Introduction

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Sorrentino, Gilbert 1929–2006

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Sorrentino, an American poet, novelist, and critic, and an editor of Grove Press, values, for his own work, "a verse dense in its particulars, but flexible in its total structure." (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Sharon Fawcett [Thesen]

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Gilbert Sorrentino's Splendide-Hôtel is a splendid book. The Splendide-Hôtel ('built in a chaos of glaciers and the polar night'), invented by Arthur Rimbaud and reinvented by Sorrentino is a place in the country of a poet's mind where people and poems come to stay for a while, perhaps forever. Sorrentino's heart rests there a spell to render alphabetically the Splendide-Hôtel and its guests and its pests (so many rats as to take over the whole world.) The alphabeticalness is important because it's simple and because the words a poet writes are things made of alphabet elements where vowels are the sounding spaces.

Splendide-Hôtel is altogether a 'radiant gist' and Sorrentino pays homage in this book to Williams and Rimbaud whose spinnings of art into the matter of the quotidian—and here my dictionary tells me with astonishing accuracy to this content, that the 'quotidian' is anything that returns every day; a fever whose paroxysms return every day—whose spinnings are perhaps mentioned by the academics drinking vodka highballs in the lounge of the Splendide-Hôtel. The alphabet is the Splendide-Hôtel, an act of the imagination. The realm of 'Letters.'… [Those] who love the Alchemy of the Word are 'left finally with its essence to be set against the world.' Against those Men of Letters, no matter how snazzy, whose language is that of 'instruction booklets on the installation of air conditioners' Sorrentino turns his invective, there reminding me most of Williams who would declare that all writing but Poetry is a lie. And in this real respect, Splendide-Hôtel is a defense of Poetry, radically so, in that it returns to the primary construct of words to get at primary meanings, images. (pp. 97-8)

The gulfs of darkness residing in the mundane both [Williams and Rimbaud] revelled in become Sorrentino's puzzlements over a selfdestructing America: 'I don't know why. One week they were playing shuffleboard at Jack's Inn, drinking Schenley and Falstaff, and the next they were at home, searching for a vein.' H. Heroin. Hydrogen Bomb. Hotel. Home. 'Sa porte est ouverte à la misère.' today there are poets boarding the bus marked L'ENFER and taking it to Prince George, B.C. via Paterson, New Jersey.

The correspondences, Sorrentino says, are easy to pinpoint and by now you can probably see where some of them lie. I love this book called Splendide-Hôtel. (p. 99)

Sharon Fawcett [Thesen], "Colors" (copyright © 1976 by Sharon Fawcett [Thesen]; reprinted by permission of the author), in Open Letter, Third Series, No. 5, Summer, 1976, pp. 97-9.

Gerald Grealish

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The Orangery, a collection of 84 liberally formed sonnets, each containing a variation of the word "orange," is not about orange. True enough, though, as Sorrentino says in one of these poems, "These oranges hold it all."

Non sequiturs as sequiturs, sequiturs as non sequiturs, are here "absolute logic." You are, when you read this, entering a world where experience is what it is. Not yours. Yet you are invited in even when you are not "invited" in. "Nothing is the thing that rhymes with orange," the poet tells us—and don't look for reason either. (p. 327)

Here you arrive at a place, places, as indefinite as those places which, in William Blakes world, synthesize into geographic-imaginative-spiritual locations. And the method too is not dissimilar; there is a network of words which are repeated in different contexts, which do not mean, when they recur, the same thing in any strict sense, yet carry with them, in some accumulative sense, a constancy. Many are colors other than orange. Many are not colors. These "symbols" make themselves. Appearing, as they do, in the strangest of juxtapositions, often it is their incongruity that establishes them….

But as random as orange and so many other colors, images, and adjectives, are, they create the texture for what is a very emotive work. The connections through it all to the mother who died, and for whom is held the most loving of memories, resonate again and again.

The elusive "Madame Mystere," antagonist and synthesis of "woman" for the male voice here, engenders the confusion of mother, sensuous woman, confidante, and untouchable. "Orange" is the access to her mystery, yet remains itself, and can only hint through indirection, misdirection even….

Need I say it? This is a beautiful book. (p. 328)

Gerald Grealish, "Non-Fiction: 'The Orangery'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 38, No. 10, January, 1979, pp. 327-28.

Valerie Trueblood

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In 1971 Gilbert Sorrentino published a novel about poets, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, a savage book full of judgments his acquintances must have prayed would not be thought to refer to them. ("Free! Free! Irremediably poor. Such work is irremediable because it has no working parts. It is a great chunk of, say, Liederkranz."…) I mention this book because it is very good, still awaiting its public, at least on my coast, and because Sorrentino has both gifts, fictional and poetic, in a measure I don't think we've seen since Williams.

