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Mulligan Stew and Gilbert Sorrentino's Aesthetics of Failure: An Introduction.

--Ah, go to God! Buck Mulligan said.

--Going over next week to stew. You know that red Carlisle girl, Lily?

Mulligan stew is a hobo dish, a "hotchpotch" a concoction of available meat, potatoes, onions, etc., usually made by Irish immigrants in United States homeless camps at the turn of the century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name first appeared in print in The Atlantic Monthly in 1899: "Git the divvil out of there, lad, and here's the price of a mulligan" and then later in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914, "It was a mulligan. Everything was in that stew-meat, potatoes, onions, bread--an appetizing hodgepodge." The OED suggests that etymologically, "mulligan" could refer to any Irishman (the "substitution of Mulligan as a common Irish surname"), but in golf, it refers to a second chance--a non point-scoring swing allowing the performer to save face after a particularly humiliating shot. Yet in the first chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, on page eighteen in the Gabler edition, as Buck prepares for his swim, one finds the above lines. Buck's own approach to language is a mishmash of borrowed passages from poetry, music, and philosophy. Whether or not this was an intentional joke for Joyce, whose Irish novel is itself a "hotchpotch," we may never know, but it certainly would have been for Gilbert Sorrentino, avid dose reader and lover of all textual games.

The mulligan in all its forms functions as an apt metaphor for Sorrentino's oeuvre, in that his writing forages for available materials, finds more interest in the mundane than the highfalutin, makes rejection a form of acceptance, and dejection a kind of beauty. Indeed, Sorrentino is a mulligan mixer--the term for any tramp-chef responsible for the one-pot, one-fire dish. Whereas Joyce elevates his novel to high modernist status--Ulysses needs to be read alongside two dictionaries and Gifford's compendium--Sorrentino's 1979 Mulligan Stew--rife with its own set of allusions--opens with a series of rejection letters ("I'm not sure I know anymore what literature is; but I doubt that it is MULLIGAN STEW"). Its allusion to the lowlife meal is also a gesture toward failure, as represented in ordinary language, banal occurrences, professional and romantic frustration, etc. Whether or not the title of Sorrentino's magnum opus came first from Joyce, Sorrentino's own Irish ancestors, of from somewhere else altogether (Mulligan Stew was also a short-lived sitcom in the late seventies) may remain a chicken and egg enigma, but this novel is most certainly a stew of literary allusions and confessed ambitions, an homage to Joyce and a satire of him as well, a novel about, ultimately, failure, a swing swung in vain when it is too late to win the game.

Mulligan Stew is one of the most ambitious works in twentieth-century American letters, yet critics thus far have resisted it, and in compiling this issue, I struggled to find scholars, even those already attuned to Sorrentino's work, willing to take it on. Those who have done so offer instructive ways to read Mulligan Stew; this issue consists of scholarly, creative, and personal responses not only to the novel but also to Sorrentino more broadly. As such, the issue functions as a mulligan stew in its own right. Indeed, this project has been a bit of a mulligan undertaking, comprised of second and third attempts. I have to assume that this is in part because of the novel's difficulty and expansiveness; in his notes on making the novel, Sorrentino argues that the place of fiction might just be more real than reality itself. He writes:
 In this book I think I would like to do what I have always wanted to
 which is to put into the book sections verbatim from other works of
 books, stories, poems, essays, reviews. I would like to bust the
 novel apart and put it together again for once and for all and prove
 myself that fiction is real unto itself, that it is total invention,
 it is total prose, that it is the absolute reality of fiction that
 matters in terms of writing fiction (O'Brien). 

From its beginnings, the novel form has been an experimental exercise in self-reflexivity, but Mulligan Stew is perhaps unique--and difficult to analyze--because it is also, in part, a project of self-diagnosis. Sorrentino resists totality; Mulligan Stew never begins nor ends, properly speaking, the two most expected prerequisites of narrative. In this sense, the novel fails to be "a novel" at all; Brian McHale has referred to it as a "dossier novel," (1) while Scarlett Higgins reminds us in her essay here that "the critical shorthand, 'the Stew' seems more appropriate."

Failure operates in Mulligan Stew formally and thematically, in its writing and in its reading. The novel centers on Anthony Lamont--his determined but futile attempts at writing avant-garde fiction--and the increasingly despondent, confused state of his characters, Martin Halpin and Ned Beaumont. It includes not only Lamont's current novel-in-progress, named alternately Guinea Red and Crocodile Tears, but also various other offerings, including negative criticism of his earlier novels (paralleling the aforementioned rejections of Sorrentino), love letters between Ned and Daisy Buchanan (making a guest appearance from The Great Gatsby), a complete play, Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo, a collection of dirty poetry by a Miss Lorna Flambeaux, The Sweat of Love (revisited in this issue by Peter Blegvad), and miscellaneous lists, newspapers, clippings, etc. As promised, Sorrentino's own works find themselves as ingredients too--Lamont's failed novel Fretwork is a play on Sorrentino's own Steelwork (1970), and Hotel Splendide, "the only hostelry of excellence within the Arctic order" (49), is an inversion of Splendide-Hotel, Sorrentino's 1973 poetic abecedarium.

