Mark Leyner

Laura Miller interviews Mark Leyner, author of 'My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist,' 'Etu, Babe' and the new novel, 'Tetherballs of Bouganville.'

Published December 8, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Even the most seasoned literary journalist might feel some trepidation when heading out to interview Mark Leyner for the first time. In his second novel, "Et Tu, Babe," he describes himself as "not your average author. I dress like an off-duty cop: leather blazer, silk turtleneck, tight sharply creased slacks, Italian loafers, pinky-ring. I drive a candy-apple red Jaguar with a loaded 9-mm semiautomatic pistol in the glove compartment." In "My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist," his first book, he writes, "I am a terrible god" and claims that, since he took up bodybuilding, small birds die of terror and drop from the trees whenever he goes for a walk in the woods.

This turns out to be an exaggeration. Leyner is a pleasant, articulate fellow whose good temper remained untarnished even at the end of a long publicity tour to promote his most recent book, "The Tetherballs of Bougainville." "Tetherballs," like all of Leyner's books, features its author as its main character -- or rather a version of "Mark Leyner" who's like an unchained, unholy amalgam of raging id and grandiose ego, drunk on pop culture and capable of mimicking its many degraded voices at will. As dazzlingly hilarious as Leyner's other books, "Tetherballs" is also the closest to, as Leyner puts it, "a bona fide novel." Its first part describes the failed execution of the fictional 13-year-old Leyner's father ("My father is not an evil person. He just can't do PCP socially"), who is then resentenced to New Jersey State Discretionary Execution: The state lets him go, but reserves the right to kill him at any moment. Unfazed, the adolescent Mark proceeds to seduce the glamorous female prison warden, despite the fact that he needs to write a screenplay overnight so that the next day he can accept the Vincent and Lenore DiGiacomo/Oshimitsu Polymers America Award for best screenplay written by a student at Maplewood Junior High School (the prize being $250,000 a year for life). How did he win the award without actually submitting the screenplay first? "That's the advantage of having a powerful agent."

The rest of "Tetherballs of Bougainville" consists of the screenplay itself, which simply records Mark's druggy tryst with the warden in her office. Of course, the screenplay includes the reading aloud of a long review/plot synopsis of the as-yet-unmade "Tetherballs of Bougainville" movie, which takes young Mark to the Solomon Islands where he sets up a PR agency for "dictators, warlords, corrupt corporations and criminal cartels from around the world" with his partner, Polo, a genetically altered Bonobo chimp with a secret identity. And that's the short version.

"Tetherballs" is supposed to be more of a novel than your previous books, although it's still pretty unconventional.

In fact I'm the one who said that, on something I wrote for some piece of marketing: a "bona fide novel." That was a bit of exuberance, but I'd call it a novel. It's the first book I've written with a continuous story, and with somewhat stable characters. To me that's a huge leap.

Were you responding to something? "Et Tu, Babe" was your response to attaining a level of success.

And then the next book, "Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog," had a number of pieces about being a father. There were reviews of "Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog" that said, "Well here we have Mark Leyner getting older. He's maturing and writing about his family and there's more of an emotional range to these pieces in this book." For some reason that really irritated me, so I decided to do a book that was inimical to that. I couldn't think of a creature more diametrically opposed to the good father than a 13-year-old boy.

The 13-year-old Mark Leyner in this book has written a film review of the movie that's based on the screenplay in the book. The structure gets so complicated.

He keeps this review in his pocket, as a talisman. This kid has never written a screenplay, never written anything except this movie review. The most wonderful thing that he can imagine is sitting in the morning, drinking coffee and reading a review of the movie he wrote. So he wrote the review instead of having to actually write the screenplay and get a movie made.

But, if you think about it, the review, although it appears late in the book, was actually written before the execution. Yet it refers to Mark's scene with the warden, which he couldn't possible have known was going to happen when he wrote the review. There's a Chinese puzzle quality to this seemingly wild, goofy story. This book isn't just one damn thing after another. It has an interesting, elaborate construction.

