Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#3]

I’ve recently finished Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew and the verdict is this: masterpiece.

The novel centres around arrogant avant-garde novelist Antony Lamont and chronicles his gradual descent into writerly oblivion. Antony considers his first published work, Three Deuces – a standard potboiler crime novel – to be among the great works of American literature. His follow-up novel he labels a Sur-Neofictional mystery – a dreadful piece of indulgent, ponderous hack work – the progress of which we get to read throughout the novel.

This is Sorrentino’s first stroke of genius: his ability to parody bad writing. No writer has exhaustively lampooned the stylistic tics of the hopeless hack with such brutal and hilarious attention to detail. Example (p232):

Suddenly, I adjudged that Daisy had flown swiftly to the ladies’ room. Had I been wrong, after all, about her? Fool! Fool! Blind stupid fool. How I had hurried on, a frail canoe with the current, rushing from the past! And now it was all too clear what a mistake I had made. I bit my knuckles until they hurt me like coals of fire. I mean like if coals of fire had been applied to them. Thus were the sharpness of my teeth. Then she was back, eyeing me narrowly and with a curious stare as if realizing that it was I that she had earlier looked at as if seeing for the first time and not someone that she had indeed seen for the first time.

The novel contains fourteen chapters of this pin-sharp satire – a satire which is so effective, I felt smothered by the sheer awfulness of this manuscript, as though I was being chased by Sorrentino from the book. Which brings me to postmodern pranks at play in the book. The characters in Antony’s novel are desperate to escape the prose and find a home elsewhere in a far less arduous manuscript. We gradually watch Antony’s personnel slipping away from him as he loses complete control of his novel (and mind). Hilarious.

This notion of characters ‘on loan’ from other writers is a crucial seam of the book. Sorrentino has taken characters from James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Dashiell Hammett and employed them in his novel. Understandably then, the style very much mirrors the comic whimsy, relentless invention, and original spirit of these influences, making Mulligan Stew the embodiment of the intertextual novel, as well as a literary critic’s wet dream.

The novel is partly epistolary, comprising of letters Antony writes to his sister Sheila, ranting about his difficulty and loathing for his more successful contemporary Dermot Trellis. There are bizarre parodies of academic mathematical papers, sophomoric erotic poems and SPAM letters – each target exhausted to the height of overindulgence (the masque parody becomes unbearable), but nonetheless comprehensively savaged.

Mulligan Stew is effectively a novel against cliché, bad writing and writer egos. Sorrentino spent his career napalming cliché in his poems, criticism and handful of novels, and this masterpiece demonstrates his spellbinding comic imagination and passion for the unpretentious in books.

Recently reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press in an unflattering cover (it looks like a lit textbook), the novel is a Promethean undertaking but is a crucial work for the writer concerned with the faults in their own work – it is instructional as well as inspirational.

Yes. Own it.

1 comment:

  1. I Sabbath thee, thou damned walrus. What porpoise couldst thou have but flagellate my course yearnings upon this whetstone of desire...