Mulligan Stew’s first few pages, before even the title page or copyright page, contain letters ostensibly written to Gilbert Sorrentino rejecting his new novel Mulligan Stew.1 They are full of poor writing, grammatical errors, and insincere statements—in other words, they contain just the things that would infuriate any honest writer, let alone a self-consciously avant-garde one. A few examples:
I wish I could say it is for our list, but alas! it isn’t. It is much too long by half, and to this eye, needlessly so—the author seems obsessed with (unnecessary) insertions, (useless) repetitions, twice and thrice-told tales, and reams of incomprehensible lists.
As you certainly know, I am a novelist too, my first book, BREAKING GLASSES, being touted as “best first novel” of 1964 by Dempsey Dumpster in Bookiana. My second novel, even more brilliant and evocative of its time, has gone begging for five years now, and everybody in America loves it! . . . So you see, it is hard for all of us artists, no matter what!
Heard a lot about your IMAGINARY QUALITIES AND THINGS!! [sic] I’d love to read it if you have a copy lying around.
It was neither engaging nor exhilarating, nor was it full of the simple zest of life, as novels really must be to be novels that compel the reader.
Whether or not they are real, these letters are a perfect introduction that embodies two themes crucial to Mulligan Stew: a fear of newness and pretension. Genuinely new novels are not what the public is accustomed to. They are unpalatable, unsalable, and therefore undesirable to the authors of these rejection letters. Artists like Sorrentino, those who continually strive to make their work new, need not apply.
The note of pretension in these letters is likewise difficult to miss, and we can imagine how such pretentious dismissals would frustrate an artist such as Sorrentino. It is certain that Sorrentino, a brilliant novelist who bounced among numerous small and independent presses during his career, knew the frustration of condescending rejection letters such as these. By the time Mulligan Stew was written he had undoubtedly generated more than his share of ill will toward bad editors (not to mention hack authors and reviewers). In Mulligan Stew, Sorrentino releases his accumulated anger in bouts of florid green sarcasm.
What’s amazing, however, is that Mulligan Stew is not a rant, or a mere satire, but a literary masterpiece. Amazing because Mulligan Stew, considered by many to be Sorrentino’s greatest novel, is also probably the one in which his anger most powerfully dictates content. Publishers, editors, book reviewers, and other authors all receive a harsh, sarcastic beatdown. Yet Sorrentino remains in control. His satire remains secondary to his literary aims, and it is for that reason that Mulligan Stew succeeds as literature.
It tells the story of the detailed, tortuous self-destruction of one Anthony Lamont, a determinedly avant-garde writer who pushes on in the face of, at best, ambivalence, and at worst outright hostility. When not working on his new novel (we read excerpts of the work as it progresses, seeing how it changes as Lamont’s circumstances do), Lamont spends his time trying to win course adoption for one of his previous books from a Midwest professor, fuming at his brother-in-law (a hack whose star is, much to Lamont’s horror, rising), trying to claim a little shameful nookie in exchange for opening a few doors for an embarrassingly bad erotic-poetess, and writing cringe-worthy letters to his former love.
Lamont is not Sorrentino, but he certainly contains elements of him: he likes lists, he writes difficult, anti-narrative fiction, he detests the accoutrements of mainstream literature. Even Lamont’s novel-in-progress and Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew sometimes mirror each other. Both, for instance, trap readers within the perspective of unreliable narrators and force readers to judge the veracity of their narrator’s claims in order to make sense of the narrative.
Yet for all their similarities, Lamont and Sorrentino differ in one crucial way—Sorrentino is infinitely more in touch with his novel than Lamont is with his. At one point, Lamont analyzes a chapter of his novel consisting of letters sent between several characters. Lamont writes in his journal “Why don’t these people ever telephone each other to relate some small thing, etc.? O.K. when far away, but when in same city, how come? Again, the cruel bastards [i.e., the critics] will have at me hammer and tongs. But! It stays . . . why not.” The irony is that Mulligan Stew also relies on improbable letters, yet Sorrentino doesn’t worry over them as Lamont does.
