…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and what it means to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from writer Ryan O’Neill:
I fell in love with Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew in the first seven pages; I can’t think of another novel that begins by reproducing its own rejection letters. The rejections themselves, while hilarious, also ring true, and I say that as someone who has received more than their fair share of rejections, and range from the encouraging to the dismissive to those that blame the current state of the novel market. (Yes, publishers used that as an excuse in the 1970s too.) I suspect Sorrentino tweaked these letters to highlight their absurdity and pomposity, but at the same time he leaves in the sometimes harsh criticism of the novel to follow. One editor states, with some justification, ‘our basic feeling is that the book (I hesitate to call it a ‘novel’) seems to be a rather slapdash collection of notes, gibes and needlessly elaborate jokes.’ Indeed, Mulligan Stewis a slapdash collection of notes, gibes and jokes, but it is also a great novel. Yes, it could be described as ‘experimental,’ a term which, unfortunately, also suggests other adjectives such as tricksy, clever-clever, over-intellectual, and cold) but don’t let that put you off. Mulligan Stew is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and if you love books, one of the best books about the writing of books.
After the preamble of the rejection letters and a reader’s report on the novel, the ‘real’ story begins, or so it seems. The first chapter appears to be from a crime novel, as the narrator, Martin Halpin, ruminates over the corpse of his friend Ned Beaumont in an isolated cabin, wondering how he was killed. There is also mention of a Daisy Buchanan, Ned’s girlfriend, and if these names seem familiar, it is because the characters are drawn from novels by Flann O’Brien, Dashiell Hammett and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The end of the first chapter of this melodramatic murder mystery is not followed immediately by the second, but by a letter from Antony Lamont, the author who is in the process of writing the novel we have just been reading. This is followed by sections from Lamont’s notebook in which he lays out plans for future chapters.
Lamont is a wonderfully drawn character who the reader comes to know through his letters to his sister, other writers, and academics. He is a pretentious ‘experimental’ writer with a hugely overinflated opinion of his own worth. Later in the novel it becomes obvious his naked egotism masks a deep insecurity about his writing, and a gnawing envy over the achievements of other, more successful writers. Mulligan Stew follows Lamont for a while, as he revises his first chapter, again featuring Halpin and the dead Beaumont, and then the third major narrative strand of the novel is introduced. This is Halpin’s journal, in which Halpin and Beaumont, who are aware that they are characters in a novel, discuss and fret over the terrible things that Lamont, the author is making them do. Lamont remains oblivios to the fact that the characters he is using in his novel have a life of their own outside of his novel. As Mulligan Stew progresses, so does Antony Lamont’s awful novel (of which we see several chapters) and the extracts from Lamont’s journal and letters (which trace the gradual disintegration of his hopes as a writer), as well as Halpin and Beaumont’s attempts to escape the novel they have found themselves in, and gain useful employment in a better one.
The above plot summary undoubtedly makes Mulligan Stew seem harder to understand than it actually is. The reader is always aware of what level of ‘reality’ in the story they are currently reading, and the different levels of the story play off each other to great, and often comic, effect. For instance, Lamont writes a chapter of his novel which features an orgy involving Halpin and several other women. Later, the character of Halpin, who had no choice but to take part in the orgy, reveals through his journal the hideous embarrassment, and shamed excitement, he felt during the episode. Some of the funniest parts of the book involve Halpin and Beaumont dissecting Lamont’s novel, and wondering with dread what indignity the author will make them suffer next.
As if the novel within a novel in which the characters are aware that they are in a novel were not enough, Mulligan Stew also contains a lengthy play, a mathematical treatise, a child’s essay, a long series of lists, hundreds of made-up book titles and authors and reviews, doodles, puns, jokes, false starts, questions and answers and (deliberately) terrible examples of modern poetry. Novelists, poets, novels, poems, academics, students, publishers, Sorrentino skewers them all.
Does everything in the book work? No. A mulligan stew is one that is made from any available ingredient, all thrown in the pot and mixed together, and Sorrentino’s Stew follows this recipe. But perhaps he includes too much. It can be tempting to skip the lists that sometimes run for a dozen pages, and the long play within the novel, while amusing in parts, seems like an overindulgence. While it is true that parts of the book require patience, the patience is always rewarded. If Sorrentino’s restless experimenation can sometimes be exhausting, it is more frequently exhilarating. As a reader, I laughed out loud throughout the book at Sorrentino’s satirising of the tropes and clichés of literary forms. As a writer, I laughed (and winced) at the depiction of authors, especially poor Lamont, whose smug self-confidence conceals a corroding self-doubt which I believe all writers share, more or less.
Mulligan Stew is unapologetically a novel about a writer writing a novel in which the characters are aware that they are works of fiction, and I know such a description might put readers off. It is metafictional, and again there are plenty of readers who don’t like to be reminded when they are reading a story, of the fact that they are reading a story. Sometimes though, it can be liberating to unsuspend your disbelief, to remember, for a little while, that fiction is actually fiction, and none of it is true.
Ryan O’Neill was born in Scotland, and lived and worked in Lithuania, Rwanda and China before settling in NSW, Australia. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals including Meanjin, Westerly, New Australian Stories, Sleepers Almanac and Best Australian Stories. His short story collection, The Weight of a Human Heart, is published by Black Inc.
Your turn: Have you read Mulligan Stew? Are you a fan of experimental fiction? Or books about writing?