Arthur Saltzman has suggested that "For Lamont, this verbal cargo reassures him of the order and purpose of his life and thereby serves to fuel his creative efforts; for Sorrentino, these inventories represent not only the sheer weight of cultural and pseudo-cultural 'dreck' in the world, but also Sorrentino's capacity for reinvigorating language by placing it in unusual and surprising forms" (96). On the one hand, Sorrentino revives often-dismissed language--negative reviews, sentimental dribble, purple prose--by imbuing it with new meaning and much humor through assemblage. Yet the various documents do not lose their abjectness. They are not, at any point, redeemed. Rather, they represent a yearning; however flowery, Lamont complains, "One would like to achieve full expression of one's inchoate and sinewy self. In one's self, the dark shed of the untameable mind, lies the truth, waiting to be released into the line, the sentence, the story or novel. I strive for it continually" (47). He strives for it, but he does not accomplish it. In fact, he fails so miserably that he ultimately manages to lose even his own characters.

Lamont's name comes from Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), to which Mulligan Stew is greatly indebted, and which is likewise a metafictive novel in which characters rebel against their creator. (2) Not unlike Sorrentino, Lamont is an experimental writer whose work has yet to receive significant critical acclaim ("I am afraid that [Fretwork] was neither a critical nor a commercial success" [4]), so he tries his hand at the detective novel as a way of making some money. His writing itself is quite simply bad. One of Sorrentino's great achievements in Mulligan Stew is writing bad writing so very well, and it has been suggested that Harry Stephen Keeler's mid-century, un-ironic, schmaltzy detective novels may have been an influence--another way in which Sorrentino embraces undervalued writing, writing so bad it is good. (3) Lamont's novel opens with Halpin confused by the presence of a dead Beaumont (Beaumont comes from Dashiell Hammett's 1931 The Glass Key, where he occupies the role of de facto detective, not victim), slumped in a chair in a neighboring room. (4) Halpin immediately thinks to blame two women, Corrie Corriendo and Berthe Delamonde, who had seduced Beaumont, causing pain to his lover, Daisy. (5)

As Lamont struggles to write, Halpin's own mental state deteriorates, and he becomes increasingly frustrated and wants to escape Lamont's bad writing: "My mortification ... at being burdened with this glossy vulgar 'life' that has been invented for me is so great" (88), he moans, as he has been left in a summer cottage to wait for his narrative to continue. Halpin, however, sees the possibility of some way out in Lamont's use of the "flashback" a device that leaves Halpin unattended while Lamont focuses on other times and other places:
 [T]he esteemed author has rent the space-time continuum, thereby
 allowing us [himself and Ned] a modicum of freedom. To be macabre
 for a moment, he has, as it were, brought Ned back from the dead,
 and set him walking about and talking, in the past
, which,
 somehow, has become the novel's present.... There are many
 possibilities, not the least of which is that we might both simply
 walk away from this ludicrous world and not turn back.... There are
 questions of course. If there is a town, did Lamont make it? Is it
 waiting there, for us
? ... Is this town the creation of some
 other writer? Is this cottage
 the creation of some other
 writer? (88-9) 

Halpin wonders who has created his cottage, because his first home was in a footnote in Finnegans Wake: "I have heard this word [hobby-hodge] used by Martin Halpin, an old gardener from the Glens of Antrim who used to do odd jobs for my godfather, the Rev. B.B. Brophy of Swords" (Joyce 266, fn 2). Halpin is well aware of his situation: "How to get away? ... What have I done to be plucked out of the wry, the amused footnote in which I have resided ... for all these years in the work of that gentlemanly Irishman, Mr. Joyce? ... so I have been for these thirty-odd years, an old gardener who has never gardened ... In a way, I was the letters, no more" (25). Halpin knows he is a scrap, a remainder, but he is unusual in knowing his own source--Lamont is less self-aware. Sorrentino writes in his essay "Genetic Coding," "Mulligan Stew is only intelligible when in place in the sequence of forms known as the modernist movement" (Something Said 263). Indeed, his borrowed characters, for the most part, come from high modernist novels, suggesting a Menardian anxiety over the literary legacy with which the postmodern novel must contend. Brian McHale differentiates modernism from postmodernism by suggesting that the former is epistemologically determined and the latter ontologically determined; Halpin's anxiety is then particularly interesting, as it hovers uncomfortably between the two. (6)

Halpin points to a larger problem in fiction-making; literary critics use terms such as the "literary present" or "the living text" to contend with the fact that characters have lives that extend far past that of their author. Sorrentino, not unlike Luigi Pirandello with his Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), asks just how much agency these characters really have; both Sorrentino and Pirandello break down the divide between reality and fiction and unsettle the agency of the authority figure. In this way, Sorrentino playfully contends with the postmodern problem of agency--he both parodies and takes for granted an Althusserian approach to determinism: Halpin and Lamont alike are only passive inhabitants of a discursive construction over which they have no control. As I have suggested, the novel never begins, properly speaking--it segues from rejection letters into Halpin's dilemma over the body of Beaumont. By the end of the novel, both Halpin and Beaumont escape, though Lamont might not even realize it: "Lamont will probably continue without us!" Halpin exclaims: "Voices in a total void" (439). Sorrentino thus suggests that the only way out of determinism is to co-opt the various discourses one inhabits. He liberates characters from previous texts, and liberates previous texts--including his own--from previous contexts, and he resists linearity, succession. Success is, after all, an enemy of freedom: Sorrentino relishes in failure instead.

