Review of "Et Tu, Babe" by Mark Leyner
First published in Fourth And Sycamore on August 2, 2018.
I want my fiction to be monstrous, to shout at me, to put to rout convention and decorum and civility. I don’t care if it ties me up and brings all my ex-girlfriends in to humiliate me. So I should really like Et Tu, Babe (Vintage Contemporaries, 1992), because it’s surreal, warped, garrulous, and diabolical. And I really want to like it. But it’s the kind of work where much depends on how the reader construes the author’s intentions, and how much abuse they are willing to tolerate in watching these intentions become manifest.
Et Tu, Babe followed Leyner’s 1990 cult success, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. So in a grand gesture of satire, irony, and parody – and extreme risk – Babe is centred on a fictional version of the novelist himself. It’s hard to wrap your head around this, but a lot of this novel is the author Mark Leyner describing the reaction of the character Mark Leyner to the profound success of his own writing. And to say that he leans into this paradox would be a substantial understatement:
I’m only 36 years old; I’ve achieved international notoriety as a best-selling author, body builder, martial artist; I make more in a year from product endorsements than most people make in a lifetime; I’ve got a multi-million-dollar headquarters with a guard tower, gatehouses, patrol dogs, armed sentries, a vast warren of underground tunnels; I’ve got a gorgeous wife and an entourage of gofers and sycophants.
In simple terms, this novel is a giant poke. The characters and the content lambast the egotism, the self-absorption, and the celebrity addiction of the (1992) zeitgeist. The collage of parodies and the random grotesqueries that constitutes the work is a beat up on our diminished contemporary attention span. (One can only wonder how the same novel would treat the 2018 zeitgeist in these areas!)
These are indeed worthy pursuits, and plainly, Et Tu, Babe is an astonishing work. Fearless originality drips from every page. Leyner (the author) flays himself and everything else in a blitzkrieg rant that I could never even imagine writing myself. With a supporting cast of glass bottom Newark Airport buses, supernumerary nipples, a twelve-step program for people who pistol-whip their tailors, and medical cheese sculptures, the shamelessly egotistical main character shamelessly caricatures himself. It reads like a demented collage of People of Wal-Mart, the Darwin Awards and Ernie’s House of Whoopass, all on an LSD trip, all exploding outwards at warp speed.
Leyner deserves credit for embarking on such a speculative journey. But it is not sustained at all well.
The story is an inch deep and a shambolic mile wide. The main character is born, gets married, becomes successful in due course, kidnaps his writing students, imbibes Lincoln’s morning breath, gets punished for it, suffers the corrosion of his empire and disappears. Amongst many crimes visited here, the story’s failure to unify all the vignettes, to bring any coherence to a lot of the schizoid action, is the greatest. The plot traverses only a few key elements and spends the rest of its time twisting away from real meaning. A lot of the action is discontinuous, and is related to us by the narration, rather than endured by the character in real time, which slowly chokes off my participation as a reader. Overall, therefore, I wasn’t encouraged to continue, didn’t get a chance to continue, caring about the main character.
And what a pity this is. A few pages in, I was there. I really wanted to read that story of the kid who hates God and whose four oboe teachers all died in an irrigation sluice; of the man who lives in a lemon-yellow stucco mansion and who was shot by his future wife with a tranquilizer gun. I wanted to see an absurd character grow whole from that absurd foundation and in so doing to help the novel open and treat a shambolic world. So I was ready for detours and cruelty and gotchas.
But I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t ready to endlessly swerve away from my pathologically narcissistic character and learn about (pick a page) weight-loss camps for terrorists or penile-growth hormones. A few of these riffs – the really extreme ones – could have been woven into the character’s doing (as opposed to observing) to show the extent of our collective depravity. Even if Mr Leyner is going for chaos and disruption on a grand scale, he needs to meet an intelligent reader somewhere in the middle. There isn’t enough in this story arc, objectively, to hold it all together. Ultimately the author abuses the privilege of abusing the reader – just because he can; just because we will let him do that these days. Or so it is implied.
And this applies, I’m afraid, even if Mr Leyner is going for this look. Even if the threadbare plot of Et Tu, Babe is there to mock us and to reflect our collective silliness; even if this gargantuan attention-deprived rant is there to show us that we are all attention-deprived fools; even if Mr Leyner is racing to the bottom of depravity and narcissism to meet us there, he still owes us something meaningful, or at least coherent. But he pays off nothing. The vast swathes of irony and satire that forms the substance of Et Tu, Babe end up being all tip and no iceberg.
On the evidence of this work, Mr Leyner is a skillful and imaginative writer. The satire, the irony, the self-mocking, the ripping on the publishing industry is all fun, and Et Tu Babe is compelling to some extent. But the reader is beaten to a pulp and not really entertained by a story in return. The work has no wider allegorical appeal. It doesn’t make me think differently about anything. Mr Leyner is clearly better than what he’s written in this novel. We have to hope that we, as a civilization, are better than what he thinks we are too.