Four men with awful haircuts appeared against a talk show’s austere black backdrop in 1996. One man is Charlie Rose, who, according to The Washington Post, has made “unwanted sexual advances'' towards no less than eight women (that we know of) — he is the talk show’s host. The other three men are novelists David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner. History has revealed Wallace to also be a controversial figure, who — presumably, in-between unctuous pre-MeToo solicitations with fellow female authors — managed to write some of the most iconic fiction and uncompromising non-fiction of the 90s and early 2000s, before taking his own life in 2008. (Still, his estate has yet to see a penny from me. I’ve purchased every book he ever published, of course — used.) Franzen is far less problematic: he is a dedicated birder and climate activist who writes less convoluted (though, no less excellent) essays and novels than Wallace (who was Franzen’s closest friend for many years). Then, there is Leyner, appearing on the ’96 TV interview looking like a balding coke dealer who slumps and moans into the seats of darkened movie theatres. Leyner does not have a legacy as infamous or innocuous as either writer sitting next to him. One of Leyner’s most famous books, titled My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, was referred to by Wallace — in his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” which claims that irony in televisual culture is slowly eroding viewer’s reality (and the world) — as “the biggest thing for campus hipsters since The Fountainhead,” describing it as “a methedrine compound of pop pastiche, offhand high tech, and dazzling televisual parody, formed with surreal juxtapositions and grammarless monologues and flash-cut editing, and framed with a relentless irony designed to make its frantic tone seem irreverent instead of repellent.” Wallace continues with these almost compliments / almost insults for several pages, until finally declaring that “Leyner’s work, the best Image-Fiction yet, is both amazing and forgettable, wonderful and oddly hollow.”
But that was over twenty years ago. Now Wallace is dead, and campus hipsters have never heard of Mark Leyner. Where Franzen’s and (especially) Wallace’s writing have grown in popularity and prestige over these two decades, Leyner has become an obscure figure. I’d argue that this is unfortunate, and should change going forward. All three writers have, in retrospect, become so emblematic of what was going on with American fiction in the 1990s, and, as time goes on, all three authors’ catalogues seem to further compliment each other and subtly (pleasantly) intertwine: they should be remembered together — studied together — or forgotten together. For context, Franzen’s writing is the most traditional (form/style wise) of the three; his fiction began with a saturation of noir tropes, before he came to focus on complicated families and generational drama. Wallace is… well, really too sprawling to summerize — Google him. I would describe his writing as acrobatic, in that the reader tends to feel like they’re perpetually in the middle of someone else’s thought. Even at the end of a sentence or paragraph, you still feel like you’re right in the middle of whatever it is. And then there is Leyner, who one imagines not as human, but as a gross cartoon. Nearly everything Leyner has written has included a laughably embellished meta insert of himself, to the point where I have little idea as to what the real Mark Leyner thinks or feels at all. (Although, a recent interview with Leyner, moderated by Iranian-American novelist Porochista Khakpour, proved very entertaining and informative.) Maybe the best example of a meta-insert occurs in 1992’s Et Tu, Babe, a novel in which an author named Mark Leyner consumes unbelievable quantities of drugs, is buff to Schwarzeneggerian proportions, and frequently orders his bionically enhanced bodyguards to snuff out anyone who mildly inconveniences him. Self parody, taken to such extreme lengths, can do wonders for the pursuit of humor in writing; suddenly, the bar representing the reader’s suspension of disbelief drops several thousand feet, whereupon a hefty atmosphere of surrealism can be instituted without completely boggling the reader’s mind. While both Franzen and Wallace get weird with their writing, they never get Leyner Weird. (For contrast, Wallace only self-inserts once [that I know of], in his short story “Good Old Neon,” and it’s not exactly played up for comedic effect.)
Cut to 2021, and Leyner has released The Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit, a nested narrative where a book-length introduction and epilogue for an ethnographic study of the fictional country Chalazia is read off of a kaleidoscopic Snellen chart by a nameless patient receiving an eye exam from a New Jersey optometrist. Leyner makes a meta appearance once again in this novel. He is described as having “a pus-filled doughnut at the core of his very being,” is known to occasionally pass out after “hydroplaning on a slick of his own vomit,” and ceaselessly repeats "himself like that fucking little leprechaun on PCP in the Lucky Charms commercial.” What I’m trying to convey with these quotes, here, is that Leyner’s writing doesn’t appear to have changed much in those twenty years — he still seems cartoonish and agonizingly irreverent. Except, the writing has changed. (To quote the book’s Snellen chart, “the ineffable, and ultimately quixotic, love between this Father and this Daughter will pierce your heart. It will literally stab you in the chest multiple times.”)
The Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit is Leyner’s most ambitious novel to date. What it has going for it, more than anything, is that it’s incredibly funny, which Leyner hasn’t really been (at least, not to this degree) for a while now. (This is a noticeable shift from Leyner’s last release, his pseudo-memoir Gone with the Mind, which had the same ambition as Divine Hermit with only a fraction of the absurdity. Gone with the Mind [according to Leyner, in Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit] apparently sold an abysmal “two thousand copies since it was published in 2016,” which is so terrible that Leyner pokes fun at the sales figures in this book, where, to “put that in some perspective, Love Italian Style: The Secrets of My Hot and Happy Marriage by Melissa Gorga from The Real Housewives of New Jersey has sold close to fifteen thousand copies.”) Leyner is no longer writing out brief flashes of erudite commercial speak. Instead, emotions and stylistic choices are being fleshed out, matching up to — complimenting, even — his sense of humour and tendencies towards a grotesque and scientific vocabulary. In particular, the novel has some very sentimental and mushy things to say about love, something one might not expect from a book titled The Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit. (Another surprise, on Leyner’s part: the title is a bait-and-switch, as the novel doesn’t describe any massive sexual rorts. I was fully prepared [and expecting] for him to write about some resplendent orgy for 300 pages.)
I’ve not actually told you much about the novel’s story or content. This was intentional — it’s worth keeping a surprise. Every reader should enjoy the luxury of feeling their head gradually twisting off their body as they read Leyner’s prose: I won’t spoil a bit of that. To begin the separation of the head from the body, pick up a copy of The Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit today, from Little, Brown and Company.
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