Mark Leyner 1956–
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry provides an overview of Leyner's career through 1995.
Best known for comedic and satirical fiction often characterized as chaotic and irreverent, Leyner is a prominent contemporary writer who blends literary experimentation with elements of contemporary American life and popular culture, including scientific advancement, mass marketing, and the electronic media. Leyner has stated: "I feel linked to artists who launched their careers reading billboards aloud in the back seats on family trips, who spent their formative Saturday mornings cemented to their television screens with crazy glue, who grew up fascinated by the rhetoric of pentecostal preachers, dictators, game show hosts, and other assorted demagogues…. I said in an article once that we need a kind of writing that the brain can dance to. Well, that's the kind of writing I'm trying to write—thrashing the smoky air of the cerebral ballroom with a very American ball-point baton."
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, Leyner is the son of a well-known lawyer. Fascinated with politics and current events at an early age, he avidly tracked the news both in print and on television. He also developed an interest in literature and read such diverse authors as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Joseph Conrad, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. Leyner first took up serious writing while in high school, where he wrote a column for the school newspaper. After spending nearly a year in Europe and Israel, Leyner attended Brandeis University as a student of creative writing and literature. In 1977 he graduated and entered a graduate writing workshop at the University of Colorado at Boulder. There, Leyner's writing attracted the attention of a group of experimental writers called the Fiction Collective, who published his first book, I Smell Esther Williams (1983). Leyner earned his graduate degree from the University of Colorado in 1979 and returned to New Jersey. He worked at a number of teaching and copywriting jobs before the publication of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist in 1989, which allowed him the opportunity to devote his time exclusively to writing.
In an interview with John and Carl Bellante, Leyner stated that he finds I Smell Esther Williams to be "pretentious," "juvenile," and "very derivative of the New York school of poetry." In addition to twenty-six short stories, the book includes a play, a dialogue, and a number of collages composed of random narrative sketches. Leyner's next work, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, is similarly a composite of prose fragments, described by one reviewer as "a kind of postmodern Arabian Nights." Incorporating a variety of popular culture images and symbols, the collection highlights Leyner's focus on the mass media. The protagonist of the novel Et Tu, Babe (1992) is a popular young author named Mark Leyner around whom all life on earth revolves. Seen by many as a critique of America's celebrity-oriented culture, Et Tu, Babe explores the limits of individual stardom and importance. In Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog Leyner continues to address and satirize the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of popular culture and contemporary society, including technological innovation, commercialism, and celebrity.
Although many critics applaud Leyner's satire and parody, some have raised concerns over the anecdotal nature of his prose, the flippancy of his style, and an apparent tendency toward megalomania. Michiko Kakutani has stated in a review of Et Tu, Babe that a reader "begins this demented book amused and entertained and finishes it reeling from anecdote overload." In discussing Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, she has further noted that Leyner's prose pieces "are clever and amusing and willfully superficial." Rick Marin considers Leyner's fiction to be "likably self-absorbed," with the author, as evinced in Et Tu, Babe, writing "about what he knows and loves best—himself." However, Leyner's focus on the excesses of contemporary American society has routinely earned critical praise. Commenting on My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, William Severini Kowinski has asserted: "At last readable literature has been made from the peculiar material of contemporary life, the stuff other fiction leaves out."
I Smell Esther Williams, and Other Stories (short stories) 1983
American Made: New Fiction from the Fiction Collective [editor, with Curtis White and Thomas Glynn] (short stories) 1986
My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (short stories) 1990
Et Tu, Babe (novel) 1992
Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog (short stories) 1995
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SOURCE: A review of I Smell Esther Williams, in American Book Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, March-April, 1984, p. 15.
[Meyer is an American educator. In the review below, she lauds Leyner's collection of short stories I Smell Esther Williams, finding the prose to be "chaotic and exhilarating."]
[I Smell Esther Williams, a] collection of twenty six short fictions, reads as if Leyner went to sleep or put himself into a trance to write them; they have the same exhilarating mixture of chaos and suggestiveness as sleep-talking. The title is absurdly evocative, a rich joke, but it is only one little monkey in an enormous, crowded barrelful. This has got to be among the funniest, most innovative fiction around. Here is a good sample, the opening to one of my favorites, "A Bedtime Story for My Wife":
The clock on the Hudson City Savings Bank billboard says 6:30, indicating nothing but the hands' exhaustion—it was so thrilling five minutes ago & now that seems like another life, when all the cars accelerated down Newark Avenue like they'd lost their brakes and some of the passengers, some of the women, craned their necks in the wind and their religious medals pulled against their necks and were held rigid in the draft of the wind and the dashboard saints bared their teeth to this speed and the sky went vermillion and then purple and then deep blue and then...
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SOURCE: "The Same Pink as Pepto-Bismol," in American Book Review, Vol. 12, No. 5, November-December, 1990, pp. 16, 21.
[Everman is an American writer and educator. In the following review of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, he cites numerous references to popular culture in Leyner's fiction, theorizing on the relationship between the act of writing and contemporary electronic mass media.]
