The inimitably demented and lapidarily hilarious Mark Leyner returns in fine fettle with a rollicking new meta-fictional novel, his first paraliterary excursion in fourteen years. The affect of the book? Drunken sagaciousness, manic sobriety, crazy wisdom, hieratic gossip. Perhaps if you smooshed together Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, Will Self’s Walking to Hollywood, Thorne Smith’s The Night Life of the Gods, and Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat, you might decant something similar — but only after creating a hell of a mess for an inferior brew. So why not just go straight to Leyner?
The book opens with a cosmic biography of the secret deities behind all creation, a group of wastrel, narcissistic demiurges with names such as Doc Hickory, Mogul Magoo, XOXO, and La Felina. We witness their inebriated primordial fecundity as they pull all existence out of their butts (sometimes literally). They jealously stake out their favored portions of the universe, establishing eternal rivalries and alliances. This is the Genesis analogue of Leyner’s tale. Then we cut to Earth in the present, to experience a bardic hymn about He Whom the Gods Would Destroy, Ike Karton, New Jersey Everyman, profane and earthy hero of his own nowhere life. That tale, we are informed, is canonically dubbed The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack, a lurid appellation whose many symbolic and literal encrustations are liberally explored.
But here’s Leyner’s best trick: we never get Ike’s story in linear form, or even conventionally staged. Instead, we are treated to a “performance” of his saga, a back-and-fill retelling of his epic, a semiotically parodic meta-narrative which incorporates every exegetical dogleg detour away from the main arc into an infinite recursive loop of storytelling — or at least the closest semblance of such that can be nailed down, writhing and shapeshifting, onto the printed page. With its convention of putting all proper character names in boldface and employing tropes from reality television shows, the telling becomes some kind of epiphanical tabloid testament to the Phildickian emergence of holiness from kipple and gubble.
The omniscient Leyner voice that helms the recitation has several self-denigrating descriptions of the resulting hypnotic farrago: “endlessly spiraling recapitulations;” “punishingly repetitive;” “an echolalic karaoke recitation of what [Ike] hears streaming in his head…extremely similar to…the flowing auto-narrative of the basketball-dribbling nine-year-old who, at dusk, alone on the family driveway half-court, weaves back and forth, half-murmuring his own play-by-play…” This latter description, of course, conveys some of Leyner’s patented voice, a blend of minutely observed modern frissons, overblown metaphors, unlikely juxtapositions, and in-your-face wiseguyisms.
The result, to these ears, is utterly captivating, both ancient and postmodern. Homeric Leyner (one of the “big-ass, drug-addled, severed bard heads” who traditionally recite the text) is on a non-stop comedic tear in this book, both surreally subtle and pratfall obvious, as adroit as the Firesign Theater of yore. If you are not tickled by the notion of a cellphone ringtone that consists of John Cage’s famed composition 4’33”, then perhaps you might laugh at the recurrent motif of “a terrarium containing three tiny teenage girls mouthing a lot of high-pitched gibberish (like Mothra’s fairies, except for their wasted pallors, acne, big tits, and T-shirts that read ‘I Don’t Do White Guys’)…” There’s something for everyone!
Toward the “climax” of the book comes a moment dubbed “The Big Lacuna”. It’s the point in the telling where Ike and his daughter’s suitor Vance sit wordlessly for forty minutes, stoned out of their gourds:
This tableau of Ike batting flies from his armpits as the glassy-eyed Vance spins his BMX bike wheel is, arguably, one of the most famous and iconic in the world. And although the epic reaches a state of absolute stasis here, this continues to be one of the single most popular parts of the epic repertoire.
By this time, for those who have fallen under Leyner’s spell, the Zen koan quality of this episode does indeed resonate profoundly.
If mythographer Joseph Campbell were still around to rewrite the Ramayana for the cast of Jersey Shore, the result might approximate Leyner’s novel — except without as many outrageously funny transgressive absurdities.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.