Anatomy of Surfaces: Mulligan Stew and the Political Fantasies of America's Literary Factions.
Chief among the various indignities suffered by Anthony Lamont, the character whose disintegration helps the reader find his or her way through Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, is Lamont's ill-fated correspondence with Professor Roche, a scholar of contemporary literature. Before Roche's professed appreciation for the writings of this floundering, would-be avant-garde novelist dissolves into a series of lacerating critiques, Lamont imagines that the correspondence might somehow check the quickly diminishing prospects of his own career: "... this small chance may be my last to acquire a readership among students. It could possibly mean readings, lectures, writer-in-residence jobs, paperback reprints of my books, etc., etc." (224-5). This system of patronage, through which many of the most interesting poets and writers of our time have become lackeys for tenured academics (tenured radicals, was it?!), is one that Gilbert Sorrentino knew all too well. For the better part of two decades, Sorrentino taught as a professor in the English department at Stanford University. This position proved an awkward fit for the son of a dockworker from Brooklyn, for whom even the profession of "writer" had at one time appeared unthinkable. In an interview with Barry Alpert, Sorrentino says, "Given the kind of working-class background that I came out of, there was literally no conception in my mind that I could become a writer, a serious writer, an artist, as it were" (Alpert, Vort, 1974; Jacket, 2006).
Sorrentino's discomfort with the "profession" of literature may have contributed to the disdain with which his colleagues sometimes regarded him. As a student of Sorrentino's in the late 1990s, I will never forget the tone of contempt--as Anthony Lamont, or almost any other hack, would have it--with which one of my professors dismissed Sorrentino's support for the "experimental" thesis proposal I had submitted: "Gil makes a passionate argument for experimental writing" my professor told me, "but let's be honest. Nobody--really nobody--reads his books."
Of course, it is precisely this ominous, ignominious threat of irrelevance that Gilbert Sorrentino's works court perversely, incessantly, with dignity, and with despair. Such a quality is borne of a consciousness that refuses to pretend that the sickness, the violence, or the degradation--whichever empty abstraction one chooses to employ--that defines the dehumanizing brutality with which so-called American society crushes its subjects can ever be adequately addressed by literature, in and of itself; a consciousness, moreover, that sniffs, in the putrid, composting discourse from which most left-leaning, so-called "criticism" and "analysis" emerges, a whiff of the old familiar, that gorgeous ash-heap of fermenting meat otherwise known as the great American con; and a consciousness that recognizes, with regret, with humor, and with no small amount of guilt, that writing can only and inevitably participate in this con. Thus, for example, "Honest Bill" a self-referential charlatan conjured by William Burroughs, and one that Sorrentino appreciated: "Bill's Naked Lunch Room ... Step right up ... Good for young and old, man and bestial. Nothing like a little snake oil to grease the wheels and get a show on the track Jack. Which side are you on? Fro-Zen Hydraulic? Or you want to take a look around with Honest Bill?" (Burroughs 208).
Critics have variously characterized features of Mulligan Stew as ironic or as completely lacking in irony, as pastiche or parody, as satire or thoughtless imitation. Needless to say, intercourse between critics with regard to such matters has not resulted in any recognizable, harmonious unity--a fact that does not, of course, indicate failure. As we all must know by now, literary scholars prefer rough, sometimes forced intercourse, not only with each other, but especially with those writers whose works they fetishize as instruments of political, revolutionary, or subversive potential--after all, rough intercourse is what keeps this bordello they call academia humping along. In any event, Lamont's reflections on his failure to establish a relationship with Professor Roche provide a helpful reminder of the academic patronage upon which so many writers now depend.
The uncomfortable fact is that avant-garde poetry and prose remain (fortunately, some would say) utterly irrelevant to the larger political mechanizations of the nation as a whole. "Nobody--really nobody--reads [these] books:' And yet, anyone interested in the history of American avant-garde writing should read Mulligan Stew. It is a book of significant political importance, specifically for those committed to the concept of the avant-garde as politically important--and precisely because Mulligan Stew ridicules the immortal mythology of the American avant-garde as politically important. Mulligan Stew relentlessly mocks the significance of the text it contains. Critics of the novel find themselves in the position of the bishop who discovers that the parish priest already buggers the boy of his fantasies, or the prison guard who happens upon the corpse of the condemned man, his planned execution now ruined thanks to a preemptive act of self-destruction. Mulligan Stew has dissected itself before the reader ever picks it up, before he or she even so much as opens the cover to discover the famous publishers' rejection letters that inaugurate readers into this already-defiled foil (or would an older, duller saw--"broken mirror" for example--make for the more appropriate descriptor?) for the avant-garde American novel.
