Mark Leyner Essay - Critical Essays

Leyner, Mark


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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Response

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."

Principal Works

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


Charlotte M. Meyer (review date March-April 1984)

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 black like four blinks of the eye and the clock's hands just fell limp …

Almost all of the stories are insanely disjointed on the surface, on the level of logic, but at second glance each is clustered like the petals of some exotic asymmetrical bloom. The internal consistency of the stories originates more out of tone and mood than content. None of them is plotted in any conventional way, yet each is based on a sequence of association that has all the inevitability of a traditional story.

The twenty six of them are constructed in a variety of formats. "Octogenarians Die In Crash" is a play in five scenes. "Blue Dodge" is all in dialogue. "I Smell Esther Williams," the longest, is a collage of random bits and pieces—narratives, sketches, musical notation, movie scripts, and dialogues, such as this one, given...

(The entire section is 951 words.)

Welch D. Everman (review date November-December 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)

William Severini Kowinski (review date January-February 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Lewis Burke Frumkes (review date 27 September 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 13 October 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

Mark Leyner with John Bellante and Carl Bellante (interview date July-August 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 6379 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 7 March 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

Rick Marin (review date 27 March 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

M. G. Lord (review date 23 April 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 338 words.)