I loved My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist back in college and just after. By the end of the 1990s, less so. I can’t say why. Or maybe it was just that I didn’t feel for his other works in the same way. And thus MCMG was tainted by association?
Wired interview with ML on the publication of Frosted Sugar Nutsack
David Foster Wallace critiques MCMG in the midst of George Gilder, and a lot else
In fact, one of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist’s unifying obsessions is this latter juxtaposition of parts of selves, people and machines, human subjects and discrete objects. Leyner’s fiction is, in this regard, an eloquent reply to Gilder’s prediction that our TV-culture problems can be resolved by the dismantling of images into discrete chunks we can recombine as we fancy. Leyner’s world is a Gilder-esque dystopia. The passivity and schizoid decay still endure for Leyner in his characters’ reception of images and waves of data. The ability to combine them only adds a layer of disorientation: when all experience can be deconstructed and reconfigured, there become simply too many choices. And in the absence of any credible, noncommercial guides for living, the freedom to choose is about as “liberating” as a bad acid trip: each quantum is as good as the next, and the only standard of an assembly’s quality is its weirdness, incongruity, its ability to stand out from a crowd of other image-constructs and wow some Audience.
Leyner’s novel, in its amphetaminic eagerness to wow the reader, marks the far dark frontier of the fiction of image - literature’s absorption of not just the icons, techniques, and phenomena of television, but of television’s whole objective. My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist’s sole aim is, finally, to wow, to ensure that the reader is pleased and continues to read. The book does this by (1) flattering the reader with appeals to his erudite postmodern weltschmerz, and (2) relentlessly reminding the reader that the author is smart and funny. The book itself is extremely funny, but it’s not funny the way funny stories are funny. It’s not that funny things happen here; it’s that funny things are self-consciously imagined and pointed out, like the comedian’s stock “You ever notice how. . . ?” or “Ever wonder what would happen if. . . ?”
Actually, Leyner’s whole high-imagist style most often resembles a kind of lapidary stand-up comedy:
Leyner’s fictional response to television is less a novel than a piece of witty, erudite, extremely high-quality prose television. Velocity and vividness - the wow - replace the literary hmm of actual development. People flicker in and out; events are garishly there and then gone and never referred to. There’s a brashly irreverent rejection of “outmoded” concepts like integrated plot or enduring character. Instead there’s a series of dazzlingly creative parodic vignettes, designed to appeal to the forty-five seconds of near-Zen concentration we call the TV attention span. Unifying the vignettes in the absence of plot are moods - antic anxiety, the over-stimulated stasis of too many choices and no chooser’s manual, irreverent brashness toward televisual reality - and, after the manner of pop films, music videos, dreams, and television programs, recurring “key images” - here exotic drugs, exotic technology, exotic food, exotic bowel dysfunctions. It’s no accident that My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist’s central preoccupation is with digestion and elimination. Its mocking challenge to the reader is the same as television’s flood of realities and choices: ABSORB ME - PROVE YOU’RE CONSUMER ENOUGH.
Leyner’s work, the best image-fiction yet, is both amazing and forgettable, wonderful and oddly hollow. I’m finishing up by talking about it at length because, in its masterful reabsorption of the very features TV had absorbed from postmodern lit, it seems as of now the ultimate union of U.S. television and fiction. It seems also to limn the qualities of image-fiction itself in stark relief: the best stuff the subgenre’s produced to date is hilarious, upsetting, sophisticated, and extremely shallow - and just plain doomed by its desire to ridicule a TV-culture whose ironic mockery of itself and all “outdated” value absorbs all ridicule. Leyner’s attempt to “respond” to television via ironic genuflection is all too easily subsumed into the tired televisual ritual of mock worship.
So... Velocity and vividness - the wow are not literary? What is literary, Mr. Wallace?
So... this bound collection of pages with sequential words is not a novel, but... TELEVISION?
We are clearly living on different planets, Mr. Wallace.
Wallace is a bit peeved that Leyner doesn’t want to comport himself as wonts a good writer of linear fiction. Where’s the meaning? Where’s the gravitas? Where’s the [thing that I insist this text must have]? he complains.
Christ, I hope Wallance never encounters Gertrude Stein. He’d kill himself.
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