Mulligan Stew
by Gilbert Sorrentino
Gilbert Sorrentino (1929-2006) led a life
as intertextual as his fictions. In the Army
Medical Corps during the Korean War, he
met up with William Carlos Williams, and a
letter from Sorrentino shows up in Williams’
most celebrated longer work
Paterson.  Later
during his stint as an
editor at Grove Press,
his projects included
The Autobiography of
Malcolm X
and other
transgressive works of
various stripes. But his
own books would take
second seat to none in
their daring and sheer
Yet brews so strong were hardly likely to find
a mainstream audience. It was all too revealing
that when news of his death was published on
a blog, it came in the form of a missive from
his son, Christopher Sorrentino, encouraging
word-of-net passage of the news, "since it’s
not a 100% sure thing that the
Times will pay
him any more attention in death than they did
in life." When the
Times finally got around
to running its obit days later, it capped its
coverage with a quote from a critic who
assured us that Gilbert Sorrentino was not a
writer of high quality.  It could have almost
been a passage from Sorrentino's own work,
where much of the fun comes from seeing
pompous verdicts of just this sort put on
display and turned back on their purveyors.   
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
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Postmodern Mystery
Essay by Ted Gioia

Mulligan stew, in the parlance of cooking, is an
improvised soup whose origins can be traced back
to hobos and transients at the start of the 20th
century. The hungry hobo invariably finds a small
amount of meat and potatoes in the broth, but the
rest of the stew draws on whatever ingredients can
be begged, borrowed or stolen. Gilbert Sorrentino's
Mulligan Stew (1979), a classic
of postmodern fiction, is a com-
parable hodgepodge of diverse
components, sometimes savory, at
other times apparently intended to
stick in your throat.   A few pieces
of gristle here even border on the
indigestible.  Still one cannot help
but admire a cook who is so daring
and unconventional in mixing and
matching whatever comes to hand.

Anthony Lamont is struggling to write a detective novel,
and both this story and the travails of its author provide
two of the many layers in
Mulligan Stew. But Sorrentino
embeds these complementary (but never intersecting)
plot lines into a crazy quilt of meta-narratives or—yes,
you've guessed it—meta-narratives-within-the-meta-
narrative.   The main characters in Lamont’s book-within-
a-book—Martin Halpin and his friend and colleague
Ned Beaumont, whom Halpin may or may not have
murdered—lead their own lives outside the frame of
the novel, and plot to runaway to another, better
literary work.   Indeed, both of these characters have
already enjoyed modest parts in classic works of fiction:  
you will find Halpin in Joyce's
Finnegans Wake, where
he plays a bit role, while Ned Beaumont comes from
the less highbrow environs of Dashiell Hammett. Both
are in love with Daisy Buchanan, who you may
remember from
The Great Gatsby.  No wonder they
are unhappy with their ill-use in Lamont’s travesty
of a mystery story.

Even before the readers arrive at the opening chapter
Mulligan Stew, they know that the author here is
playing by different rules.  In front of the title page,
where gushing blurbs usually reside, one finds a series
of rejection notes from various publishers. "Thanks
so much for thinking of us for Gilbert Sorrentino's
Mulligan Stew," writes editor Charlotte Bayless.
"Everything in the book has the touch of a virtuoso.  
Trouble is, I got bored, and so did another reader.  
The book is so long it took us the better part of two
weeks to read it. It is also a book that is terribly
bookish and only a very special audience will take
to it all." "One of our readers thought the novel
rather dismally uninformed as far as the female
characters and their presentation," Editor-in-Chief
Sheldon Corthell comments. "This novel within a
novel within a novel—if that is what it is—would
find few readers, I fear," chimes in publisher
Morroe Reiff.  

Of course, the authors of post-modern novels can't
resist presenting writers and editors as characters,
and Sorrentino is no exception. Halpin and Beaumont,
the two key personages at the heart of the murder
mystery, both work in the publishing industry, and
most of the complications in the parallel plot
involving author Lamont result from intrigues in
the world of letters.   His rivalries and vendettas
with other authors, critics and academics provide
much of the humor in Sorrentino's expansive effort.  

But the most entertaining sections of
Mulligan Stew
are those in which the protagonists in Lamont's
novel share their own off-the-record accounts of
what it's like to be a character in a meandering
experimental book. They complain about the work,
the bad dialogue and the other embarrassing
requirements of the job, as well as the pay scale.
(Seven-and-a-half dollars per page is specified as a
fair and reasonable wage.)   Narrator Halpin even
keeps a secret journal, which details his life and times
when not engaged in pushing Lamont's mystery story
forward.  My favorite interlude in
Mulligan Stew
presents a gathering of jaded former fictional
characters sitting around the camp fire and sharing
stories of all the bad books in which they had appeared.

"In one job I threw my clothes on at least twenty times."

"My interest slackens when I’m forced to watch the
smoke from my cigarette curl lazily in the air."

"Especially when it’s blue smoke—and it’s
blue smoke!"

Etc. etc.

Meanwhile our author-protgaonist Lamont is oblivious
to the dissent simmering in the ranks. He cherishes
high hopes for his novel. "It seems quite clear that
this book will establish me as the most interesting
spokesman for the American avant-garde, and for
Sur-fiction, as well as Ur-fiction, and Post-Modern
fiction to boot." During the course of
Mulligan Stew,
Lamont experiences setback after setback—to his
reputation, his finances, even (and perhaps especially)
his love-life.  But through it all he perseveres with his
grand new book, as we follow the progress chapter by

Sorrentino is brilliant and insufferable by turns here.
The New York Times reported in 2010 that this novel,
despite its reputation as a classic of sorts, has only
sold  25,000 copies in total since its initial release—and
I can't say I am surprised. Only the hardiest readers
will survive this obstacle course disguised as a 500-
page book.. Sorrentino will impress with his biting
satire on one page, and then launch into a seemingly
interminable list on the next.    Just when the plot is
getting steamy, he will insert a lengthy academic paper
on advanced mathematics, or the entire text of a
publisher's catalog.  And the forty page "masque"
that appears midway in
Mulligan Stew neither advances
the plot, entertains the reader, nor achieves any
measurable coherence—it is to the narrative what
speed bumps are to a daily commute.

But there are more than enough fireworks in
to compensate for our author’s bag of quirks and
smirks. Risk-taking on this scale does not happen
without a few mishaps and spin-outs. As to the
hardships involved in getting to the final page….well,
all I can say is: "No pain, no gain." The bottom line:  
on any short list of must-read post-modern novels,
this book demands a place.    And, while we are at it,
maybe we will also assign
Mulligan Stew a spot in the
Ur-fiction and Sur-fiction pantheon as well.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.

Further Clues:

Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino by Alexander Laurence

"How Mulligan Stew Uses Old Lines to Slam Pretentious
Authors" by Scott Esposito

Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino by Barry Alpert

Recipe for Mulligan Stew
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