Writing one entertaining bit after another -- which is what I do -- I think that the danger is that people don't notice other things in the book. The one damn thing after another stuff is hugely funny, and comedy tends to drown out other aspects. Humor is very loud. Which is OK. I mean, I can't dictate to people how they should read the book. But this is the first time that I've done something in which the playfulness of the macrostructure is equal to the playfulness of the microstructure. That's why I like to say it's my first novel, because in a way, that's what a novel is: a book that's as interesting in its overarching structure as it is sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. The experience of reading one damn thing after another is not sufficient to me anymore to give you, as a reader, but people sometimes don't notice the formal intricacies that I do. I don't mean that in a pompous way. I just can't think of a less pompous word.


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Did you start out doing one damn thing after another?

I started out thinking I was a poet, and I guess poetry is one damn thing after another. The first thing I wanted to do was concoct prose that was as eventful, image by image, and line by line, as poetry. I thought that would be a great thing. When I was 18, I came up with this. It was my mission.

Did you always intend to be funny?

No, I didn't. It's only recently that I have taken, with complete equanimity and pleasure, to the notion of writing comedies. When I started, I wanted to be thought of as tortured and seductive, not funny, but humor tends to be a reflexive part of a person's sensibility. It's an almost impossible thing to teach anyone, which leads me to believe that it's intuitive. I really enjoy entertaining people, and I've become more comfortable with that aspect of it, and less apologetic about it.

If someone were to say to me that he wanted to write prose that was as intense, line for line, as poetry, the last thing I would also expect him to want to do is to be entertaining.

Right, but that always seemed to make perfect sense to me, perhaps because I was influenced by what I found entertaining and also very artful and moving. I was a great fan of Jean-Luc Godard. There is a lot of humor in his movies. The entertainment value of something and its integrity as a piece of art never seemed mutually exclusive to me. In fact, it seems important that writers and artists provide entertainment for people. It's just recently that being funny ghettoized someone and exposed an artist to a certain degree of -- not derision, but if you are very funny, you are not taken as seriously.

You'll take a topic that people think of as being personal, or private, or serious, and interbreed it with something from pop culture.

Not necessarily pop culture, but interbreed it with the kind of language that we associate with a much more public sphere of our life. I'll take intimate things and talk about them in the ways we would discuss sports or politics or a public figure.

For example, you use a banal brochure to describe something as terrible and violent as the New Jersey State Discretionary Execution sentence. It's in a Q&A format with a really perky voice.

A lot of these things are funny because they're true and disturbing. We're often given horrible news in very cheerfully cold pronouncements, from doctors or nurses. You know -- you go into the doctor, then you're suddenly diagnosed, and the next thing you know, you've been handed this brochure about how to deal with your pathetic, remaining five years with some horrible illness. And of course the Q&A brochure has to be upbeat. It's probably been written and printed by a drug company whose drug you will be taking for the next few years.

I used to write those Q&A brochures when I wrote advertising copy for medical advertising agencies. I was intrigued by the form because it's ostensibly a dialogue between two people. That's why one of my favorite parts of that Q&A brochure in the book is where one of the questions says, "This is a change of subject," and asks a question about baseball, and the brochure has this long tangent in it, making fun of the premise that this is a real dialogue.

I recently had to get some tests, one of these imaging things, and I went to a place in Manhattan. And after you had whatever your various image was -- MRI or CAT scan, they did all kinds of things there -- the patients were told to go wait in this long row of dressing rooms, with tiny little stalls and to keep your smock on. The doctor would come out and tell you what the result was. There were maybe 20 of these stalls. If you looked out, you could see all the little white, knobby knees of all the old people, some of them with terrible things wrong with them. Absolutely no privacy. So, a doctor would come out and talk to someone, in earshot of anyone sitting there. Sometimes they'd say, "Well, we found a huge mass somewhere," or sometimes they'd say, "I can't see anything." But sometimes terrible, dooming news to people, in the most cold, impersonal environment I can imagine. People frequently get profoundly bad, life-altering news in these ludicrous forms.