Underneath the exercise in form otherwise known as Mulligan Stew lies a deeply disturbing reality otherwise known as America, a cadaver whose cancerous organs continue to demand collective denial and repression. This denial and repression is most active not in the minds of most of the American citizenry, for whom the status quo remains preferable to uncertain alternatives, but in the minds of well-meaning elites, intellectuals, and so-called avant-garde artists, who imagine that widespread exposure, both of their own work, as well as the hypocrisy that defines American politics, might fuel some magical movement for significant change. Mulligan Stew is an exercise in form; on this much, at least, most critics agree. It is also, these critics generally agree, a triumph of form over content, pure code sans decoder, an instrument of linguistic clockwork so well-built that one never need check its inner workings; in truth, it seems, it does not even have any. Mulligan Stew thus appears to fall, as it were, out of the postmodern fog. The text may have some relationship to the New Left, but it never declares a political purpose, never stakes a claim to that rotten necropolis otherwise known as American citizenship. It seems that a book composed of surfaces must have no innards.
"Surfaces, I'm interested in surfaces, really;' Sorrentino says. "For me, life is right in front of you. Mysterious because it is not hidden" (Alpert). Ironically, many critics appear to have taken such statements at face value. In reading through the rather scant scholarship on the novel while researching this article--a half dozen or so "peer-reviewed" papers, to date, address Mulligan Stew directly--I could not help noticing that not a single article considers, with any depth or seriousness, how American politics might have influenced the novel's construction. The American political scene manufactures fictions and perversions of history as a matter of course. Witness, for example, the recent efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of Joseph McCarthy by journalist and historian-cum-novelist M. Stanton Evans, whose recent book, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joseph McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies, has been hailed by conservative rabble-rouser Ann Coulter as "the greatest book since the Bible" (Coulter 1). In such an atmosphere, the naive trust in truth as an element for change, long championed by left-leaning intellectuals and activists, appears to overlook of the practical political reality in the United States. How else to explain the revolutionary momentum of the New Left, transformed in the present as Tea Party slogans chanted by the aging reactionaries of the baby boomer generation?
Mulligan Stew reveals, both in critics of the New Left and in its nostalgic champions, two sides of the same coin: the true American con, the angelic crusader, the whitest shade of white, the man who corrupted Hadleyburg. Whatever "surfaces" Sorrentino claims as his primary concern, the generative devices that produce "surfaces" within his novel appear themselves worthwhile as subjects of critical attention. For example, consider the composition of "The Woods So Wild" the seventh chapter of Anthony Lamont's novel; this short chapter appears to be a direct transmogrification of the first of Ezra Pound's Cantos. In order to emphasize the syllabic relationship between Pound's text and Sorrentino's, I have inserted line breaks into "3he Woods So Wild" at those points where lines in Pound's "original" text are broken:
And then went down to the ship, Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and We set mast and sail on that swart ship, Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward Bore us out onward with bellying canvas, Circe's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess. (3)
"The Woods So Wild":
So then I went to the club, set my heels to the sidewalk, down through the crowded streets. And I thought up repartee on that short walk, bright words to fight them, and help Beaumont also (safe in my keeping). And grit from the gutters struck my eyeballs in dirtying eddies. Corrie's the bitch, the lace-trimmed goddess! (161)
The pattern holds throughout the chapter. Thus, for example, as Canto I nears its conclusion, it reads,
And I stepped back, And he strong with the blood, said then: "Odysseus "Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas, "Lose all companions" And then Anticlea came. (4-5)
"The Woods So Wild" continues in kind:
And I stepped in. And she, heady from Scotch, said then: "Ned Beaumont chall retorn to lovely Corrie, troo dark streets, lust flaming troo heem!" And then Miss Delamonde sat ... (162)
"The Woods So Wild" is thus "manufactured" through a systematic mutation of Pound's text. Of course, this exercise may have no "meaning" whatsoever, save the production of more "surfaces" for the enjoyment of the reader. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that Pound's text was chosen haphazardly; surely the fact that Canto I is based upon Pound's translation of a Latin translation of Homer's Odyssey nominates Pound's high modernist relic as a perfect target for further rearrangement.
According to the conceit of the "Anthony Lamont" narrative within Mulligan Stew, this process remains mysterious to Lamont himself. Thus, Lamont writes, "But who is Halpin in 'The Woods So Wild'? How does that speech come about?" (247). This comment serves multiple purposes, for just as readily as it illustrates what many readers describe as Lamont's "paranoia," it also calls attention to the generative labor through which the chapter has been produced. The lineage and mechanics that lend "The Woods So Wild" its unusual style suggest that, even if the critical consensus nominates Mulligan Stew as an exercise in form, it remains worthwhile nonetheless to ask why this exercise has been undertaken, and to what ends. What principles contribute to the chapters, lists, or various manuscripts--Guinea Red, Crocodile Tears, The Sweat of Love, and The Masque of Fungo--that appear within Mulligan Stew? Or, as the book's own hapless protagonist Anthony Lamont writes as he begins to suspect himself to be the victim of pseudepigraphic pranks, "With so many truly, honestly rotten poets about, in their own right, who needs another, manufactured one?" (402).
