“I was an infinitely hot and dense dot. So begins the autobiography of a feral child who was raised by huge and lurid puppets.”
I’ve always thought that if I had to come up with a two-sentence summary of what it’s like to be a human being who grew up in the 1980’s — which is admittedly unlikely, but if I did have to — I couldn’t do much better than those two sentences. They’re from Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, a book that is itself almost infinitely hot and dense: a short volume of short stories that seems somehow to wrap into itself and then crush like a neutron star the entirety of American life circa 1990, the year it was published, in a way that far bigger books repeatedly tried and failed to do.
Leyner produced two more novels in the 1990s, and another story collection, and then, sort of fittingly, he appeared to burn himself out. The heat and density were too much, the neutron star became a black hole. Leyner stopped writing fiction at all after The Tetherballs of Bougainville in 1998.
As abruptly as he stopped, Leyner has picked up pretty much exactly where he left off; certainly it would be just about physically impossible for any writer besides Leyner to give a novel the title The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. And Nutsack has that same Leynerian density and heat: it’s just under 250 pages long, but it took me two weeks to read it because I could only take in a few pages at a time. It’s like drinking concentrated, undiluted Coke syrup. Except a lot more pleasurable.
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Leyner’s modus, then as now, is to set up a farcical, almost disposable plot onto which he can pile huge amounts of ornate, digressive verbiage, until it collapses, at which point he keeps on piling on. In this case, Leyner presents us with a universe governed by a motley pantheon of gods, like El Burbuja, the God of Bubbles; and XOXO, the God of Head Trauma, Concussions, Dementia, Alcoholic Blackouts; and Fast-Cooking Ali, the god who created Platitudes and Woman’s Ass. They have been living, since 2009 at least, in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest skyscraper in the world, in Dubai.
The gods’ plaything, and the book’s putative hero, is Ike Karton, a middle-aged unemployed butcher in Jersey City, New Jersey. Ike — “incorrigible heretic, and feral dandy who slicked his jet-black hair back with perfumed pomade and dyed his armpit hair a light chestnut color” — is the hero of a Homeric epic-within-the-novel the name of which is also The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. (It’s also called Ike’s Agony, and T.G.I.F. (Ten Gods I’d Fuck), and it acquires a sequel: The Sugar Frosted Nutsack 2: Crème de la Sack). Ike’s story is random and truncated and pointedly meaningless: he hangs out on his stoop, goes to a diner, flirts with a waitress, talks to his daughter’s boyfriend, and then gets shot to death.
But like a rolling snowball, or better, the magic ball in Katamari Damacy, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack grows by accretion. Every time it’s retold, it gathers into itself all annotations and variations on itself, which become part of it — it’s “an infinitely recursive epic that subtends and engulfs everything about it.” The meta-narrative of its growth also includes the meta-narrative of its corruption: the god XOXO is attempting to degrade the text of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack (I really can’t type that title enough times), leaving the audience in doubt as to what’s real and authentic and what’s apocryphal.
It’s fun to watch critics crawl all over the map trying to situate Leyner in some tradition, any tradition — metafiction, nouveau roman, etc. Personally he reads to me as a barely-post-modernist, responding pretty much directly to Joyce and skipping everybody in between. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is like a powerful concentrate of Ulysses, particularly the Circe chapter, and Ike is an even-more degraded Leopold Bloom-everyman, whose day, like Bloom’s, becomes a contemporary urban epic. Leyner even includes a catalog of epiphanies, which it turns out are gifts of the gods. (Such as: “Nice and drunk on Chivas Regal, eating ravioli, first heavy snow falling outside, fat girl at the bar (nice and drunk too) smiles at you.” Etc.)
It’s very funny, though like picking up shells up on a beach, when you quote from Leyner you find that by the time you get the quotes home and onto the page some of the magic has leaked out of them. His talent for mimicking the debased language of mass media is so good that out of context his work just sounds like what it’s mimicking: horoscopes, blog comment threads, gossip columns, medical literature, erotica, literary fiction, sportscasts, romantic comedies, literary theory.
Or bad rap lyrics, like these, which are uttered by the severed-but-still-speaking head of one of the bards who performs The Sugar Frosted Nutsack:
I’m a severed bard-head!
I can’t stop reciting what I started!
We ain’t toasted, we Pop-Tarted!
So dump me in the toilet boil and flush me!
Throw me in a garbage truck and crush me!
A trash compactor or a wine press works OK,
It’s like all that stupid shit in the Cirque du Soleil!
Suicide-by-cop sounds fun,
But you can never find a motherfuckin’ cop
When you need one!
Ever-obedient to the rules of whatever form he’s aping, Leyner repeats this chorus verbatim four times.
The narrative of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is almost endlessly delayed and circular and repetitive, and it wouldn’t work at all if Leyner’s control wasn’t absolute, or if he lost his nerve at any point. But he doesn’t lose it, and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack does work, rather wonderfully, though it’s not easy to say what exactly it’s doing. In How Fiction Works James Wood makes an observation about David Foster Wallace that says a lot about Leyner too: “His fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America, and he is not afraid to decompose — and discompose — his own style in the interests of making us live through this linguistic America with him.”
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Which is, in practice, a lot funnier than it sounds. Leyner doesn’t point at what’s insane about the verbal effluvium we’re soaking in, he becomes it. For example he likes to lapse into breathless bad-gossip-column prose, like this passage about Ike and his wife:
One Good Grab Deserves Another: they both grab each other’s asses. Hey, it looks like his wife is sticking her middle finger up Ike’s ass! Like she’s checking his prostate! False alarm — she’s just tickling him. But the marriage is obviously still muy caliente. The Jersey City Fire Department might have to come hose these kids down!!
It’s funny, but there’s a lot of anger here too. Leyner compulsively takes recognizable verbal forms and idioms and crams them full of nonsense, as a way of exposing as bogus the adamancy and arrogance with which these forms present themselves as logical and meaningful, and the complacency with which we accept them as such.
It feels very fresh and new, because this kind of discomposition never stops, but it isn’t, particularly. Leyner himself was doing it in the 1980s, and Joyce was doing it in the 1920’s, as in, for example, the Aeolus chapter of Ulysses, when Joyce starts interrupting the action with summaries of what’s going on in bad newspaper prose:
SOPHIST WALLOPS HAUGHTY HELEN SQUARE ON PROBOSCIS. SPARTANS GNASH MOLARS. ITHACANS VOW PEN IS CHAMP
Writers like Joyce and Leyner make you see the world differently. Reading them is like walking through a hotel room with an ultraviolet lamp: you start to see linguistic corruption and defilement everywhere. Everything you read (and write) starts to sound like a Leynerian parody of itself.
Which is the point, or part of it. Like the epic it contains — or for that matter, like an infinitely dense neutron star — The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is infinitely recursive. It subtends and engulfs everything around it, voraciously, until it contains the whole verbal universe, and Nutsack is all that’s left: infinitely hot, infinitely dense, horribly debased, and extremely funny.