The Anti-Ulysses

August 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Mulligan Stew.

I talked in the last post about the Stew portion of the title.  Now let’s talk about that Mulligan.

Aside from the allusion to hobo food, there is the allusion to Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses.  I posit that Buck Mulligan is the perfect figure for the title of this book because he begins Ulysses with a parody — no, a travesty — of the Eucharist.  Mulligan Stew is a travesty of Ulysses.  It contains, in its novel-within-a-novel, first titled Guinea Red and then Crocodile Tears, the anti-Ulysses: as the eighteen sections of Ulysses chart and critique the techniques of literature and progress of western civilization through their densely layered and allusive texts, the fourteen chapters of Antony Lamont’s unfinished novel, plus two alternate first chapters (along with the various fragments of his other books, and the unforgettably awful excerpts from the work of his archrival/brother-in-law, Dermot Trellis), show the variety of ways to write horribly, mean nothing, “make it up as we goes along,” to paraphrase the final chapter’s title.

I won’t go into this with the detail I could, and really, it’s more of a hunch that I have that Sorrentino might’ve had this in mind for his book.  It is an example of how awful Ulysses should’ve been, in its attempt to encompass all techniques, all archetypes, all forms into one story.  Lamont tries the epistolary and writes letters that have no reason to be written, in an age of telephones, and no reason to be copied by their sender, and even recognizes this, and yet rationalizes it to himself.  (Ironic, since his caustic, unhinged, deliriously profane letters to his “enemies” are the best things in the book, and the one thing for which he shows any talent.)  Lamont writes pornography in which his main character ejaculates dozens of times and his seductresses go through multiple costume changes (hilariously, this gets Martin, the character, hopeful about future scenes along the same lines) and convinces himself it’s an example of truly sophisticated erotica.  Lamont writes dialogue that makes no sense, but tarts it up with lots of French to make it seem classy and obscure.  Lamont gives his chapters overwrought, inappropriate, or utterly tone-deaf titles, all or at least some of which are quotes from Finnegan’s Wake (my favorite is probably “Nameless Shamelessness,” for the porn chapter), constantly repeats or contradicts himself (hilariously moving a corpse from location to location), and finishes every single chapter with the word “blue” for no good reason (towards the end, he just adds the word “blue” for no good reason, compulsively).  I will confess that I actually kind of like one chapter, “A Bag of the Blues,” which is a Beat riff that I like a lot better than much of the work of the actual Beats that I’ve read.  This makes me wonder about myself.

Anyway, could this “blue” be the blue of Ulysses‘ original cover?  Two sections especially reminded me of Ulysses:

-In the chapter “She Is the Queenly Pearl,” there’s a kind of travesty of Molly Bloom’s book-closing soliloquy, but of course it’s terribly written and Lamont has to telegraph what he’s up to: “…marvelous it was actually it was called my Florida frock he had the most extraordinary habit of painting a moustache on his face whenever he felt blue do you like the way I’m talking on and on without any pauses or punctuation it’s my consciousness just simply streaming.”  Naturally, Lamont talks himself into loving it even though it refutes more or less everything else he’s already written.

-The chapter-long soliloquy delivered by the ghost of Ned Beaumont in “Like Blowing Flower Stilled,” in a kind of Irish dialect, with liberal use of Latinisms a la Buck Mulligan (or Joyce himself).  Lamont claims not to have written this chapter, and it’s certainly bad in a more interesting way than his other stuff, but still well nigh unreadable.

I’m probably way off, since I’m basing this anti-Ulysses hypothesis on incomplete information: I’ve read Ulysses, but not Finnegan’s Wake or At Swim-Two-Birds, the two other major touchstones I know of for this book.  It’s such a great idea, though, that I want it to be true.

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.

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.

Top Fives for 2008

December 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Every year Jaime and I send out a Christmas letter listing our top five movies, songs/albums, and books of the year. My books list is the only one that’s not really accurate: I leave out things that people seem to already know they should read. But hey, why not show both lists — the top five of lesser-known books, and the top five including classics?

First, the Christmas-letter list of lesser-known books:

5.  Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.  A really funny book, perfect for bedtime reading or picking up over breakfast or lunch.  Mostly very short pieces, each named after a topographic feature of the moon: descriptions of art installations, linguistic flights of fancy, satires on pretension.  My favorite might be “Appennines,” with its “magenta neon” sign reading “ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN OF BOURGEOIS GENDER ROLES.”

4.  The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.  I wrote about this a while back; it’s really good, falling somewhere among nature writing, experimental fiction, and memoir.

3.  End Zone, by Don DeLillo.  Do people already know they should read this?  I don’t know, I love DeLillo and I overlooked it for a long time.  Turns out it’s a really good book, and important for understanding DeLillo, nuclear paranoia, and football in Texas.

2.  City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.  Because of travel, I didn’t have the opportunity to write about this much.  But, listen, it f’ing rocks.  It’s easy to underrate genres like fantasy lit because so many books are utterly derivative, and even if they’re not derivative they’re escapist or of interest only to a subculture you’re probably more comfortable not getting too deep into.  And it’s easy to overrate genre “classics” just because they are “influential”: sure, Tolkien’s inspired a lot of books, but how many good books?  But then you get someone like VanderMeer, creating a really compelling universe (the city of Ambergris and its environs) and using it to tell serious, interesting, complex stories, and you want to dive in, and never read anything else but books like this ever again.