Reading the pieces in Mark Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist is like sitting in front of an ultrahightech video monitor and flipping back and forth through the channels, from this to that to this and back to that again. It's all here and all perfectly familiar—the quiz shows, the kiddie shows, the late movies, the news broadcasts, the talk shows, MTV, and of course the commercials. The monitor flickers like a strobe light, and it's up to the viewer to put the bits and pieces together, to make a program of what he sees and hears.
There are stories here—the story of kids' show host Big Squirrel who is also a ninja assassin, the story of a graduate of the Wilford Military Academy of Beauty who is sentenced to die in a custom-built Mies van der Rohe electric chair for allegedly attempting to crash a commercial jetliner into the Queen Elizabeth II—but the stories are twisted, broken, interrupted again and again by other stories and stories-within-stories, stories that appear and...
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SOURCE: "Welcome to the '90s," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, January-February, 1991, p. 20.
[Kowinski is an American book reviewer. In the following review of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, Kowinski praises Leyner's prose style and hails the author as "a voice to watch in the nineties."]
Fiction readers as well as writers watch for what that smarmy public relations type in "A Hard Day's Night" called "an early clue to the new direction." In these particularly perilous times, we're on the lookout for new styles and substances that can help us sort out where we've been and where we're going, as a society and as individuals. Besides which, the novel form requires a certain amount of novelty to keep going and continue growing.
Mark Leyner has been touted as the largest antidote to American minimalism—or as some would describe it, the Wimp Lit—that's dominated the literary field of dreams and launched a thousand gleaming paperback originals. There's no doubt that Leyner is different. In [the pages of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist], worlds and words collide, and deep soul searches are likely to be interrupted by a commercial for hemorrhoid cream; in other words, the surrealism of real life today.
It's not that Leyner's prose is unprecedented—in fact, it's his mixtures that are original. He's a hybrid of William Burroughs and Dave Barry,...
(The entire section is 455 words.)
SOURCE: "Who's the Cutest One of All?," in The New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1992, p. 14.
[In the following review of Et Tu, Babe, Frumkes discusses what he considers instances of "unrelenting megalomania, narcissism and disjointed narrative flow" in Leyner's novel.]
Just as Finnegans Wake is one long swim that begins (in medias res), "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay," and ends 628 pages later, "A way a lone a last a loved a long the," suggesting the cyclical nature of life and death, Et Tu, Babe is one long paean to its author, Mark Leyner, a self-promotional concert that begins, "Dear Peter Guzzardi [his editor], As you know, I am not your average author," and ends 169 pages later with "Call 1-800-T-LEYNER today for an exhortatory message from Mark Leyner to his fans recorded in the heroic hours before his disappearance! Stay on the line to record your personal words of support for the man whom food-and-lifestyle authority Martha Stewart has described as having 'the face of an angel and the glands of a god!'… Help disseminate the incendiary words of this visionary warrior by ordering additional copies of Mark Leyner's majestic masterworks for your family, friends and co-workers," suggesting that Mr. Leyner … how shall I say it?… has probably already made some preliminary advances toward self-reflections in a pool....
(The entire section is 658 words.)
SOURCE: "Who Is Mark Leyner? A Legend in His Own Mind," in The New York Times, October 13, 1992, p. C17.
[Kakutani is a regular reviewer for New York Times. In the following mixed review of Et Tu, Babe, she praises its inventiveness and irreverence but faults the book's satirical density or "anecdote overload."]
Who is Mark Leyner? According to the fictional testimonies offered in his cheerfully warped new novel, he is "the most intense, and in a certain sense, the most significant young prose writer in America." Stephen Hawking supposedly didn't publish A Brief History of Time until Leyner had "reviewed the book's fundamental theorem" and given his approval. Martha Stewart supposedly hailed him as "the writer who single-handedly brought a generation of young people flocking back to the bookstores after they had purportedly abandoned literature for good." And Harold Pinter supposedly called Leyner's play Varicose Moon "achingly beautiful": "I think it will be unnecessary for playwrights to write any new plays for some time now: Varicose Moon should suffice. In fact, I think it would be vulgar for playwrights to burden the public with their offerings given the creation of this coruscating masterwork." The fictional Leyner says of himself:
I'm only 36 years old; I've achieved international notoriety as a best-selling author, body...
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SOURCE: "A Leaner and Meaner Mark Leyner," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1993, pp. 5-7.
[In the interview below, Leyner discusses his literary influences and preferences, his research sources, and his thoughts on the writing process.]
So daunting is the mythic image author Mark Leyner—rhymes with complainer—paints of himself in his latest literary exploit, Et Tu, Babe, that the prospect of encountering him might have sent shivers through lesser mortals. Instead, the diminutive, albeit muscular, fellow who greeted us at the door of his temporary lodgings on the edge of the University of Colorado campus turned out to be one regular guy—within carefully controlled limits. The blue jeans, Oakland Athletics T-shirt, and ostentatious cowboy boots he sported had a premeditatedly unpremeditated quality, the hallmark of his ever-slippery literary libertarianism.
