It has been almost fifteen years since Mark Leyner’s last novel was published. Many authors have gone longer between books—Thomas Pynchon went seventeen years between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland—yet most authors who have left public life did not have quite as public a persona as Mark Leyner once did.
With pages thick in perverse, pop-artifact-studded automatic writing, his 1990 collection, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, still reads as it did then, as a midnight movie on fast-forward, told through non-sequitur skits and saturated with advertising jargon honed from the author’s years spent as a copywriter. At his best, Leyner would go on to capture, and atomize, the Manic Panic millennialism of the Clinton era.
After Leyner’s breakout hit, he established a fictional Mark Leyner character in his novels, composed of signature riffs wedged into self-referential frameworks: Mark Leyner, world-famous author and corporate brand, in Et Tu, Babe; and thirteen-year-old Mark Leyner, literal enfant terrible, in 1997’s The Tetherballs of Bougainville. Then the one-time poet truly joined the mass media when he started writing scripts, including the divisive 2008 John Cusack film, War, Inc. Audiences expecting a sequel to Cusack’s previous assassin rom-com, Grosse Pointe Blank, instead encountered a frenzied update of Dr. Strangelove for the age of Blackwater and indeterminate incarceration.
In Leyner’s most recent novel, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, he has created a pantheon of new gods (“The God of Dermatology,” for example) who toy with everyone from Red Sox Ted Williams’s frozen head to the novel’s central character, a paranoid mortal in New Jersey named Ike Karton. Told in a poetic, recursive style, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is Leyner’s most complex work to date, and his most raw. For a novel about a fiction that contains all of existence, Leyner’s cosmological reality show intriguingly lacks his most famous creation: Mark Leyner.
When we met at Manhattan’s Old Town Bar last April, I knew I wouldn’t be interviewing the exact Mark Leyner from two-decades-old magazine profiles. The author I met was as much a middle-aged father—nervous and humble at the prospect of talking about his return to fiction—as he was a writer who could effortlessly weave Jersey Shore and The Iliad into an improv thesis on storytelling.
—Brian Joseph Davis
I. PAPA WAS AN INFINITELY HOT AND INTENSE DOT
THE BELIEVER: Writing about gods and myth is very much in the tradition of classic poetics, which is what you originally worked in. Going back, even before I Smell Esther Williams, when did humor creep into your writing? Baudelaire and Rimbaud are not innately funny guys.
MARK LEYNER: No, I have a feeling they were not particularly fun to hang out with. I realized, at the age you realize these things, I had a capability of making people laugh. Once you realize that, you don’t want to stop. It feels too good. “What did I just do? I want to do that again!” So there was a kind of crucial time—and it very much has to do with me trying to write prose—when I wanted to write something as linguistically eventful as poetry. That was my embarkation point toward, and I say this in all humility, what is unique about my work.
BLVR: Coming of age in the 1970s, what comedy spoke to you? I ask because I’ve always wondered about the influence of something like the early National Lampoon and that window where the avant-garde and comedy crossed over.
ML: I don’t think I was a devotee of comedy at that time, or any kind of contemporary, oddball, or transgressive comedy. I can tell you what things I loved as a kid. Those things tend to be much more meaningful, or enduringly meaningful, to me. If you asked me what I thought was a great example of American surrealism, I would say Chuck Jones.
BLVR: And Spike Jonze? All the Joneses?
ML: Yes, Andruw Jones of the Yankees. He’s very funny. I’d also say Charles Fleischer cartoons, and the sort of stand-up comedy on TV that anyone sitting in a living room in the late ’60s or early ’70s would see, comedians that you would watch on a talk show, like Rodney Dangerfield. Stand-up comedy had an interesting effect on me in terms of how I started to think about constructing things, because I really loved the interstices, the linkages, or lack thereof.
BLVR: Poetry and comedy are very much related in their dependence on language.
