Jim Elkins | 1/2/2014
" Mark Leyner's new book has been getting a lot of media attention, partly because it's a "comeback" book, and partly because he is associated with the generation that includes David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. (Apparently there is a YouTube video of an old episode of "Charlie Rose" with Leyner, Wallace, and Franzen as the guests, made before Franzen was widely known.) [return][return]The reviews I have seen praise Leyner mainly for going there: he says things and writes in ways that are not usually permitted in novels. (One reviewer put it that way: he was astonished at what he read, and wondered, "Is that permitted?") People say his writing is astonishing, virtuoso, brilliant. People find him hilarious; reviewers mention how they laughed -- often, loudly, even continuously. An especially common sentiment is that his work makes other novels seem old-fashioned. Here is one of the Amazon reviews, in full:[return][return]"It took me exactly 3 pages of this book to make me realize that I've been ever so slightly bored with every other book I've read... since Leyner's last book. This is the divine comedy."[return][return]I won't deny I smiled a number of times reading the book: it would be hard not to smile when Leyner is telling us, for example, that J.D. Salinger wrote an article with A.J. Foyt and published it in "Highlights for Children." The book's central conceit, that the universe is run by a white van-load full of gods who appeared about 14 billion years ago and are obsessed with someone named Ike who lives in New Jersey, is the kind of opening move that announces -- all by itself, with no need for an accompanying novel -- that as soon as any rule of novel writing, or even of propriety, appears, it will be happily broken. [return][return]But I never laughed reading "The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack." I tried to picture the sort of reader Leyner was imagining: such a person would come to the novel with her head filled with Austen, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Forster, Greene, Roth, Updike, and especially Franzen, Ford, McCarthy, Proulx... and by the very first page they'd be shocked, dismayed, and delighted. (This is one reason, I think, why Wallace once envied Leyner, even though Wallace tried hard not to depend on fireworks, paranoia, virtuoso writing, and hallucigenic scenarios.) [return][return]It is more difficult to imagine the kind of reader for whom the entire book is funny, joke after joke. Several reviewers hinted that the book became boring, but reviewers who liked "The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack" (like the one quoted above) tend to identify it as a kind of revelation of the inherently boring nature of other books. Boredom figures in Leyner's work in a complicated way; for me, thinking about boredom was the most interesting part of reading.[return][return]The book staves off something that counts as boredom by keeping up a nearly uniform pitch of hysteria. In the entire book there are only a few moments in which the narrator's voice relaxes -- when the double exclamation marks, italics, pop culture references, scattered references, Pynchonesque paranoia, Barth-like meta-references, all around goofiness, and boldface celebrity names let up just a little. One such passage is a list of things that Ike, the hero, loved about his childhood. Without its context, that list would be a lyrical, unironic, nostalgic evocation of memories that have largely been lost. In context, it's drowned out by the gods and their craziness. Another passage, also a list, is about what men can understand about women. It turns out it was plagiarized from "O," Oprah's magazine. The novel itself admits that, and it's also credited in the endpapers. Out of context, that list would be sincere and heartfelt (as it would have been in "O"); in the novel it's said that people who take the list that way are hard to figure out.[return][return]What, then, cold count as boredom in this book? Here are two possible positions:[return][return]1. For me, it's the flood of writing itself that became boring, mainly because it was unmodulated (except for those interesting brief passages), and also because the individual jokes weren't funny. And that, in turn, was because I am used to unexpected juxtapositions of high and low culture, past and present, sense and nonsense, seriousness and irony: those kinds of jolts were a stock in trade of first-generation postmodernism. If you find it humorous to see Mircea Eliade's name juxtaposed with the name the god of testicles, that may be because you are anxious about the values and meanings of serious culture, philosophy, high art, and so forth, so it's a relief to see them deflated. If you aren't anxious, then it isn't especially funny to see those juxtapositions: they are a little funny, sure, but not in a sustainable way.[return][return]2. For some of Leyner's fans, the flood is the opposite of boring, and it reveals the fundamentally boring nature of other novels. Readers who are energized by a continuous barrage of wild writing are, I think, good examples of what the philosopher Karsten Harries called the "kitsch economy." In kitsch, what matters is effects, and in each repetition they have to be done more intensely, more densely, than before. The "kitsch economy" is tied to perpetual inflation: each new novel, film, painting, or composition has to have more special effects than the one before, because the effect of each innovation -- the hit, the force of the drug -- wears off. Readers who find that Leyner makes other novelists boring will soon be needing him, or someone else, to be more outrageous, more condensed, more brilliant...[return][return]Boredom and its opposites (attention, immersion, absorption) are one of the themes that makes the book interesting. Another is what counts as funny, and why. Those were the kinds of things I was thinking of as I read. The book's repetitiveness, which some reviewers criticized, is part of the whole game: if what matters is to be entertained continuously, with no letup, and if one of the ways of accomplishing that is to be perverse, then what better strategy than to make repetition part of the plot? The book would have been twice as good if it were twice as long. Or, in the spirit of Oulipo: it would have been a thousand times as good if it were a thousand times longer. "