This is the second part of chapter 3, "Sorrentino the Metafictionist," from my book-in-progress tentatively entitled Gilbert Sorrentino: An Introduction. The first chapter, "Sorrentino the Poet," can be found here; chapter 2, "Sorrentino the Realist," here; the first part of chapter 3, here.
2) "Walking Around Inside": Mulligan Stew
In many ways, the publication of a novel like Mulligan Stew in 1979 should not have seemed especially startling. Not only had it been preceded by Sorrentino's own Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, perhaps the most radical work of postmodern metafiction to have yet appeared, but the entire period in American fiction from the early 1960s to the late 70s was notable for the number of writers employing a kind of iconoclastic, "carnivalesque" comedy--the term used by Bakhtin to describe a spirit of comedic abandon that subjects everything in its purview to parody and mockery. The black humor of Heller and Vonnegut explicitly adopts this attitude, while the equally mordant if less readily categorizable comedy of writers such as Stanley Elkin or Thomas Pynchon participate in this spirit as well. Although not indulging in quite the sort of outrageous self-parody characterizing Mulligan Stew, novels like William Gaddis's JR, Robert Coover's The Public Burning, and John Barth's Letters nevertheless were equally ambitious, comedically extravagant novels published in the mid and late 1970s (Letters the same year as Mulligan Stew).
Yet Mulligan Stew clearly exceeds even these works in its formal antics and metafictional burlesque. Indeed, so extreme is its rejection of even the vestiges of linear coherence and unitary storytelling remaining in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things that the novel itself famously begins with a series of rejection letters (invented by Sorrentino but generally corresponding to editorial reactions the manuscript of Mulligan Stew actually received from publishers) turning down the novel because of its obvious failures to observe novel-writing proprieties. One editor, "Alan Hobson," observes: "The book is far too long and exhausts one's patience. Its various worlds seem to us to lack the breadth and depth and width as well to sustain so many pages." According to "Horace Rosette,"
Not the least compelling aspect of this book is that it has, far beneath the tortured story told by the author. . .a dry, subtle, and deliberate humor, a humor so fragile and evanescent that one reads it while almost literally holding one's breath that too gross an appreciation of it should make it scatter to the black winds that sweep and roar through the "fiction." For some reason, I kept thinking of the question that Dickens had his old mad gentleman pose in Nicholas Nickleby: "The young prince of China. Is he reconciled to his father-in-law, the great potato salesman?" Sorrentino's gentle humor is of the same tenor as this angst-laden query.
Beyond the non-sequiturs offered by Mr. Rosette in this passage, his most egregious misreading of Mulligan Stew is his perception of its "gentle humor." The humor in this novel is far from gentle, is in fact of the most thorough and caustic kind, although it is directed less at the publishing machinery satirized in the preface (which turns out to be a kind of satiric collateral damage, representing the kind of incomprehension of his novel Sorrentino surely expected to encounter) and more at the generic and aesthetic assumptions that are thought to govern the writing of novels. Those generic assumptions include both those associated with "experimental" fiction and those that make a work of prose even recognizable as a novel. In undermining its own pretensions (as represented by the novels' protagonist, Antony Lamont, an experimental novelist who takes himself very seriously indeed), Mulligan Stew as well potentially undermines the whole enterprise of novel-writing. Indeed, its profound questioning of all of the fundamental conventions of fiction as a literary form can ultimately be credible only if the avant-garde or experimental novel, the form in which Mulligan Stew ostensibly presents itself, is also subject to the same questioning.
Few literary works exhibit the degree of "radical skepticism" described by Bakhtin as comprehensively as Mulligan Stew. The novel portrays Lamont as a hopelessly inept writer who nevertheless fancies himself on the cutting-edge. Excerpts from his previous novels--he is in the process of writing a new novel in the present time--show him to be a writer of very pedestrian and finally very conventional tastes who wishes to be taken as an original. These excerpts are among many other documents that proliferate throughout the novel: passages from Lamont's work-in-progress, from his journal and scrapbook, letters, magazine ads, as well as the most outrageous of the novel's devices, a journal kept by one of Lamont's characters, Martin Halpin (himself stolen from Finnegans Wake). Within this journal, still more "documents" are introduced, including a 40-page "masque," whose characters include Susan B. Anthony, the Marquis de Sade, and James Joyce himself. The "story" of Mulligan Stew chronicles Lamont's disintegration, both professional and personal, through a combination of egregious bad luck and his own poor decisions; the nadir is reached when the second of his novel's characters, Ned Beaumont (stolen from a Dashiell Hammett novel) simply walks away from the book, followed shortly thereafter by Martin Halpin.