The letters rejecting Mulligan Stew, printed on thick paper in the original edition, and preceding any appearance by Lamont or Halpin, come from editors themselves culled from literary history; Harry White is from Hubert Selby's The Demon (1976); (7) John Cates is from William Gaddis's JR (1975); Edgar Naylor is from Cyril Connoly's study of decadence, The Rock Pool (1936); Alan Hobson is from Wyndham Lewis's Tarr (1916-17) (8); Yvonne Firmin is from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1947); Flo Dowell is the suicidal, unfaithful Florence from Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915); Charlotte Bayless is from Aidan Higgins's Balcony from Europe (1972); Morroe Reiff is the PR writer from Wallace Markfield's To an Early Grave (1964); Chad Newsome, whose misspelling "Sarrantino" is a particular affront, is from Henry James's The Ambassadors (1903); Claude Estee is a screenwriter in Nathanael West's Day of the Locust (1939); Sheldon Corthell is from Frank Norris's The Pit (1903); Horace Rosette shows up in several Sorrentino novels; Frank Bouvard, who claims that "the narrative doesn't rise above its own irony" is Francois from Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet (1881); and Arthur Gride is the aptly-named greedy old miser in Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby (1839). These literary allusions serve as inside jokes for readers in the know, but more significantly, they perform as rejections of Sorrentino's current work by his own literary influences, who refuse to cede him entry into their club. Sorrentino has failed to become one of them.

Gride's letters to "Gil's" publisher, C. Milo Kent at Grove Press (a permutation of Kent E. Carroll, VP of Grove, the actual publisher of MS) proclaims that "Hasard House does not elect to distribute this work under the agreement that we have with Grove Press" (unnumbered page). Hasard House is a play on Random House, Gride on Gerald E. Hollingsworth, VP, who in 1978 refused to distribute the novel, claiming that "it was not considered to be of sufficient merit to warrant the additional investment in inventory" (Hollingsworth). Whereas in the novel, "Mr. Sorrentino" is defended by Kent as being "an important writer of recognized talent and accomplishment, as well as being a hell of a swell guy," in the original letter, Carroll writes only, "Mr. Sorrentino is an important writer of recognized talent and accomplishment" (Carroll). The letters between Kent and Gride, then, function similarly to the rejection letters and tease the sense of personal rejection attendant to any professional one. Sorrentino's biographical difficulty in finding a publisher and distributor for the work mirrors the novel's difficulty in finding a place in literary history. It is in this sense as well that the novel embodies failure.

In an essay on Raymond Queneau, Sorrentino argues that "form determines content" ("Le Style de Queneau," Something Said, 200). He was inspired by Queneau's Oulipo, claiming that constraint-based writing allowed him entry into the "magic state [in which] things that are unknown to the writer in his everyday life are found" ("The Act of Creation and its Artifact," Something Said, 9), the idea being that the rules of a given device, such as a sonnet, release the author from complete autonomy over his or her art, allowing for a kind of enchantment to take place that is otherwise impossible. Sorrentino invented and employed a number of such devices (and taught a writing course at Stanford, "Generative Devices for Imaginative Writing"), such that Harry Mathews and Alistair Brotchie included him in their Oulipo Compendium, an encyclopedia of Oulipian authors, texts, and formulas. (9) The content of Sorrentino's novels tends toward the quotidian--from gossip on the stoops and in the stores of Brooklyn neighborhoods (such as in Crystal Vision [1981], a novel for which a tarot reading determines both the content of each chapter and their order in the work, a device inspired by Italo Calvino's Castle of Crossed Destinies [1973]) to the failures of a cast of sixties writers and artists (such as in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things [1971]).

For all its games, however, Mulligan Stew is still a traditional novel, parodying and enacting the well-worn epistolary form. As in early counterparts such as Richardson, Montesquieu, Sterne, and Goethe, Sorrentino's characters work out their various moral quandaries, professional and sexual, through letters--that is, not only through epistles but through legible marks on a page. Sorrentino's characters understand themselves to be nothing more than these marks (n.b. Halpin's acknowledgement, "I was the letters, no more"), their existential uncertainty in line with Sterne's Shandy and Cervantes's Quixote. Mulligan Stew stages not only the process of fiction-making, but in particular the process of making Mulligan Stew. In this regard, that early rejection letter is wrong--all literature is mulligan stew; MS is not only the abbreviation for this book, but for any manuscript.