1.  The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  I am not messing around here.  Read it already.  And I want comments, dammit.

Okay, and now the list of the books I most enjoyed, classics included:

5.  The Decameron, by Boccaccio.  Only one of the most important books in Western literature.  Combines my loves of heavily structured fiction, stories within stories and framing devices, and lusty Italians.

4.  The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.  The quintessential Chicago book; one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read on the basic level of language, with its wild idioms, jargons, fragments, soliloquies; a colossus of a text, which took me the better part of last December and January to read.  I’m convinced: I must read all of Bellow.  Could’ve included Ellison’s Invisible Man here, too: another American classic.

3.  A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.  This was the year I caught up with the rest of the universe and discovered that, yes, Forster was a genius: I was just too lazy in college.  The scenes in the Marabar caves are utterly unforgettable.

2.  The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.  Just an unbelievable book.  I can’t imagine reading this when it was first published; my head might’ve exploded.  “Moon Lake” is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and it might not even be my favorite story here, because “The Wanderers” is just that good.  Difficult, obscure, and complicated in the best, most marvelous ways possible.

1.  Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  Not as a quality judgment, necessarily (although I think it belongs in this company), but because it’s the book I’ll always think of when I remember this year.  In a year of awful surprises (and a few good ones), DFW’s death was the worst for me.  It’s funny: I first read this in the summer of 1999, right before we elected GWB; and I read it again right before Obama’s election.  Damn, but it’s been a long eight years, ain’t it?  DFW was always ahead of the curve, and so much of the book makes so much more sense to me now.  We’ll be a while in catching up to him.

Here’s wishing you all happy reading in 2009.

Cornellian Fictions

May 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Wet Collection and Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.

Who doesn’t love Joseph Cornell? There’s something in his art that appeals to seemingly everyone. I suppose it’s partly that his work is just so ambiguously evocative that you can read just about anything into it; partly the toylike nature of his constructions, irresistible in their moving parts and mysterious rules; partly the deep veins of sadness and joy running through his work. Maybe there are Cornell haters out there; I haven’t met them.

TWC sports a picture of a Cornell box on its dust jacket. (Writers and Book Designers of the World, I can more or less guarantee that choosing such an image for your next project will guarantee you bookstore browsing time from yours truly.) Aside from just looking awful purdy, this choice dovetails very nicely with the construction of the collection as a whole: the title, the jacket, and the content (most of all) all lead you to see this book as a coherent construction made of disparate parts — a Cornellian box of specimens (natural historical, personal memory, social historical, etc.) There are all kinds of interesting ways the book works as this kind of construction; memoir here is much more than pretending you were once in a gang, and fiction is much more than ripping off some “true story.” But I digress.

“Ave Maria Grotto” was the first story that made me think of Cornell in its content, rather than in its form. It’s an imagining of the life of Joseph Zoettl, a real-life Benedictine monk in Alabama who created models of buildings (some religious, some not) out of found and donated “junk.” (More interesting echoes of The Art of Memory here, with its construction of memory palaces.) It’s a lovely story, and two passages stand out for me: “There could be no truly worthless thing; perhaps, he thought, it was a problem of transposing something into its next place of service.” And then, at the end, this interesting twist on Biblical exegesis:

Perhaps he thought, as he worked, of that old verse in Jeremiah: What has straw in common with wheat? Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks rock in pieces? Then it fit; he understood. Only what’s broken can fully be used. Nothing too humble; nothing too good.

The grace in everyday objects and quotidian memories, the importance of seeing the value in the used and broken as well as the rare and valuable, the hermetic (borderline creepy) devotion to work on a deeply personal, somewhat mystical art: these are Cornellian. Interestingly, the orientation Tevis displays toward her craft also seems to bear some resemblance to Cornell. He was always combining autobiography and fantasy, seeming to contain a bottomless well of nostalgia for things that he’d never known or knew only slightly. Dreams, daydreams, occurrences, relationships, world events: he used them all, he seemed to sense how they fit together.

So that’s one kind of Cornellian fiction. Another is displayed by Gilbert Sorrentino, in the book I’ve been reading before bed. This book, Lunar Follies, is wild, man. We’re talking short-short representations of art-gallery shows, performance art pieces, Joycean word associations, with each piece named after a feature of the moon. “Copernicus” is the Cornell piece, subtitled “A Collage.” It’s the longest in the book, eight pages. It’s a hell of a story, managing to combine Cornell’s obsessions with hotels, the stars, pop-culture stars, ballet, mythology, nobility, toys and games, and surrealism. He does so playfully, working the titles of and associations in Cornell’s art into a phantasmagoric surrealist story which highlights the overheated sexual longing running through so much of Cornell’s work. This is a dream-story: connections bounce off of one another, spinning a yarn that you can never quite unravel, once you’re done spinning it. There’s a great section on “Black Hunter, a version of the Korean board game of great antiquity, Box with Corks and Other Corks,” with mystical, obscure gameplay and rules: “It had reached that moment of transformation called Central Park carousel pavilion, a critical juncture that always nullified the effects of the aggressive gambit, American Gothic casement, even when that move was followed by the spectacular night sky and window facade.”

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