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.”
Such marvelous aggression! Reading Leyner’s odes to appetites—and his sizzling psychedelic images, and his info-fixes fugue states—you get to thinking about thinking and the chemical mind, and I think it’s important to mention that Grimes described Leyner as a serious runner and unreconstructed gym rat. (The author declared, immortally, "I think it's important for you to mention that I not only want to be the best comic novelist in America, but the best-built comic novelist in America.") This is the passion juicing the prose. Leyner runs the reader down a ruthless treadmill. He is administering an endurance test of an endorphin overdose.
The style is “the ultimate union of U.S. television in fiction” and “marks the far dark frontier of the fiction of image.” Or so David Foster Wallace wrote in the 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Wallace wondered at length about TV’s institutionalization of “hip irony” and “postmodern rebellion.” It is as if he had anticipated the medium’s way of stoking the sense that we are all living inside the universe of NBC’s Community, which we kind of are. Wallace wound up the piece by IDing Gastroenterologist as a virtuoso response to the blue flow and schizoid flip of the Tube in its own terms. But also he described MCMG as “less a novel than a piece of witty, erudite, extremely high-quality prose television. Velocity and vividness—the wow—replace the literary hmm of actual development.” And at the earlier moment of the 1992 magazine story, on account of Leyner’s commitment to giving the people the kinesis they want, Wallace referred to Leyner, no less memorably, as “kind of an antichrist.” The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is ripe with Leyner’s old false-salvation flavor and chewier than ever.
If, just for sport, we were to suppose that T.S.F.N. has a proper plot—that the content of its story is divisible from the self-analytic and endlessly involuted architecture of its structure, its “infinite recursion of bracketed redundancies,” its fractal patterns and narrative nesting dolls—we would start to summarize that plot by talking about “the Gods.” These are deities who are horny and vengeful in the Hellenic tradition and who further comport themselves like seven strangers who, having been picked to live in a loft, have stopped being polite and started trifling with mortals for sport. They belt back Gravy (“a smokable form of hallucinogenic borscht”) and the tales of their exploits are constructed and deconstructed without surcease by generations of blind bards high on ecstasy or sometimes ketamine but almost always also Sunkist.
Many a God lives speaks with a “self-indulgent, hyperintellectual diarrhea of the mouth.” The everyman in attendance—an unemployed butcher from Jersey City, whose fate is to be “riddled, infested, consumed, devoured by Gods”—engages a diner waitress in “hypersexualized flirtations” about the second-person present-tense narration. (Him: “You’re serving me a hot tongue sandwich. … You’re setting an ice-cold Sunkist orange soda down right next to my big, crunchy onion rings.” Her: “Second-person present-tense narration makes everything super-fucking-hot.”) The book describes itself as "one long ultraviolent hyperkinetic nightmare" rocketing to a “hyperviolent denouement.” One character (“Real Husband”) praises another (“Real Wife”) for her acute auto-critique of T.S.F.N.—conducted on a series titled Inside the Sugar Frosted Nutsack—by lauding her “straight-up hyperarticulate high-pitched shit.” Hypertextual, the book allows choose your own adventure and illusion, and the whole effect is of a tail-finned cruise through the land of John Barth and Robert Coover back to the caves of primal myth.
Gird yourself for a slide down the spiraling neural pathways of an imploded neurotic culture, where we click links unto seasickness. Leyner, same as he ever was, offers a vision of the future that you’ll be living in when you swim up google-eyed from the present’s phosphorescent depths. If T.S.F.N. is less insidious a trip than his earlier fiction, it is because his pragmatic nihilism has mellowed into a kind of Zen acceptance. In creating a prose analog to the processed hollow perfection of Jeff Koons’s “Rabbit,” Leyner has sculpted his own streamlined Buddha shimmering with visions of infinite regress.
Or so it seems at the punch line. In the last paragraph, the everyman dies, and it’s as if his spirit is “disappearing into the scintillating somethingness of the nothingness that never was” as he breathes his last words, like a pop mantra: “One size … fits all.”
See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.