In his own notebook for MS, dated 1971, Sorrentino muses, "The narrator of a novel immediately identifies himself as a character in a novel," and "There is the activity of the narrator outside of the novelist's concerns." (10) The journal itself, an old composition book kept between 1971 and 1972, begins with this premise and moves on to letters, charts, lists, crosswords, clippings, and notes for the new, as-yet unnamed work, until it begins to resemble Mulligan Stew itself. In its early pages, Sorrentino writes, "This is a possibility out of At Swim-Two-Birds, taking that book a little further, adding another integer to its basic idea. Absolute artificiality." Indeed, this journal serves as a microcosm for Sorrentino's complete Stanford archive, a collection of diary entries, manuscripts, letters of rejection, and letters of anxiety over the state of literary affairs--hundreds of them between Sorrentino and Hubert Selby Jr., David Markson, John O'Brien, Harry Mathews, et al.--a manifestation of the mulliganness of Sorrentino's work and life on a larger scale.

Sorrentino claims that he was born into a unique "collaborative band" through his matrilineal Irish and patrilineal Italian lineages: "I am closer to Laurence Sterne," he claims, "than I am to Henry Thoreau, and I 'understand' Italo Calvino better than I do John Cheever" ("Genetic Coding," Something Said, 265). Sorrentino does not conceal his influences, familial or literary, and in fact suggests that the two are related: "I do not believe in Originality but consider writers a kind of 'collaborative' band, each adding a stratum to the work done by others," and "The writers who influenced me did so because of the deeper influence of genetic coding" (263, 265). He was born to working-class parents in Brooklyn, New York in 1929 and studied at Brooklyn College, where he founded his journal Neon with several other writers, including Selby and Leroi Jones. Brooklyn plays an important role throughout Sorrentino's writing, its working class grayness serving as the setting for many of his most notable projects, from his early short story, "The Moon in Its Flight" (1971) to Steelwork, Crystal Vision, Red the Fiend (1995), et al. Sorrentino worked for both Kulchur magazine and Grove Press and taught at Columbia and The New School, among other institutions, before heading to Stanford, an odd home for Sorrentino, who smoked in his office even in the nineties and complained to me once of his fellow faculty, "Nobody gets me here. Nobody except Marjorie" (referring to Marjorie Perloff, who has also contributed to this issue). This marginalization implies a cynicism about institutions that pervades not only Sorrentino's biography but his work as well.





Mulligan Stew takes up Sorrentino's institutional skepticism; Lamont himself obsesses that his critics in universities, book reviews, and publishing houses are plotting against him. Like Herman Melville with The Confidence Man, Sorrentino sees every institution, every system of thought as a con. In his contribution to this issue, Ramsey Scott examines Sorrentino's resistance to this fraudulence through his play with cliche in the novel. According to Scott, "like all the true American cons, [cliches] ... never get old." "To 'bring' a work of literature 'to life" Scott insists, "is, as Sorrentino reminds us ... a worn-out metaphor, a cliche, perhaps the cliche, upon which fiction rests." In other words, the very act of creating art, the very hubris of that endeavor, is in itself a cliche and a con.

Sorrentino worked to undermine all of the institutions in which he played a part, including America itself--in Gold Fools (2000), he offers his take on the Western in a novel composed solely of interrogative sentences, often interrogating the very cliches of the American landscape and its attendant mythology--"Was Bud a colorful speaker, in the great tradition of the heartbreakingly beautiful, yet very dry, American West?" (9); "Were the boy ranchers, their youthful eyes fixed on the distant horizon, ever-receding, as it seems to, given the optical tricks played by certain chromatic light shifts on the horizon itself?." (56). He writes in Something Said, "I conceive of American poetry as that poetry which has most daringly junked the paraphernalia of 'the beautiful; as conceived by aesthetes and professors" ("Reflections on Spring and All" 13). It is easy to trace Sorrentino's experimentalism back to his Irish roots in O'Brien and Joyce and to the formal gaming of the Gallic Oulipo, but ultimately, he is a particularly American writer. If mulligan stew is an Irish dish reinvented for the survival of the recently arrived American, then we might think of the ethnicity of its eponymous novel similarly; Sorrentino's use of cliche is, as Scott argues, part of the very foundation of Mulligan Stew, and this usage has its basis not only in Melville but, as Scott suggests, in Benjamin Franklin's aphoristic Poor Richard as well. Melville and Franklin together, then, serve as important American models for understanding the slippery subjects and wily wordplay of Mulligan Stew.

As I have claimed, Mulligan Stew is a novel about failure. Halpin knows Lamont is a hack; he has read the terrible reviews of Fretwork ("a dreadful novel," "the death of the avant-garde" [92]), and another Lamont detective novel, Baltimore Chop ("[Lamont] has failed rather flagrantly ... a book that is neither fish, flesh, nor fowl" [90]). Yet failure is more than an antonym for success; etymologically, its roots are in the old French verb faillier, to miss, to want, and in the Latin, fallere, to deceive (OED). Failure more properly connotes yearning, desire. If Beckett was right in Three Dialogues, that "to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living" (145), then we might paraphrase his words, applying them to Sorrentino, to say that to be ah artist is to want, as no other dare want; to deceive, as no other dare deceive.

