Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino

Mulligan Stew is widely held to be Gilbert Sorrentino's masterpiece. As such, I'd avoided it in favor of several of his other books. In part, this was because I knew too much about it. I knew that he'd borrowed characters from Joyce and Fitzgerald and Flann O'Brien and Dashiell Hammett (hey, it says so right there on the cover). I worry too much about allusion, and I worried here that there would be some significance that these particular characters were borrowed and that I would miss the significance. I knew that he'd included a variety of parodies and numerous lists and intentionally bad writing. I worried that I would somehow not be up to the task of what he was doing with all of this stuff. Besides, the novel is at least twice as long as most of Sorrentino's other books. So I put it off till now, and I've just finished reading it.

In the event, I needn't have worried so much. But, even so, though I have a lot of admiration and respect for what Sorrentino was doing, and I'd have to say that it appears that he pulled it off brilliantly, I enjoyed it a lot less than I have some of his other novels. Frankly, one of the problems for me was all of the intentionally bad writing. There is something almost heroic about the bad writing in this book. Sorrentino really outdid himself on this front--the wide variety of bad writing represented is impressive. Clichés in abundance, bad grammar, excessive use of commas and other bizarre punctuation, overheated prose, stupid metaphors, incoherent ideas. With all of this, I found it a slow read, quite difficult to get through in parts. But, nevertheless, a lot of it is indeed very funny.

Anthony Lamont is writing a novel, using borrowed characters (and I believe he in turn is borrowed from Sorrentino's own Imaginitive Qualities of Actual Things--my copy is on loan, so I can't check it to verify, but I do know that Sheila Henry, his sister, is a character in that novel). He fancies himself something of an experimental writer and an overlooked talent. He is in fact an awful writer and quite oblivious to it. And he is paranoid. The book we are reading consists of the chapters of his novel in progress, along with portions from his notebook, letters to Sheila, letters to a former lover, letters to a professor considering using his work in a course, etc, and his scrapbook, which includes, among other things, equally bad fiction from Sheila's husband and Lamont's apparent rival, Dermot Trellis (an amusingly overwritten western about Irish cowboys). The chapters of Lamont's novel, while slow reading, include many hilarious passages, such as this one, from pages 232-233:
A moment later and it was over and the dear girl gorged up her Danish happily, washing it down with coffee. Time in its kindness heals our memories of its grievous wounds inflicted without regard to race or creed or status. Does not a rich man as well as a poor yell a lot when he is punched in the mouth? Marx forgot these basic truths. Suddenly, I adjudged that Daisy had flown swiftly to the ladies' room. Had I been wrong, after all, about her? Fool! Fool! Blind stupid fool. How I had hurried on, a frail canoe with the current, rushing from the past! And now it was all too clear what a mistake I had made. I bit my knuckles until they hurt me like coals of fire. I mean like if coals of fire had been applied to them. Thus were the sharpness of my teeth. Then she was back, eyeing me narrowly and with a curious stare as if realizing that it was I that she had earlier looked at as if seeing for the first time and not someone that she had indeed seen for the first time. So does the mind trick us despite our most careful ideas about things to do. I suddenly understood Kant's description of the mind as a "whatnot". Then, somehow, she was back, her trim, lithe form across the table staring at mine, words tumbling from her mouth...
The narrator here is Martin Halpin, a minor Joyce character. Some of the funniest parts (and easiest to read) of the book are found in Halpin's journal, in which he discusses the ignominy of working for a writer as bad as Lamont. Halpin and Ned Beaumont, borrowed from Dashiell Hammett, talk about what it's like to work for good writers and plot their escape from Lamont. At one point they encounter the "Irish cowboys" from Trellis' novel, who recount a long list of all of the clichés they've been forced to endure in their careers as characters in novels. This is perhaps the funniest section of the book. Here is a representative passage, the entirety of page 274:
How many times, I pray you, have you emerged into the sunlight blinking?

Not as many times as I've grabbed for the phone.

I once had a position where I wheedled every third page.

I was once dazzlingly insouciant to the point of nausea.

I'm damn sick of getting home and going straight to bed without washing.

I'm just as tired of the sun in my eyes always waking me up.

How do you like the wet streets that shimmer in the fog? I'm up to here with them.

I don't mind the women whose bosoms heave--unless they crack their gum. Or chew it furiously. Or simper.

I was in a scene once with a woman who primped and simpered. As a matter of fact, I think she also whimpered.

As long as she didn't whine . . .

Mostly it's the small chaps with pasty faces who whine.

I don't think this woman could whine--she was expected to spend most of her time muffling sobs.

Did she dab at her eyes?

Of course. With my handkerchief.

And her hands were cold?

Yes. And they trembled.

Surely her lips trembled as well. That is, when she wasn't reflectively pursing them.

Right-o! And how regularly her lipstick caked and cracked. Occasionally, she lowered her eyes and a tear slid slowly down her cheek. A crystal tear, often furtive. Which she viciously brushed at . . .

