About Gilbert Sorrentino: Born on April 27, 1929, Sorrentino was one of the founders (1956, together with Hubert Selby Jr.) and the editor (1956-1960) of the literary magazine Neon, the editor for Kulchur (1961-1963), and an editor at Grove Press (1965-1970). Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X are among his editorial projects. Later he took up positions at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, the University of Scranton and the New School for Social Research in New York and then was a professor of English at Stanford University (1982-1999). The novelists Jeffrey Eugenides and Nicole Krauss were among his students, and his son, Christopher Sorrentino, is the author of the novels Sound on Sound and Trance.
In over twenty-five works of fiction and poetry, Sorrentino explored the comic and formal possibilities of language and literature. His insistence on the primacy of language and his forays into metafiction mark him as a postmodernist, but he is also known for his ear for American speech and his attention to the particularities of place, especially of his native Brooklyn. Mulligan Stew is considered his masterpiece.
“The idea of a novel about a writer writing a novel is truly old hat. Nothing further can be done with the genre, a genre that was exhausted at its moment of conception.”
And yet Mulligan Stew is such a novel, the alpha-omega of the genre as far as I can tell. However, it doesn’t simply or complexly exist on a Mobius strip. We mustn’t forget the cosmic sea of stories it sprang from. In the same way that two scientists can independently discover a mathematical proof or scientific theory, for instance, Italo Calvino and Gilbert Sorrentino—our Darwin and Wallace—both wrote postmodern novels exemplary of the second half of the 20th century. That is, constructed in a deconstructed and hyper-conscious way, polyphonic, critical of reading, of writing, &c. Indeed, If on a winter’s night a traveler was published in the same year yet not Englished until a couple of years later. The latter is a novel about a reader reading a novel while this one is a novel about a writer writing a novel, mirrors held up to mirrors. Calvino was always concerned with symmetry, mathematical precision even (just look at the matrix he constructed for Invisible Cities), while Sorrentino’s Stew is purposefully superfluous despite the fairly clear structure, chunky in its broth, you could say. There’s plenty of fun to be had here as Sorrentino includes everything and the kitchen sink, as well as the chick’n shrink, the hitchin’ slink, the stitchin’ kink, the sickened think, the quicken blink, the witch’s drink, and the bitchin’ Sphinx, just the way I like my Stew.
“I am not particular about food, although I love to read recipes. They rest me with their supreme inanity.”
Thus, to rest you dear reader, or perhaps unrest you, I present an incomplete recipe for Mulligan Stew, because no literary recipe is complete until it is digested by the ocular stomach:
—An ordure hors d’oeuvre plate of rejection letters
—Oodles and oodles of noodly lists:
- A fab dab of fake books and magazines
- A trollop dollop of song titles and lyrics
- A lactose intolerant smidgen of ice cream flavors
- A rashy dash of alliterative aliases
—An unctuous if innocent slab of a school paper on how to win the war with bacon grease, tin cans, and newspapers
—The seedy juice of novels within novels
—Several spicy spoonfuls of a broken English porno picture “broshure”
—A brief glug of baseball scorecards
—A curdly handful of handkäse in the form of an interview with a pompous old writer who calls James Joyce Shame’s Voice (Perhaps he also refers to the author of Lolita as Flatty-Smear No-Back-Off?)
—A vinegar solution that takes the piss out of epistolary
—A seared heifer haunch of a hyperbolic western
—A bowl of badly broiled erotica poetry (one dedicated to who but E. E. Cummings?)
—A wild sprig of a play in the vein of the “Circe” episode in Ulysses but in some ways even more bawdy and crazy
—A formicating pinch of Pynchonian songs
—A pickled plantain of a publisher’s catalog
—A deviled egg excerpt of an English translation of a Spanish-language novel
—An enigmatic umami paper on mathematics by a PhD
—A slimy and briny highfalutin orgy scene
—A processed and prepackaged chapter of plagiarism
—A sauté of astrological readings, seasoned to taste
Once a film of char develops, throw the rusty pot atop a three-legged table and eat with your unwashed hands, third-degree burns optional, although you may find some bites of the Stew cold or not as flavorful as your palate might expect, such as various long lists that are intriguing and humorous in theory yet not quite in practice. In such instances of blandness, it can be wise to either pinch the nose and swallow or briefly excuse oneself from the table. But what’s a stew of the mulligan variety without the odd grape stem, fishbone, lug nut, bug husk, and hairball?