Sorrentino sums up his attitude toward failure in an unpublished 1994 letter to Donald Justice, the Chairman of the Academy of Arts & Letters, from whom Sorrentino declined an award. He writes,
 Had this award been offered me 10 years ago when my dependent
 son and I were on welfare, it would have indeed,
"encouraged" me,
 and the $7500 would have been a much needed gift.... I certainly
 was as deserving of the award while on welfare as I am now, the
 difference is it is meaningless to me now. I have been writing for
 more than 35 years, and have abandoned myself to the process of
 perfecting my art and learning how to communicate. I am very
 proud of the work I have produced.... During these years I have
 been totally ignored, and/or attacked, by the "Literary
 in all forms, on all levels, including grants and fellowships ...
 I have remained true to my Heart's Vision ... and believe in
 this $7500 to "encourage" me to write I would be betraying
 and surrendering my dignity and integrity. 

Sorrentino's letter implies a reaction not to the award itself but to the language of encouragement that undermines a writer long into his career, echoing an earlier sentiment from Sorrentino's collection of poems The Perfect Fiction: "I own the words I write, the / things I love are mortgaged, my / payments are all partial and erratic" ("Poem 4" 16). Sorrentino draws a distinction between owning and the implied owing. His refusal of the $7,500 suggests a dignity and grace in economic dejection and an implication that a book doomed to failure might just mean more than writing something the workshops will tell us is prize-worthy.

Sorrentino did, however, win many prizes, though his literature has, for the most part, received scant public attention. This issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction seeks to mitigate the neglect of Mulligan Stew with new scholarly examinations, just as it aims to memorialize one of the great intellectual and literary minds of the twentieth century through writers' reminiscences of both the man and his work. I have therefore included a wide range of contributors, opinions, and genres, many of which engage in their own way with the topic of failure, and I have organized the issue to maintain both the spirit of Mulligan Stew and of Sorrentino's work more broadly, in all of its intertextuality, imagination, incisiveness, humor, loss, and greatness.

The issue opens with "Pitiless Flaws Restored: Satiric Truth in Gilbert Sorrentino's Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo," Tyrus Miller's reading of the play within the novel first published on its own by Black Sparrow Press in 1974. Miller deftly charts our way through the high and low forms and allusions that the play includes, arguing that,
 we must understand Flawless Play Restored
 as representing one
 of the limited, satirized postures and perspectives among the vast
 panoply of fakery, pretentions, and futility that constitutes the
 larger book. The "cosmos" of Sorrentino's masque is
that of
 "restoration" the affirmative and even celebratory
 with the powers that have, despite all revolutionary upheavals,
 managed to survive and flourish. 

Miller continues:
 The primary target of Sorrentino's satire, evidently, is the
 restorationist mentality of the 1970s, seeking to delude itself
 and others that "if you just keep your eye on the ball"
 will turn out all dandy. But if the spuriousness of this masque-
 like, apologetic nostalgia is manifest, that which might constitute
 the satirist's basis of truth, the counterweight to such false
 restoration, is nevertheless far from sure. 

As such, Miller identifies the politics of the novel and examines how Fungo responds to "Sorrentino's growing doubts about the power of satire to identify and mark, negatively, the falsity of the various 'restorations' and reconciliations that had imposed themselves, following the radical upheavals of the previous decade."

Sorrentino used to say snarkily in his classes, "Why do people ask writers about politics? Why should writers know anything about politics? No one asks Henry Kissinger about metafiction in Naked Lunch!" In "Anatomy of Surfaces: Mulligan Stew and the Political Fantasies of America's Literary Factions," Ramsey Scott suggests that nonetheless, Sorrentino's work is in fact political in the ways it "invites readers to investigate the process through which it has been produced." Mulligan Stew functions as a political gesture, because it has not "been assimilated into the critical academic/scholarly/popular culture gristmill" as easily as other avant-garde works have been--Sorrentino has failed, again, to join that literati club I outlined above. In 1970, Sorrentino wrote, "we Americans . . . ate such saps for the grand statement, the allegory, the symbolic gesture, the 'truth that lies beneath the surface' ... There is nothing but surface, over which the imagination plays: and the master of the imagination is the artist" ("William Carlos Williams," Something Said, 22). Scott prospects Sorrentino's surfaces for a more complicated and incisive critique of Americana.

Scarlett Higgins volunteers a productive way to think about the structure of Mulligan Stew as a form of resistance in "The Shock of the Boring: Excess and Parataxis in Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew" suggesting that the model of collage it offers is not one of shock, as it would have been for the historical avant-garde, but, in her terms, one of boredom, another form of nuisance perhaps better suited to the postmodern reader. Higgins argues, "it is through what may be his signature technique, the list, that he initially accomplishes this attack ... What makes the list particularly powerful as a medium for attacking forms of narrative closure" she suggests, "is its reliance on parataxis and lack of causal connections." Higgins thus demonstrates ways in which Mulligan Stew maintains an avant-garde status not by co-opting past "tricks" but by knowing and resisting the social and cultural conditions out of which it was produced.