These poems dazzle at first with their intense colors, and inside them like a bee is enough spite to scare the browser…. Immediately you hear Stevens, and Rimbaud at his bitterest. "Note the bitterness and wanton/patterns of assault," Sorrentino urges.

He doubts his readers, offers his cruel poems and his tender ones with a faint sneer. He is offering a great deal. With color in The Orangery he makes a street from the past (his, America's) to the nerves of his reader….

The Orangery is a series … in an elegiac key, in which anger is the treble to a bass of grief and memory…. It is a life-story told in a few scenes barely limned—or invented…. It is also a portrait, in vignettes, colors, ditties, of an invented Texas (Sorrentino is a New Yorker), a sleazy brilliantly-colored place inhabited by Mexicali Rose and Mr. America among others; outside this Texas are an equally chromatic Florida: a real (though past, and softened) New Jersey; the fields of Kansas; Brooklyn and Queens; Joliet, Mobile. I think this is the best poem-of-America (taking it as one poem in many parts) in years. Sorrentino's sense of strain is not the popular anxiety, but the strain, as Williams experienced it, of being American, being an artist in America, trying to see without repudiating the whole, to repudiate without losing sentience.

Valerie Trueblood, "Books: 'The Orangery'," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1979 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Valerie Trueblood), Vol. 8, No. 1, January-February, 1979, p. 29.

John Leonard

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There is a very real question as to whether avant-garde fiction can survive Gilbert Sorrentino's new novel ["Mulligan Stew"]. There is also a question as to whether the New York publishing community can survive it too, although that, of course, is much less interesting. "Mulligan Stew," instead of consisting of meat and vegetables, consists entirely of literature, of parody and complaint and paranoia and pop-absurdism. It is as if Buck Mulligan was a hero or had written "Ulysses," instead of Stephen Dedalus and James Joyce. But Mr. Sorrentino contains, and reviles, them all.

"Mulligan Stew" is full of Joyce, too much so; and of Nabokov, Flaubert, Proust, Gogol, Flann O'Brien, D. H. Lawrence, Edmund (Bunny) Wilson, Norman Mailer, Henry James, Bernard Malamud, the Marquis de Sade, Thomas Dekker, Sylvia Plath, John Updike, Anaïs Nin, Zane Grey, Erica Jong, William H. Gass, various Latin Americans, everybody else I haven't mentioned, plus the rest of us—the entire service class of careerist bookchat. It is as if all of Lionel Trilling's bad dreams about the teaching of modernism had been stuffed inside a single typewriter. (p. 244)

Among the many literary artifacts that "Mulligan Stew" parodies are the mystery novel, the pornographic novel, the western, the 17th-century masque, the 20th-century publisher's catalogue, female erotic poetry, book reviews, art criticism, writers' notebooks, monographs on mathematics, baseball scorecards and astrology charts. The masque, as one might expect, owes a lot to "Ulysses" in "Nighttown" and goes on too long. Most of the parodies, in fact, go on too long, but they are so funny that I can't imagine how to cut them, and neither could Mr. Sorrentino. One exception is the brief parody of erotic poetry, which is such liberated rubbish that it made me cry. Mr. Sorrentino has been accused, and accuses one of his characters, of misogyny. The charge should have been good taste. (pp. 244-45)

To summarize the action in "Mulligan Stew" is to make a fool of oneself in public. So what else is new? Lamont, an experimental novelist of the obscure school, seldom reviewed and never read, is writing a "new wave" murder mystery. This means that he deposits several characters borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald into a twilight zone invented, perhaps, by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and makes them talk like Dashiell Hammett….

Add faith, inauthenticity, flashback, interior harangue, identity crisis, paranoia, dream, fracture, puns, sex, bile, death and footnotes—"Mulligan Stew" is a combination of incest and cannibalism. It shows up for cocktails, in the library, dressed like the Death of the Novel, a suicide-kit of modernism. I found it hilarious. It is also full of rage.

It rages against the packagers and merchandisers and pedagogues of the sensibility as a commodity. Mr. Sorrentino, a novelist and poet of extreme and alarming seriousness, is just as angry as he is clever. (p. 245)

John Leonard, "'Mulligan Stew'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 24, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 5, 1979, pp. 244-45).

Ernest Larsen

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Billed as a "new wave murder mystery" whose subject is really "the comic possibilities of modern literary history," Mulligan Stew appears to be Sorrentino's lunge for the main chance….

While Mulligan Stew could use a little of the mystery's rigor, it fits far more comfortably in the avant-garde's cracked but commodious crockpot. The avant-garde tradition may be temporarily exhausted, but it has produced some notable messes. Would that the overstocked Mulligan Stew were one of them.

This particular melange, too clever to bother with the mechanics of mystery, deliberately (so deliberately) exploits the most vapid cliche the avant-garde has to offer. You've got one sentence to guess it. Right, the novel about the writer writing a novel….

