PRINT September 1995


Mark Leyner's Hyper Text

I inhabit vast pavilions whose emptiness
is set ablaze by the vermillion sunset.
My menagerie of shaved animals is not open to the public.
But you may go to the special room
where every object is coated with Vaseline
and you may put something up your ass.
I will be down in half an hour.
Presently I am drugged and supine in my lichen-covered bathtub,
dazedly eating lichee-nut fondue
from a chafing dish of gurgling white chocolate at tub-side,
as a succession of anatomical freaks mount a klieg-lit proscenium
and perform for my entertainment.
A scorched breeze conveys the acridity of spent rocket fuel from
a launched garbage barge heading for the vast necropolis on Pluto,
loaded with the compacted corpses of executed insurgents.
It doesn’t get much better than this.

—Mark Leyner, Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, 1995

AS YOU KNOW, I’m not your average critic. Tina Brown regularly plies me with Armani suits, Hermès tie-of-the-month memberships, and supplicant, leggy supermodels. Terrence Rafferty and James Wolcott respectively clean my bathroom (a brutal, thankless task) and do my laundry—including the weekly forklift runs to the dry cleaners. These and other sycophants attempt to curry favor with me, coveting, along with the entire literate English-speaking populace, the nuggets of blinding brilliance that explode from my swollen and, frankly, chemically enhanced cerebral cortex. You’ve seen that American Express ad with Martha Stewart slavishly laboring over a flawless swimming-pool mosaic of Botticelli’s Venus, rendered entirely from cut-up credit cards? That’s my pool. That’s my Martha.

The annual ABA conference has become a bacchanalian festival of payola engineered to make me feel like a god. You wouldn’t think that the fusty, hopelessly 19th-century publishing industry could command such resources, but boyee, you should see the spread they lay out for me—the ultraswank, cybernetically enhanced, “smart” hotel rooms that anticipate my every need, the surgically sculpted, freakishly flexible, sexually insatiable escorts, and the smorgasbord of experimental designer drugs, including the soul-stroking aphrodisiacs resulting from the fusion of anabolic steroids with phenylethylamines such as MDMA. Any novelist, artist, filmmaker, or musician who might foolishly attempt retaliation for one of my career-ending critical eviscerations is dispatched with elegantly discreet efficiency by my crack squad of Elektra assassins—stunningly gorgeous amazons who can kill with a playing card in 15 blazingly unique ways.

From my perch atop the Mount Olympus of clout, few mortals are visible. One figure, however, towers above the rest of the flea circus like the colossus of rogues. He is Mark Leyner—author, bodybuilder, martial artist, media magnet. According to his own PR, he is “the most intense, and, in a certain sense, the most significant young prose writer in America.” I quote this accolade not from his press kit (my only use for press kits is as tank lining for my Gila monster) but from his fiction itself. Indeed, such absurdly inflated blather takes the place of characterization and plot in his novels; it is the fabric that holds his monstrous mediagenic personality together.

Leyner began publishing his compressed narratives for the eMpTV generation in 1983, when his first novel, I Smell Esther Williams, established him as a purveyor of old-school metafiction, a literary heir to Donald Barthelme. It was not until seven years later that he resurfaced as the megalomaniac steroid freak we have grown to love. A harbinger of later excesses, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist bore the stamp of his day job as an advertising copywriter for arcane medical prostheses such as artificial saliva and biodegradable incontinence briefs. It also began Leyner’s ongoing quest to create the most radically unhinged “about the author” blurb of all time, tracking his rake’s progress from his birth as “an infinitely hot and dense dot” to his current profile as a “terrible god,” a “shimmering, serrated monster” whose whistle evokes “an earsplitting fife being played by a lunatic with a bloody bandage around his head.” Less thematically coherent than his later works, My Cousin hints at a growing fascination with the mesmerizing demagogic potential of the post-Modern media. In a roiling sea of nonlinear micronarratives, Leyner’s lucid self-awareness occasionally surfaces, as when he boasts of his “poetry” that “these spicy, violent, superbly plotted verses are perfect for television.”

More precisely, Leyner’s fiction is television—a literary kamikaze mission to challenge television’s supremacy in the ratings war of our attention economy. Indeed, Leyner views writing as a game of Mortal Kombat for the hearts and minds of an oversaturated audience: “The energy in my writing comes from a feeling that writing is dying, or is at least under great threat from other media . . . when I sit down and write, it’s as if I’m at war with ultimately superior forces. I’ll go down in flames, and take literature with me.” The original Short Attention Span Theater, Leyner’s prose captures the latter-day frisson of channel-surfing. Each sentence is a discrete sound-bite of spurious technobabble and foaming megalomaniacal hokum. In toto, they constitute a miracle entertainment product that is somehow nonfat yet more filling. The difficulty of sustaining such rhetorical intensity accounts for the relatively short length of Leyner’s books, yet this brevity is by strategy: “There’s not going to be a single slack verbal moment—no empty transitional phrase or routine expository sentence anywhere. I won’t settle for anything less than maximum, flat-out drug overkill, the misuse of power.”