In a darkly funny assemblage not unlike the novel itself, "Still Standing, A Memoir for Gilbert Sorrentino," Ammiel Alcalay leads us on a more personal tour through Mulligan Stew and the late seventies and early eighties with a presentation of letters Sorrentino wrote to him during that time; they contain lists similar to those examined by Higgins in her essay, lists that heckle "acclaimed" writers, references to reviews, jokes about MS's reception ("NEW BOOK BY YANK AUTHOR SHOCKS QUEEN!"), and a recipe using Kraft American cheese called TOMATO MADNESS that foreshadows Sorrentino's posthumously published The Abyss of Human Illusion, where Kraft reappears as a sad trace of the products that fill pantries and stay there long enough to become nothing more than things, empty signifiers on lonely dusty shelves. Peter Blegvad, in a similar spirit of intertextuality and self-reflexivity, writes his own tribute to The Sweat of Love, "The Sweet of Love" a project he first undertook for an exhibit curated by INK in London, for which writers and artists were culled to compose written and illustrated pages to complement the titles of forty imaginary books. Blegvad's contribution is less salacious than Flambeaux's, instead engaging in a study of language; in a section titled "Apophasis," Blegvad states, "It is easier to say what it is not."

In addition to his innovations in fiction, Sorrentino was a prolific poet and an eloquent critic. The second section of the issue--writers on the writer-- focuses on these aspects of his work. Poetry scholar Marjorie Perloff and novelist Jonathan Lethem both identify Sorrentino's incisive intellect in their discussions of his collection of essays about literature and writing, Something Said, a work that both authors acknowledge as more relevant now than ever. Through three case studies in "Sorrentino the Reviewer" Perloff demonstrates how Sorrentino's sharp readings of poets such as Denise Levertov, Lorine Niedecker, and David Antin were eerily prescient of what would become standard readings of these poets years later, acknowledging their strengths (Levertov's "meditative lyrics" Niedecker's "minimalist lyric," Antin's "poeticity") and their weaknesses (Levertov's "shrill didactic voice [in her] Vietnam poems"). Sorrentino describes Objectivist Niedecker's poems as "brief records of failure in the overall world which surround them, and in which they are brilliant markers" (87)--surely ah aspect of Niedecker's work with which he felt some solidarity. Perloff suggests that the essays serve as a "gloss to process the astonishing densities of Mulligan Stew" "the invisible outlines of an unachieved form." Lethem focuses on Sorrentino's essays about fiction in "Sorrentino's Something Said" and acknowledges Sorrentino's "impatience" as a reader, but also his unfailing accuracy and, again, prescience. "For Sorrentino" Lethem reminds us, "a writer is merely a man decorated with evidence of his persistence in the face of it all."

Vijay Seshadri and Jeffrey Frank examine Sorrentino's own poetry and fiction, respectively. In "Gilbert Sorrentino's Days Off," Seshadri discusses the so-called difficulty of Sorrentino's fiction and the sense of failure it produces in its readers, as opposed to in its composition. In Seshadri's opinion, Mulligan Stew serves as a counterpoint to Sorrentino's poetry, which, in its filial relationship to William Carlos Williams, requires intelligence and training but not the stamina demanded by so much of his fiction; Seshadri considers what might be the reason for such perceived discrepancy. Jeffrey Frank takes a different approach in his piece on Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. Frank reminds us that "much of what Sorrentino wrote ... was an act of defiance, a challenge to the idea that fiction is beside the point." Commenting on the novel's many negative reviews upon its release, Frank suggests that the novel remains, forty years later, at the avant-garde, "like a sudden, almost bracing immersion in another time," a work that still has vital things to tell us not only about the making of art, but also, perhaps more importantly, about its reception.

The final three offerings all consider the significance of Brooklyn in and for Sorrentino's writing. Kenneth Warren's "Mr. Sorrentino's Neighborhood" offers a useful overview of the import of the borough for Sorrentino's oeuvre (arguing that "the brilliance of Mulligan Stew must be viewed through the classic ghetto solution it proposes: Gut the block, up-scale the residents, declare a renaissance, watch property values rise, trade up, and move on"), while Gerald Howard's "Gilbert Sorrentino's Bay Ridge: A Guided Tour" reminds us of some of the specific conditions out of which Sorrentino's art emerged. Howard's photoessay leads a beautiful and intimate mnemonic journey through Sorrentino's Bay Ridge, paying tribute to many of the places Sorrentino inhabited and frequented. Yet as Howard discovers the loss of many old haunts, the essay also becomes a nostalgic homage to a rapidly changing Brooklyn, a gentrification that mirrors, perhaps, the rapid changes occurring in the publishing world as well.