Sorrentino's text thus invites readers to investigate the process through which it has been produced. While one still cannot explain why it takes this form, one can at least speculate that the process of construction is equally as meaningful as the words that ultimately appear as the products of that construction.
Sorrentino has transmogrified Pound's translation of a translation of Homer's ancient text--or at least, one of the versions of the ancient text said to have been written by "Homer." As is often noted with regard to such "metafictional" or "postmodern" texts, the refiguring of Pound, along with the novel's endless list of "borrowed" characters--regardless of whatever one prefers to call it, be it transmogrification, translation, of (dare I say it) plagiarism--suggests a conceptual understanding of literature in which "creativity" and "originality" serve no meaningful purpose, aside from literary propaganda. Mulligan Stew asks that we acknowledge, once and for all, that there is no such thing as an original work, that there is no such thing as creativity, that there is only an endless sequence of plagiarism or borrowing, ventriloquism of translation. Readers might then come to pity Anthony Lamont, who enters with rage evident in the large font of his calligraphy, "STOLEN!" across the margin of a story included in his scrapbook that has been printed in the XXI-Century Review, and that appears to be a plagiarized version of the first chapter of his own book, as written by his brother-in-law and nemesis, Dermot Trellis.
Despite the fairly radical implication of literary borrowing set into motion within Mulligan Stew, reviewers have not been willing to assign a political importance to the text. Part of this difficulty stems from a resistance of inability to recognize the text as an American novel, that is, a novel entirely concerned with the place and politics in which it has been produced. The practice of politics in America is defined by the perversion of facts, values, morals, ethics; American democracy itself is defined by the unvoting majority, as much as the minority of eligible voters who actually cast ballots. What purchase has high-brow literary culture to effect change? Considering the apparent cultural preference for distortion and delusion, it should come as no surprise that the discourse of literature as a force for social and political transformation continues unabated. In his essay asserting the "subversive" potential of the two books, At Swim Two Birds and Finnegan's Wake, which he claims exert the most influence over Mulligan Stew, M. Keith Booker declares Mulligan Stew a comparative failure:
Because of its lack of elements that tempt the reader to seek certainty, it allows the reader to reach closure quite comfortably simply by determining that it is not possible to reach closure.... Mulligan Stew employs a number of devices that would appear to carry a potential for a subversive political force. In all cases, however, the book in a sense goes too far with its self-reflexive techniques, failing to engage the reader in a way that will result in a reexamination of the presuppositions with which she initially approached the text. It ends up ah amusing formal exercise that in the final analysis is about nothing but itself. It becomes a parody of itself. On the other hand, by the very fact of doing so, the book has a curious way of moving beyond itself and commenting upon the difficult situation in which postmodernist and metafictional works generally find themselves. Such works are always in danger of collapsing into the same kind of solipsism that I see in Mulligan Stew . They are always in danger of going too far; inherently transgressive, they run a danger of being too successful in the crossing of boundaries and deconstruction of hierarchies, leaving themselves nothing to transgress against except themselves. (128-9)
I cannot but agree with Booker that Mulligan Stew "employs a number of devices that would appear to carry a potential for a subversive political force" However, I respectfully submit that he has misunderstood the purpose and significance of such elements; in addition to calling the notion of authorship and "intellectual property" into question, Mulligan Stew is a novel about the absolute powerlessness of the contemporary American novel.
A work of art existing as it does, as it is, as it has been in this nation--and as it will be in the foreseeable future, if it continues to exist in any recognizable form--can do nothing whatsoever to alter the fundamental violence and degradation masquerading behind that familiar moniker, America. Ours is a nation driven to exact war and revenge upon remote populations, while fostering a vast domestic population of poor, disenfranchised, under-educated, under-employed laborers. In the face of such legacies, the self-justifying progressivism touted by American literary culture appears yet another delusion. This claim should not be controversial or disturbing, but to many readers of literature, it violates certain deeply-held fantasies. It is for this reason that it seems most important to sketch the ways by which Mulligan Stew functions as evidence of the profound political impotence of art, of literature, and, if this book may be considered, as it ought to be, part and parcel of Sorrentino's body of work, the profound political impotence of the so-called American himself, poking and thrusting away, unable to penetrate the simplest ballot with which he believes he exercises his right to vote. While commenting on Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Sorrentino emphasizes West's vision of Hollywood as "the barometer of a decaying nation." "It was 'the people' themselves;' the residents of Hollywood, Sorrentino writes, who served as West's "barometer." They were "at first furious toward some curious nothing that had cheated them out of their dream; then, with a small fragment of the dream, furious toward those who held it in contempt." The end result, Sorrentino concludes, is the end of politics: "There are no politics anymore. There are only sociological 'sets; impacted, and controlled by ownership of data, so that all 'political differences' here are but flimsy choreographies that display carefully controlled half-truths, of perfect lies. It is, it seems to me, the final victory of a debased democracy to propose candidates who were conceived in celluloid and who speak with the voice of the sound track" (Something Said, 176-77). Thus, an anatomy of surfaces.