The collapse of Lamont's life and career is more than the story's "content," however. In a very real sense, Mulligan Stew itself is "about" its own disintegration. What begins as a stock situation of self-reflexive fiction, a writer writing a novel, becomes a comic anatomy of that situation, a travesty of the kind of superficial experimentation to which this situation often leads. Of all the major metafictional works by American writers, Mulligan Stew could most literally be called a "deconstructed" text. Not only does the book question all of the assumptions about the novel to which most readers are accustomed, but it refuses to substitute the assumptions commonly associated with the avant-garde. Mulligan Stew almost seems to have no stable structure at all. It falls apart before the reader's eyes.
But finally this impression is a result of Sorrentino's carefully created illusion, an illusion based primarily on the removal of all signs of authorial and narrative presence. As Sorrentino described it in an interview with John O'Brien, "there was a conscious attempt to refrain from using a narrator who could allow us to look at the characters from the outside, to look at the situation, to look at the movement of lack of movement in the book in terms of Lamont and his hopeless life. The book is sealed. The book is artificial and is meant to be artificial." Unlike Barth's Lost in the Funhouse or Robert Coover's "The Magic Poker," Mulligan Stew does not reflect back on the manipulating author; as Sorrentino says, all vestiges of such an author have been deliberately erased. The novel provides no rhetorical anchor, not even the disclosed narrator of Barth and Coover's stories. But, again, the apparent lack of such a presence is an illusion. Mulligan Stew is not a work of random chaos, but of controlled and, as Sorrentino admits, intentional chaos.
Sorrentino says further of the design of his novel and its probable effect on the reader that
A narrator who exists outside of written documents would have given the reader a way of getting a handle on the book, but I didn't want the reader to be able to get a handle outside the terms of the book itself. If you want to understand this book, you have to be able to walk around inside of it and understand it in the sense that one understands the real world: that is, you're in it, and whatever data and phenomenon impinge upon you, you understand them insofar as you are able to.
In evoking a world the reader can "walk around inside," Sorrentino brings to perhaps its purest fruition his conception of the literary text as "real" in its linguistic artifice, standing autonomously as an addition to reality, not its reflection. The reader must indeed essentially leave the real world outside the text behind, not to indulge in fantasy or make-believe (Sorrentino is not a fabulist), but to "walk around" in language, or, more precisely, to closely register not the "action" or the "content" offered but the multitude of language effects the novel produces.
The biggest inspiration Mulligan Stew takes from James Joyce's Ulysses (and Sorrentino freely acknowledges the influence) can be found in its multifarious styles and modes, incorporating, simulating, and parodying many different kinds of writing. Although it might initially be categorized as a kind of epistolary novel, its title more adequately evokes its basic structural trope. Lamont himself is a literary chameleon of sorts, albeit an unwitting one. The first few chapters of Guinea Red, Lamont's novel-in-progress, are first-person accounts, in the style of a crime novel or detective story, of the murder of Ned Beaumont--except that the narrator, Halpin, believes he might be the murderer:
You must believe me when I tell that I honestly don't know if I killed Ned Beaumont or not. I know that he lies on the floor in the den, his face contorted in rage, that rage that had become so much a part of his life when he was among the quick. I "know" that he has been shot. I know that I still feel deeply for him, for the remarkable partnership that he and I had for so many years. But I don't know whether or not I shot him. But was he shot.
Halpin's loopy tone, combined with Lamont's hopeless "comic" touches and inept attempts at suspense, often produce genuine, if unintended (by Lamont) humor, humor that mocks Lamont's incompetence but also unavoidably mocks the very endeavor in which Mulligan Stew itself participates--if Antony Lamont is quite obviously a terrible experimental writer, it is to say the least far from clear what "correct" practice could instead be presumed from the novel's gleeful heterogeneity.
Indeed, it seems to me that Sorrentino would quite readily agree with the criticisms of Mulligan Stew made by M. Keith Booker in his book, Techniques of Subversion in Modern Literature ("The Dynamics of Literary Transgression in Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew"), all of which point to flaws in the novel that impede its ability to fulfill a traditional satirical function (which for Booker is always specifically political). With its borrowed characters (from Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds), the novel is too artificial to disrupt the reader's sense of reality, to "question his/her own identity." The characters "are mainly linguistic constructs" who are "hopelessly intertwined in the linguistic texture of the book." "It is simply too easy to recuperate Sorrentino's characters as amusing artifacts of textual play," writes Booker, "his characterization is not troubling and therefore not ultimately subversive," since the most immediate response to the characters and their machinations is simply to laugh.
