“Purposefully impenetrable” is a significant understatement when it comes to describing The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Mark Leyner’s first novel in more than a decade. The book is discursive and recursive at the same time, hopping from tangent to tangent, then repeating passages within those tangents. It has the acutely academic attitude of Mark Z. Danielewski’s suspenseful metafiction powerhouse House Of Leaves, espousing lengthy cultural and literary theories about fictional material that takes the place of actual story.
In New Jersey, unemployed butcher Ike Karton is beset by warring factions of gods—with names like XOXO, Mogul Magoo, and El Brazo—who observe and meddle with his life while living thousands of miles away in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Or maybe the gods are a figment of Ike’s imagination, and he’s just going bonkers. Or the whole story is a written account of a modern oral tradition in the style of a Homerian epic, passed down through recitation by blind bards. Or all three are happening at the same time, since Leyner doesn’t like keeping things simple. Parsing out the details can be an excruciating exercise in patience.
Ike is brilliant, but dangerously paranoid; he oscillates between giving off vibes of Charles Manson and Homer. He’s prone to rampant sexual deviance, and Leyner falls into the easy Chuck Palahniuk trap of indulging those fantasies at gratuitous length. And in spite of being a sex-crazed, deranged lunatic who makes no contribution to society, he gets elevated to messianic heights of immortality, which provides Leyner’s starkest comment on current celebrity trends. The problem is that Ike is only the main character for the final third of the novel. The rest of the book focuses on the phenomenon of celebrity, recognizes it as an artificial construction, then comments on its own self-recognition.
Leyner’s thoughts on radical devotion could be construed as satirizing religion, and the book certainly features enough discussion of canonical passages to build that argument. But given that it suggests bringing back the guillotine to use on A-list celebrities, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is more likely another entry in Leyner’s career-spanning satirical indictment of celebrity worship and fandom.
Most of the obvious criticisms of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack are contained within its own meta-commentary: It describes itself as “punishingly repetitive” and “virtually incomprehensible.” And after the cacophony of references and detailed theses on the perils of celebrity culture, the book’s core is confusingly empty. Leyner’s previous novels, especially his 1990 story collection My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, now seem darkly prophetic in their depiction of the rise of media oversaturation and its cornerstone importance within American culture. But he’s been blaring the same warning for more than two decades.
In a 1993 essay reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace called Leyner’s work “a methedrine compound of pop pastiche, offhand high tech, and dazzling televisual parody, formed with surreal juxtapositions and grammarless monologues and flash-cut editing.” That still fits Leyner’s writing, even two decades later. Like the reality television and commercialization Leyner satirizes, his work has grown more extreme, and it’s less concerned with what it says than how loudly it says it.
At its best, Leyner’s satire is black as tar, with a bite as strong as the Jaws of Life, but The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is ultimately too obsessed with its own hermetically sealed gratification to say something substantive instead of shocking.