In common with Don DeLillo, Joseph Heller, and Salman Rushdie, Mark Leyner arrived at his perch in the Quality Lit business by way of writing ad copy. Unlike those other guys, Leyner never quit. In the quarter century since he emerged fully formed from the wilds of bourgeois New Jersey, he has etched indelible paragraphs compounded of glossy doublespeak and PR lingo, heightened with sublime visions of a thrill-ride dystopia, and tapped out to a stirring rhythm. A keen student of the chat show, he has been freshly quippy at Letterman’s deskside and, flanked by Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, fluidly shrewd for Charlie Rose. His routine constitutes an uncanny jitterbug.
There are a lot of dudes out there trying to write like DeLillo. Leyner writes like a DeLillo character, and his instinct is to perform on the page such that the writing—as intensely overwrought as Djuna Barnes’ or Ronald Firbank’s—is an advertisement for itself and sings itself and eats itself like pop. The “about the author” note in his second book, 1990’s instant cult classic My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, is longer than a couple of the 17 pieces collected therein and more entertaining than a couple others. I detect the trace of Leyner’s own ultrafine highlighter in the first sentence of the publicity letter accompanying advance copies of his new book, titled The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, which is his first “novel” since 1998’s The Tetherballs of Bougainville, and which is an apocalyptic disco remix of an epic about nothing. The line reads, “Mark Leyner’s rise to literary prominence had the energy and brilliance of the aurora borealis.”
Please join me in the way-back machine, the better to absorb a past glimpse of the future of fiction. Twenty years ago, William Grimes wrote a cover story, “The Ridiculous Vision of Mark Leyner,” for the New York Times Magazine. The author was 36 and publishing Et Tu, Babe, a self-identified “master jam of relentless humor and indeterminate trajectories” promising to carry forward the style of “I Was an Infinitely Hot and Dense Dot,” itself a compact blast of nerve gas issuing from the November 1988 issue of Harper’s. If Donald Barthelme had been a Groucho Marx of funny experimentalists, here was a cackling Max Headroom describing, with photo-realist exactitude and cruelest surrealist imagery, a fantasy narrated by “a feral child who was raised by huge and lurid puppets.” Cruising, hurrying, hurtling loopily, the story imagines a sort of road trip, one involving a restaurant pit stop:
There was a bright neon sign flashing on and off that read: foie gras and haricots verts next exit. I checked the guidebook and it said: Excellent food, malevolent ambience. I’d been habitually abusing an illegal growth hormone extracted from the pituitary glands of human corpses and I felt as if I were drowning in excremental filthiness but the prospect of having something good to eat cheered me up. I asked the waitress about the soup du jour and she said that it was primordial soup—which is ammonia and methane mixed with ocean water in the presence of lightning. Oh I’ll take a tureen of that embryonic broth, I say, constraint giving way to exuberance—but as soon as she vanishes my spirit immediately sags because the ambience is so malevolent.
The subject is specially American, as is the thin air of Catskills shtick, but a lot of the moves Leyner makes here and throughout his work are as French as those flaming-gas green beans. The techniques that make the passages jump and skitter include New Wave jump cut, zero-degree New Novel freeze frame, and especially symbolist image stew. The density and intensity give the impression of listening to a very concise logorrheic.
Et Tu, Babe is a radioactive birth-of-the-author fantasy about Mark Leyner, who reads as a science-fiction grotesque of a vintage contemporary. At one point, he writes about teaching a writing workshop, where the phalanx of androids guarding his body aren’t quite enough: “Since I don’t like to carry a firearm when I conduct a writing workshop—I’ve found it tends to inhibit people who haven’t yet developed a confident style of their own—I’ll come with an icepick in my sock.”