The Shock of the Boring: Excess and Parataxis in Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew.
How Sorrentino accomplishes this has been, in part, detailed by other critics: the meta-critical structure of the text (the storyline about a failed novelist attempting to write a revisionist detective novel and his characters' revolt against his ineptitude), its intertextuality (specifically with regard to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds), and most relevantly for these purposes, the many juxtaposed "other" texts supposedly written by protagonist Antony Lamont and/or his characters and/or other people in Lamont's "real" life (including diaries, letters, scrapbooks, and excerpts of other fictional works, many of which function as parodies of their respective literary forms). (1) Though the literary technique at work here has often been termed collage, and though at a technical level Sorrentino's text seems to fit well within the definition of collage, the historical avant-garde, which is usually credited with the "invention" of collage, worked (or at least, liked to believe it did so) through a process of shock, where both the content and the form of the text was meant to jolt the reader (viewer, listener) from his complacent position as reader and into an active participation with the text (and, often, an active participation with other activities altogether). Sorrentino, I would argue, attacks the literary form of the novel not through shock, but boredom. And it is through what may be his signature technique, the list, that he initially accomplishes this attack.
For one particularly outstanding example of this technique, one might look at the list of the books and periodicals found in the cabin inhabited (unwillingly) by characters Martin Halpin and Ned Beaumont. This list is composed by Halpin and Beaumont during their copious free time when Lamont does not have them actively "working" in his novel, Guinea Red. (2) There ate several ways one could attempt to understand this list (which occurs on pages 31-35 of the text): Primarily, it is an extended series of jokes, some of a literary (intertextual) nature (for instance, "Fire Pail by Vladimir Papilion"), some quite juvenile ("The Male Lesbian by K. Y. Geli"), and a wide spectrum of everything in between. To read a list that is four pages of typed paragraphs takes a not- inconsiderable amount of time; to read this list and attempt to "get" all the jokes would take even longer. Even glancing at these pages is intimidating: with no paragraph breaks and no dialogue, the type takes on a monotonous appearance that may be soporific in and of itself. This list of books and periodicals represents a very effective attack on a reader's attempt to read Mulligan Stew "like" a novel; that is to say, to attach the traditional values of the novelistic form to Sorrentino's text. Since the middle of the nineteenth century at least, the novel has, for most readers, been a form that, properly executed, could be reasonably expected to engage their attention with such aspects as well- developed, multi-dimensional characters, a plot which (usually) respects linear temporality (or to the extent that it does not, does so in a comprehensible way that is signaled appropriately, such as by dream sequences or memories), and has a structure which approximates a beginning, a middle, and (most importantly) an end that provides closure. These ate (at least part of) the contours of the realist novel that has dominated fiction writing for more than 150 years and which, though it is often not named as such, continues to do so today, at least for the majority of the fiction-buying and -reading public.
Nearly every aspect of Mulligan Stew represents some type of attack on the form of the realist novel: for example, there is no closure to the main plot-- the part of the text concerning Lamont's efforts to write Guinea Red--rather, it simply ends, and with another list at that, this one a list of the gifts that have been given to various fictional characters by their respective authors. One might reasonably expect that a narrative about someone attempting to write a novel would end either with the success of that attempt (the novel is written) or with its spectacular failure (such as in At Swim-Two-Birds, where the manuscript is burnt): either path provides appropriate closure to the narrative arc. The final chapter of Mulligan Stew contains only the list previously mentioned, and, before that, the farewell given by Halpin who has finally decided to abandon his employment in Lamont's failed novel, following in the footsteps of his coworker Beaumont. One does not know what will happen to the novel, though, as Lamont has to this point not recognized the fact that Beaumont has left (leaving Halpin to "act" both parts). The reader is left with the question of whether Lamont will recognize that both of his main characters have abandoned their employment, or will he trundle on, writing a novel of ghostly voices, putting his words into the void left by his characters' departures. Given Lamont's utter lack of self-awareness, we cannot be hopeful that he will come to any realization of what has happened to his erstwhile creation.