That brings a kind of savageness to your humor.

I don't walk around chuckling all the time. My outlook is very bleak. It's worse than bleak, it's apocalyptic. I always expect to be killed, honestly. I expect horrible things to happen to people I care about. I am always readying myself for various kinds of loss. So, this comedy of mine comes out of that.

The narrative in this book is like a radio. Sometimes it's tuned to the brochure station. Sometimes it's tuned to the movie review station -- which is a voice you get down perfectly.

That idiom is so much a part of our consciousness. I mean how many movie reviews do people read in newspapers? I read almost all of them, which is a lot, if you add them up. So that came easily to me, that idiom, where you give the name of an actress and there's a little aside about her last movie: "rebounding from her tepid role as ... Little Orphan Annie" and so on.

It was so much fun to read, and so equal opportunity in its satire. At one point the warden and Mark are talking about stereos and it's like those horrible conversations between your college boyfriend and his roommate, where they just go on and on about their stupid equipment, and you expect to die of boredom. Then immediately Mark starts describing his room in a style that seems lifted from the New York Times Magazine's special Home issue.

This 13-year-old boy is asked to describe his room, and he goes off into the language of interior design: "A white room must be anchored by something dark, or it just floats away." The stereo thing deteriorates into a discussion of the towel he uses but in this very technical language. I was on the plane today, and these two businessmen were talking the same way, about guns and gun powder with all the numbers and the jargon -- "That's nice gun powder." "It's a 58."

Like the birds in the wild, showing each other their feathers.

It's like flashing whatever glands male animals flash at one another, but there are so many different ways to do it. It intrigues me, the way that we select different kinds of language to communicate with people who we don't know. You look at someone and size them up a little and pick one. Maybe this is a guy I can talk sports to, or something else.

It is useful in a way, a lingua franca.

Because of the nature of the culture we live in there isn't one lingua franca. There's a balkanization. When people begin to talk to each other, they immediately, desperately, try to find one of these languages. Which may be another comment the book is making, that we are so inculcated with these ways of speaking that we tend to speak that way without realizing it. We're being spoken and not really speaking, you know what I mean?

It's like a concept from poststructuralist literary criticism.

Thank you. Don't ever say that to me again.

It is like something they would say, though. They would say, "We are spoken by the language, rather than speaking it".

Yes, and I'm not a professor, and I said that. Well, all right, that's the second pompous thing I've said this afternoon -- but I'm tired.

I'm wondering if you've had strange encounters as a result of these fictional personas you've invented for yourself.

People really want to believe that there is no fiction. I think they find it much easier to imagine that novelists are writing memoirs, writing about their lives, because it's difficult to conceive that there's a great imaginary life in which you can participate. That's more difficult for people to cope with than that I might be this megalomaniacal monster. People want that. Yeah, they want that. And you could see it after "Et Tu, Babe." They'd meet me and be crestfallen, and say, "You're smaller than I thought." And then they'd say, "You're nicer," with this real sense that I'd let them down.

Or eventually they'll talk to me about drugs: "You must take a lot drugs to write the way you do." The assumption that you are somehow an embodiment, a parallel, of your fiction, or that you take lots of drugs in order to write it -- is a little disheartening to me. I think people have little faith in the imagination.

Why do you think they might be afraid of that?

Because that's the difficulty; that's the labor. That's what separates me from them. I can do this. I mean, I hope that's what separates me from them. When someone finishes one of my books, I don't want the reader to say, "I could've done that -- how great! And this guy's just like me, we're brethren." I want a reader to say, "My God, I could never have done that. It's amazing. It's something I never could have done in my life, and never will be able to do." That's the response I want. But I think that's what's being resisted. To conceive of a piece of art as something that is a labor of a unique imagination is not as pleasant as the idea of someone simply transcribing their own life, or taking drugs and writing crazy stuff.

"If I had time ..."

Yeah, like "If I had a lot of time like he did and a lot of drugs, I could ..." I don't mean to sound self-serving, but I think it's true.

