Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mulligan Stew is a novel about writing and the elements involved in it: authors, characters, words, different kinds of languages, and the nature of fictional reality. The novel questions the traditional view of the author as creator and source of meaning. The most lively and interesting parts of the novel are parodies of the work of other authors, which suggests that plagiarism is a major theme. Sorrentino re-creates sections of James Joyce’s work, mimics Vladimir Nabokov in the chapter “A Bag of Blues,” and parodies erotic poetry with fictional Lorna Flambeaux’s “The Sweat of Love.” The language of the entire novel has a “borrowed” quality. Each section reminds readers of some kind of writing they have already read, such as the first chapter of Dermot Trellis’s new novel, titled “Red Dawn and Blue Denim,” a parody of every Western novel and movie the reader has ever encountered. Eventually, the characters from Lamont’s novel run into the characters in Trellis’s, crossing the boundaries that contain characters in more traditional fiction.

Literary parody is the major device of Mulligan Stew, and the work of James Joyce, the master of literary parody, plays a prominent role in the novel. Quotations from Joyce, especially from Finnegans Wake, are sprinkled throughout Sorrentino’s book, and a section of Daisy Buchanan’s monologue is obviously an attempt to parody the stream-of-consciousness technique in Ulysses (1922). Significantly, Sorrentino makes sure that Daisy calls attention to the technique: “. . . do you like the way I’m talking on and on without any pauses or punctuation it’s my consciousness just simply streaming.” With one of his characters pointing to the texts he parodies, Sorrentino parodies his own novel.

By drawing attention to the devices used in his own novel and by upsetting the reader’s expectations at every turn, Sorrentino not only entertains the reader but also examines the processes of creating literature. He illustrates the facts that almost every sentence can call up its opposite and that every story can branch into an infinite number of directions.