Mark Leyner’s fictions of the 1990s were collections of aggressive, hallucinatory fragments. Shorn for the most part of plot and character, they derived their energy from the smoldering tautness and sheer comedy of their prose:
I was an infinitely hot and dense dot . So begins the autobiography of a feral child who was raised by huge and lurid puppets. An autobiography written wearing wrist weights.
Another character speaks of a personal motif “tattooed on [his] heart,” but a cliché like this would not go unreckoned with. “I have it tattooed on my heart,” that voice continued:
And I don’t mean on the skin of my chest over my heart . I mean tattooed on the organ itself. It’s illegal in the States — I had to go to Mexico. It’s called visceral tattooing. They have to open you up . They use an ink that contains a radioactive isotope so that the tattoo shows up on X-rays and CAT scans.
From such heterogeneity — metaphysics and junk science, incantations and punch lines — the critics of this era constructed two versions of Leyner. Each was based on an extreme pole of Leyner’s style. One pole was cyberpunk. A certain techno-noir swagger animates what just might be Leyner’s most famous scene, from his breakout My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, in which a “muscleman” blitzed on a polydrug mix that includes “growth hormone extracted from the glands of human corpses . . . anabolic steroids, tissue regeneration compounds,” and Sinutab tries to pick up a date in a dive bar, only to find out that she is his “monozygotic replicant”; they share 100 percent of their DNA. In the scene’s protracted climax, the protagonist tries to solve the problem by pulling out a “miniature shotgun that blasts gene fragments into the cells of living organisms,” but winds up using it on himself. His consciousness unravels, as does the narrative, ending in enlightenment: “And the sunlight, rent into an incoherence of blazing vectors, illuminates me: a shimmering, serrated monster!”
The other pole was heckling — specifically, lobbing quips at the TV. Critics likened Leyner to MTV, with its speedy references and expectation that you knew a definite canon of TV moments since JFK’s assassination and the moon landing, but Leyner’s style, in this mode, was much more like the quintessentially ’90s cable TV institution Mystery Science Theater 3000. In that show, the reference was a gesture of mastery, as if the puppeteer-critic could defeat the stupidity of the culture once and for all by committing its tropes to memory, then spitting them out in the wrong order. “Imagine Chaim Potok collaborating with Amy Tan and Iceberg Slim,” Leyner exhorts. “Imagine Fiddler on the Roof starring Bruce Lee. Imagine Miss Saigon with book by Martin Buber and music by Booger Storm, a garage ‘cai luong’ band from suburban Da Nang.”