By the end of the meal, however, your taste buds will have bloomed into a lingual garden, and your eyes will temporarily read other works as if they, too, were part of Lamont’s lachrymose Loserville, for better or bratwurst.
What plot is in the pot? The main mop thread you’ll find in your Stew concerns the novel that a hack ‘avant-garde’ writer named Antony Lamont is trying to scribble, tentatively titled Guinea Red, essentially a solipsistic murder mystery.
It’s not long until his two main characters become disgruntled about their new assignment, one having been hired (if not kidnapped) out of Finnegans Wake by Shame’s Voice and another out of The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett: their names are Martin Halpin and Ned Beaumont, respectively. There are also characters on loan (if not purloined) from The Great Gatsby, At Swim-Two-Birds, and elsewhere, for all and every character that has ever been thought up or even half thought up has a career in the bookverse, or at least yearns for one if they find themselves in a kind of purgatorial town. While six characters are in search of an author in Pirandello’s play, Lamont’s two characters are in search of an escape from their awful author. They inhabit the cabin that Lamont’s novel opens with, the characters discovering that the place is twilight-zoned within a sort of collective consciousness filled with unfinished ideas and visions; the cabin itself doesn’t even seem like an original conception, filled as it is with objects from at least one other novel. As they familiarize themselves with this place, one of the pair eventually goes out on an expedition and finds a location where other characters await their chance at a big break like toys in a claw machine.
The frame tale is what makes the purposefully bad fiction and poetry entertaining, from misplaced commas to melodramatic hyperbole, even cliché tics: “as if seeing him for the first time,” which managed to be a successful running gag in all its unexpected permutations. And don’t forget the obnoxious similes for dialogue tags, amateur and un-self-conscious pleonasm, and a miasmic asthma of adverbs.
There’s plenty going on within these alliaceous layers. Lamont’s novel exponentially loses structure, meaning, and more as he becomes paranoid about his social status as a writer. Among other things, he’s convinced that his potboiling brother-in-law is trying to sabotage his chances of having one or more of his works represented in a college fiction course. Part of the satire that Sorrentino depicts with grotesque gusto is that of hack writers bashing and gossiping about hack writers within a zero-sum game. These days, rather than in letters and other old-fashioned mediums, this petty and toxic and sinister side of writers can be found alive and unwell on (anti)social media, even more so of a Frankenstein’s monster if you encounter the wrong types, the unctuous ones who pretend to read books in the hope that the authors will read theirs, who beg for blurbs or for you to share the cover reveal of their self-published novel, who, wanting free edits or feedback, email their entire 10,000-page unpublished manuscript when you show the slightest iota of interest out of politeness even though it’s the third one you’re receiving that week alone, sometimes the hopeful if not hopeless writer emails the manuscript for no reason other than that they heard from someone else that you’ve published at least one book once. At times, it can feel like this encompasses everyone in the writing community when in reality it’s only some. And let’s not forget predatory networking in which a writer you may know to one degree or another gets upset with you because you didn’t mention any of his or her books in a review you wrote for a book that’s completely irrelevant to theirs, even going so far as to suggest the ostensible omission was due to envy. Or a writer who continually asks you to mention him or her to the other, more established writers you know and love on the off chance of what? That they’ll take the book to their publisher, their agent? And then what? Get you your first book deal in over two decades since you first and last had an agent before threatening that agent with violence? Amid this are writers who spend more time using marketing gimmicks and hyperbolic descriptors on social media to promote their vanity press novel than they spent writing it in the first place (GET A FREE MCDONALD’S TOY WHEN YOU PREORDER THIS POSTPOSTPOSTMODERN ENCYCLOPEDIC MAXIMALIST METAFICTIONAL ANTI-NOVEL NOW! [not available in any bookstores; substance sold separately]). But that is just the tip of the assburp. However, if it was all gun and fames, then I don’t think Sorrentino would have bothered to write the Stew. No, there is plenty of sincerity to be had even now, but oftentimes it requires taking out the crass, exorcising the classless, and culling the hurl-inducing herd first.