Many of these aspects of Mulligan Stew could be recuperated for the realist novel under a broader understanding of narrative coherence. For instance, the sections of the novel that could be described as collage--the various other forms of writing, such as Halpin's journal, that ate juxtaposed with the narrative concerning Lamont's efforts to write, and with the examples of his writing included in the text--may be interpreted as support for the reader's efforts to appreciate Halpin as a fully realized character, an effort which is not fully rewarded through Lamont's literary failures alone. Alternately, the selections from Lamont's letters to various correspondents can certainly be viewed as falling within the tradition of the epistolary novel. Only Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo, a nearly forty-page, baseball-themed masque--published previously by Sorrentino asa work unto itself--can approach the level of dislocation and pure randomness of the various lists that populate Mulligan Stew. (3) However, the Masque of Fungo is still a masque, and, as absurd a text as it may be, it does in fact maintain much of the formal structures of the traditional masque--a literary form that, it might be added, does not conform to the demands for narrative closure that we are familiar with from the novel and even most contemporary dramatic literature. (In fact, in its reliance on spectacle, it seems more closely related to twentieth-century forms of vaudeville.)
What makes the list particularly powerful as a medium for attacking forms of narrative closure is its reliance on parataxis and lack of causal connections. The list of books found in the cabin in which Halpin and Beaumont find themselves has nothing to hold it together, no rationale for existing except for proximity: the texts were all found in the same room. Halpin claims that his (and, to a lesser extent, Beaumont's) reason for constructing the list is to determine who (or at least what type of person) inhabits the cabin, and yet he is forced to admit that this attempt at psychological rendering is a failure: "The only clue to who might own [the cabin] lies in the old periodicals, papers, and books that are in the den. But they are so diverse that one cannot imagine them being the property of any one person, unless he is a 'renaissance' man" (30). The parataxis of the list denies the characters' attempts at rendering a psychologically coherent portrait of some "other," likely nonexistent, character: the purported owner of the cabin, which is to say, even these poorly-drawn characters (who are, in fact, borrowed from other texts) inhabiting Lamont's inept detective novels are not immune to the desire to produce psychologically-realistic characters, or to the type of narrative closure which demands causally based conclusions (X + Y, therefore Z; or A + B because of C) and not the paratactically derived list (A and B and C and D ...). The type of radical equality suggested by such a list, while banal in its everyday appearances (a shopping list for the grocery store, a daily to-do list) becomes overwhelming when taken to its fullest possible conclusions. While Sorrentino's list of books technically could have gone on for longer than it did, the four page list that is included in Mulligan Stew provides a serious test to any reader's patience, interest, and alertness, on the one hand, and his or her cleverness, inventiveness, and, again, patience, on the other. The reader must make a choice between slogging through the list within the context of reading this text "like a novel"--with the expectations of coherence in plot and character--in which case, this list will provoke the reaction of boredom and/ or frustration (which may be the same thing), and a resort to skimming in an effort to move more quickly through the list, seen now as an obstacle to the "real" plot of the novel; alternately, he or she may take the list seriously as a series of punning references and thusly attempt to decipher every one of them, to discover the references (literary and otherwise) that ate contained within them. (4)
Much as Halpin and Beaumont cannot imagine the coherent character who might own all of these books, it is equally difficult to imagine the reader who could easily decipher all of the references contained in this list--the person who would "get" all of the jokes. This list presents a type of a puzzle, rather, and a challenging one at that, to the reader who chooses to take it seriously, who chooses not to skip over or scan it. It is, in itself, a mystery to be unraveled, and, one imagines, a not insubstantial research project.
