Connecting Mulligan Stew and Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter Is Easier Than You Think!

July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino.

Last night I watched, voluntarily and even enthusiastically, a film called Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter.  It contains intentionally incompetent acting and action sequences, intentionally ridiculous characters and special effects, intentionally poorly dubbed dialogue, intentionally anachronistic music, editing, and cinematography.  It is intentionally bad, an attempt to make a kitsch object, a work of art so horrible it is transformed into something great, through its purity of intention and earnestness of delivery.  (I hadn’t really thought of it as a continuation of the alchemical tradition before, but it sure seems obvious when you put it that way.)

This is an entire genre now, a style with a tradition fertile enough and a fan base large enough to provide year-round fodder for art house theaters, if there were any so inclined.  Heck, I just went to a William Castle double feature a couple of weeks ago, and he’s certainly one of the granddaddies in the field.  The intention to make a bad film would seem to make such a work completely worthless — no purity of heart if you set out to make something bad — but the economics of the movie business and the absurdity of the billions of dollars devoted to worldwide promotion and distribution of “ideas” more ridiculous and pointless than JCVH (just off the top of my head: Transformers. The A-Team.  Alvin and the Chipmunks. Any “romantic comedy” starring Katharine Heigl) keep so-bad-it’s-good filmmakers on our side.  It just seems so arbitrary: could Watchmen possibly have been as terrible made for $100K by some devoted fanboy as it ending up being for $130M by an army of studio hacks?  If you decide to make a film so bad it’s good, either you really believe in a DIY/punk cinema and try to refine your craft with a stable of committed actors until your craft develops to the point where you’re no longer intentionally bad, scraping by on low/no budgets in the hopes of making something funny, inspiring, and genuine, or you are a truly cynical mofo and you’re just playing the odds: unless you’re interested in making social realism, there’s more hope in camping it up and hoping that something clicks at a festival so you can get an actual budget for your next ridiculous idea and can direct the fight sequences with better editing, effects, and stuntpeople. (JCVH seemed to fall more on the punk side to me, and its affection for and impressive tonal mimicry of low-budget ’60s and ’70s horror and exploitation films was enough to win me over.)

All of which leads me (twist!) to Mulligan Stew.  It is much more difficult to write an intentionally bad novel or story while letting readers in on the joke than it is to make such a film; for one thing, there’s much less of an economic reason for such works to exist.  Exaggerated pastiche has always been the easiest way, the recent literary monster mash-ups being an interesting  example and perhaps the most popular attempt to introduce intentional kitsch into literature.

The other way is to combine such pastiche with another layer of story, embedding an intentionally bad work in a better one which allows the author to show that he knows and intends the inner work to be bad.  Mulligan Stew is like that, but also kind of better than that: there’s no “higher” layer of an author or narrator showing us the bad work, but rather a lower layer of the characters themselves rebelling against the crap they’re forced to do (as told in one character’s journal), along with a mix of materials such as letters, journals, and scrapbooks to show us the author of the awful work in all his, well, awfulness.  To make things better, the awful work here isn’t a potboiler or horror story: it’s an experimental novel, a pretentious metaphysical detective novel in which the narrator cannot remember whether he’s killed a man in the next room over.

A couple of cogent quotes from a great interview with Sorrentino published in the first issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, back in 1981 (two years after MS‘s publication).

…I think all writers create characters so that they can manipulate them, do what they want with them.  But it’s very easy to assault people who, let’s say, read the wrong books and listen to the wrong music and have the wrong ideas about what films are hip and fashionable….  The really dangerous people are the ones who know everything, the people who know everything worthwhile to know; they do everything right.  Those are the people who must be watched every minute of the time….  It’s the people who have the marvelous fronts who should be assaulted….  [There] are people who write because they think writing is a tool, it’s a way of changing the environment.  That’s an odd way of looking at writing, which has always seemed to me an end in itself.  The world is filled with very intelligent, very bright, and even very talented people who think of art the way one thinks of a job, think of art as a way of being promoted….  And I don’t mean commercial writers.  I mean writers who are “serious” people.

More succinctly, Sorrentino says elsewhere, “The Mask that covers all others is the mask of the wiseguy.”  Even though Sorrentino wasn’t talking about MS here, that’s very much in line with Anthony Lamont, the author of the horrible novel-in-progress in question.  Lamont talks of his commitment to the avant-garde when trying to convince (passive-aggressively, of course) a literature professor to use one of his books in a course on contemporary American fiction, his desperation to receive some sort of recognition and success much more blatant than any “commercial” author’s concern over sales figures.  He also, hilariously, uses the avant-garde or “experimentation,” without apparently having much sense of what the terms mean to him, as a kind of blanket justification for any flaw in the design of his plot or the quality of his prose, allowing him to keep making his mess of a book while talking himself into believing its a kind of unclassifiable masterpiece.

This all relates, I think, to the prefatory material Sorrentino includes, comprised of rejection notes to “Gilbert Sorrentino” from various publishers regarding Mulligan Stew.  Complicated as the “Etymology” and “Extracts” of Moby-Dick, I am fairly certain that these are fictional, though the few places that discuss them seem to vary on the perceived degree of fiction: whether they are fictionalized versions of the kinds of rejections he received, or outright fabrications, or just real letters with the names changed.  Since Sorrentino himself does not assume a voice in the book, speaking only through documents, this could be a way to puncture that “wiseguy” mask, showing the arguments to be made against the book, against his writing, showing he doesn’t want to be seen as the smirking know-it-all laughing at the rubes in the book.  It’s a kind of self-defeating structure.  But it also could be seen as the author inviting the reader to wear the wiseguy mask, instead: to appreciate the book that so many publishers dared not.  To be hip.  To see how a book can be so bad it’s good.