It is hard to imagine Sorrentino taking exception to any of this. Mulligan Stew does not seek to provoke the reader to question his/her identity; it wants the reader to reject comparisons with a reality external to the text and to instead affirm the aesthetic reality of the work itself. It wants to be taken precisely as a linguistic construct, textual play that is the novel's addition to reality, not its attempt to "capture" the real. That the reader might find the characters "hopelessly intertwined in the linguistic texture of the book" would surely be to the author a sign of its success, as would, of course, the reader's laughter, although this would be the carnivalesque laughter invoked by Bakhtin, not the mere amusement that Booker seems to find in the "pure farce" of Sorrentino's methods.
Booker further contends that Mulligan Stew lacks originality ("Books about the writing of books have become extremely common in the 20th century"), that in particular it reprises too many of the moves initiated by Joyce. Joyce is certainly a presence in Mulligan Stew, both in direct allusions and through Joyce's influence not just on Sorrentino but also on O'Brien, but when he asserts that "Sorrentino writes against a background that has already been substantially modified by predecessors such as Joyce, in a sense depriving him of a target," Booker assumes the relationship between Sorrentino's novel and the modernist works of Joyce is essentially satirical. Ulysses or Finnegans Wake ought to be "targets" of Sorrentino's mockery. He can't be lampooning traditional novel-writing, since the inheritance of this tradition has already been "modified" by Joyce's previous departures from convention. But this would cast Joyce and other modernists as the representatives of a practice that Sorrentino wants himself to modify, to replace its now approved procedures with new procedures of his own, when in fact the overwhelming impression left by Mulligan Stew is that there are no fixed procedures that determine the formal features of fiction, an assumption that ratifies and extends the modernist subversion of norms, not, as Booker would have it, simply repeating them.
Moreover, the claim that Mulligan Stew is not especially original is not very consistent with Booker's additional accusation that its radical self-reflexivity "goes too far," as well that it relies too much on "rule breaking for the sake of rule breaking." Finally it is not so much that, for Booker, Mulligan Stew doesn't sufficiently "transgress" established literary methods but that it doesn't do so in quite the right way:
A work that includes radical formal innovation, or even radical content. . .is likely to seem "transgressive" to many and to have a powerful effect on some. But the question remains whether such individual subjective effects are truly transgressive in a genuine political sense (i.e., challenging existing dominant ideologies in a way that contributes to the process of social change).
Suffice it to say that Gilbert Sorrentino would most likely express contempt for the notion he should be writing novels to help enact social change, even through the exquisitely ineffable processes M. Keith Booker discerns in formally unorthodox fiction. Booker elevates putative political effect above all other qualities, and neither Sorrentino's commitment to the integrity of art nor his acerbic comic sense would have allowed him to privilege politics--or any other version of "saying something"--over those "individual subjective effects," a characterization no doubt mean implicitly to disparage a "merely literary" reading, that for most readers are the primary object of the reading experience--although no doubt Sorrentino would maintain that the effects produced by his fiction are not inescapably subjective. They are the result of the very palpable and emphatic formal and stylistic devices the writer has used that allow the reader to "walk around inside" the novel's verbal space.
Booker's reluctance to be amused by Mulligan Stew seems profound, and it is made even more peculiar by his frequent citations of Bakhtin and his insistence that Bakhtin's ideas entail a requirement that carnivalesque comedy be directed toward political goals. (The "breaking of traditional rules" in Bakhtin's analysis, according to Booker, "can be subversive only if it has a troubling effect on the reader that results in his reexamining the hierarchies normally accepted by his society.") Although it is certainly possible to gloss Bakhtin's notion of "absolute comedy" as valorizing the subversion of authority in a general sense, his analysis of the novel in particular celebrates the "polyglossia" that defines this form in contrast to those forms of writing that convey a more monologic sense of rhetorical control--a questioning, if not subversion, of specifically discursive authority and norms. Bakhtin's emphasis in such essays as "Discourse in the Novel' is on showing the novel to be the most capacious and supple of literary forms, qualities that Mulligan Stew illustrates as forcefully as any modern novel.