Lastly, in "A Memorial Reading," Catherine Corman reflects on how Sorrentino might--or might not--be remembered in a personal account of her first introduction to his work--at a memorial reading of The Abyss of Human Illusion. For all the years Sorrentino skulked on the margins of the literary community, here he is very much the central figure of a definitively insider crowd of experimental literature know-it-alls. Corman finds herself the outsider on an uncommon visit to the outer borough of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. An avid and adventurous reader and an enduring afficionada of art, she uneasily but eagerly navigates this uncomfortable scene and becomes an unexpected kind of double of the missing and much-missed author.

These various contributions are interspersed with Peter Blegvad's beautiful and eerie illustrated responses to Mulligan Stew, each of which is a way of contemplating the text conceptually and visually. They represent the novel's intertexts and palimpsests, its subjects' ontological and temporal uncertainties, and the ephemerality of experience so central to Sorrentino's writing.

It can be a painful endeavor to write about an author recently lost, particularly one you have known and loved. I am indebted to each of these contributors for facing that absence and for their vital, insightful, and sensitive readings of Sorrentino's work and life. But there are others, whose bylines do not appear here, to whom I am also grateful--Christopher Sorrentino, Harry Mathews, Maura Spiegel, Eric Banks, Monica de la Torre, Donald Breckenridge, Erik Ghenoiu, and Matthew Sandler all gave me input about the issue or served as contacts for potential contributors. The staff at Dalkey Archive--Martin Riker, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Zuckerman, and John O'Brien--have been enduringly patient and helpful, particularly in the final stages of this process. It was Jeffrey Frank who first suggested that I search the archive at Stanford University--the efficiency and generosity of the unrivaled staff of Special Collections there and the financial generosity of Gettysburg College's Research & Professional Development Grant program made bi-coastal research possible--and Ammiel Alcalay who thought of asking Peter Blegvad to provide illustrations.

The issue concludes, as only appropriate, in Sorrentino's own words, with a previously unpublished and unproduced one-act play, "What Religion do Ants Have?" Sorrentino deposited the manuscript in his archive with Stanford, and it appears he did not envision any future use for it besides filling its box on the shelves of Special Collections. "Ants" is, on the one hand, an indulgent melodrama, yet one relying on the tenets of drama to highlight the ersatz nature of writing, of living, of loving. Through a poet, his wife, and her lover, Sorrentino proposes an alternate view of the determinism that threatens Halpin and Beaumont in Mulligan Stew, from which there is no escape. Sorrentino has suggested that "art cannot rescue anybody from anything" ("Moon and its Flight" 20); here he concludes that it just might spell our doom.

Like many of the contributors to this issue, I was a student of Sorrentino's. At Stanford in the early nineties, we always referred to him as just "Sorrentino," the way students do with that sort of professor who awes and impresses them. The last time I saw him, after he had retired and come back to New York, my brother and I visited him in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. We sat at the Bayview Diner and mutually complained about young writers who find commercial success too easily and too quickly. He spoke of loved ones lost. And he found renewed anger in a robbery incident from his days in the old East Village, reducing us to gasping laughter with a story about someone who had broken into his apartment and stolen, among other things, a bag of Smarties. "They even took the fuckin' Smarties!" he shouted, with an incredulity that only a Brooklyn accent can rightfully muster. Sorrentino believed quotidian objects have something to reveal about deeper, more existential concerns, a philosophy to which both my brother and I faithfully subscribe. To smart means, after all, to hurt, to sting. This is how I think of both Sorrentino and of his literature: able to look at loss--and at the void--with both profound humor and bitter despair.

The title of Sorrentino's "last" novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, comes from a short story by a fifty-year-old Henry James written in 1893, "The Middle Years." The story's protagonist, Dencombe, is a male, middle-aged, worn-out writer of complex prose that have never won him much acclaim, a failure that causes him to be rather despondent over the value of his work and his own self-imposed isolation. He believes that he has spent his whole life learning to write. Sorrentino's novel opens with the following epigraph: "He sat and stared at the sea, which appeared all surface and twinkle, far shallower than the spirit of man. It was the abyss of human illusion that was the real, the tideless deep." Dencombe aches for a do-over that might allow him to put to use the lessons he has learned in his life: "A second chance--that's the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art" (126).

What I did not realize that day in Bay Ridge was that Sorrentino, in telling his story, was also elaborating upon The Abyss--a work written long past his fiftieth year. Like in his earlier novels, The Abyss focuses on ordinary concerns such as divorce, Brooklyn, and failed art. In it, Sorrentino writes:
 Mundane things, pitiful in their mundane assertiveness, their sad
 isolation. Kraft French dressing, glowing weirdly orange through its
 glass bottle, a green glass bowl of green salad, a bottle of
 Worcestershire sauce, its paper wrapper still on. All are in repose,
 their absolute thingness, under the overhead alarming bright light of
 kitchen. They mayor they should, they must, really, reveal the
meaning of
 this silent room, this silent house, save that they won't. There
is no
 meaning. These things will evoke nothing. (1) 

Sorrentino was longing for some meaning in those stolen Smarties; their theft signified to him a more complex sense of loss, both personal and professional.