One section is pretty funny. Before the novel proper begins—before even the title page—Sorrentino parodies a number of publishers' and editors' (mostly reject) letters about the novel….

Apart from the humor, there's a noticeable defensive and even contemptuous undertone in beginning a book this way. This is not ameliorated by the triple-play epigraph that soon follows….

[The quality of the writing in the "novel within the novel"] is so deliberately, so unrelievedly awful that it's hard to imagine what pleasure Sorrentino got out of the considerable effort. The picture he gives of the act of writing is one of unmitigated misery, and he pushes the punishment so far as to give three equally lame versions of the first chapter.

Each of these pieces of driftwood from the inside novel is followed by fragments from [other writings] …, all apparently intended to provide opportunities for Sorrentino to dazzle us with his virtuoso parodic talents. It would all float like so much effluvia between the chapters of bombast were it not for two threads Sorrentino thoughtfully throws out to keep the reader from succumbing to total despair.

The first is the ludicrous melodrama of Lamont's burgeoning paranoia….

The other thread he provides is the whimsical device of giving his characters Beaumont and Halpin existence outside Lamont's novel about them…. Sorrentino's platonic notion that all fictional characters are created from a pool of preexistent fictional possibilities helps to explain and excuse his systematic "comic" abuse of them….

The layers of irony, literary gamesmanship, and self-protection are so thick in this novel that one searches in vain for a single moment of authenticity. Sorrentino's sophistication and verbal ability (he has to be writing this bad on purpose) preclude the possibility that he doesn't know what he's doing in perpetrating this hoax….

Denying us both intellectual and natural sustenance, Sorrentino imperiously starves his readers by offering an inedible mock-up of a novel, mere decoration instead of the real thing.

Ernest Larsen, "Colonel Mustard in the Study with the Smith-Corona," in The Village Voice (copyright © 1979; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 22, May 28, 1979, p. 81.

Martin Booth

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[Gilbert Sorrentino's] work takes in the form and tradition of such writers as Rakosi, Bronk and, in emotive stance, Bly.

His diction is terse but not sparse [in The Orangery] and he has the observant knowledge of the authoritarian poet, and the ability to expand simple action or sight into a vast panorama of feeling and pathos, much of it implied, and here lies the skill.

No light verse, the work needs concentrated reading, which is what English poetry readers lack. It is time such extraterritorial offerings were accepted.

Martin Booth, "The Dated, the Demanding, the Daunting," in Tribune (reprinted by permission of Tribune, London), Vol. 43, No. 23, June 8, 1979, p. 7.∗

Michael Dirda

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Let's begin with the essentials. Mulligan Stew is utterly dazzling. Its pedigree goes back, not to the well-made novel, but rather to the "anatomy"—those extravaganzas that sprawl across world literature, offering encyclopedic, and usually comic, views of life and its foibles. Like Gargantua and Pantagruel or Tristram Shandy, Mulligan Stew sustains a display of linguistic virtuosity that takes your breath away. It contains some of the best parodies since S. J. Perelman at his most manic, and perhaps the most corrosive satire of the literary scene since early Aldous Huxley. This is a novel with all the stops pulled out, Gilbert Sorrentino's masterpiece….

A mulligan stew can contain anything—and Sorrentino has said that he wanted to be able to put anything into his book. He has. Part of its pleasure is in its variety: there are morsels for every literary taste. Essentially, the book parodies—with enormous gusto—the degraded language of cheap fiction, bad poetry, academic criticism. To control, if only gingerly, a chaos of language, Sorrentino employs three interconnected, yet distinct, stories. The narrative lines may seem complicated in summary, but each is clearly labeled and a reader will have no trouble keeping things straight. (p. C1)

Among the tastiest morsels of Mulligan Stew is an interview with a Nabokov look-alike named Thomas McCoy. "One wishes to create characters," says McCoy when questioned about his novelistic intent, "who will speak directly to the minds of comparative literature professors and intelligent book reviewers." Sorrentino, in his own way of course, does just this: the better read you are, the more jokes you get….

Like Perelman, Sorrentino also relishes mixing metaphors and changing allusions in the middle of a sentence…. At times he comes out with home truths perfect in their perverse logic….

The dual highpoints of Mulligan Stew are Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo and the orgy scene at the Club Zap. The first is a Joycean phantasmagoria—comparable to the Bloom in Nighttown section of Ulysses—with a cast of thousands, among whom are Susan B. Anthony and Barnacle Bill…. The whole thing is a carnival of off-color jokes, puns and burlesques, including a takeoff on Robert Herrick: "When as in scanties Betsy goes."

As should be clear by now, Sorrentino possesses a Rabelaisian bawdiness—some of his funniest jokes are not quotable here….