Enough! You haven't lived until you've steeled yourself.

That's preferable to listening to the trees whimper. Or roar. No, it's the wind that usually roars. Or the sea.

What of the fire that crackles merrily? Or the flames that dance wildly? Or the wind that claws at the windows?

And, don't forget, also buffets the house!

Is that the same house that's so full of strange noises?

The same . . . the one that has something sinister about it. Often, it squats malevolently. In the mist.

Inside said house, is there a damp chill that not even the cheeriest fire can dispel?

Yes indeed. And the portraits on the wall seem to be staring at you. And the far end of the great hall is lost in the shadows.

Those shadows, you will remember, seem to shift and change.

But it's only the fire that makes them do this, someone always says.

Nervously. Usually a woman.
I was delighted by the premise of characters trying to escape a novel and talking about writing, debating the nature of fiction (late in the book, Halpin, appalled, asks "Can a writer simply 'make up' characters?"). Sorrentino is obviously having a lot of fun, and in these sections I was having fun right along with him. But, unfortunately, there were too many fairly lengthy stretches that I couldn't wait to reach the end of. For example, I found the 40-plus page parody of a "masque" tedious and incoherent (even as it contained a few amusing jokes along the way), as well as the parody of a mathematical proof (ditto). It took me a long time to wade through these parodies and some of the others, so long that I often wondered what the point was and occasionally despaired of ever finishing the book. It wasn't at all evident to me how some of these sections related to the other sections of the book, or the novel as a whole, except insofar as, by virtue of being parodies, they played further with the nature of storytelling. I would finally make it to the end of these sections, and move on to another chapter from Lamont's novel or another portion of Halpin's journal, and I was back to enjoying it again. In the end, I'm glad I read the book, but I didn't love it.

Gilbert Sorrentino remains one of my favorite writers, but I think it's clear that this is not one of my favorites of his books, even with the extended bits that I thought were great fun. With his recent death, people who've never read him have been asking what they should read first. Some have indeed suggested Mulligan Stew. I'm sticking with recommending Aberration of Starlight (my first Sorrentino) or Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (the opening of which I've excerpted here) or Sky Changes (which is admittedly much more conventional).

See also this excellent interview, in which Sorrentino discusses the ideas that went into his writing of Mulligan Stew and other novels. And, Ready Steady Book has expanded their nice mini-site devoted to Sorrentino.


Scraps said...

Mulligan Stew is my favorite: but I adore his bad writing. It's very difficult, apparently, to parody bad writing, if the generally lame results of the Bulwer-Lytton contest are any indication; not to mention the many poor attempts by good writers to parody William McGonagall. Sorrentino's ear for flatulent writing is superb, and his ability to give it just the little twist that points the finger of scorn at it while still retaining the feel of the original is unmatched.

Do the recent editions still begin with several pages of supposed editorial correspondence regarding Mulligan Stew? Those pages were printed on blue paper in the Grove edition, but I didn't notice any colored paper when I glanced at a reprint.

Sheila Henry is from Imaginative Qualities. I think Anthony Lamont is from At Swim-Two-Birds, but I don't have that to hand.

Richard said...

You're quite right. Lamont is indeed from At Swim-Two-Birds; as is Dermot Trellis. I'd forgotten to check for Flann O'Brien characters.

Though it was slow going at first, I grew to appreciate and even love some of the bad writing myself, especially as it appeared in Lamont's novel-in-progress and Trellis' fiction, too. I agree that Sorrentino's ear for it is suberb. Where I had real problems was with some of the other parodies, as I mentioned (the masque, etc), and those areas really dragged me down, affecting my overall enjoyment.

The edition I read (Dalkey) does open with the editorial correspondences, though they aren't printed in blue.

Richard said...

I'm glad you made this comment, Dan, because, actually, I did try to think about the book in just those terms, even pondering those parts in the context of the book's title, as you suggest. I considered addressing this in my post, but my attempts felt forced. I wanted to try to honestly convey my actual experience of the novel, without trying to explain away the stuff I had trouble with. I grant that I was not reading the book under the best of circumstances, and that this really affected negatively my ability to appreciate some of parodies. Also, I wondered how the masque, for example, specifically added to the novel, or if that's even a useful question to ask. Maybe you can help. Was there information in the masque that added to the whole? Or is it "just" a gag? (I put "just" in quotes because I'm not trying to dismiss it as a gag--nothing wrong with gags!) Is there any "significance" to the names of some of the actors in the masque? That baseball is involved? Are these even useful questions to ask? I thought not, somehow, yet they were among the questions that naturally came to mind when reading this section, at least, so I avoided going into them in my post.

I am fully prepared to re-read the novel at some later date (as I am all of Sorrentino's fiction). In any event, it nevertheless seems to not be an ideal book to suggest as someone's first Sorrentino, but one never knows.

Anyway, thanks for the comment.