ML: They are very much related. I’m reading this book from the 1940s, The History of Surrealism by Maurice Nadeau; it’s wonderfully erudite, and throughout it makes the point that comedy is effortlessly surreal. Now, I wasn’t thinking these things at the time, but I was very interested, when I started doing whatever you’d call what I do, in those elements that make cohesive a stand-up routine. Sometimes it’s just a refrain, an arbitrary thing. And we know these things so well, like the phrases What’re you gonna do? or What’s up with that? That can link a list of fifteen or twenty things. It’s only the later style of comedy where there’s a naked lack of linkage, but in an old Rodney Dangerfield routine it’s just bits linked by his animus toward his wife or mother-in-law—you know, hackneyed things that comedians hate now. But these links did get me thinking about how it might be possible to have explosive or incandescent imagery with some kind of narrative drive. I don’t think I’ve written a book that was as pure and intransigent an example of how I wanted to write as The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, which is odd, as here I am, and I ain’t a kid. But maybe that’s why?
BLVR: You killed the character of “Mark Leyner” at the end of The Tetherballs of Bougainville, and in the new novel there is no Leyner character. Despite a fourteen-year gap, it seems like you had a consistent plan for where your writing was going.
ML: I know it seems like I made some great religious repudiation of fiction writing. I wish! I should. But it’s a very easy thing to explain. In terms of the work, I did feel like I should stop for a while. I thought at the time, looking at I Smell Esther Williams through The Tetherballs of Bougainville: Here’s a full demonstration of these postulates; here it is, to the extent that I’m able to do this and show how this might be done; and OK, that’s good for a while. I also remember trying to resist this as a career. It is my life. The most deeply felt, most profoundly felt thing that I do is this work, but I was trying to resist this idea of having a new book every couple of years so you could renew your membership.
BLVR: It’s easy to have that panic, though.
ML: It is. And when I had my daughter and started thinking about money in a certain way, some opportunities to write scripts came up, and I saw script writing as a tangential adventure, a more lucrative version of journalism or teaching. The idea of me doing that seemed much more outlandish than script writing—I’m not a good teacher.
This adventure isn’t over; I’m still working on some projects, but something interesting happened to me, and it’s a great deus ex machina. I got hit by a car in L.A. when we were doing postproduction on War, Inc., which completely fucked my knee up. I flew back and I couldn’t walk for a while and just started reading in a different way. It was an enormously galvanizing experience to me, and I decided: it’s time. Enough time had passed, and I had ideas on how to proceed without just redoing something I’d already done. I was making progress on the novel—it was due sometime—and I had at least a hundred pages of notes for what I was feeling was the last third of the book. Then I got an incredible case of the flu, or maybe I’m just being vain about it. But this is my version of the flu, and I’m lying in bed, and I can be very dramatic when I’m sick. I moan and thrash and ask people to bring me things. I’m hot, then cold. I couldn’t eat anything. My wife brought me food from McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts and I couldn’t eat even that. I had a complete, universal revulsion about everything, including my book. Not what I had already but all my plans for it. It was an enormous problem, and I decided on a radical upheaval in the book, which turned out to be the perfect thing. I can’t imagine what the book would have been like if I hadn’t done that. It involved inventing two characters.
One of those that had been very peripheral but became very important is Meir Poznak. I needed a character to come and dramatize or express my revulsion at a long, well-crafted denouement. It was sickening me that I would fall prey to that! The book is fated from the beginning, and I was very clear about this. I wanted the reader to feel as if everyone knows this story, as it’s an epic based on a myth.
When you read The Iliad now, it’s not like you say, “I can’t wait to find out what happens to this Achilles guy.” Everyone knows. It’s in the introduction! So I wanted that to be part of the book. Everyone knows, and I repeat it a trillion times: Ike wants to be the martyred hero, not only waiting for but eagerly awaiting his demise at the hands of—as in the mind of any great paranoid—the Mossad. The refrains and repetitions are there to give the idea of the story being folkloric. If people asked me what it was like when I was writing, which is a better question than what’s it about, I would say: it’s like a book you would get, an old book, with an introduction about the mythology that the epic is based on. And the book itself is not necessarily the epic. It’s about the epic. I realized that if that’s the given of the book, wouldn’t that mean that once you allow for marginalia, or something like Talmudic commentary, it would begin to be this creature that’s embracing and devouring everything?
