It surely says something (something neither good nor bad nor entirely unpredictable) that the 1981 Picador edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew is so hard to find on the second hand book market. I had assumed that late-1970s Bohemian intellectuals had gone for this one in a big way.
Perhaps this book (“it is as if Buck Mulligan had written Ulysses,” says the blurb) was just too much like hard work. And perhaps Sorrentino was closer to the truth than he ever knew when he stated scathingly, after an almighty struggle with his philistine publishers, that the book was aimed at “the eleven persons who can still read.”
I’m proud to reveal that I number myself among the eleven. Who, I sometimes wonder, are the other ten?
Mulligan Stew is, as it happens, my all-time favourite example of Modernist meta-fiction. And meta-fiction, should you need reminding, is the art of telling stories that make you think about storytelling, featuring narrators wrestling with the challenges of narration. Some people think this is a terribly new thing. It isn’t. Not all meta-fictions are Modernist: in exactly the same way that not all Modernist novels are meta-fictions.
In fact, the meta-fiction has an ancient pedigree. It’s part and parcel of the Arabian Nights, a story about a girl telling stories, some of which feature so many dreams within dreams that you’re not entirely sure if the narrator is still awake. Meta-fiction is also part and parcel of pre-Renaissance concept albums like the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales. Anything that features stories within stories or, like Hamlet, a play within a play, is at least flirting with meta-fiction. The absolute apogee was attained by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy; but even droney old Sir Walter Scott sets his dusty historical novels within elaborate framing devices, with narrators coming across tattered manuscripts of lost narration in obscure desk drawers.
Even more pertinently, from our perspective, the 20th Century’s most successful literary phenomenon, the whodunit, was successful precisely because it was (and is) a meta-fiction genre. The detective doesn’t solve puzzles. Not really. He or she is, in reality, a speculative, improvisatory narrator, making false starts, following blind alleys, before making compelling headway. We watch him (or indeed her) compiling a story for us before our very eyes. It’s an utterly engaging process.
But yes, it’s true that something rather special happened when elements of the Modernist avant-garde, desperate to show that they too could aspire to psychedelia, rediscovered meta-fiction in the 1970s. Actually, Tom Stoppard probably started the ball rolling in 1966 with his play on a play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He didn’t exactly trigger an avalanche: unless you consider Laurence Durrell’s Avignon Quintet (1974-85) as an avalanche in and of itself.
But there were lots of notable efforts. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night is superb as is Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Money by Martin Amis is a decent enough attempt. But none can match the sheer exuberance of Mulligan Stew, which features a writer whose characters run amuck like demented Marx Brothers when he’s not paying attention.
We may not see its like again. Certainly not while the current generation of literary Puritans are still running the show.
Meanwhile, though, if you’re one of the other ten people who can still read, please get in touch.