Wait, what do we have here? Oh, these are ‘reviews’ of the Stew by blind or dyslexic or blind and dyslexic readers who ordered the dish after wishing upon a scar:
“I was fascinated at first but quickly dropped it to read more Nabokov, Joyce, and O’Brien instead of this hash and tepid paraphrase of their works. I mean, this homage.”
“Tedious, tedious, tedious. Did I mention that it was tedious? Oh, also, it’s tedious. It ain’t funny either.”
“This is the kind of book for people who like to watch ‘bad’ movies, analyzing and poking fun.”
“This may not be Finnegan’s Wake [sic] — and it really wants to be — but it may be as close as the American idiom will come to it.”
“If you’re into pomo word torrents for the sake of pomo word torrents, then this book will make you come again and again…”
“…it reads like a self-absorbed guitar player soloing gratuitously over the music to the point of distraction and ruination of the song.”
“OMFG. I am not even sure about the two stars. About half was ‘reasonable’, but the rest? Ugh. […] I enjoy most books I read, even those that stretch the definition of what a novel is supposed to be, but this one was way too much.”
“Brilliant, and completely aware it. [sic]
Annoying, and completely unaware of it.
Elitist, sad, brilliant, creative, funny, sad,
aggressive, hostile, mean, discouraging,
Gil[bert Sorrentino]: “It is a long book and thus will cost as much as a few bar Scotches and a bad movie—far, far beyond the purchasing ability of the intelligent middle class. It is, in certain parts, insanely hermetic and in others, rife with longueurs. Yet it should bring a smile to the face of anyone not of the Methodist persuasion.”
Tony [Lamont]: “I am going to risk letting all of this show, the oily machinery, and furthermore, letting the machinery be as wild and absurd as a Rube Goldberg contraption. […] It’s the reader’s problem, sez I, in my best Rube Goldberg voice.”
“The last thing I’d want is to become a sardonic mocker like the ‘cowboys.’ Rather than that, Ned said, one would be better off working in the feature roles in first novels by students in creative-writing workshops, ‘the bottom of the barrel.’”
Addendumb, a review of Sorrentino’s Splendide-Hôtel: A kind of compressed Mulligan Stew but less microcosm than vague SparkNotes. Elements are there, such as the propensity for lists, the metafiction of the author, etc., but with little to none of the passion and delight to be found in the heartier recipe of the Stew. As the author admits, the construction is loose. Ostensibly located at a hotel mentioned in a Rimbaud work, each section of this brief book is a—again, ostensibly—meditation on a letter from the alphabet. I had intimations of William Gass’ On Being Blue only to later see it mentioned in the marketing material. Yes, both works start with a thesis that is quickly abandoned if there ever was one in the first place. On Being Blue isn’t about blue as much as this book isn’t about the alphabet. One fun moment was seeing Leopold Bloom’s cucker Blazes Boylan mentioned in a list of games. There are also names that are featured more prominently in Mulligan Stew, making me wonder if they were added in for this new edition (new being 1984 as opposed to the first edition being 1973, originally 6 years before the publication of the Stew). What names? That of the character Antony Lamont (in a hotel guest list) and, earlier, his novel Rayon Violet.
I’d only recommend this little volume to Sorrentino completionists or those who are curious about the first book of fiction Dalkey Archive ever published.
Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media. For early access to literary content like this and other awesome benefits, consider supporting The Collidescope on Patreon.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.