Since the groundbreaking inquiries of the great physician Herophilos, anatomical studies have proceeded according to the charmingly naive notion that knowledge lies hidden beneath, behind, under--truth unseen, inevitably concealed by some opaque membrane or bloody collection of tissues. Like the ancient library of Alexandria in which they were kept--the library infamously set aflame, ostensibly by accident, during Caesar's conquest of the city in 48 BC--scant evidence of the works of Herophilos remain. Scholars interested in the anatomical studies that made his name must depend upon references to his work that appear in the texts of others. Nonetheless, Herophilos's reputation endures; his treatise on the human anatomy is considered so accurate as to have remained unmatched until the Renaissance, when prohibitions against the dissection of human cadavers were lifted. So too must those interested in the library of Alexandria itself rely upon second-hand sources, passing references, allusions, half-mentions.
The earliest reference to the library appears in the Letter of Aristeas. This notoriously phony correspondence proposes to relate the story of the Septuagint- -the translation, by seventy-two translators, of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Scholars generally recognize the letter as an example of pseudepigraphum, a forgery by a writer they call "pseudo-Aristeas;' most likely a Hellenistic Jew whose primary purpose was to promote the superiority of the Septuagint over other translations of the Hebrew Bible (Thackery 1904, 12). And yet, for scholars interested in the legendary library of Alexandria, there is no better source than this infamous distillation of snake oil, the Letter of Aristeas. The works of Herophilos, father of the anatomy, have vanished; so too has vanished the ancient library of Alexandria itself, archetype of libraries; thus do the products of human labor fade into the recesses of history, reduced to the stuff of legend, kept alive as much by accident, as by any concerted effort; remembered only through happenstance, unexpectedly rediscovered by investigators out to prove or disprove the facts found in some fraudulent letter, some pseudepigraphum or another, concocted as primitive publicity stunt for a new edition of this or that book, some Letter of Aristeas, a Bible- saleman's best effort at falsifying the provenance of his latest product.
Were I to construct my own anatomical sketch of Mulligan Stew, I should acknowledge my debt not only to Herophilos of Chalcedon, but also to that notorious fraud, "pseudo-Aristeas" whose letter reminds us that a text written for one intended purpose might eventually be put to another, seemingly unrelated use. An anatomy of Mulligan Stew can only be superfluous; paradoxically, this fact provides me with my purpose. Mulligan Stew requires of its readers the understanding that, relative to the sociopolitical forces that distort, control, or determine its means of production and its reception, literature is necessarily unnecessary, impractical, irrelevant. If the book has a political "message" this message concerns the impotence of fiction, the worthlessness of writing, the supreme idiocy of the literary imagination. The writer is, in short, a participant in that cosmic joke by which her work must be judged both fundamentally useless for the purposes of politics, and--precisely for this reason, precisely because he or she cannot help but produce work despite, or even because of, its nonexistent value as an instrument of political value--absolutely essential. Understanding those crucial parts that provide Mulligan Stew with its raison d'etre might therefore help to cure readers of the persistent fallacy, propagated by avant-garde writers no less than mainstream hacks, that literary works retain some vital political energy, that they might somehow threaten the obscure dynamics of power by which the wealth and influence of a select few determines and depends upon the poverty and disenfranchisement of a vast majority.
As Herophilos must have understood long before Renaissance physicians took up the scalpel, a proper anatomy requires dissection, and dissection requires laceration; the surface must be severed to see what is beneath. To date, while the body of the text in question has served as an object for some lesurely critical fondling, a little groping perhaps, its skin has remained intact. If the textual body displays remarkable form, but has no functioning organs, why bother penetrating the surface? Better to simply cop a feel ... Molestation of this variety results in an understanding of Mulligan Stew as an exercise in plagiarism, ventriloquism, imitation, parody, pastiche, primitivism, modernism, postmodernism, late postmodernism, chauvinism, amateurism--an anti-novel, a metafiction, an extended exercise in mise en abyme, a novel within a novel within a novel, an exercise in formalism gone astray, taken too far, pushed to its ultimate conclusion--all critical hatchets tossed in the general direction of Mulligan Stew by critics such as M. Keith Booker, if not by the imaginary publishing house correspondents whose letters serve as the opening to the book itself.
And yet, it also seems that fraud, pure and unadulterated quackery, the ultimate swindle, the perfect con, might best describe the circulatory system that brings Mulligan Stew to life. To begin with, there are Miss Corrie Corriendo and Madame Berthe Delamode, the fortune-telling clairvoyant courtesans within Anthony Lamont's novel, and whom Martin Halpin charges, when he is not sharing in their bacchanalian revelries, with the undoing of Ned Beaumont. Aside from these figures, however, there is the entire publishing enterprise, a business whose integrity is not only compromised by the rejection letters that precede the novel, as well as in the various notebooks that contain publisher's catalogues and reviews or descriptions of other fictional, enormously "successful" abominations, but that is also implicated in Lamont's novel, through the murderous persona of the novel's narrator, protagonist, and publishing magnate, Martin Halpin. To "bring" a work of literature "to life" is, as Sorrentino reminds us through these and other sources repeatedly, a worn-out metaphor, a cliche, perhaps the cliche, upon which fiction rests.
