The two hardest things in art are being funny and playing stupid. Gilbert Sorrentino must have been touched by genius, because he did a better job of portraying an irredeemably bad writer — i.e., playing stupid — than anyone else I’ve read yet. He also managed the difficult juggling act of of being both highbrow and lowbrow at the same time, without letting either extreme eat him up. He did this sort of thing through a number of books, none of them bestsellers but many of them worth seeking out, and of the bunch of them Mulligan Stew remains a perennial favorite. (Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is my other favorite Sorrentino overall, but it’s so dissimilar from Stew that it would be unfair to talk about it in the same review.)
To paraphrase from a press release for a film I hated, Mulligan Stew is “a car bomb of post-modern textual self-deconstruction”, rammed head-on into the present-day crop of literary pretensions. In plainer language, it’s a hoot, an indictment of the self-importance of those who seem more interested in pleasing critics and snobbish literary professors than they are in telling a story (!) or communicating something genuine (!!). Sorrentino accomplished all this by taking on the form of the very thing he wanted to critique: a Post-Modern Novel, consisting of books inside other books, with all the characters in search of an author. It’s not bad enough that they have to endure the indignity of being mere fictional creations, but they’re doubly miffed that the one who created them is such a humorless, egomaniacal twit.
The author is named Antony Lamont, and he’s mired down in a pseudo-noir-detective-story-thingy with pretentions towards Art. It’s a bad story, and Lamont is a bad writer: pompous, tin-eared, and just plain too smart for his own good — so confident in his own genius he’s never bothered to actually demonstrate it. When he’s not tunneling through the manuscript of his ghastly opus, he’s grousing at friends, lovers, and co-conspirators in letters that begin on a note of “My Dear Mister X,” and end on a note of “your taste, my good man, is in your ass!” Snatches of his other works also appear, showing his slide as a writer from awkward sincerity to the loathsome and pretentious depths of gutbucket intellectualism.
Novelists typically let their characters show themselves through their tastes, and Lamont’s taste in heroes is as dreadful as his writing. In one of the book’s funniest and most inspired sections, there’s an “interview” with one of Lamont’s supposed idols, Thomas McCoy (no less egomaniacal than Lamont himself), who comes off like a composite sketch of all the annoying, pretentious American writers you never wanted to read but did anyway. It’s a great encapsulation of the book’s style, a parody of unintentional self-parody:
He calls [his new book] The Mounted. “You might think of the title in relation to taxidermy,” he says. “That sort of life in death — or death in life. One does not wish to convey anything of the sexual, you see. Sex is something for the cinema people.”
The protagonist in Lamont’s novel-within is Martin Halpin. After a few chapters of being marched through one wretched scene after another and being forced to mouth the most cardboard dialogue imaginable, Martin begins to cut loose on his own. He fills a notebook with his own musings about the mess he’s stuck in, and shares gloomy insights with his equally maligned co-character Ned Beaumont. They’re like actors commiserating on the set of a doomed flop-buster, except they can’t walk off. Eventually they find out that a great many of Lamont’s other creations (as well as many cliché figures from literature in general) are all stuck doing time in the same vaguely shared space. They have envy for folks like, say, Emma Bovary: she only had to do one job, and retired while she was still ahead.
Sorrentino plies every time-honored technique at his disposal, mainly to contrast Lamont’s ends and aims. Sometimes he’s a little too eager to make fun of some of the classical structures (shilling for strictures) of the Novel with a capital N — like when he makes catalogues of all the books in Lamont’s mental library, which is funny at first but quickly wears out its welcome, and is at least skippable. But the good stuff is hilariously on-target: Antony writes to his sister Sheila, begging her not to continue her relationship with a novelist who’s written something he dismisses as a “flirtation with pornography”. The next chapter (from Antony’s novel-in-progress) is fourteen pages so laden with tears and sexual angst they almost drip into your lap when you open the book. There’s more than a couple of places where this technique adds more length than mirth, but they’re not show-stoppers, and such a desert is almost always followed up by an oasis of one kind or another.
What I found strangest about Sorrentino was how he had such a merciless eye for cant and pretentiousness for so long, but even he could slip up. He did this most flagrantly in the novel Red the Fiend, a story so grim and unpleasant and utterly unrewarding on every level it might well have been written by Lamont himself. But he got this one right.