Anatomy of Surfaces: Mulligan Stew and the Political Fantasies of America's Literary Factions

By Scott, Ramsey | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Anatomy of Surfaces: Mulligan Stew and the Political Fantasies of America's Literary Factions


Scott, Ramsey, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


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Chief among the various indignities suffered by Anthony Lamont, the character whose disintegration helps the reader find his or her way through Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, is Lamont's ill-fated correspondence with Professor Roche, a scholar of contemporary literature. Before Roche's professed appreciation for the writings of this floundering, would-be avant-garde novelist dissolves into a series of lacerating critiques, Lamont imagines that the correspondence might somehow check the quickly diminishing prospects of his own career: "... this small chance may be my last to acquire a readership among students. It could possibly mean readings, lectures, writer-in-residence jobs, paperback reprints of my books, etc., etc." (224-5). This system of patronage, through which many of the most interesting poets and writers of our time have become lackeys for tenured academics (tenured radicals, was it?!), is one that Gilbert Sorrentino knew all too well. For the better part of two decades, Sorrentino taught as a professor in the English department at Stanford University. This position proved an awkward fit for the son of a dockworker from Brooklyn, for whom even the profession of "writer" had at one time appeared unthinkable. In an interview with Barry Alpert, Sorrentino says, "Given the kind of working-class background that I came out of, there was literally no conception in my mind that I could become a writer, a serious writer, an artist, as it were" (Alpert, Vort, 1974; Jacket, 2006).

Sorrentino's discomfort with the "profession" of literature may have contributed to the disdain with which his colleagues sometimes regarded him. As a student of Sorrentino's in the late 1990s, I will never forget the tone of contempt--as Anthony Lamont, or almost any other hack, would have it--with which one of my professors dismissed Sorrentino's support for the "experimental" thesis proposal I had submitted: "Gil makes a passionate argument for experimental writing" my professor told me, "but let's be honest. Nobody--really nobody--reads his books."

Of course, it is precisely this ominous, ignominious threat of irrelevance that Gilbert Sorrentino's works court perversely, incessantly, with dignity, and with despair. Such a quality is borne of a consciousness that refuses to pretend that the sickness, the violence, or the degradation--whichever empty abstraction one chooses to employ--that defines the dehumanizing brutality with which so-called American society crushes its subjects can ever be adequately addressed by literature, in and of itself; a consciousness, moreover, that sniffs, in the putrid, composting discourse from which most left-leaning, so-called "criticism" and "analysis" emerges, a whiff of the old familiar, that gorgeous ash-heap of fermenting meat otherwise known as the great American con; and a consciousness that recognizes, with regret, with humor, and with no small amount of guilt, that writing can only and inevitably participate in this con. Thus, for example, "Honest Bill" a self-referential charlatan conjured by William Burroughs, and one that Sorrentino appreciated: "Bill's Naked Lunch Room ... Step right up ... Good for young and old, man and bestial. Nothing like a little snake oil to grease the wheels and get a show on the track Jack. Which side are you on? Fro-Zen Hydraulic? Or you want to take a look around with Honest Bill?" (Burroughs 208).

Critics have variously characterized features of Mulligan Stew as ironic or as completely lacking in irony, as pastiche or parody, as satire or thoughtless imitation. Needless to say, intercourse between critics with regard to such matters has not resulted in any recognizable, harmonious unity--a fact that does not, of course, indicate failure. As we all must know by now, literary scholars prefer rough, sometimes forced intercourse, not only with each other, but especially with those writers whose works they fetishize as instruments of political, revolutionary, or subversive potential--after all, rough intercourse is what keeps this bordello they call academia humping along. …

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