Sorrentino is making a clear comparison between the two books and the two writers—whereas Lamont frets over including letters in his book, Sorrentino does not fret over including letters in his. This is an essential distinction between the two authors. Novelists must decide what aspects of their books to linger over, what to revise, what to keep, what to throw away. They must be continually in touch with their books, knowing enough to change what’s wrong and not mess with what’s right. While Lamont pays undue attention to the believability of these letters, the rest of his book goes drastically off-course. Sorrentino, on the other hand, pays attention to what’s important.
Lamont’s distraction by his letters is a microcosm of his overall downfall—in Mulligan Stew Lamont writes a very bad book because he loses touch with it. There are many reasons Lamont runs off course, but they all come back to his pretentious nature, which is fed and fanned throughout Mulligan Stew right up to the bitter end. Writerly pretension was something Sorrentino hated, so it’s no surprise that Sorrentino is merciless in pillorying Lamont for it. Lamont almost perfectly fits the definition of a pretentious author laid out by John O’Brien in an article on Sorrentino for VORT in 1974 (recently republished in Jackets Magazine).
If criticized, any “experimental” novelist can defend himself by claiming that the critic did not understand the terms of his novel; or, he can complain that the critic doesn’t like anything new. Alas, however, much of what we think of as “new” is only as new as Ovid, Homer, and Dante. If these writers know what they are doing, they readily admit their heritage. If they do not know what they are doing, they try to disguise their ignorance and/ or failure by hiding behind their uniqueness.
We have today many really bad, officious writers who think and perhaps (sadly) believe that they are doing something important. These are pretentious people who write pretentious fiction. Though, as I’ve said, they are more difficult to uncover, their emptiness shows through. Unfortunate though it may be, they cannot escape the test of words. That is to say, they cannot escape the test of style. When all the other conventional tests have gone by the board, style remains. Sometimes these writers are capable of a few sustained passages of decent prose, but they are incapable of a coherent book.
In Mulligan Stew Lamont eventually fails the test of style. With each setback his career receives, he falls back on the most self-serving of justifications—the idiots don’t understand me!—and continually absolves his incoherent rages by wallowing in his status as a poor, obscure writer working for the love of literature. Perhaps if we only had Lamont’s claims we would believe him, but we are allowed to read Lamont’s novel as he writes it, and so we see with our own eyes just how horrid it is. As Lamont spirals deeper and deeper into self-serving pretentious justifications—as he gets more and more out of touch with his work—his novel-in-progress fails the test of style by wider and wider margins.
That’s Lamont. Sorrentino, on the other hand, does things differently. When faced with the same indifferent, cloying, infuriating literary scene that bedevils Lamont, Sorrentino writes Mulligan Stew. He doesn’t throw a pity-party and rationalize the first dreck that passes through his typewriter. No. He turns all that rage into a masterpiece. One gets the impression that Sorrentino’s survival as an avant-garde novelist required that he make lemonade out of lemons. In Mulligan Stew he certainly did.
How does satire leaven into literature? It’s a difficult question to answer in the abstract, but in Mulligan Stew Sorrentino shows one way it can happen. Sorrentino’s satire becomes literature because he takes familiar topics of ridicule and makes them new.
The rejection letters that open Mulligan Stew are only the beginning of this book’s metaficitonal turns. Another layer is revealed when we discover that the characters in Lamont’s novel-in-progress have lives outside of Lamont’s book. These lives are narrated in the pages of Mulligan Stew, revealed to us through the journal of Martin Halpin, Lamont’s protagonist.
When Lamont is not writing (or in Halpin’s parlance, forcing him to perform), his characters complain about being trapped in such a contrived story, fret that no one other author will ever want to “hire” them, and secretly plot their escape. They also encounter an entire universe of other characters from other books, literary and otherwise. These encounters are often hilarious because of naive Halpin’s wide-eyed descriptions of stock figures familiar to any reader. For instance, at one point Halpin comes across a postman whom he calls a “cretin.”
I can’t quite describe the man, but he was not quite “there.” I mean to say that he was two-dimensional. His cheeks were an unnatural pink, his teeth solid blocks of dazzling white, and his grin was alarmingly fixed . . . Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of this weird character was his truly odd speech, for he spoke in rhymes, and went on about snow and sleet and bringing happy news to people all up and down “the block.” There was also some idiocy about letters for mommies and daddies and good little boys and girls and their brothers and sisters! . . . I thought he might be a dangerous lunatic, but Ned said that he was probably from a “children’s picture pool.” . . . Ned said he might, indeed be a lunatic—the casualty rate in children’s picture-book work is apparently very high.
