This review's a little short, folks. Hope you don't mind overmuch. I just had a hard time reviewing a book like this. Why? Read on...
So the basics: This is a very good book that I cannot recommend. It tackles cultural decay in an interesting and absurdist fashion, and there are passages that have made me laugh out loud. Mark Leyner has an excellent way with words, and his poking fun at the nature of mythology as well as decay and contamination is fantastic. A book about a book being attacked (possibly by itself) is a wonderfully meta premise, and if you can take that, then you can easily read and enjoy this book.
However, the bad part is, if the self-conscious premise doesn't grab you, you will not like this book. I can't recommend it to anyone. The plot and characters and action are entirely superfluous to the story, the main crux of the book being that the book is fighting itself. Some of you will get this concept and hate it. Some will not get the concept and hate it. So I can't recommend it, but it's a book that'll give you an interesting and original read, all the same.
Full analysis below.
"Even those who consider this all total bullshit have to concede that it's upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order."
I have a hard time describing Mark Leyner. The man writes absurdist metafiction, most of it with a fantastical twist*, and it fits uncomfortably everywhere. It's too literary for bizarro, too juvenile to be surrealist literature...too strange to actually define it. I've been reading his work for almost as long as he's been writing it, I think I even waited tables once at the guy's birthday party**, and I have no idea how to begin to explain him. I found out this book existed one day while I was drowning my sorrows in Amazon stuff, around the time I also found Angelmaker. This, too, was a book I got from the library one fine morning when they just happened to have it, though I had to order it from North Brunswick.
And it...um...well, it's like Lint or Private Midnight in that I can't recommend it much, so let me try to explain it and why I liked it, and hopefully that'll help it pass.
The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack is the story of The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack, an epic chanted by blind drug-addled bards about a group of gods who interfere in the life of a New Jersey butcher with a terrible garage band. While the story starts out fairly coherent in the first two sections, it is clear greater forces are at play. These forces are personified in the god known as XOXO, a fearsome god who is the bane of all creativity and is trying to get the epic to decay into meaningless and ultimately uncreative drivel. Every section of the book is an attempt to tell the story of Ike Karton, an unemployed butcher who will get shot in the head by Mossad snipers at the end of his story, but will enjoy a complex relationship with gods and his daughter's (daughter not named to protect her identity) boyfriend Vance. As the book goes on, XOXO further plays with the text, changing it into a script, a set of TV listings, even a Cosmopolitan article***. The book fights back of course, by attempting to regain its high-culture roots, but it is a losing battle, and eventually it is turned into two sequels with inarticulate subtitles, and a fitted cap.
Anything I say about the plot cannot spoil the book, since there isn't really any plot to spoil. Yes, there are sections about things, but the whole thing holds together slightly worse than Naked Lunch, and any attempts at trying to fashion a cohesive plot from all of this would fall apart. This is not a book that's about what it's about, it's a book that's about another idea entirely. And while that makes it incredibly confusing to review, I must say I like the central idea.
The central idea entices me because it's about the decay of a myth into popular fiction, as well as the decay of a medium. The first section of the book gives the entire history of the Gods and Ike Karton and tells the story in a very concise way. It's an absurd myth full of juvenile humor, but it's a mythology nonetheless and one that is interesting in its own zany way. It is also the single complete and coherent bit of prose in the whole thing. The myth at the beginning first decays through oral tradition and adding to the story known as "The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack" and its "sections", which then are turned into "sessions" as it goes along, and finally "seasons". In the book, the tellers of the myth start out as blind, drug-addled bards who tap their aluminum rings against cans of orange soda. Pretty soon, we're hearing the tale from henpecked husbands who have to gouge out their eyes with melonballers, and all kinds of weird elements are being added to the tale. When it finally finishes, there is almost nothing of the initial tale in it. It's been twisted beyond all recognition.
And this has resonance with other things, as well. One only need look to Twilight**** or Disney movies or any kind of modern media to realize that they're retelling the old stories and twisting them, or occasionally "dumbing them down" for modern audiences*****. Things change over time, and in a living medium, sometimes cultural contamination occurs. In the book, this takes the shape of bolded phrases and the continuous onslaught of XOXO. As the cultural contamination worsens, the book gets less and less coherent until it finally falls apart. How many times it falls apart is open to debate, but it does fall apart quite quickly.
However, this makes the book almost a chore to read. The story recurses back in on itself, adds new elements, and fragments as it goes along. All of this basically means you have to read through an incoherent mess of parts to actually get any enjoyment of the book, and are perfectly okay with it switching horses in midstream several times before the plot actually gets anywhere. Because the book's narrative is fragmented, it makes it hard to get used to the fact that most of the consistent characters don't even show up to the story except in odd moments where it's not quite them. The descriptions and the dialogue passages are great, but it's like searching for needles in haystacks.
In the end, while this is arguably the most challenging read I have had, I enjoyed it. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but I enjoyed it and hopefully, you can take the book out of the library and see for yourself. Now I'm off to read something nicer before my head starts to hurt too bad.
NEXT WEEK: My coverage of NYCC
AND COMING UP:
Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World
Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus
Coverage of NekoCon
And much more
*This is of course redundant. All absurdist metafiction is fantastical.
** Mr. Leyner can feel free to confirm or deny this as he pleases
***This is the first and last time I will ever mention Cosmopolitan magazine in these hallowed screens of text. Um...well after the one in this footnote.
****And soon I may have to...I have a thesis to write on the series...
*****I hate this phrase. Oh well.