Such “misuse of power” is rarely the novelist’s privilege, and it is precisely this tension between the traditional image of the writer as agoraphobic esthete and Leyner’s vision of the writer as a “swollen steroid freak” who “makes more in a year from product endorsements than most people make in a lifetime” that creates the savagely absurd humor in his first fully realized work, Et Tu, Babe. An ode to literary megalomania, Et Tu, Babe is an ironic masturbatory fantasy of unlimited media clout. During the novel’s gestation period, Leyner was told by an enthusiastic sales executive at Crown books that he wasn’t writing a novel but a marketing plan. That a publishing-industry big shot could be delighted by the central joke of the book, yet not get it, neatly demonstrates Leyner’s gift as a double-edged satirist of our hype-driven culture. Indeed, in a literary marketplace where Martin Amis’ new teeth garner as much press as his new novel, it is entirely plausible that a publishing insider could consider Et Tu, Babe even-keeled Neorealism.

Despite its passages of hypertechnical jargon and its unrepentantly ’90s tabloid-TV sensibility, Et Tu, Babe is a classic tragedy, an irresponsibly overblown epic poem documenting the precipitous fall of an international multimedia celebrity. It’s all there—the unfettered hubris, the feminine temptation, the inevitable treachery, and the final heroic exile, which, for a media persona, spells death. Leyner’s disappearance leaves a PR void that the novel’s final chapter fills with the words of fellow celebrities—Clarence Thomas to Joan Jett—as they reminisce about their last moments with the literary demigod on Larry King Live and A Current Affair. A fitting wake for a media-constructed cyborg personality.

We will all pretend to be who we are, we’ll all be actors and actresses. Then, at some juncture, one of us who’s, say, pretending to be fat, will decide to actually become fat in order to more effectively play that role. This will engender a mass movement from the simulacrum back to the real. This is sometimes called the ‘De Niro-ization’ of culture. These migratory shifts back and forth from the real to the simulacrum will calibrate the rest of history.
—Mark Leyner, Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog

In the three years since the publication of Et Tu, Babe, the Brandeis-educated Jersey resident Mark Leyner and the “shimmering, serrated” literary Übermensch Mark Leyner have begun to merge. Whether the result of an irresponsible practice of Method Writing or merely of an inevitable commodification by our spectacular society, Leyner’s media persona is now at least somewhat commensurate with his actual renown as a writer. Besides the steady flow of work for The New Yorker, Esquire, and The New Republic, there are the New York Times OpEd pieces, the David Letterman appearances, the Sunday New York Times Magazine covers, the paparazzi shots capturing Mark tripping the light fantastic with Martha Stewart. All of this has become fodder for Leyner’s latest book, Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog (New York: Harmony Books), a scrapbook of magazine work, new pieces (including the inevitable “The Making of Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog”), and a play entitled ”Young Bergdorf Goodman Brown."

Tooth Imprints is the portrait of the artist as a young media darling “slashing a path through the rank vegetation of American popular culture with the warped machete of [his] mind,” a series of postcards from the top. Attempted by another writer, this closer-cleaning collection would be seen as a cheap marketing scam, like yet another Smiths compilation. But Leyner’s fiction has always been modeled on dense sound bites and celebrity-rag puff pieces, so the warmed-over status of over half the book is consistent with the author’s project. Tooth Imprints is the kind of book the Mark Leyner of Et Tu, Babe would release every other month, just to keep the cash flowing and the media buzzing. No longer in need of that cartoonish, steroid-fueled alter ego, the arrived Mark Leyner eases gracefully into his new role as authority on all things from bodybuilding chic to senatorial tattoos. In one piece, “Great Pretenders,” he breaks a childhood vow never to use French post-Structuralist terms like “simulacrum” and meditates on manufactured identity in our world of “surrogates, poseurs, impersonators, double agents, undercover cops, placebos, body-snatchers, and Stepford spouses.” To counter the professional actors who bamboozle us daily with their “nimble artifice,” Leyner exhorts us to shed our “plodding authenticity” and to “fight dissimulation with dissimulation. Go faux to faux!” And in a Borgesian gag ending, he shows us how, bringing us (and him) full circle, from the simulacrum to the real and back again: “You play the sophisticated, erudite reader—prosperous, well-traveled, tanned, and fit—whose esemplastic apprehension of the text is an art form in and of itself. I’ll play the elegant, mordantly witty belletrist whose writing combines the delicacy and voluptuousness of poetry with the rigor of science and the vivacity of jai alai. . . . Now from the top. . . . ”

Having succeeded in reifying what was once an ironic self-delusion, Leyner is the first novelist retrofitted for a digital bully pulpit. In the 500-channel Valhalla of the near future, a sophisticated artificial intelligence modeled on his downloaded consciousness will lead the innocent channel-surfer through the lurid boulevards of LeynerWorld for three dollars per minute. See you there. I’ll be wearing an Armani blazer, an Hermès tie, and elegantly tapered silk pants with famous writers clutching at my three-quarter-inch cuffs.

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