It is, in fact, hard to imagine a more polygossic novel than Mulligan Stew, consisting as it does of a multitude of letters, notebook entries, and interpolated texts of various sorts, composed by a dizzying assortment of characters. It consistently brings the reader back to writing as both its vehicle and its subject, perhaps more dauntlessly than any other work of American fiction at a time when American writers had already become remarkably adventurous in their use of self-reflexive strategies. Booker avers that "Mulligan Stew is so obviously metafictional that one is never tempted to recuperate it as a conventional unified narrative with theme, plot, character, and so on" (although ultimately he considers this to be another of the novel's flaws). But what is finally most impressive (as well as most important) about Mulligan Stew is in the way Sorrentino invalidates the need for "recuperation," through the ostensibly excessive metafictional devices he employs finding ample substitutes--in terms of the reader's ability to enjoy his novel (albeit in unexpected ways)--for "plot, character, and so on."
We could call Antony Lamont's ongoing novel itself an entertaining read, but not for any reasons Lamont himself might have for considering it such. After a few chapters trying to flesh out his hilariously puerile idea--did Halpin kill Ned Beaumont or not--Lamont begins to indulge in stylistic "experiment." Most of this experimentation consists of varying degrees of "poetic" prose, ranging from a relatively sober chapter of dramatic monologue in which Halpin imagines what may be happening to the police as they close in on the murder scene, to the absurd Chapter 12, "Like Blowing Flowers Stilled," which begins: "How now, Master Halpin! What? Can it be fear that thrones itself in those bright orbs that were wont on a day to flash as bright as those of a gentleman in pleasant surfeit o' the good Rhenish or a gen'rous flagon o' sack?" For all of his desperate stylizing, Lamont's prose is never more than an imitation of stereotyped, dimly understood notions of literary style. He never sees style as more than an excuse for outrageously inept similes and metaphors, laughably skewed clichés, and other bloated and incompetent rhetorical flourishes.
Parts of Lamont's novel do come to life, however. In several chapters that suggest his true preoccupation, Lamont introduces the characters of Corrie Corriendo and Berthe Delamode, owners of a "service" they describe in a letter to Ned Beaumont:
We have decide to offer direct to a selected numbers of perceptive customers our exceptional, UNUSUAL, and extensive stocks of really truly HEMANS' HOT PHOTOS.--They are available only from us--and exclusive! SATISFACTION GARANTEED. We offer, only hard-to-get sizzling items inobtaineable in any other parts at whatever price you can pay.
Soon enough Corriendo and Delamode begin to dominate Lamont's narrative, including a pornographic encounter between the ladies, Halpin, Beaumont, and the shared woman of the men's dreams, Daisy Buchanan. These passages demonstrate that Lamont would likely be no more successful as a pornographer than as an avant-garde novelist, but actually Sorrentino is able to evoke more reader sympathy for Lamont in such pages, as we suspect that this material is more the result of the author's desperation--in this case sexual--than a concerted attempt to integrate pornography and innovative fiction. While compelled to laugh at Lamont's general incompetence, the reader can also understand his need to express himself. More crucially, Sorrentino's creation of Lamont's misshapen prose is itself an aesthetic triumph, replacing traditional notions of characterization and reader identification and producing a center of interest rooted in the use (or misuse) of language.
Lamont's notebooks give us direct access to his strategy as he composes his novel, as well as excerpts from his previous novels, which show that the current project is clearly not an unfortunate aberration. Lamont's scrapbook is itself a kind of mulligan stew, containing everything from advertisements (including one from Writer's Helper Monthly) and other clippings to a collection of question-and-answer exercises presumably written by Lamont. Some of these show rather more imagination (or at least more humor) than Guinea Red:
Are the stars out tonight?
They are. But before dawn some of them will have found places in various eyes, some settle on flags and banners, still others will take up residence in Hollywood and other film capitals of the world, many will be wished upon, one will be born, a handful will shimmer, gleam, shiver, glitter, tumble, or shine, a few will either shoot or fall, dozens will cluster together, dozens more give off dust, one will be steadfast and constant, another lucky, some few will have a stairway built to them, one serve as a cocktail ingredient, many will wander, one have a wagon hitched to it, another team with a garter, some form a crowd, scores remain chaste, most look down, and a group fall on Alabama.