One is, therefore, left with the choice between boredom and distraction. (5) To attempt a "normal" reading of the text--like a novel--is constantly to risk boredom with its many interruptions to the main plot, the most egregious of which are the lists. A boring novel, one that fails to engage its reader, to pull him or her into ceaselessly turning the pages, is a failure. Leisure activities (like novel reading) that do not keep the participant engaged, which produce boredom rather than stimulation, fail precisely in that they allow the space, or at least the potential for the space, for the reader to move past the state of distraction produced by leisure, past boredom itself, and to contemplate something else altogether (whether that might be different, more engaging, leisure activities or political revolution, one cannot rightly say). Alternately, a text that does engage a reader, but in the "wrong" way, which distracts him or her from notions of plot and/or character coherence (the world of the novel) and into, say, an intellectual exercise, like finding all of the references embedded in this list of books, also fails, though that failure is of quite a different type. Ignoring for a moment the potential value in the knowledge gained by an attempt to discover the meanings behind all of the book title/author names listed in this passage from Mulligan Stew, such a project enacts a very different relationship to the text than either 1) the traditional reader/novel relationship of enclosure (we are "drawn in" to the novel, we "can't put it down") or 2) the shock suggested by the avant-garde through the dislocation of collage (the usual imagined reaction being the violent rejection of the text, at least initially). By the time a reader might reasonably work his or her way through such a list as an intellectual exercise, either engagement or shock would have long since worn off, simply due to the sheer excess of the passage's length, a length that gives the reader intellectual space enough to produce a different type of relationship to the text, one not based on fantasy and/or emotion. By being forced to choose between boredom and distraction, the reader is set up to ensure the "failure" of Mulligan Stew as a novel. One cannot effectively engage with this text in the way that one would with a novel, and thus must either stop reading it or forge a new way to read it altogether, one not dependent on the qualities valued by the traditional realist novel.
The quality of excess that may be first noticed in the list of books is brought to bear in a much more blatant way in Chapter 10, "Nameless Shamelessness," which is, according to Lamont, his attempt to "show them that I can write erotica, with more panache than a dozen Trellises [his brother-in-law and nemesis] .... Is this not the obligatory sex scene that has become a necessity in all modern novels?" (331). That Lamont describes his foray into "erotica" as only an example of "the obligatory sex scene" from modern novels is a type of understatement: like the list of books, the seven pages of "Nameless Shamelessness" detail sexual acts that may number into the hundreds (I confess I have not counted them) among the four participants (Halpin, Daisy Buchanan, and Mmes. Corriendo and Delamode). The language used to describe this interlude seems to be a mash of soft-core women's erotica ("bodice-ripper" novels) and the "true confessions" columns featured in pornographic magazines, with a very curious amount of attention paid to the lingerie the women are wearing, which seems to be constantly in flux. For instance:
Madame Corriendo's tender mouth was sculpted by her mercilessly unleashed passion into a perfect O which her scarlet lips framed beautifully; and from this warm grotto came forth a low and surging river of tropical groans and naughty words fashioned into licentious urgings of such fantastical invention as to set the mind ablaze! Her pleadings went not unheeded by Daisy, who, softly entangled in the older woman's wantonly positioned nether limbs that gleamed in stockings glossy as black laquer, was studiously addressing with her pouting lips, with nips and twitters now here! now there!, the plump throne, pink as watermelon, of trembling Corrie's most deeply female dark desires. (324)
Variations of this are repeated, over and over, for the length of the seven-page section. I am not going to analyze the language used in this section: I assume its absurdity is obvious from the brief quotation above. Rather, I would like to focus on two other aspects of this section of the text: 1) its excessiveness and 2) its parataxis.
The "set up" for "Nameless Shamelessness" is that Halpin and Daisy arrive at Club Zap (the lair of Corriendo and Delamode) in order to attempt to rescue Beaumont from the clutches of the two "witches" The four characters sit down to discuss the matter, and Beaumont and Daisy agree to have a drink, which, it quickly becomes clear, has been drugged. Thus the entire section operates under a type of drug-induced haze. This is literalized through the use of ellipses throughout, often at the ends and beginnings of paragraphs. It is as if time is passing to which we (the readers) are not privy. This cannot be due to any concerns with privacy or propriety, given some of the descriptions of the acts that are narrated for us. It seems rather to be a straightforward indication of the passing of time, which is unaccounted for due to the narcotizing effect of the liqueur. Further, the use of ellipses only increases the sense of excess that is evident throughout: it is as if, despite the sexual frenzy that is present on the page, there is even more going on that is not present, leaving it to the readers' imaginations as to what might be happening in the elided moments.