II. THE TROJAN SHORE
BLVR: You give your gods Greek-like involvement in the lives of mortals. Until I read The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, I never considered reality TV as a classical form, where common lives take on dramatic importance, but in a very staged and static way, and the crew members are like gods hovering in the background. What’s funny, though, is cinema vérité got us to reality TV, but it’s kind of the exact opposite of cinema vérité philosophy. And two centuries of the realist novel has only created a market for fake memoirs. I think this speaks to a continued need for fiction—as much as we want more real content, it all becomes part of the fiction.
ML: I hate to use the word discourse…
BLVR: There are much-worse words than discourse.
ML: I’ll use them, I’m sure. I have a new interest in things that people were sick of even in the 1970s—I’m an enormous Gilles Deleuze fan. Anyway, when I was fifteen or sixteen I was into those long, twenty-page Rolling Stone interviews. They’d always be known as “The Pete Townshend Interview” or “The Keith Richards Interview.” I devoured these things, being a big music fan, but I always thought it would be interesting to apply that kind of obeisant interest in someone to an anonymous person. I had this idea at the high-school newspaper that we should do these big, long interviews with just us. I don’t think I’m so terribly prescient, but it really was an embryonic impulse toward what we see everywhere now where it’s almost, you know, enough! But then we’re such voyeurs you can never get enough of watching someone. Just watching someone who needs to get into the bathroom and they’re pounding on the door and the person in the bathroom won’t let them in. I mean, you could just watch that for a good forty, forty-five minutes.
But I also didn’t want the new book to be a parody, and I was careful not to strike that tone. One of the things about mythology is how childish and silly it can be. Sometimes if you read a Norse or Hindu myth it sounds like something a kid made up as they went along, and now it’s stuck for time immemorial. You know, like: so a guy rises out of an ocean and brushes something off his erect penis and it’s, like, a large, rough piece of sand; he flicks it off into the sky and it becomes the moon and then the moon winks.
As well, when you look into the story behind the Trojan War, the story behind the story.
BLVR: The director’s commentary.
ML: Or a reality-TV show. Of course Helen gets stolen, but, from the Olympian perspective, it started at a wedding where there were three goddesses who asked Paris to pick the hottest goddess. For some reason Paris took part in this. Every other mortal said, “Uh-uh. Not getting involved in this. This couldn’t be good, as I’m going to piss two goddesses off.” But Paris did piss two goddesses off, and hence this whole series of events happened. and I thought: That’s it? That’s how all this happened? Is that not out of reality TV? When two girls come into the kitchen on the Jersey Shore and ask, “Who do you want to fuck most? Pick one.” Then someone gets pissed off.
So that stuck in my head. Again it’s one of these odd transpositions between most trivial and most important. Those distortions of scale, I think, are at the basis of both what’s poetic and what’s funny.
III. BIGGER THAN VICTOR HUGO
BLVR: One standard criticism of work that uses the language of pop culture or technology is that it will be dated, but I think it’s fiction’s job to have an accidental, documentary quality. When I was re-reading My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, I was struck by how much, without even trying, it sponged up our cultural and political obsessions of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
ML: Now, I think that’s something that’s consistent in my writing, but it’s also something I was, again, very aware of in The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, because the creature of this book purports to subsume everything extrinsic to it… Somehow I had concocted this thing that couldn’t be killed—and god knows I tried. I’m always trying to kill it and subvert any premise that was prevailing for a certain number of pages, and pleasurably so. Then I realized the book wouldn’t die and I was just beating it and impaling it and eviscerating it and there it was, there it was.
BLVR: The book that wouldn’t die!
ML: I would force it to be a kind of TV Guide for a little while, and then coerce it to become, again, more literary, or suddenly the TV Guide looks like a poem. There are moments in the book where it feels to me like the technology of the book is in perfect accord with my boredom with something I was doing, or my impulsivity in maintaining this character. As we were saying before, there’s a moment when another character basically takes over, when it appears that the god named XOXO will be happy to let the book go on forever, or, as he says, “give the epic a cosmic case of blueballs.” When that accord happens, it feels good. It’s… what’s that word when astronomical bodies align?
BLVR: I know the one, it sounds like a Czech village.
ML: Syzygy. Yes, it’s thirty kilometers that way. But writing is like any human activity. You get bored with it, you feel guilty about not tending to it, and you feel disgusted with it. You can be wildly megalomaniacal with it. That’s always a sign a big crash is coming, and it ends up becoming a kind of a high-stakes game. This book was a big deal for me. I did face it with some degree of trepidation, and I felt I had to stand up to it in my way. I have an awful physical and psychological combination of being small but thinking I’m tough. That usually creates a horrible, gnarled person who challenges much bigger people in bars.