Cliche thus serves as a crucial element of Mulligan Stew's skeletal makeup. Like all the true American cons, cliched notions regarding the life-like qualities of literature never get old. Yes, the true American con provides this novel with its center, and it requires but one little nudge to suggest that the text is itself an example of such a con: a text about nothing but literature, pure and simple, a fiction about fiction, an artifact of the freedom of expression, a text freed from the prism of political thinking such as can only emerge from the very birthplace of liberty itself. Indeed, the notion that Mulligan Stew might serve some function as a text of political and social gravity has been generally dismissed, if not condemned directly, and for good reason: those who most often look for "social relevance" in literary texts do so with the predetermined belief that a work of literature can do something to change the world they inhabit. Theirs is a vision that has already swallowed the great American con hook, line, and sinker.
To understand how Sorrentino's project might differ from such attempts to judge the political utility of a piece of avant-garde writing, one might begin to investigate more fully his professed interest in surfaces. A fascination with what is not hidden would appear to connect Sorrentino's texts to an assortment of contemporaneous works by various artists, from the New York School and pop art to the critical debate that surrounds what has become known as "postmodernism" in which "surfaces" predominate. In his well-known book on the topic, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1991), Fredric Jameson speculates that "powerful and critical political statements" may no longer be possible. The ease with which artists whose works appear to comment on the function of images and surfaces in contemporary culture have been assimilated into the general fabric of the American culture industry presents an ominous sign:
... Warhol's work in fact turns centrally around commodification, and the great billboard images of the Coca-Cola bottle or the Campbell's soup can, which explicitly foreground the commodity fetishism of a transition to late capital, ought to be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not, then one would surely want to know why, and one would want to begin to wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital. (9)
Like Warhol, Sorrentino's work appears to reflect, in its use of materials from popular culture as well as materials from its literary predecessors, this culture of commodification. Yet for all the apparent similarities, Gilbert Sorrentino's work, including Mulligan Stew, has not been assimilated into the critical academic/scholarly/popular culture gristmill as readily as artists like Warhol, or like the New York School, whose work Jameson also mentions as prototypical artifacts of postmodernism.
In fact, Sorrentino has made some effort to distance himself from the New York School itself. In the same Barry Alpert interview in which he declares his interest in surfaces, Sorrentino insists upon a New York for New Yorkers--for those who grow up in the city--that is distinct from what the city becomes for those who move there. This understanding of what it might mean to be an "authentic" New Yorker is very much out of step with the world of "surfaces" that he describes as his primary interest in writing. When asked if he considers himself a "New York writer," Sorrentino says, "In a way. Sure. Definitely. I think I'm a New York writer. I definitely think I'm a New York writer. But I don't have anything to do with the 'New York School'; they are all rubes." When asked to clarify, Sorrentino acknowledges that "not all of them" are "rubes":
But they all do say New York! Or as I say in Imaginative Qualities , they all think of New York as being a chocolate bunny--sort of like something you come and eat. Then you leave when you want to, when the city just goes blindly on. No, this is a real city; it's a very hard place to live because nothing really dents it. Some people get very bitter about that. You know, I mean I love this place--I love New York. There is no other place. Other American cities seem dead or cute or vulgar.
It should be immediately clear that Sorrentino's appreciation for a New York as a "real city" flies in the face of much postmodern and poststructuralist hand-wringing over the "crime" of "reality." (1)
Sorrentino's comfortable employment of the notion of the real, in contrast to his well-known insistence upon the fictional quality of fiction, suggests that his relationship to writing is antagonistic, rather than reverential or deferential. This antagonistic position is perhaps what is most difficult and confounding for readers of Sorrentino's books that comment directly on writing, and upon innovative writing--or even, as does Mulligan Stew, upon the avantgarde novelist. If the question for many readers is, How can this be?, the question for Sorrentino might be, How can this NOT be? In a review of the French writer Maurice Blanchot, Sorrentino writes,
The essential problem stated and elaborated in Mr. Blanchot's theoretical writings, and exemplified in the mysterious and dazzling fiction that is their complement, is the power language has to destroy those elements of reality it ostensibly labors to reveal. So the language that most clearly communicates is the language that most treacherously lies, for it obliterates the actuality of things : the signs that seem to proffer us reality proffer us nothing but a congeries of empty signifieds. (Something Said 270)
This view of language is more fully explained by Sorrentino's 1970 piece, "Black Mountaineering," a review of various publications related to the Black Mountain School and its central figures, including Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. In his comments on the poetry of Robert Duncan, Sorrentino notes that Duncan's poems maintain an "insistence on the word within the poem as final poetic reality" (Something Said 246). "The development of his work," Sorrentino continues, "admits a graph of surrender to the fact that the writing of poems brings order to and makes sense of--only the poem" (246).