And yet, the effect is not titillating, but rather, again, boring. To the degree that boredom may be the result of overstimulation (think of a toddler surrounded by too many toys), this excess of descriptions of sexual activity leads the reader not to an increased engagement with, or interest in, Lamont's writing (clearly his intention in including the section, given his commentary on it), and thus, at a metatextual level, with Mulligan Stew, but rather a sense of exhaustion, annoyance, and, eventually, the desire to skip to the end of the section. "Nameless Shameless" is, in some senses, more boring than the list of books at the beginning of the text, because unlike the list, there is a sameness to the extensive description of the sexual acts performed by the four characters. Aside from the ever-shifting wardrobe of lingerie worn by the three women, very little changes from paragraph to paragraph, whereas the list of book titles is (potentially) infinitely differentiated. If one is engaged with the referentiality therein, this list may indeed be endlessly interesting, if not in the way that narrative fiction is supposed to be interesting. "Nameless Shameless" on the other hand, has no "other" way in which to read it. One may be amused by the ludicrousness of the language, the sheer ineptitude of Lamont's descriptions, or bemused by the thought of anyone having the sort of stamina detailed there, but even that type of engagement lasts only so long--and not as long as the section, which may seem to last forever.
Part of this sense of time stretching on into infinity that is present in this section is due to its parataxis. I discussed the parataxis of the list earlier, which is fairly self-evident: all lists are, by nature, paratactic. It would seem that a narrative description of sexual activity would be inherently anti-paratictic, given the way in which sexual acts tend to resemble the contours of narrative fiction: that is to say, they have a beginning, middle, and an end; they are goal-oriented; and, in most "respectable" fictional works, they are embedded within a larger narrative that gives them context. "Nameless Shameless" is far nearer to a traditional pornographic film in that the context given for its sexual acts is flimsy at best; the point of the text is not the motivation for the acts but the acts themselves. The spectacle of them becomes its own motivation, rather than a feature of the narrative that serves to change or enhance our understanding of the characters' relationship to each other, or to shift the plot in some way.
The "narrative arc" of the sexual act, and thus that of a traditional narrative fiction, is subverted through the paratactical stringing-together of the multiple acts described in the section. This lends them the quality of a list, which is apparent when one examines the structure of the section. Besides the frequent use of ellipses between paragraphs, what we see is the use of phrases such as "And then ..."; "In the meantime ..."; "And now ..."; "How long a time then passed, I do not know ..." Al1 of these serve to link together descriptive paragraphs without resorting to hypotaxis. There is no subordination of one act to another, or a particular combination of actors over another. Rather, what we have is a stringing together of one act after another: this and then this and then this and then this ... Again, this type of radical equality drives toward a sense of sameness that, when taken to extremes, leads inevitably to boredom. And since there is no "other" way to read this text--the sense in which it may be read as funny, as a joke, is obvious and not in need of elaboration, unlike the list of book titles- -one may chuckle at it initially, but if one attempts to read it straight through, in the way that one is "supposed" to read narrative fiction, one inevitably wishes that something else would happen. Pornography that fails to keep the interest of the reader/viewer is necessarily a failure, since, as spectacle, involving its audience is its most basic purpose. Likewise, attempts to rehabilitate "Nameless Shamelessness" into the larger narrative arc of Mulligan Stew would be strained at best. It is therefore a very successful "failure;' more so than the book list: an attack on the form of traditional narrative fiction that cannot be recuperated or rehabilitated. Readers habituated to the realist novel may strain and nearly succeed to enclose various aspects of Mulligan Stew within the traditional confines of the form; the nature of "Nameless Shamelessness" makes this virtually impossible.
Though I earlier indicated that Mulligan Stew differs from collage texts generated by the historical avant-garde in its use of boredom rather than shock as the intended reaction provoked in the reader, the end motivation is the same: Sorrentino's attack on the form of the traditional novel mirrors the work that collage has done during the earlier twentieth century in using juxtaposition to disrupt narrative forms. Boredom's relation to frustration is a version of shock more suited to the forms of experience common to postmodernity: postmodern readers may no longer be able to be shocked in the way that modern (and surely pre-modern) readers were, but we certainly can be bored.
