When I’m not reading comics, sometimes I try to read literature. Since my undergrad days I’ve been a fan of Mark Leyner, postmodern author extraordinaire. Granted, I can’t take his short works, and although such too-clever titles as Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog and I Smell Esther Williams grace my shelves, admittedly I have not actually finished reading them. Leyner’s short stories are often psychedelic word soup with very little narrative through line.
It was Leyner’s full length novel The Tetherballs of Bougainville, that made me a fan. Tetherballs is my favorite book of the last 14 years. When I was a kid I reread my favorite books over and over, but as an adult, I rarely re-read anything. The exception is Tetherballs, which I’ve read four times.
Imagine my excitement, when, after a ten year absence Leyner finally put out a new book, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. Having now read TSFN, (the book often refers to itself by this acronym in its pages), I feel as if I’ve been “trolled” by the author, in the internet slang sense of the word “troll”. TSFN is a challenging, often unrewarding read. It is recursive to the point of being irritating, and in turn I picture the author delighting in my irritation.
TSFN is the story of Ike Karton, Leyner’s version of an epic hero of legend. Ike is a working class, unemployed, rather disgusting 40-something man (with bushy chestnut armpit hair that Leyner does not let you forget) who stands atop his stoop in Jersey City while a host of goddesses (who live in a penthouse in the Burj Khalifa), masturbate to his image.
The novel becomes recursive as we’re told that blind bards travel the U.S. and chant the story of the novel (including any discursion one is currently reading) word-for-word at six-hour outdoor performances. As such, the novel restarts with the first paragraph many times throughout. Periodically entire pages are duplicated, in their entirety. A song about Ike with a repeated chorus comes up more than once. In a 5-page section towards the end, the Bards repeat everything Ike is saying backwards line-by-line. By the end it feels as though Leyner wrote a 90-page novella, and thanks to a large font, repeated passages, wide margins, and heavily spaced dialog, he has managed to expand the story to 247 pages.
The book feels like a trick on the reader. Of course, as a self-proclaimed Leyner fan I ought to have known what I was in for. I am a willing participant in the author’s trolling. Recursively, the book itself is also being trolled by a chaotic god named XOXO, who, it is revealed towards the end, has forced all the celebrity names to be bolded, and added passages of nonsense throughout. I finally finished the book, both cursing the author and enjoying myself simultaneously.
What I like about Leyner is how he plays with language. In one passage in Tetherballs, for example, a 13-year-old boy begins to describe his room in the language of a design catalog. In all of his works, Leyner shifts seamlessly, sometimes mid-sentence, between the language of “high culture” (if you believe in that sort of thing) and essentially base vulgarity, and/or otherwise “low culture” language.
To get a taste of what I’m talking about, I recommend reading this short/story essay parodying a 90’s talk show (specifically Jenny Jones) where a kid admits he’s addicted to postmodernism. Here the talk show set-up references lower status pop-culture media, and the list of authors the teen reads references a higher status culture of elite literati.
I found an interesting shift between Tetherballs and TSFN that might make a good basis for conversation. Since Tetherballs came out in 1998, the internet was not yet in full swing, so to speak. 2012’s TSFN occasionally parodies the language of the internet. One chapter is exclusively youtube comments, for example. The comments are even listed in reverse order by time (most recent first) as you’d find them on the internet.
I don’t read a lot of current, newly-published fiction, but I am interested in how the language of the internet is seeping into (or being lampooned in) traditional prose. I remember once in 1997 or so I picked up a young adult novel that incorporated text messaging, and as a teen at the time I was disgusted at how “uncool” the book was. The recent BBC series Sherlock more seamlessly incorporates text messaging into a television series (handily available streaming on Netflix).
Inversely, I’m interested in applying internet slang to descriptions of classic art and literature. Were modern artist giant trolls (in today’s parlance)? For example, was Marcel Duchamp trolling the art world with his urinal? Could we say that most medieval European paintings and sculptures are “fan art” of the Bible? Of course, the artists were paid for by patrons and not produced for free. (That said, online artists regularly take commissions from fans to draw their favorite popular characters.)
Have you ever been “trolled” by a novel, or by a postmodernist?