Sorrentino’s Archival Imagination
August 1, 2010 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Mulligan Stew.
Reading next: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason.
You probably already know this, but I found it helpful to remember that a mulligan stew is hobo food, composed of whatever’s available, thrown together with contributions from different sources. Of course, I imagine it being prepared over an oil-drum fire in a rail yard, while a ragtag group of misfits pass around a bottle of cheap gin and sing “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Standard hobo romanticism.
The title does double duty here: Mulligan reminds us of Buck Mulligan, the “stately, plump” opener of Ulysses, one of the book’s touchstones, in addition to indicating that the book will be a “stew” of various kinds of documents from various sources. More on the Ulysses connection later. For now, let’s focus on the stew.
I propose that what Sorrentino has composed here is not only a stew, but a kind of fictional archive: an assemblage of fictional papers. He encourages us to understand his unhinged character, Antony Lamont, and the characters Lamont “hires,” through documentation, rather than narration, and he further uses that fictional documentation to form a kind of microcosm of a milieu, the “experimental” literary world of the ’60s and ’70s. What differentiates Sorrentino from an epistolary novelist, or a documentary novelist like John Dos Passos, is the variety of unorthodox fictional documents and the uses to which they’re put. There are letters and journals, of course — the very kinds of things one finds in traditional collections of personal papers — and also more esoteric forms which are saved in Lamont’s scrapbook and Halpin’s journal: junk mail, scorecards, pamphlets, a surrealist play, a scientific paper with odd, conversational, tenuously connected footnotes (one of the more mysterious things in the book), and more.
Most obvious, and notorious, are the lists. There are lists in this book that go on for pages and pages, including a seven-pager to close the novel. They are usually used to plant little bits of comedic business, like funny names, pretentious titles, and excessive alliteration; to make literary allusions, including allusions to characters in Mulligan Stew itself; and to indulge in surrealist wordplay or imagery. But they are also, frequently, snapshots of a character. When Lamont’s character Martin Halpin records all of the books and periodicals he finds in his cabin early on, we could read the list as a window into Lamont’s character or (perhaps) his subconscious (a highly contentious reading, as you learn more about the fictional setting later in the novel, but a valid one at the time, and the same can be said for a list that Halpin finds, of bad reviews Lamont’s works have received, with enraged or defensive annotations, which certainly seem to be “written” by Lamont’s imagination or subconscious). We can also read it as a product of its times: of the crazy fecundity of 20th-century publishing, with its vast output of garbage, its undergrounds and avant-gardes, its niche publications and cheap paperbacks.
The lists, finally, become exhausting, in the same way an extensive archive is exhausting: it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, or the signal from the static, and one’s attention finally cannot hold after pages of the same kind of thing over and over again. This seems to me to be a key to understanding Sorrentino, as an experimental critic of experimentalism. His is not only a narrative imagination, but an archival one. He creates a story, but not only a story: also a collection, an archive. He shows us not only the novel-within-the-novel, but also the (ludicrous, delusional) process by which Antony Lamont goes about trying to write this (ludicrous, delusional) novel. The presence of such things is important, even if they are only skimmed.