Bruns, Gerald. "A Short Defense of Plagiary." Review of Contemporary Fiction 1, no. 1 (Spring 198l).
O'Brien, John. "Every Man His Voice" in Review of Contemporary Fiction 1, no. 1 (Spring 1981).
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Mulligan Stew. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1979.
(1) These topics are extensively covered by the many articles from the Review of Contemporary Fiction's special issue on Sorrentino from Spring 1981, including Bruns's "A Short Defense of Plagiary" Max Eilenberg's "A Marvellous Gift: Gilbert Sorrentino's Fiction;' Donald Grenier's "Antony Lamont in Search of Gilbert Sorrentino: Character in Mulligan Stew," and O'Brien's "Every Man His Voice." Other relevant articles include "A Postmodern Challenge to Reference World Construction" by May Charles, Style 29:2 (Summer 1995); John Wells's "Gilbert Sorrentino's Burial and Rebirth of Modernism," Critique 50:4 (Summer 2008); and Daniel Green's '"Terribly Bookish': Mulligan Stew and the Comedy of Self-Reflexivity," Critique 41:3 (Spring 2000).
(2) That Halpin and Beaumont are driven to this task in part by their own boredom (it is due to Lamont's incompetence that they have so much time on their hands) is relevant for considering the relationship between boredom and frustration detailed here.
(3) Though it is not usually mentioned as one of the primary intertexts for Mulligan Stew, the inclusion of The Masque of Fungo (along with the status of Lamont's failed novel as an "experimental" detective story) seems to make a strong case for Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 having some importance to its conception. The "play-within-the-novel" of The Crying of Lot 49, entitled "The Courier's Tragedy" though clearly a parody of a lacobean revenge drama, relates strongly to the "outer" plot of the novel, mirroring many of the mysterious events that occur to Oedipa Maas and her compatriots, events that, though they seem to conform to all the requirements for the plot of a detective story/conspiracy-theory novel, may add up in the end to nothing at all.
(4) That boredom and frustration ate closely related is the view of "second- generation" psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel, who viewed boredom as a symptom of the frustration of the various drives, primarily the sexual. That is to say, when a subject realizes that he cannot get what he wants from a given situation, he may reject it as "boring" rather than admitting that his drives ate frustrated. Patricia Meyer Spacks, in her critical text, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), concurs, stating,
What bores us never fully engages our attention. Yet boredom, as psychoanalysts have suggested, often contains hidden overtones of aggression. (Remember Otto Fenichel, puzzling over the difficulty of predicting "when a frustrating external world will mobilize aggressiveness in the subject ... and when it will be experienced as 'boring.'" ) If one takes seriously the charge that a book is boring--meaning that it bores many of its readers--it would seem appropriate to seek what frustrations the book induces, what aggressiveness it may release in its readers. (130)
(5) Distraction and boredom are two of the terms related by Walter Benjamin to the experience of modernity in the city; erlebnis is his (German) term for the type of boredom experienced by the modern subject who is constantly overstimulated by these aspects of city life, and thus unable to think politically (or historically). Erlebnis is the "'malady' that accompanies the disintegration of the traditional forms of experience" (Salazani, Carl, "The Atrophy of Experience: Walter Benjamin and Boredom" in ed. Dalle Pezze, Barbara and Carlo Salzani, Essays on Boredom and Modernity [New York: Rodopi, 2009], 130). Benjamin, in "The Storyteller" and elsewhere, also writes of another form of boredom, erfahrung, which is the boredom experienced by those living in traditional ways; this is a useful type of boredom that allows for the sort of "mental relaxation" which can permit productive thought. As he says in that essay, "Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away" ("The Storyteller." Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt [New York: Harcourt, 1968], 91. The "distraction" provided for by life in the metropolis is not boring in the strict sense, but it is also not politically productive.
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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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