Lamont's letters are perhaps even more engaging. Many of them, especially those addressed to his sister Sheila (previously encountered in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things) are full of ill-concealed sarcasm and outright invective, the latter of which really seems to be Lamont's métier. The letters to one "Professor Roche," who is planning a course in the "American experimental novel" and is thinking of including Lamont, are particularly scabrous. The early letters to Roche, written when Lamont believes that the exposure his work would receive from the course justifies currying favor, are relatively obsequious; gradually, as it becomes apparent that Roche does not intend to include him, Lamont loses his fragile composure, culminating in an impressive tirade near the end of the book:
Not to mince words, your truly and quintessentially shithead decision not to use any selections from any of my works is not surprising, now that I check back through your last few letters. The scrawl was, even then, on the wall. But how can you, a man who, by your own admission, thought of The Centaur as a "breakthrough" in the American novel (surely you meant a "breakdown"), say that my work, while displaying many of the "gestes" of the avant-garde, is not truly "avant-garde," and lacks a consistent "engagement" with those subjects most germane to "the contemporary." My dear old bumbling Roche, I suspect that you would not know an avant-garde work were it to grasp you by your academic tool. . . .
The reader might feel a kind of support for Antony Lamont at this point, perhaps because, for once at least, he seems to be acting as a mouthpiece for his creator, as Sorrentino's dim view of John Updike's work is well known. Here, however, Sorrentino especially subjects his own views to the radical skepticism his comic view expresses, as of course Antony Lamont is otherwise depicted as an experimental writer of dubious ability and discernment. At the same time, Professor Roche, as a representative of the academic class, is even more profoundly obtuse, his notion of "experimental" sufficiently empty that it could include both Updike and Lamont. The perceptiveness of critics is sampled further in a series of excerpts of reviews of Lamont's previous books, most of which are unsparing in the opprobrium: "Sometimes awkward, always banal"; "Makes Mickey Spillane's noisiest trash read like Thomas Mann"; "Yet another third-rate novel sure to be remaindered for forty-nine cents in a few months." Yet some come close to echoing the criticisms of Mulligan Stew made in the novel's appended preface:
. . .the attempt to create a "poetic novel" is pathetic, although Mr. Lamont has learned all the superficial tricks of the modernistic poetry canon. . .Tiring story of the age-old search for meaning in life. . .alas, such meaning escapes Mr. Lamont's trite, one-dimensional characters as it escapes the author himself.
Other interpolated texts seem to have less less connection to Lamont, the most prominent of which is "Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo," a phantasmagoria set in "a major league baseball park, the home of a team of disconcerting ineptitude." Perhaps this "masque" is consonant with the story of Antony Lamont in the shared theme of incompetence (loosely reflected in the "failure of "Flawless Play Restored" to apparently cohere with Lamont's story, as well as the failure of Mulligan Stew itself to cohere in the expected ways), but it is otherwise an outrageous farrago of voices shouting, declaiming, and apostrophizing on a multitude of subjects from baseball to feminism in multifarious styles and idioms. FPR follows on another inserted literary work by other than Antony Lamont, a collection of erotic verse entitled "The Sweat of Love," by "Lorna Flambeaux," who has sent the poems to Lamont, soliciting his opinion. The writing, like Lamont's, is unintentionally hilarious, although Lamont, indulging in yet another misconception about literature, takes Ms. Flambeaux's verse as a mirror to her own presumed behavior and clumsily attempts a rendezvous with the poet, with a disagreeable result for both.
Paradoxically perhaps, the aesthetic strategy that arguably draws most attention to Mulligan Stew as an artifact of writing is one that initially almost seems to represent an abandonment of writing altogether. Although Sorrentino makes use of lists in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Mulligan Stew really marks the emergence in Sorrentino's work of the list as an alternative expository device, one that would continue to be identified with Sorrentino for the rest of his career. Not only are the lists longer (two longer than four pages), but they are used insistently enough that they become a kind of substitute for conventional prose, no doubt prompting some readers to ask whether Sorrentino hasn't finally discarded "writing" completely. As Sorrentino himself said of his lists, they are attempts "to clear the ground and dump all the impedimenta that narrative clings to, that narrative pulls to itself, like a magnet and iron filings." What is left is language, shorn of even the final impediment of syntax or figuration. But most of them are also funny and inventive, even if their audacity can be extreme--the very long list of books and periodicals belonging to Lamont, for instance, catalogued by Martin Halpin in his journal as he plots his escape from Guinea Red, itself one of the most uproarious tropes in the novel, as Lamont's character literally "walks off the page."
What makes Mulligan Stew not just the most radically experimental American novel of its time and perhaps the signature work of American metafiction, but one of the truly great novels of the postwar era is that Sorrentino employs his heterodox strategies to create a literary work that fulfills the traditional expectation that a work of literature will entertain, even as it seeks to reconfigure the requirements for "entertainment" in fiction. Readers willing to find delight in the riotous, relentless upending of unexamined presumptions and threadbare conventions surely would find it in Mulligan Stew. More than anything else, it provides a unique, dynamic, and ultimately transforming reading experience.