Sorrentino's attention to such details anticipates the disagreement that soon divides Duncan from his longtime friend and fellow Black Mountain poet, Denise Levertov. As Levertov becomes increasingly active in the antiwar movement of the early seventies, Duncan chastises her for allowing "messages" to corrupt her poetry, for "not believing in the primary meaning of the art of the poem itself, but more and more thinking of the poem as communication of meanings whose primacy was posited outside the art, in 'Life' or social realities, causes that had clear and urgent priorities" (Letters 701). If Duncan maintains an almost spiritual faith in the "art of the poem" altogether foreign to Sorrentino's writing, he nonetheless shares the latter's belief in the dreadfully limited possibilities of poetry, coupled with a deep cynicism regarding the potential for a change in the politics and culture of the United States. "This is a bitter country and its bitterness persists beyond one's momentary content," Sorrentino remarks in "Black Mountaineering" (Something Said 245). Aside from a related interest in formal dynamics and the limits of language, Sorrentino long recognized, in both Olson and William Carlos Williams, a shared vision of the United States. In his 1962 review of Olson's "The Distances," Sorrentino explains this vision:
Against the "homely" rhetoric of the fifth-rate Frost, with his "The land was ours before we were the land's"--which had the cultural idiots of our time nodding sage approval--we should have at least the dignity to set Williams' "The pure products of America go crazy." Olson inhabits this same ground; he too has the America that actually exists, and has existed, in his "the lethargic vs violence as alternatives of each other for los americanos." But this, of course, is not "official" poetry. This is the poetry of a man who has seen his land "advertised out" of nobility, as Williams has seen the Passaic turn purple and polluted with the chemical wastes of factories. Being poets who are not interested in making witty remarks at the White House, they embarrassingly say so, while Frost retires to those dear old Vermont woods and makes vapid comments on some damn fool's wall or tree or pond (in his tried-and-true democratic/humanistic shuffle) in poems the language of which is insufficient to carry the "message" of even a New Yorker story. (Something Said 146)
The notion that Mulligan Stew is about the great American con--"the America that actually exists"--does not emerge through the generative devices and formal elements that shape the chapters and faux manuscripts that comprise the text, so much as it emerges in the content and references that fulfill the linguistic demands of such mechansims. As Jaye Berman Montresor notes in his essay, "Gilbert Sorrentino: At Swim in the Wake of His Gene Pool," many of these references emerge as if plucked straight from Joyce (4-12). And yet, the adaptation of existing material is one of America's primal gestures; no lesser a soul than the founding father of American publishing, Benjamin Franklin, constructed his Poor Richard's franchise on what contemporary editors now recognize to be refashioned sayings, appropriated witticisms that he shortened, "for comic effect," before pawning them off as new material. Montresor points out that The Masque of Fungo, the absurd baseball drama dropped into
the middle of Mulligan Stew, appears to be yet another reference to Joyce, conjuring Joyce's "corruption of the Scottish explorer, Mungo Park" (8). (2) Such references invite critics to read Mulligan Stew and its various contents, including Fungo, as a literary experiment in modernist mimicry. Perhaps most serious literary critics cannot stomach the thought of a drama staged on so quotidian and unscholarly a space as a baseball diamond. Indeed, it may be that few literary critics in a position to comment on Mulligan Stew have ever watched an entire game of baseball, and if they have, it was likely accompanied by the gourmet foods now offered at America's premier ballparks, such as (insert name of latest Corporate Sponsor).
At any rate, true baseball enthusiasts know that nobody can understand the significance of baseball on a haute cuisine diet--which is why, incidentally, fans visiting new luxury stadiums in the Bronx and San Francisco and Queens spend more time eating in bistros underneath the stands than they do watching the actual ballgame--so it is not surprising that no one takes The Masque of Fungo seriously. And yet, the "American-ness" of Fungo is crucially overdetermined. Not only is the setting that most American of sports, a baseball game, but numerous characters are either borrowed (at least in name) from American history, or mimic familiar American stereotypes: "Susan B. Anthony, a Massachusetts Belle of some balls," "Jack Armstrong, one-time religious maniac, now an ROTC ensign from a good home," "Minuscule Figure of Ty Cobb, a small miracle," "Roberto Bligh, a bard of the Vast Heartland," and so on. The character "Alice Bluegown" refers to the color, Alice Blue, of which Teddy Roosevelt's daughter was fond; gowns in this color became a fashion craze, and inspired the hit song "Alice Blue Gown," from the Broadway musical Irene (1919). Musicals and related archetypes of Americana inform Mulligan Stew throughout. Consider, for example, the excerpt from Lamont's "O'Mara of No Fixed Abode"--a title, as others have noted, that references Finnegans Wake, but that, except for short "narrative" transitions ("He was also partial to ..." "He oft experienced ... "), is made up of almost exclusively of lyrics from popular songs:
He loved, to crosseyed distraction, the pal of his cradle days, the way to go home, a sleepy-time gal, sweet Georgia Brown, that "certain" feeling, a black bottom (tsk-tsk), blue room, breezin' (along with the) breeze, Charmaine (the girl friend), to only do the things he might, a lucky day, Mary "Blue" Lou, mountaing grinnery, his dream of the Big Parade! (67)
As the unforgettable refuse of America's incessant commercialism, musical lyrics play a significant role in other aspects of the text as well; "mulligan stew" appears in the first line of the lyrics to "The Lady is a Tramp": "I've wined and dined on mulligan stew/And never wished for turkey."