One should bear in mind that all of these puns and witticisms are happening "with the rapidity of speed itself"—they never let up. Still, the scenes are sufficiently paced so that the various stylistic acrobatics seldom pall—for example, a parodically dry paper on mathematical proofs thoughtfully prepares the reader for the luxurious orgy scene. Much of Sorrentino's brilliance and humor depend too on the gradual building of a situation and a language maniacally appropriate to it….

One hopes that this brilliant tour de force will bring [Gilbert Sorrentino] the recognition he deserves…. (p. C6)

Michael Dirda, "The Far Side of Parodies," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), June 17, 1979, pp. C1, C6.

Thomas R. Edwards

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Mulligan Stew is a quite wonderful book of literary joking and parody—if there had been no Joyce, no Gide or Sterne or Borges or Robbe-Grillet or Nabokov or Perelman, I'm almost convinced that Sorrentino could have invented them. Since he didn't, his book could be called derivative, but it plays with its great originals with such lively intelligence, understanding, and affection as to make obscure the distinction between creative and critical imagination….

[The fussy woodenness of the dialogue of the novel within this novel suggests] the puzzles we get into by trying to use language, any language, at all. The novelist who tries, and fails, to make sense with words, the characters who struggle to get out of one book only to find themselves in another, even less congenial one, are in a way our representatives, since the "real" world is as incurably verbal as any fictional one.

The nice thing about Sorrentino is that he finds this predicament a funny one, as Joyce did too—the thing to do is not to philosophize about it but to bring in as many more words, of whatever kind, as one can think of…. Mulligan Stew will not, I'm afraid, be widely read, but I recommend trying it out on anyone whose literacy and sense of humor may need testing. (p. 42)

Thomas R. Edwards, "Feeding on Fantasy," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 12, July 19, 1979, pp. 41-2.∗

Allen Lacy

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A work of true comic genius, [Mulligan Stew] not only entertains and engages the intelligent reader, but also manages to shed light on the processes of literary creation, on the making of bad novels as well as good ones.

Mulligan Stew may prove to be the literary curiosity of the year, perhaps the decade….

[It's] easy to see why some editors were reluctant to take the book on. Mulligan Stew is long (and to my mind could still stand a good pruning). It fits into no standard literary genre…. Abounding in puns both delicious and terrible and in allusions to a vast range of other literature, Mulligan Stew requires readers with well-furnished minds and a taste for verbal pyrotechnics….

To appreciate Mulligan Stew properly, the reader must realize Sorrentino's strategy: to fashion a wonderful literary concoction out of ingredients in themselves often quite horrible and unpalatable. The book is a fine stew that transcends its own ingredients—or perhaps a kaleidoscope that uses mirrors to transform scraps of torn paper into patterns that dazzle the eye….

Mulligan Stew is a leisurely book, sometimes slow, but with many delights along the way. Sorrentino's imagination is playful and droll, especially in his lists and catalogues….

Mulligan Stew is chock full … of delicious stuff. It may even be, as one of those editors who turned it down said, a commercial risk—and yet "a great book, perhaps … a masterpiece."

Allen Lacy, "Take One Rejection Slip, Add Water, and Stir," in Books & Arts (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), Vol. XVIII, No. 20, July 23, 1979, p. R4.

Malcolm Bradbury

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Since all literature is susceptible to parody, why not, then make parody literature? Gilbert Sorrentino has, with impressive results. "Mulligan Stew" has given me as much pleasure and intellectual joy as I have had from a novel in a long time.

"Mulligan Stew" is a work of contemporary experiment, and there are those who will classify it under the new, somewhat sagging banner of post-modernism, a movement ripe for redevelopment. But it is experiment raised to such a level of comedy—Flann O'Brien, whose influence pervades this novel, calls it "hilaritas," and it is a true esthetic principle—that it often risks all intellectual conviction in giving enjoyment (though it often forfeits enjoyment for the sake of intellectual conviction)….

No reader should be put off by the news that this is a book about writing….

The book's pleasure lies in its conviction that anything—and nothing—may be done with words. Plots are absurd but they grow; characters are paper but they live; the story stays busy, and even refuses to stop when we do. (p. 9)

[Mr. Sorrentino] revels in the wordy tomb of the times, in the sheer range of its offerings…. He also wishes to show the nature of our verbal prisons. "Mulligan Stew"—the title hints it—is a neo-Joycean concoction, spawning invention, delighting in lists, inventing languages, animating the endlessly comic fact that every sentence we write may generate its opposite, every structure of significance we create risks being parodied to the point of insignificance, every generative element in any story can move in an infinitude of directions. "Mulligan Stew" mocks the act of creation. It also thrives on it, turning itself into an abundant and extravagantly decorated display of the pleasures of the imagination. (p. 18)

Malcolm Bradbury, "Writing Mocking Writing," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 26, 1979, pp. 9, 18.

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