Notably absent were any remnants of Team Leyner, that fictious squad of devoted underlings dedicated to making their boss the most conspicuous name in contemporary cultural chronicles. In their wake was his wife, Arleen, whom he depicts at the conclusion of Et Tu, Babe as putting him through an especially messy divorce. We remarked, somewhat naively, how nice that the two of them were still together, despite their novelistic aftermath, only to learn later, much to our mutual consternation,...
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SOURCE: "From a Cool Dude in a Hip, Literary Mood," in The New York Times, March 7, 1995, p. C18.
[In the review below, Kakutani finds the short stories included in Leyner's collection Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog to be "clever and amusing and willfully superficial."]
Reading Mark Leyner's new collection of short pieces [Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog] isn't like reading a book exactly. It's more like spending several hours with the Comedy Channel on cable television, or a long evening with a couple of teen-agers on acid. Imagine Beavis and Butt-head morphed with William S. Burroughs or Michael O'Donoghue crossed with Eugène Ionesco; then picture the twisted products of their imaginations projected on one of those big-screen television sets, with the volume turned all the way up. The results are intermittently hilarious, but also silly and highly sophomoric.
Essentially a collection of pieces Mr. Leyner wrote for assorted publications (including The New Yorker and The New Republic), Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog ostensibly addresses a variety of subjects like fatherhood, the Miss America pageant, muscleman culture, sperm banks and the Menendez brothers' trial, but each piece is really just an excuse for Mr. Leyner to joke around and free-associate about his favorite preoccupations: namely, arcane skin diseases, bizarre technological innovations and the...
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SOURCE: "Buffing Up Is Hard to Do," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXV, No. 13, March 27, 1995, p. 68.
[In the following review, Marin favorably assesses Leyner's collection of short stories, Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, praising its comical and satiric elements.]
Mark Leyner isn't the best-selling writer in America, but he may be the buffest. With just 135 pounds on his 5-foot-7 frame, the author of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and Et Tu, Babe can bench-press 220 without breaking a sweat. He's a little guy who goes to the gym to get huge, even though fiction is where Leyner does all his heaviest lifting.
His new book, Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog is a willfully random collection of magazine humor pieces, lunatic ravings and one-liners composed "while listening to Mahler in the afternoon." In a brief three-pager called "The (Illustrated) Body Politic," Leyner conducts a mock-investigative report on tattoos worn by U.S. senators: "A DNA double helix attached to a ball and chain means: 'My sibling is a convicted felon'." Elsewhere, his febrile mind dreams up new fragrances ("Bastard," made from the pineal glands of death-row inmates) and transposes Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" to a ludicrously extravagant New York department store in a playlet dubbed "Young Bergdorf Goodman Brown." Leyner, 39, is a hyperbolist, a wild exaggerator of his own world and...
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SOURCE: "Part Poetry, Part Jai Alai," in The New York Times Book Review, April 23, 1995, p. 12.
[In the following review of Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, Lord criticizes Leyner's tendency to write self-referential and self-promotional fiction.]
I first encountered Mark Leyner's name in the Mystery Quote contest on Echo, a computer bulletin board. In the competition players guess the author of unidentified texts, and wrongly attributed to Mr. Leyner were some wildly dissimilar bits of prose: excerpts from Gore Vidal's spoof of Christianity, Live From Golgotha; the film maker Derek Jarman's thoughts on Caravaggio; and a hard-boiled detective story from Bill Pronzini's collection Son of Gun in Cheek in which a woman is killed by having the air sucked from her lungs with a vacuum cleaner.
Even more startling is how plausible these guesses were. Mr. Leyner's first three books—I Smell Esther Williams, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and Et Tu, Babe—are not conventional narratives. Often scatological, rarely predictable, they most closely resemble the long, loopy yet occasionally brilliant monologues of the psychiatric patient Sylvia Frumkin, which Susan Sheehan first recorded 12 years ago in "Is There No Place on Earth for Me?" and reprised in the recent anniversary issue of The New Yorker.
Perhaps because they were originally...
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Gehr, Richard. Review of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner. VLS, No. 85 (May 1990): 7.
Positive review of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist in which Gehr notes that the book "radiates experimentalism."
Grimes, William. "The Ridiculous Vision of Mark Leyner." The New York Times Magazine (13 September 1992): 34-5, 51, 64, 66.
Feature on Leyner's life and works.
Harris, Michael. Review of Et Tu, Babe, by Mark Leyner. The Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 October 1992): 6.
Negative review in which Harris states that Leyner "[jams] together pop genres and spoofs of genres, weird science, police reports and references to classic literature into a glop of information overload."
Krist, Gary. Review of Et Tu, Babe, by Mark Leyner. The Hudson Review XLVI, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 239-46.
Negative assessment of Et Tu, Babe in which Krist states "ultimately [I] found the book tiresome."
O'Hara, J. D. "They Have the Words, Sometimes the Tune." The New York Times Book Review (21 September 1986): 46.
Negative assessment of...
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