Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Tetherballs of Bougainville

     Okay, so the rundown is as follows. This is a Mark Leyner book, and like the previous book I reviewed by him (The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack), it's a strange and difficult read for anyone not looking for off-the-wall absurdity. While not as difficult a read as some of his other works, it's still not particularly easy. 

       This is, however, a good absurd "memoir" about adolescent life living with a father on the run in an insane world, and I must say that it's more accessible than some and I have never read anything like it in my life. Leyner treats the absurd as commonplace, and it works wonders despite the book's inaccessibility. 

      The good bits are a vivid, vibrant world full of grotesque and blackly comic touches that make up a sort of "commonplace absurdity" allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the insanity, even to luxuriate in it.

      The bad bits are that the book is a holy terror to read, and the simple fact that it is very hard to access and get into for anyone not used to Leyner and his particular brand of weird. However, should you be able to get beyond this particular setback, the book is worth a read.

More, as always, below.

   "Instant spatzle" - Mark

      I've tried and failed to explain how Mark Leyner gets me before, so allow me to say this. The man is a genius. I don't know how he does what he does, and I don't know why, but his habit of blowing everyday life into ridiculous, absurd, cartoonish proportions and then setting it gently in front of people with nary a word and letting them figure out what the big deal is. When he worried his fame was going to his head, he wrote a black comedy on par with Naked Lunch where his steroid-crazed alter ego (also named Mark Leyner) proceeded to live out psychotic and sometimes violent delusions of grandeur that became more twisted and disjointed as the book went on. And when he decided to write a sort of pseudo-memoir about his teenage years, the result was The Tetherballs of Bougainville

       I found this book like I found many others...I worked my way through My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, then thought a novel of his might be more coherent and stumbled into Et Tu, Babe with nary a thought. And then, because I thought he might have more of a hand on the tiller for a book that he claimed was more or less a recollection of his life (albeit fictional), I made an attempt at The Tetherballs of Bougainville. I figured my inexperience and failure with that first attempt was due to some kind of immaturity on my part, and so I tried it again just this summer, hoping to finally barrel through with an older, wiser approach.

       And the book blindsided me just as much as it did back then. 

      The Tetherballs of Bougainville is about Mark Leyner, a young man going to Maplewood Junior High School in New Jersey while balancing success as a screenwriter. The book opens with Mark playing Gianni Isotope on his Game Boy as his father is about to be executed via lethal injection. Mark's phone rings, and he is alerted to the fact that he still hasn't finished his screenplay for a recent competition. The rabbi, executioner, and various assembled members of the execution party all offer him notes on his screenplay, and his father gives his last words. His last words are a rambling story about hairstyling a woman with an exposed cranium and giving her a cut that she'll only have to comb, and even then not that much. Oh, yeah, and I forgot to mention, the Governor of New Jersey is a teenage cliche who makes the lawyers and judges in the state big-hair wigs, and the elder Mr. Leyner's rampage might have been caused by a combination of Angel Dust and a minute burst of gamma radiation coming from the moon.

      And then things get w-- okay, so they're already at Maximum Weird. This is a Mark Leyner book we're talking about after all. 

       Mark's father fails to die and suffers no neurological damage, so the state puts him into a special execution program that means at some point, without his father's knowledge and directed by a computer program that synthesizes random numbers from DNA fragments, New Jersey State Troopers will bring him down by any means necessary. Be it blowing up a building, shooting down a plane, or personally shooting him with a sniper rifle, Joel Leyner will be brought to justice and the New Jersey State Troopers (who now have universal jurisdiction) will be the instrument of his destruction. While his father is instructed of his fate and processed for release from the prison, Mark lapses back and forth between his screenplay and reality, having conversations and fantasy sequences that bleed into another. He seduces the female prison warden by talking dirty, starting out with the words "instant spatzle". He has a conversation with his father at an amusement park while his father is dressed as an orangutan. Conversations are soundtracked by the sound of people...chafing...against one another. And the paths lead deeper and deeper into Mark's twisted conscious and subconscious, resulting in an abrupt and absurd finish that may or may not be real within the confines of the book.

            I suppose one of the things I like so much about the book is the audacity of it. While more and more people are heading out to those fenced-off limits Mark Leyner leapt over and ran screaming past, Leyner is one of the first, and he is certainly one of the most cohesive. He manages to tackle the absurd with a certain charm and grace, and while his story is full of mall-hair wigs, random explosions, close brushes with death, and dirty talk about microwaveable entrees, he manages to make it all hold together. Each page reveals some new absurdity, some fresh hell Leyner wishes to throw everyone into, and it never feels forced or like he's trying too hard. It feels a little self-conscious at times, but that's to be expected. It is, after all, a memoir of sorts, and you can't do a memoir without being at least somewhat self-conscious, as a memoir is a combination of the truth and a memory of the truth, ultimately resulting in something in between. Leyner manages to embroider his fictional memoir with ridiculous details, but it all feels quite natural.

              I also like the amount of description that goes on. Tetherballs isn't a book that luxuriates in its grotesquerie the same way Sloughing Off The Rot might on occasion, but it doesn't shy away from it completely, either. In particular, one of the details I missed on my first pass through the book was the soundtrack I mentioned earlier, something too nasty to describe in detail here, but quite evocative as Mark and the doctor responsible for the lethal cocktail of drugs have a conversation about what goes into a lethal injection shot. The juxtaposition is only helped by the description. Similarly, Mr. Leyner spends a lot of time on describing the various bizarre concepts he puts forth, be they the skin folds in the Warden's arm, or any number of insane attempts by the State Troopers to put down Joel Leyner. And somehow, he manages to make it all casual. 

             The casual tone of the book also helps draw the reader in. What many authors need to realize is that treating the unusual as unusual within the world merely creates a sense of disconnect and artifice. What one needs to do is treat the unusual as part of their world, as part of the things they create. That way, when something truly unusual comes along, it stands out. It sticks up like a sore thumb, and there's no need to call attention to it. Pretending everything is normal is an essential part of the narrative and a way to immerse the reader directly into the world. Tetherballs manages to do this by gradually changing the rules of reality as it flickers back and forth between screenplay and reality, each new grotesquerie seen as somewhat normal compared to the horrors existing further down the line in the book. 

              However, the book is far from accessible. It takes a special kind of person to want to read after the opening sequence and the long discussion of the title Even Mighty Mouse is Vivisected by the Bitch in the White Labcoat*. It takes an even hardier person to get through the long hallucinatory passages as the story twists in and out of Mark's brain and indeed the various metafictional nodes in the book. For this reason, much like The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack, I can't recommend this book. I can recommend trying it as much as you like, but I cannot actually out-and-out recommend the book. 

                But in the end, I like it a lot. It's funny, twisted, and if nothing else, startlingly original. You will never read anything else like it, or maybe you have, but it either went higher or lower than this one did. This is absurdism done right, and Leyner is right up there with Steve Aylett in my book. Take this out of the library if you're looking for a strange read, but I can't recommend it outside that. 


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