With an experiment in form, Mark Leyner’s latest novel The Sugar Frosted Nutsack turns the exploits of a nobody into the stuff of whacked-out folklore.
How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone? Personally, I’d like to be stuffed and propped against the fireplace of a descendant, standing with a fixed smile and thumbs-up gesture for all time. Or heroin-addicted bards could recite the story of my life among the Gods, just as they do for Ike Karton—the protagonist in Mark Leyner’s new novel, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. With a loosely linear narrative that changes forms at the rate of a Generation-Y train of thought, Leyner’s latest is a snapshot taken mid-flush of a society on its way down.
To grasp The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, we must first get a grip on Ike: he’s an unemployed butcher from New Jersey who rocks an Akai MPC drum machine in his band, The Kartons. When he was eighteen, he was hit by a Mister Softee truck while on Spring Break. The Goddess Shanice hasn’t gotten over the fact that Ike left her off of his list of “Ten Gods I’d Fuck (T.G.I.F.),” and the God XOXO is Ike’s nemesis:
[. . .] [G]iven the overwhelming perception that XOXO has carte blanche access to the bards’ brains and to your brain (via public recitation, book, Kindle, Nook, iPad, iTunes, etc.), it’s reasonable to ask: Why hasn’t XOXO just killed T.S.F.N. by now? And the answer is, according to the experts, because XOXO is content to simply toy with the epic, to just keep fucking with it forever.
Fair enough, but still, what is T.S.F.N.? Well, it’s an epic poem, a book, a Reality-TV show, a collection of interviews, and blog comment threads… It’s everything that has anything to do with Ike. He is, after all, the hypersexual ruler of his stoop, but try not to judge him too quickly—he holds a kind of self-ascribed wisdom. Here, for example, is one of the entries on “Ike’s ’10 Things That I Know for Sure About Women’ List”:
9. Women have a very specific kind of courage that enables them to fling themselves into the open sea, into some uncharted terra incognita—whether it’s a new life for themselves, another person’s life, or even what might appear to be a kind of madness.
That’s nice, but it still doesn’t paint a clear picture of what the book is. Besides, Ike probably wrote that list while he was waiting to be interviewed for a butcher’s job at Costco. T.S.F.N. is really meta. I mean, here I’m supposed to be reviewing a book that’s about an epic that’s told in both classical storytelling forms and with twenty-first-century smartphone apps. Maybe T.S.F.N. is a really low-culture version of Faulkner. Don’t take my word for it, though. In an interview with T.S.F.N., “Real Wife” explains why she goes to hear T.S.F.N. live:
I don’t particularly want to see two hours of George Clooney playing a human resource specialist or Gwyneth Paltrow pretending to die of the plague or Ben Stiller portraying some disaffected slacker, no. When we come to hear a recitation of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, we’re not coming to hear fucking rich celebrities pretending to be bards. These are real bards. They are really blind. They are really itinerant. They are really high on ecstasy or psilocybin mushrooms or hallucinogenic borscht. They are not playing fucked-up bards. They are fucked up.
Leyner’s fun with form is the strongest aspect of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. The reader learns about Karton through what followers post about him online, what his enemies say about him, and what he writes to himself. By taking risks that bring to mind Vonnegut and Shteyngart, Leyner has written a book that attempts to transform the exploits of a nobody into the stuff of whacked-out folklore.
The novel comments on contemporary it’s-all-about-me culture, where our lives are broadcast via internet for all to watch or read about—even if all we’re doing is clipping our toenails. Ike, through his epic, lives his own 24/7 fantasy. He goes so far as to try to justify his self-proclaimed status by including the list, “What Makes Ike a Hero?” No item on the list gives a clearer reason than point B: “Basically, at every moment, Ike is trying to figure out how to constitute himself and how to situate himself in history. And this, among other things, is what makes Ike a hero.”
But regardless of Ike’s hero status, once the reader takes in The Sugar Frosted Nutsack and gets used to the form, all that’s left is a handful of half-chuckles over the fact that Leyner uses the word “nutsack” so many times between two covers. The humor is pretty tired, and the novel needs something to distract the reader from the hovering sadness that comes with being reminded that everyone wants to be—and is—the star of The Me Show. Though junkie-bards might not recite my epic in the next century, I have tasted The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. I was expecting something much sweeter.