Sorrentino discussed the intentional badness of Lamont’s book within the book in the same interview:

Bad prose is easily identifiable but you have to discover what the writer is up to before you can say this is bad prose.  Mulligan Stew is a good example.  You have to read a while to see what I’m up to.  You have to read a while to see that “I” am not writing this; it’s the bad prose of somebody else.  Also, it can be bad prose written in such a way that it can become good; for instance, mistakes made in order to make a line comic or ludicrous.  Bad prose, however, that is intended to be serious is usually identifiable… it’s intent upon telling you something, it’s intent upon instructing you in the truths of life, it’s intent upon getting a story across to you so that you will be moved or warmed, it’s clearly rubbish.

Sorrentino wants you to enjoy, in other words.  Laugh.  Enter the world of the book.  It is easy to do so: the layer of bad experimental fiction is enjoyably hilarious, and also heightens the “reality” of the layers of text about the writing of that fiction.  Like Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter or what Tarantino calls “movie movies,” they are fictions whose referents are other fictions, not any “real” world.  As such, they can be not only enjoyable, but also interesting for thinking about how narrative works; how our minds work; how the world gets constructed, many stories at a time.

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Conflict (or the Lack Thereof) Through Structure

July 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Reading next: Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino.

I finished it a couple of days ago, but my mind’s still not entirely made up about Cloud Atlas.  Part of me thinks it’s an absolute masterpiece, one of the best pieces of literature in recent years.  Another, smaller part keeps trying to tamp down that enthusiasm, pointing to the sometimes pedestrian prose, the wooden or slightly stilted language occasionally on display (especially in “Half-Lives” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” which also happen to be the sections in which it’s easiest to call these faults intentional), the strange irritation I sometimes feel in the company of Mitchell, and the niggling sense that nothing truly groundbreaking is going on here.

All of that seems relatively minor, though, compared to the brilliance on display in much of the book, especially (in my opinion) “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” and “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After.”  These latter two are some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time, and also manage to transform the rest of the book into science fiction of a sort, as well.  I wished, while reading it, that “Sloosha’s Crossin'” was its own book, not the novella nestled at the center of another.  But that’s part of the brilliance: it’s at the center because of its interactions with the other five parts of this “sextet,” this musical work in literary form.  The central story is very close to being its own story, but it is not: not quite.  Nothing is ever only its own story.  No one is ever only their own self.  That’s the point.

It was while reading “Sloosha’s Crossin'” in the middle of the book that I started to wonder about how one would go about teaching this book, and about that hoary old classroom discussion on types of conflict.  You know: man vs. man! man vs. nature!  man vs. self!  man vs. society!  That whole bit.  (Here come some SPOILERS, of maybe META-SPOILERS, so look out.)  The book’s structure is clever, and elegant: a fragment of five stories, each fragment being read (or at least experienced) by a character in the next, with the complete text of a sixth (“Sloosha’s Crossin'”) in the middle, followed by the completion of each fragment in reverse order, the completions being found in each preceding story.

Remember those graphs of a novel’s structure that you had to draw in middle- or high school, showing the rising and falling action, the varying degrees of intensity of narrative tension and incident?  Here there could be six lines on the graph, each rising, then flatlining (with an occasional bump) as another story takes over, then picking back up after a trough of varying length.  (I loved drawing those graphs.  If I had a scanner I’d draw one and slap it in here right now.)  But here’s the thing: because these six stories, however compelling on their own, appear in the context of their own reading — some presented as fictional within the fiction itself (or are they?) — these graphical depictions would be rather dishonest, or at least incomplete.  The real plot, the real conflict, lies in their conjunctions.  Not to get all John Barth on you here, but the main “conflicts” are Story vs. Story and Reader vs. Text, at both the level of the plot itself and at the metafictional level.

One of the book’s brilliances, though, is the integration (maybe even subordination) of these postmodern conflicts into the content of the book, and the fact that it’s possible to experience the book not as a battlefield of conflicts at all, but more like the piece of symphonic music it explicitly patterns itself after.  You can read the stories as working together like instruments in an ensemble, to tell a larger story of a tension and landscape (rather than conflict) something like “Humanity Struggles” or “Souls Reemerge,” rather than as conflicting across levels of text and comprehension.  (The symphonic aspect of the work is really beautifully done, not only in the structure, but also at the level of metaphor and motif.)  A passage that clarified this for me appears on p. 169, in the comedic “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” in which the titular vanity-press publisher vents on his life in books:

Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led.  Why have you given your life to books, TC?  Dull, dull, dull!  The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction!  Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will.  “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.”

The passage is, I think, the funniest in the book (that last-sentence punchline kills me, especially if you imagine a British comedian like Ricky Gervais or John Cleese delivering it).  Anyone who deals with pedestrian fiction in bulk (as vanity-press publishers surely do, and as librarians do, as well) has thought something similar.  Mitchell includes it (and the entire “Ghastly Ordeal” tale) not only as comic relief, but for its reflection on the whole business of making narrative, making story, and the desire to transcend those archetypal plot types in some way.

What Mitchell does better than many of the arch-postmodernists have done is use this desire to actually convey a story about not only its own telling, but important matters in the worlds of the plot and the “real world” the plot mimics.  He manages to conclude his book with a two-page message, for God’s sake — a moral, even! — without seeming dishonest, pedantic, maudlin, or hokey.  That’s a real accomplishment: a step forward, thanks be, to the past.

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