Thus, The Masque of Fungo serves to condense themes prevalent throughout. Most telling, however, is the "scene" such as it is described, in which the play is enacted; in a text commonly perceived as all surface, and therefore seemingly without "meaning," not worth careful (or even straightforward!) reading, the Masque is so plain that it has become virtually illegible. In its simple, apparently unrecognizable allegory, this sorry excuse for theater presents, in very plain terms, what should be understood quite seriously as America's pastime:
The scene is a major-league ball park, the home team of disconcerting ineptitude. It is so devised as to seem to be floating uncomfortably in a surrounding sea of parking lots, subway tracks and trestles, highways, and vast areas of bogland. There is a strong possibility that the landscape represents New Jersey. Al each position on the field stands a MASQUER, dressed in garments of dull flame color, surrounded by massy clouds out of which each seems to be unsuccessfully peering. They fidget with their ill-fitting sunglasses. On the backs of their darkly fiery costumes, above their numbers, are their names, those of the nine elements of Ugliness. They are the pitcher , DULLNESS, the catcher , MURKINESS, The first baseman , DETERIORATION, the second baseman , UNHAPPINESS, the third baseman , IMMODERATION, the shortstop , HOMELINESS, the left fielder , WORTHLESSNESS, the center fielder , IMPERFECTION, and the right fielder , DISHARMONY. (179)
For all the obfuscation of which Mulligan Stew may be said to partake, here is, at last, a perfectly lucid rendering of America's true muses, these nine godforsaken "masquers," the simultaneously literal and allegorical players that distinguish themselves as America's team. Perhaps if critics will avail themselves of some examples of the true American con--as, for example, most recently manifested in the illuminating histories of Bernie Madoff, Lehman Brothers, and the like--they will better understand the significance of the ideas at play in The Masque of Fungo. The game here is not modernist pastiche, but realist (or post-realist) dystopia. The description of the stage and its players should be read rather simply, "superficially," as a direct transcription of contemporary American political, cultural, and economic life; a scene of "disconcerting ineptitude," dominated by dullness, murkiness, deterioration, unhappiness, immoderation, homeliness, worthlessness, imperfection, and disharmony.
It is undoubtedly comforting to put one's faith in the mythical greatness of a dying art form, rather than puzzle over the rotten failures that have characterized most efforts at left-wing political activism; some of us might prefer reproducing essays on the cannabis-laced meditations of, say, Walter Benjamin, rather than recalling our recent attempts at an "antiwar movement," for example. Indeed, many well-educated Americans like to imagine their own history as the product of literary interventions--the Declaration of Independence, Uncle Tom's Cabin, How the Other Half Lives--while forgetting that human labor, and (quite literally) human sacrifice, produces the history into which literature must subsequently be read and absorbed. "Men have always sensed a huge deception" writes Maurice Blanchot:
But what is more intriguing is that we seem to have been prepared to draw from this disturbing situation an almost happy feeling; yes, a vast, calm sort of happiness. For to be duped is first off to be innocent. To participate in this great celestial fraud through one's consciousness of it is to do nothing, even at one's most active, except yield to the pleasure and vanity of a prodigious entertainment, and if one must accomplish painful acts, it is to lighten the pain of this useless operation till it is but a game. (158)
Mulligan Stew presents a cure for that dogged faith in literature as a reality-altering medium. It is not a work of "subversive" literature; its political importance lies precisely in its insistence upon literature as a cultural product devoid of any qualities that might otherwise be deemed "subversive." Mulligan Stew thus serves as a radical critique of the fantasies that govern left- wing politics in America, and more specifically, the fantasy of subversive writing that persists in American literary and academic circles.
The emergence of this text is a product not so much of the "avant-garde" or "postmodern" literary movements with which it has most often been understood, but rather a document of historical and cultural developments that augur the present. Our recent history makes revisiting this self-consuming text most urgent. Sustained protests and revolts against a variety of long-held social norms and political practices have had almost no effect whatsoever on the distribution of power and the economic structures that determine the fortunes, so to speak, of the vast majority if the citizenry. At the same time, members of a literary and artistic avant-garde, imagined as the cultural wing of protest politics, have managed to achieve critical acclaim, and in some cases, institutionally sanctioned positions of power. Those granted such positions seem destined to participate in a fantasy in which the intellectual waits, poised and ready to rescue the working-class American from his own ignorance. Indeed, the fantasy of ignorance that the intellectual projects upon his working class Other may be the most enduring and frustrating characteristics of left-wing thinking in the United States. This fantasy persists in conjunction with various analyses suggesting the means through which the varieties and symptoms of ignorance might be "cured." Americans do not know the facts, but even when given the facts, often prefer falsehoods. Thus, for example, efforts to reform health care policies have been easily defeated by conservatives, who characterize the woeful inadequacies of the status quo as the greatest healthcare system in the world or, when such efforts appear insufficient, simply manufacture death-panel conspiracies.