One of the really irritating things about being a writer is that everybody thinks that they can do it, too.

Listen , I can tell from about 20 yards away when someone has a manuscript for me. I can just tell -- they have that look. And everyone eventually does, ultimately. It's this misconception that it's enough if you've had interesting things happen to you. Most of us have about the same mix of banality and intrigue in our lives, and it's meaningless. The challenge of writing something has little to do with subject matter, certainly very little to do with one's own experiences. But there's this notion that if you just transcribe all the wacky things that have happened to you, the funny things your wacky uncle said, you'll have something very entertaining. Or if we're talking about the traumatic things, you can make a very moving piece of art. You can't necessarily do either. It's a whole different operation.

Yet another source of humor in your work is just that kind of outlandish but very common fantasy of being successful at everything. I'm assuming that "Tetherballs" features some of the fantasies you had as a 13-year-old boy.

Certainly. I think it's a very honest book, based on things that I dread or desire. For instance, the part about other writers, where I make the stunning claim that they've written nothing. That I, as a 13-year-old with a chimpanzee ...

No, no -- a bonobo!

Yes, it is very different, as I know. I did extensive research on this. I went to Africa. I research these books like you wouldn't believe.

In the novel, you as a 13-year-old, with your partner, a genetically altered bonobo chimp, write quite a few novels during your spare time. You use pseudonyms made from anagrams of the names of famous Bougainvillean ...

... tetherball players. Although, I used minor league tetherball players, because some of the big ones were so famous. I didn't want people to figure it out, and certainly in Bougainville, it would be easy to figure it out. We didn't want to anagramize Off-Ramp Tivana Poo Poo, for example.

You came up with such names as Donna Tartt, Douglas Coupland, Elizabeth Wurtzel and Martin Amis. Then when you come back to the states, you discover that impostors have claimed to be these mythical "hot" young novelists, when actually, you wrote all those books. What inspired this particular joke?

From my difficulty in seeing any writer, other than myself, get any attention. Ever. I think every single writer, if they were honest, would admit this. When someone wins an award, or someone has a wonderful review in the New York Times, or someone has a big movie made, it's hard. I have to say that I admire myself for one thing in connection to this: I've always been playfully honest about it. In one of my books, I set up a writing workshop, and if anyone shows any promise, they are either beaten or eliminated, so they aren't in the competition. It's a playful way of dealing with my anxiety about being eclipsed at some point by a new batch of younger writers and no longer being the enfant terrible. You know, if you ask some very hip person who they read, I want to be the person on their tongue, and I know that is not always the case. Nor should it be.

One of those writers, the ones whose work you "claim" as your own, has written about your work. Have you had read David Foster Wallace's essay about ...

I haven't read the essay. I've certainly heard about it. Almost everywhere I go, people ask me about it. Sometimes people have it with them and they read it to me. It's hard to comment on it. I should just go read it, then I can have an answer to the question. I don't really take umbrage at any of it. I've said to David, "That's fine if you say these things." He referred to me as the antichrist in the New York Times Magazine, and I think that after having been called the antichrist, everything else seems sort of mild.

It's not that different from being a terrible god.

I put these books out with the expectation that people will have all sorts of opinions about them. I hope that they are mostly very, very enjoyable for people in a unique way. I hope they strike people as unlike anything else. Some of what David said, that my books merely ratify popular culture instead of offering a moral critique, I disagree with. But I'm not that interested in getting into an ongoing colloquy with any other writer about what I do. My participation is the next book. We'll see what David thinks of this book. His name was particularly difficult to turn into a Bougainvillean anagram, so I hope he is aware of how much I labored.

I thought perhaps you should have left him out, but on consideration it seemed sporting of you to include him with everybody else, not to single him out even by exclusion.

I thought about all of these things. I really think 24 hours a day about these books as I write them. I try to consider every possible ramification, certainly with the David issue. He should be in there, not more saliently than anyone else, but certainly not eliminated from the bunch. I think I did precisely the right thing.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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