Often when Halpin describes something, we sense that we’ve seen it somewhere before. As we read Halpin’s account, we try to guess what it is before he can tell us. With precise timing Sorrentino lets each clue fall into place, and we ease closer and closer to guessing the answer. The pleasure comes in the interplay of Halpin’s innocent language and our knowing guesses.
Describing literary clichés from Halpin’s point of view allows us to see them with fresh eyes, and affords Sorrentino the opportunity to make them new. For instance, at one point Halpin encounters three grizzled “cowboys.” Halpin doesn’t know what to make of them, but to us they are clearly utter cynics who have grown so disenchanted with literature that they sit around laughing about the incredibly trite things authors have made them say and do. Here’s a part of their conversation as transcribed by Halpin:
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 paint 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 . . .
Halpin approaches cliché in a way that we cannot—with innocence, as one who does not know clichés are clichés. His bare transcription of the cowboys’ conversation speaks volumes more about the poisons of cliché than any Strunk and Whitian manifesto ever could. We want to tell Halpin “These are clichés! Avoid!” yet we also laugh along with the cowboys, impressed by how they use their creators’ words against them. In this way, Sorrentino gives clichés a prelapsarian freshness.
Throughout Mulligan Stew Sorrentino finds other ways to make hackneyed expressions new. Whether he is putting them into the mouths of tired characters, or using them to illustrate the hilariously bad depths that Lamont’s novel-in-progress eventually falls to, Sorrentino turns the clichés around, transforming them from radioactive substances most authors go out of their way to avoid into literature.
Moreover, Sorrentino’s use of cliché is notable for its sheer scale. He does not merely make a few jokes about anathematic words and phrases; he heaves them in by the shovelful, reveling in them like a dumpster-diver who has been delivered to the trash dump of his dreams. There are pages and pages of clichéd manuscript, page-long lists of clichés, line after line of clichéd dialog.
In Mulligan Stew, Sorrentino carefully creates situations for these mounds of clichés to be used in, organizing them under all kinds of fictitious enterprises as though they are artifacts placed in museum dioramas. There’s a chapbook of erotic poetry filled with lines like “The luscious film of perspiration / That o’ercomes lovers’ bodies / And their faces too / is like perfume.” There’s a reviewer (in a clear shot at the reviewers that write for Publishers Weekly) who writes “While there are scenes of sexual intrigue and depthless abandon unmatched since those penned by the Divine Marquis, there are also strange, almost hallucinatory after-images of ringing depth and translucent beauty almost moral in their tone.” There’s even a publisher who proudly keeps a list of rejection letter phrases—well over 50 in all—with things like “we just don’t see our way clear,” “certainly can write,” and “really tough fiction market.” Missing no detail, Sorrentino has this publisher describe the rejection letter phrase list as “our proudest achievement,” as though the true business of publishers was not to publish great books, but to efficiently and humanely reject authors.
After reading Mulligan Stew, one has the impression that, like a latter-day Samuel Johnson, Sorrentino could have written an authoritative dictionary of clichés in English literature. Not only that, it seems that his skill for ventriloquism is such that if he wrote such a dictionary he could have recreated believable source material for each and every cliché listed. A loose count of Mulligan Stew’s source documents would include (in addition to the aforementioned items), a university paper on mathematics, an absurdist play, many chapters from Lamont’s novel-in-progress (all written in a different style), a chapter from an erotic Western, at least three separate varieties of junk-mail solicitations, an interview/profile from a glossy magazine, and a publisher’s catalog. All of them are, of course, appropriately, hilariously clichéd.
By using innovative strategies to turn old things new, Sorrentino points toward how unpretentious avant-garde writers work. The idea is not to be the most difficult, most obscure, or most “experimental.” It is to find new structures, new metaphors, something Sorrentino (of whom O’Brien wrote “He has the special gift of launching into new waters with each book.”) knew how to do. Along the way, as though bundled into the package, comes a devastating satire of pretentious authors.