I would like to think, however idealistically and naively, that Sorrentino did not relate too much to Dencombe; while on the one hand, Sorrentino's fiction often consists of dark metafictive novels of decline and self-reflection, he was also an author who continued to understand that failure has its own rewards, who recognized the abyss as the site, however terrifying, into which the artist must leap, if he is to discover the stuff of possibility.

 Mulligan Stew
 Serves 4 people
Ingredients *:
1 lb. of meat, cut into bite-sized pieces (usually 1/4 lb. beef brisket/
 person, or any meat on hand) 1 tablespoon flour 1 tablespoon vegetable
oil 3 potatoes, cubed (Yukon gold work best) 1 russet potato, thinly
sliced 4 large carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces 4 medium-large white
onions, cut into bite-sized pieces 1 bunch parsley, chopped 2 15oz. cans
of whole tomatoes, drained and cut into bite-sized pieces (keep
 extra cans on hand for serving) salt and pepper water Dutch oven or
similar pot and one large skillet
* Mushrooms, peppers, garlic, etc. all make good ingredients too--a
proper mulligan stew takes advantage of whatever is available.
Coat beef in flour. In a skillet over medium heat, add oil and brown
beef on all sides. Remove beef from skillet.
Saute onions (and garlic, if using it) over medium heat in Dutch oven
until soft. Add beef, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and any additional
vegetables. Add water until the liquid just covers the top of the
ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to
a very low simmer. Cook for as long as possible--at least an hour.
(If needed, thicken by mixing 1/2 tablespoon cold water with 1/2
tablespoon cornstarch and stirring mixture into the stew.)
Salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with parsley and serve in tomato cans,
for nostalgia's sake. Accompany with crusty bread. 


Beckett, Samuel. Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. New York: Grove Press, 1984.

Caroll, Kent. E. "Letter to Gerald Hollingsworth, June 29, 1978." Unpublished. Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries. With permission from Christopher Sorrentino.

Hollingsworth, Gerald E. "Letter to Kent E. Carroll, July 5, 1978." Unpublished. Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries. With permission from Christopher Sorrentino.

James, Henry. "The Middle Years." Ed. John Auchard. The Portable James. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003 (pp. 106-26).

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

O'Brien, John. "An Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino." Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 1., No 1. (Spring 1981): pp. 5-27.

Saltzman, Arthur M. "Wordy Tombs." Chicago Review, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Spring 1980): pp. 95-99.

Sorrentino, Gilbert. The Abyss of Human Illusion. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2010.

--. "Letter to Donald Justice, February 25, 1994." Unpublished. Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries. With permission from Christopher Sorrentino.

--. Mulligan Stew. New York: Grove Press, 1979.

--. Something Said. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984.


(1) See McHale, Brian. "Cognition En Abyme: Models, Manuals, Maps." Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, Volume 4, Number 2 (June 2006): 175-189. McHale defines a "dossier' novel" as "a collection of heterogeneous documents distributed over several narrative levels" (179).

(2) In the O'Brien, a student is writing a novel that follows three narratives--like Sorrentino, the student also resists firm beginnings and endings--that intertwine until the characters conspire to wage mutiny against their author.

(3) I would like to thank Peter Blegvad for pointing this connection out to me.

(4) Brian McHale describes how these "entities can pass back and forth across the semipermeable membrane between two texts" (36) in Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1987.

(5) Jaye Berman Montressor's "Gilbert Sorrentino: At Swim in the Wake of His Own Gene Pool," a discussion of parody in Mulligan Stew, offers an extended literary lineage for the characters in the novel and identifies Corrie and Berthe as characters in the play in the second chapter of Finnegans Wake.

(6) See McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1987.

(7) Harry White is an ironic reversal of Selby's own Harry Black, the protagonist of The Room, a novel Sorrentino argues "may be hell": "[Harry White] is not what he seems. He doesn't know what he is.... [His] articulations show forth the materialist zombie; his inner voice is that of a void" ("Hubert Selby," Something Said, 129-30). White's zombie existence continues in Mulligan Stew, which he haunts from another life.

(8) Tarr has a tricky publication history: I have used the dates of Tarr's serialization in The Egoist here, although it was first composed from approximately 1908-11 and revised at the start of World War I. A version first came out in book form in the United States with Knopf in 1918 (and in England soon thereafter); Lewis then revised and restored it to its originally intended longer form and published it again in 1928.

(9) See Brotchie, Alistair and Harry Mathews. Oulipo Compendium. London: Atlas Press, 1998.

(10) Sorrentino reads from these journals at length in his interview with John O'Brien (see Cited).
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Title Annotation:PART 1: On Mulligan Stew
Author:Sobelle, Stefanie
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2011
Previous Article:Books received.
Next Article:Pitiless Flaws Restored: Satiric Truth in Gilbert Sorrentino's Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo.

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