he followed it with a better one, Aberration of Starlight, where voices sing, tensions poise the hopes of characters against one another, and even the lists ("that avant-garde convention," the narrator of Things sneers) are beautiful. This masterwork of precision is told from equally portioned viewpoints, as 10-year-old Billy Recco, his recently divorced mother Marie, her salesman of a suitor Tom Thebus, and her father John McGrath bring to bear all hope, potential, and desperate fortune on the outcome of a date between Marie and Tom. Each segment begins with a static image, as a photo; then a couple of letters (one ideal, one more real) and a question/answer session flesh out the background of each character before a fantasized narrative can set up a realistic report of the date. Viewpoints progress from the most innocent to the most corrupt, preserving slang from the era (1939) that ought to be immortalized: "like Astor's pet horse," "butter wouldn't melt in his mouth," "patch on a man's ass." Characters skew other characters' voices in narration as each tries to fix everything a certain way, and simple phenomena such as blowjobs take on a complexity to transcend single-minded assumptions as they represent the unknown, the unwanted, the absolute passion, and the joy denied, depending on the point of view. Finally, there can be no reconciliation of such varied desires, just as there can be no end to trying.