Part of the process of “making it new” is to not lose touch with a work of art while creating it. This is especially dangerous to avant-garde artists, because they can use the “experimental” nature of their work to justify virtually anything. Being an artist requires an ability to accurately judge one’s work. Lamont fails to make his novel new (or even interesting) not because of a lack of talent. He fails because he loses touch with his work, becoming a biased judge.
A metaphor for Lamont’s increasing distance from his novel is his characters’ increasingly inevitable plans to “escape” from it. From the beginning, Lamont’s characters harbor fantasies of running away from Lamont and entering another novel. The idea of escaping is something that Halpin and Ned discuss often—from the very beginning Ned wants nothing more than to run away from Lamont’s book, while Halpin remains on the fence for most of Mulligan Stew. Here’s Halpin recounting one of his many conversations with Ned about escaping from Lamont:
I suspected that he wanted to suggest that I might try embarking on a digression long enough to allow him to escape, O suppose I would do it if I could, but if there is one thing I learned while working for Mr. Joyce, it is that one cannot escape for long from a writer, unless he decides to completely rewrite a whole section. When that occurs, there is a moment, just a moment, when one may assert oneself. Occasionally, the writer will allow this assertion to stand, and one’s character is subtly changed. In fact, sometimes the whole world in which one is employed is changed. But Lamont struck me as being ruthless, as well as stupid.
One assumes (and Mulligan Stew gives some evidence to confirm) that Halpin and Ned’s discussions take place somewhere in the depths of Lamont’s subconscious. In other words, Halpin’s and Ned’s activities are an allegory for what is happening in Lamont’s mind as his novel spirals out of control. What, then, happens when a character escapes or asserts herself? What kind of writer does this happen to? And perhaps most importantly, does all this change a novel for the better or the worse?
To answer this, a little must be said about Halpin and Ned. They represent two sides of Lamont’s thoughts on his novel-in-progress. Of the two, Halpin is the more sympathetic one. Although he is generally sour about the work, he occasionally sticks up for the novel and continually vacillates on whether or not to ditch it. Ned, on the other hand, is full of bile from the get-go and simply gets more and more despondent as time passes.
There is a third side to Lamont’s thoughts on his novel—those found in Lamont’s letters and journal. Throughout Mulligan Stew we get insight into what Lamont is thinking by the notes he keeps on the novel-in-progress, the confidences he enters in his journal, and the letters he sends (mainly to his sister).
In the beginning, the perspectives on the novel found in Lamont’s and Halpin’s writings somewhat mesh. Lamont knows he is making Halpin an insane fool, and Halpin resents being made one. During this time Lamont is still in touch with his work, and his writing shows it. It’s quite good at points, feels fresh and insightful.
During this time, both Halpin and Lamont take the novel very seriously. The apprehension that Halpin shows for what Lamont makes him say and do is more than simply that of an actor nervous before a difficult scene—what happens in Lamont’s novel goes straight to his core. If the writing is bad, he is bad. Halpin feels his reputation is at stake, and he cares about making the book good. Halpin’s worry is mirrored by Lamont’s. Lamont feels that the novel is part of him, and if there are problems with it, those problems reflect a flaw within him.
But at time passes Lamont loses touch. He increasingly uses egotism to block the paranoia and depression that tighten around him, and as Lamont grows callous and arrogant, his and his characters’ views of the novel grow more and more divergent. Eventually a point comes when Lamont raves about the artistry behind truly horrible scenes, while his characters complain that they can barely endure such poor writing.
At that point no one cares about the novel any more—Halpin and Ned have grown resigned to their embarrassments and simply want to leave. Likewise, it no longer matters to Lamont if things make sense. For instance, at one point Lamont writes a chapter of which he says “I don’t even know where the title came from. Let alone anything else!” He then proceeds to note that Halpin’s character is completely different in this chapter than in the others, and goes on to write
Has Halpin really changed? A new aspect to his character? Why not? Revelation. After all, he is telling the story. He has lied before? the hell with it? What if I just let it go and see what happens, let the book become a splintered poem, clashing chunks of “metaphor.” No connections, but reverberations, correspondences, is it?