BLVR: You could say that’s the state of the writer in general. We don’t have much power over the universe, but we have to think that we do.
ML: I’m fascinated by Raymond Roussel. He had a system for using the French language in such a way with similar-sounding words. It was a schematic way of generating the most gorgeous, surrealist text. He did a number of intriguing things. He traveled around in one of the first mobile homes, at times with his deceased mother. He was a little divorced from the reality of how his work would be perceived. He thought of himself as kind of a popular writer.
BLVR: He thought, I’m going to be bigger than Victor Hugo!
ML: He did! He very much admired Victor Hugo and Jules Verne, and thought he would have the same kind of acclaim. But even more interesting is that he believed his writing created a kind of refulgence, a kind of light. And when he would write he would shutter up the room he was writing in so that the light wouldn’t disturb the people on the streets of Paris. Like they’d see this bizarre light flooding out and it would create a panic. So there are sometimes disproportionate feelings of importance, but, again, I had a kind of psychological truculence about doing The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. I’m glad I did.
BLVR: What I really liked was how even though the story is falling out of these multiple frames, there’s a heft to the character of Ike Karton, and there is a progression that wouldn’t be there in, say, an anti-novel.
ML: This novel isn’t anti-anything. And that goes back to avoiding a parodic approach. There is a completely clear, predetermined plot. It’s fated. Fate is the primordial plot device. And a number of times in the book I will go through the entire story again just to remind people: this is what happens; Ike is making a bread-crumb mandala; he’s going to the Miss America Diner; his band is performing; he will be killed by the Mossad. It’s a time-honored exposition device.
BLVR: Again, very popular on reality TV.
ML: I do appreciate that, and while I was writing I was acutely aware of and playing with that. If you look at the percentage of the new footage on a show after a commercial break, it comes down to maybe 2 percent, and the rest is just a recapitulation of what you just saw a minute ago, which I think is kind of fantastic.
BLVR: And they sometimes use different footage, or a B-roll, then you’re left questioning what you just saw.
ML: And I really do like that. I think the forms of those shows are fascinating. And again, while I was aware of that, I didn’t model the story on it. This is how we tell stories in any number of ways. It’s how we tell stories in terms of intimate human communication. It’s how we tell stories as teachers and students. How we constantly remind people of things. It’s having patience with people who are not as fixated as you are or who haven’t fetishized something to the extent you have. So I love it very much. It’s a narrative approach that is very generous. More importantly, with this book, it reiterates the fact that this story is known, that this is a kind of primordial tale, and it’s not a matter of what may happen, necessarily, though something interesting does happen in the end.
BLVR: Are you a classicist who’s long been mislabeled a postmodernist?
ML: Yes. And it’s not that I cringe at the word postmodern. I don’t mean to sound aggressively disdainful about what anyone wants to think, but if you know anything about what any of these terms mean, and if they’re useful in any way, I’m so much more of a modernist than a postmodernist. The people I love are from an era long before there was any such a notion of postmodern. And there’s a moral component to what I do. I really want this work to feel emancipatory to people, so much so that I have these ridiculous notions that I should try to embody that work. I can say this now, shamelessly, that I have a kind of insurrectionary feeling of wanting a reader to have an experience in a book of mine that is life-changing, not in the sense that you’re going to quit your job and become a monk, but that your life changes for that period of time, and that you will experience a different kind of life as you read the work.
That has nothing to do with postmodernism and everything to do with modernism. And in that modernism is the apogee of classicism, and, going back to the Nadeau book, I think you could say that about surrealism, too: that it represents the apogee of classicism, in a way. All of these things could easily be demolished by anyone who’s reading these works.
BVLR: We’ll go with it for now.
ML: We’re talking, we’re talking, so what the hell? Anyway, every page of the Nadeau book is about how serious this endeavor is. How exhilarating a leap into an unknown world the artists’ work is for a human being to have access to now and then. So it’s a very genuine, authentic, ridiculously grand project that I feel a part of.
What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor