At one point in Mulligan Stew, Anthony Lamont, the “novel’s” apparent subject, writes in a letter to his sister: “The idea of a novel about a writer writing a novel is truly old hat. Nothing further can be done with that genre, a genre that was exhausted at its moment of conception.” Although the entire book is a self-mockery, a dose of hemlock for the suffering contemporary writer, Sorrentino demonstrates amply that this particular “genre,” as Lamont calls it, has scarcely breathed until Mulligan Stew. This book deserves to take a place beside the masters of self-reflexive fiction, if not some of the masters of fiction itself. For its self-parody and its sparring with great traditions, this novel’s earliest known ancestor is surely Petronius’ Satyricon. Mulligan Stew belongs in the same sentence with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Federico Fellini’s film 8½, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and, for its daring comprehensiveness, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Like them, Mulligan Stew will be no popular sensation, nor is it likely to be discovered as a masterpiece that provides a literary key to an age. Instead, it is a confection of language about a novelist’s descent into madness.
The story, if there is such, must be assembled by the reader through the novel’s ingredients: journals, letters, notebooks, scrapbooks, chapters from a novel in progress, and lists about practically everything; a masque (Flawless Play Restored; Or, The Masque of Fungo, which features Susan B. Anthony, Jack Armstrong, Barnacle Bill, and James Joyce, among other players, and which Sorrentino published separately in 1974); a book of erotic poetry (The Sweat of Love) by Lorna Flambeaux, a frigid poetess; and a scholarly scientific treatise called “Recent Studies in Contravariant Behavior Processes in Complex Resolutions,” complete with 114 amusing footnotes by Morton D’Ovington, Ph.D.
The lists deserve at least a partial listing. (The Book of Lists may sometimes seem paltry and unimaginative in comparison to Sorrentino’s listing.) We can find five pages of “A Garland of Impresions (sic) & Beliefs Culled from a Lifetime by E. B., A Disappointed Author” (example: “Canned soup played a major but ignored role in the opening of the West.”); nearly five pages of a “small publisher’s catalog” (example: The Pig Leap by Christopher Lavery, plus a description that is equally as punning); thirty-one flavors of ice cream at the Kreem Works (examples: Blushing Cherry, Pear Goriot, Quick Lime, Ginger Rogers); questions from Lamont’s Scrapbook (example: “Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked? Waiting on the levee, waiting for the ’Robert E. Lee’”—plus more than a page of eloquence on “What is this thing called love?”); over nine pages of song titles describing what O’Mara (a character in one of Lamont’s stories) liked (example: “How his heart went boom-boom-bammy ’bout a beautiful lady in blue, Bess, dancing cheek to prancing cheek, a house a showplace, the mood for love, one of those bells that now and then rings,” and so on); colors of a character’s trousers; presents that writers gave or might have given their favorite characters; things for Corrie and Berthe to buy for their “little play” on the weekend (examples: “Two pairs evening-(full) length white kid gloves. Two white girdles with garters attached. Two pairs of white nylons” and the like); clichés editors use in rejection letters (examples: “undeveloped character of,” “book never quite engages,” “the writing as writing is very good,” “certainly can write,” and the like); and at least fifty other lists of wide-ranging subjects. The effect is to create an inclusive world in which everything that is familiar to the middle-American reader is part of the novel’s texture, humorously mirroring the environment we call our own. What Sorrentino has done is to transform the “real” world of our lives into a verbal one, which is no small feat. Sorrentino is aware of this idea, for he has his Lamont, who is “explaining” about literature to the poetess Lorna Flambeaux, say that “Writers often like to parody, in their rough way, the absurd manners of the bourgeois world ’they never made.’” Not only is the bourgeois world captured within this novel’s verbal world, but also the world of middle-brow literature is likewise ensnared. Such is Sorrentino’s inventiveness.
The “story” situation is this: Anthony Lamont, an avant-garde novelist with a tin ear for language, is struggling to complete his new novel, a kind of highbrow murder mystery, which he is sure will establish his reputation as an important literary figure. His adversaries are probably too terrible to be totally humorous to any contemporary new novelist. He feels he is being outmaneuvered in his plan for fame and fortune by his sister’s husband, Dermont Trellis, who is an ambitious academic; and he must deal with the prudish poetess whose book of poetry he feels he must scorn—particularly after she does not yield to his sexual invitations. His worst struggle, however, is against his characters, whom he has stolen from James Joyce (Ulysses), Flann O’Brien (At-Swim, Two Birds), Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), all used in his tedious thriller (first called Guinea Red but changed later to Crocodile Tears). They resent what Lamont is doing to them—altering their reputations, devaluing their status—and they have the capacity to resist, for Halpin keeps a journal of his own. He launches an attack on Lamont’s novel in progress, and he rewrites some of Lamont’s chapters when he is not looking, to improve it.
The result for Lamont of all these adversaries—which he interprets as assaults on his effort to gain his rightful literary fame—is a growing incoherence and paranoia. While his craziness waxes, the characters escape from his novel and go to find a better fiction in which to reside, probably Sorrentino’s “novel.” The originals whom Sorrentino engages for his work are brilliantly costumed and dialogued for the maximum impact with an audience of literary buffs whose appetite for 445 pages of stand-up comic parody has to be relentless. The rewards will be chuckles and guffaws at parodies of mystery...
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