Lamont has totally lost touch. His claim that he is writing experimental fiction has now become a catch-all justification for whatever he happens to throw in. What’s worse, this lack of touch means that he has totally lost control of his characters. It’s at this point that Ned’s despondence turns to anger and he actually does leave the novel. Once Ned abandons the book, Lamont does not wrench him back; instead, he resorts to truly ridiculous techniques to try and make up for the loss. The book is telling Lamont what to write—a shameful, embarrassing position for any author to be in. Yet Lamont seems ignorant of his fate. Even as he wrenches the narrative through all sorts of contortions to facilitate his missing characters, he raves about his avant-garde brilliance.
Clearly Sorrentino has no respect for this kind of author. Sollis, a character-refugee from a different novel, essentially lays out Sorrentino’s view when he discusses with Halpin characters who have run away so that their authors can no longer find them:
He was delighted that their absence often produced enormous changes in the books in which they were employed. That is, authors returning to work and not finding an important character are often forced to digress in an insane or ludicrous way. Sollis is convinced that boring and philosophical asides, ruminatory interludes, and endless descriptions of nature, buildings, interiors, and the like, all occur in novels because the author has returned to “work” and is unable to find his characters where he left him. . . . He is also convinced that background material of a psychological nature, brought in to make a character’s actions understandable, is trash as well . . . he seems to think that the better the author, the more difficult he is toward his workers. He pointed out that he had yet to meet a malcontent from the pages of a “commercial” novel or slick-magazine story.
Since Lamont is Sorrentino’s prototypical bad writer, it’s no surprise hat he gives his characters ludicrous backstories, puffs up otherwise unremarkable happenings with copious amounts of execrable imagery, and writes entire chapters that are nothing but ruminatory interludes. And it’s even less surprising to see Lamont propping this all up with an embattled sense of pretension.
Yet the fact remains that Lamont’s characters are malcontents because he is forcing upon them a vision very unlike that of a commercial author. Lamont may be a bad writer, but he is not a writer in bad faith. He is stuck in a very painful position—sincere enough to want something better than commercial success, but unable to control his novel like a true author would. He has created the space in which a good novel can be produced, but he has failed to live up to this opening. Compare this to Sorrentino: whereas Lamont fills his novel with tortured prose to fill the gaps left by his deserting characters, Sorrentino never loses control of his characters and fills his gaps not with internal monologs or backstories but with all sorts of strange, unique creations—multiple-page lists that can be read straight through without loss of attention, a brilliantly offbeat absurdist play, satirical simulacra (like the hackneyed reviews), a paper on mathematical logic. Both authors want to break free of the junk that Sollis refers to, but only one succeeds.
This leaves the question of whether or not an author should break free of Sollis’s baggage, all the “philosophical asides, ruminatory interludes, and endless descriptions” that Sollis claims authors resort to when they lose their way.
Clearly Sorrentino believes one must break free of it, and this belief paid off handsomely for him. Although he aspired never to write the same novel twice (and probably succeeded) he never wrote a book that depended on psychological profiling and philosophical ruminations. He was that set against it. By making himself not rely on these traditional parts of a novel, Sorrentino forced himself to innovate, to find ways to make his books new. His success is clear in the varied, exceptional body of literature he has left behind.
And yet, the lesson of Lamont is instructive: innovation in the wrong hands can be disastrous and can easily lead to pretentious authors. Furthermore, many very sincere, very good literary authors write beautiful novels that depend on just the things Sorrentino would not let himself include in his books. Many people, including some critics, will vehemently defend just the sort of novel that Sorrentino would never write. (Some even act as though the likes of Sorrentino were barbarians at the gate threatening to destroy literature.)
Perhaps the best answer to the debate is to accept the integrity of both kinds of novelists and simply say that those who can’t get by without psychological profiling and all that comes wih it shouldn’t try to, and those who can should. Literary creativity is certainly to be found in abandoning the traditional pillars of novel-writing, but those pillars are also wide and strong enough to support their own kind of innovation. The important thing is to fight pretension and make it new.
I have been unable to confirm or deny their authenticity, but the comical names of several of the editors and the outright level of irony strongly implies that they are fakes.
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