The profoundly distorted vision upon which such projects depend imagines that the repeated fleecing of the American citizenry--the fabricated evidence used to fund trillion-dollar wars, the straightforward distortions of language that allow for "government-managed health care" to persist as a socialist threat, rather than living reality, and so on, ad nauseam--occurs against the wishes of the citizenry itself. From the perspective of the left-wing intellectual, the ignorance of the working class knows no bounds. What appears to the average sucker an icon of American industry and ingenuity broadcasts to the American intellectual the gospel of national ignorance: McDonald's reminds him that the citizen-schmuck mistakenly believes that he enjoys cheap, mass-produced food; NASCAR, that the citizen-schmuck imagines auto racing as a sport of great danger that requires tremendous skill, and therefore appears to provide great entertainment; Wal-Mart, that the citizen-schmuck fantasizes his need for cheap, mass-produced food and clothing; and so on, and so forth. Needless to say, nothing satisfies the citizen-schmuck--that self-satisfied dimwit who is, contrary to the misperceptions of his intellectual betters, perfectly aware of his fragmented subjectivity, yet nonetheless perfectly content to live out the fantasy of his individualism inside his pickup truck, festooned with his "I break for Rednecks" and his "Jesus on Board" bumper stickers-- nothing satisfies him better than to hear of the leftist American intellectual's disdain for his dietary choices, his sporting preferences, his shopping habits, a disdain reported to him with surprising accuracy in the otherwise factually unreliable, often sexist, inevitably racist monologues flying under the innocuous banner of "talk radio."
The fantasy of ignorance inflates the value of those cultural objects held most dear to its perpetrators, left-leaning intellectuals and ministers of culture--literature, fine arts, cinema (as opposed to movies or, god forbid, television)--as the primary and essential materials from which "subversive" thought might issue. Thus, the fantasy of ignorance metastasizes, colonizing various modes of thought, contributing to misguided critiques that attempt to distinguish truly "subversive" literary projects (for example)--projects supposedly capable of awakening the unsuspecting dupe from his extended siesta--from projects that merely deepen the slumber. What is most telling is that in many cases, the stakes in these supposedly political arguments are so low, the texts under review so obscure, that each feint, thrust, and counterthrust cannot possibly interest anyone but the well-versed amateur at best, the professional scholar at worst. Nonetheless, the American left would like to believe that any day now it might once and for all be given, as if by some sudden whim of the benevolent god in which it does not, of course, believe, the opportunity to diagnose the afflictions of the working class through well- reasoned "theoretical engagements" over avant-garde novels, films, and the like, those irrelevant materials with which it claims its intellectual and political superiority.
Of course, there is a more disturbing, less promising explanation for that gullible yokel of a citizen that the American left prefers to imagine as its hope for the future, an explanation that recognizes the very real possibility that there is no hope, and an explanation very much in keeping with the structural dynamics of Mulligan Stew. This explanation requires us to conjure a theoretical working-class Other with an imagination--a faculty that many left-wingers cannot grant the working class, save with the utmost reluctance. Furthermore, this explanation includes a portrait of your average citizen who is very much aware of the chicanery committed against him, but who prefers the intoxicating seduction of the collective hoax in which he is invited to participate--to which he might even contribute, and through which his imagination might birth patriotic, mind-blowing ecstasies--to the terrifying reality of his own degradation.
"The opium of the people is no longer just religion; all manifestations of culture and pleasure bear the poison within themselves and spread it;' Blanchot writes (161). What a boon for postwar intellectuals to rediscover Friedrich Nietzsche's seductive phrase, "I fear we do not get rid of God, because we still believe in grammar ..." (48). How seductive for poets, for professors of literature, for avant-garde novelists! But how irrelevant to the reality of America, a land that has sought to rid itself of grammar from virtually the moment of its inception, a land that continues to produce, for the ongoing pleasure of its own intoxicated citizen-schmucks, the gospel of grammatically deprived Christianity, and a land whose well-educated elites appear to prefer, at least upon this writing, elitist, self-important, self-declared "avant-garde" poetics to the image of absolute fraud and depravity reflected in Gilbert Sorrentino's masterwork, Mulligan Stew.
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(1) See, for example, Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 1996).
(2) Readers unfamiliar with baseball lingo might find it worthwhile to know that a "fungo" is a ball hit for fielding practice by someone wielding a "fungo bat."
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|Title Annotation:||PART 1: On Mulligan Stew|
|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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