Monday, October 12, 2015

Gilbert Sorrentino, Mulligan Stew (1979)

Well, here's this book! Gawd, I got a copy of it years ago, and then it just lay around 'til now, when I read it. Yay for tying up loose ends!

Mulligan Stew is dedicated to Flann O'Brien, which is appropriate, as Sorrentino takes the conceit of At Swim-Two-Birds and runs with it. Here we have one Antony Lamont, an extremely modestly successful experimental novelist struggling with a new book, which is supposed to be a kind of murder mystery. The chapters of his book are given, along with his notebooks where he agonizes over his work; his scrapbook that consists of relevant documents and various wordy dicking around; and various letters written to his sister (whose husband, Dermot Trellis, shares a name with/is the writer-within-the-book-within-the-book in At Swim-Two-Birds), a professor who wants to use one of his books in a course, an old flame, and several others. Meanwhile, within his book, there are two main characters, Martin Halpin (borrowed from Finnegans Wake) and Ned Beaumont (borrowed from Dashiell Hammett's Glass Key)—both of whom, incidentally, are in love with one Daisy Buchanan (from The Great Gatsby, of course). Martin and Ned are none too happy to be stuck in this book; the conceit is that literary characters kind of hang around this liminal space waiting for books to be in; when Lamont isn't controlling them, we get to read Halpin's journals and his commentary on this highly dubious author and the hoops he's making him and his co-workers jump through.

Lamont is quite a piece of work: seething with jealousy of more successful writers, which jealousy he tries to conceal with high-minded “it's just not real art”-type criticisms, and fake self-deprecation of his own work. His convolutions when he's rejected by a (lousy) poet who writes self-consciously sexual verse, and whom he'd thought would be an easy lay, are truly something to see. He would be absolutely unbearable to know in real life, but he's very well-drawn, and these self-serving letters he writes are pretty darn funny. Is he any kind of good writer? Well, that's not really an answerable question. We do get—apparently—the entirety of the novel he's working on, as well as excerpts from his other fiction. However, this doesn't really let us judge his work, because—this is the meta-est of meta-novels, after all—it's only sort of “his.” If Guinea Red were published as an actual novel, unadorned, no, it would not be a good novel. It would be more a “what the fuck is this shit?” kind of novel. On the other hand, in the context of Mulligan Stew, they're generally pretty entertaining, and it's obvious reading them that they're more Sorrentino than Lamont—if we can make that distinction. And he certainly isn't trying to write badly. It's a contradiction, maybe an unresolvable one, of the novel.

Now, none of this is even to begin to address what you're going to be spending a big chunk of your time reading if you attempt this novel. There's a quote in the back by an art historian about Cézanne which puts Sorrentino's game into focus:

Cézanne attempted to go beyond the sublime balances of nature, not content with the analytical methods that the great artists of the past has considered sufficient to her [sic?] revelation and interpretation; he desired a synthesis that would allow him to decorate nature with the forms and colors that existed nowhere except in his own secret thought. Thus, his late painting nowhere shows forth nature's splendors, but instead, is a failure precipitated by the surrender to the pleasures of the imagination.

In other words, this is a very hermetic book, concerned with itself as an object more than reflecting the outside world—which shouldn't come as a surprise; At Swim-Two-Birds is the same, albeit in a less extreme fashion.

So what does that mean, practically speaking? It means you're going to get many long lists of nonsense, among other things. Here's a bit from an earlier story by Lamont, in which the character's character is allegedly illuminated by his likes and dislikes:

He was wont to have an accident over a girl that men forget, lingering awhile, being on the mall and swingin' down the lane, wild flowers, Charley his boy, fascinating rhythm, a June night, his best girl, his dream girl, his Katharina, a lonesome babe lost in the wood, the winks of an angel, a rhapsody in blue, a serenade post-orangeade, tea for two, a love that's always true, a cuppa coffee (jive java, Jim!), a sangwich and her, Dinah, drifting and dreaming, a Swiss miss who missed him, sitting on top of the world, and moonlight and roses.

Do you find this amusing? Would you, perhaps, like to read nine pages in the same vein? If so, this is definitely the book for you; if not...not. There is a lot more where that came from, including something the likes of which I have truly never seen: a...truly indescribable mathematics paper, with zany footnotes and surreal hypotheticals. Is the math meaningful, or gibberish? I couldn't tell you, but I was impressed.

You can probably guess where I fall on the amusing/not amusing scale; I'll admit that there were places where it was just so hermetic that it became a bit much, but overall, I found Mulligan Stew to be an impressive and delightful book, and I hope I end up reading more Sorrentino. That was a weird way to end that sentence, implying that it's not up to me whether I do or not. But you know what I mean, maybe; you sort of drift around and you can't quite be sure what you'll read. ANYWAY.


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Nice. Sorrentino is one of my favorite writers...too bad there will never be more of him.

Thanks for posting your review!

9:38 AM  

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