A Mad Scientist: Mark Leyner Interviewed by Porochista Khakpour

If this novel was a mood board, it would include Virginia Woolf, karaoke bars, Filipino knife fighting, Amelia Bedelia, and more.

Last Orgy Of The Divine Hermit3

In 1999, my college fiction professor was a bit frustrated by my hijinks in class and on the page—I was an “absurdist,” I had decided—and so her last resort was turning me onto a writer who was even more “over the top” than I could ever be. The writer was Mark Leyner, and the book was My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. It left quite an impression on me—I found myself howling in the library, annoying my roommate by staying up all night reading, quoting it constantly at inappropriate moments to other student writers who had no idea who he was. Flashback to a decade later, in the earlier years of Twitter, when for whatever reason me and another writer—this was when we still spoke of “alt lit”—got to talking about Leyner. To our surprise, he was on Twitter, though not so active. But he engaged us, in a kind, amused elder way!

That began many years of us messaging—from congratulating each other on various successes, to notes of concern about illnesses or other troubles, to messages about our shared interest in K-pop. He eventually read my work and called us a “mutual fan club,” which I boasted about to my old fiction professor, who was somehow not surprised we had finally connected. When this recent book, Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit (Little Brown) came out. I was sent an advanced copy, and it arrived at the bleakest point of the pandemic when the only thing I needed was a good laugh. The story takes place in one night, between an anthropologist father, who is researching mystic mobsters, and his daughter, at a karaoke bar in Kermunkachunk. As I flipped through its pages, my roommate reported hearing me wheeze with laughter from our kitchen, which then turned into me knocking on her door at all hours to let her hear another wild passage. At the same time, another friend and I on Twitter began creating fancams (in the great K-pop tradition) for Leyner, and I saw the word of his work spread again—including to a new generation of Leynerites—through various pipelines of what we lovingly used to call “Weird Twitter.”   

It’s been a tremendous honor and a madcap joy to be in touch with him these last few months. While our dream was to do a wild, in-person full day of interview antics, the pandemic alas kept us to the phone and email, but I think we managed to tug at the boundaries of those mediums.  

—Porochista Khakpour

 

Porochista KhakpourYou just had a birthday, and mine is coming up. Capricorns! Happy sixty-five. How does it feel? You seem forever young to me!   

Mark Leyner Being sixty-five hits me in two very distinct ways. On the one hand, I can feel like the Little Prince on his own private planet, who’s been buffeted by this tempest of time, this torrent, this gale wind of sixty-five years, but is basically, immutably that exact same little boy standing there. And I can also feel, of course, the cumulative wear and tear physically and psychically—the injuries, illnesses, losses, misgivings, gnawing regrets, all that. But it’s also a great source of pride, I have to say—the fact that, in this advanced, grizzled state, I’m still doing this work at a pretty high level of computational performance, a pretty high petaflop level, and as relentlessly and recklessly as ever. So, you’re right; at the beginning, all those decades ago, there was a very central youth-centric component to the way I was being put out there—this was the guy who was supposedly reinventing the novel for the MTV generation and all that kind of nonsense. Better said, I began trying to produce a kind of writing the brain could dance to. I’ve always had a very embodied experience of writing. Whatever the result, I’m shamelessly proud to still be flying that flag and going at it the way I do. I’ve maintained a good classically haute-punk attitude; I still feel like what I do is a form of vandalism, and I still try to navigate my way through life with the moral compass of Ratso Rizzo.  

PK What was making this book like?  

ML When I began Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit, I, first of all, wanted it to operate in a kind of dialectical relation to my last book. My feeling was much vehement on that score actually—I wanted it be a repudiation of my last book. That book, Gone with the Mind, was somewhat anecdotal and, I felt, somewhat sentimental. There was a niceness to it, and an easy digestibility. I very much wanted this new book to be much more aggressive, much more in-your-face. I wanted a real intractable, Dadaist impudence to it, a sense of absolute, maximal, delirious unpredictability. I wanted a reckless book. There were so many moments writing it when I felt, Oh shit, if you do this, it’s going to just wreck the book. And invariably, those turned out to be the best, the most exhilarating parts. I had to have this attitude like whatever mutant creature happens to walk through the swinging doors of this saloon gets to play a decisive role in this book. At the same time, paradoxically, I wanted this sweetness and poignancy to it—because it involves my daughter, Gaby, whom I love more than anyone or anything on Earth. The amazing thing I discovered is that that love, in its literary incarnation at least, can survive anything I do to it, the worst vandalism… There it is, at the end of the book, unscathed, gleaming.  

There are two basic axes in this book: the father/daughter axis and the reading axis—I wanted this to be a book that was literally about reading. Everything that you read in Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit is also and simultaneously being read by one of the characters, even if the character’s simply reading an eye chart at the optometrist’s office! I also wanted the book to dip into the register or the idiom of anthropology. One narrative dimension of the book is that it’s an ethnography (written by a father and a daughter) about this ultra-violent group called the Chalazian Mafia Faction. Part of my training to write this one involved reading Phillippe Descola’s beautiful ethnography of the Jivaro called The Spears of Twilight.  

Here’s one particularly funny, perverse thing about the making of this book: I was a complete teetotaler throughout the entire process of writing it. Not a drop of alcohol passed through these lips. And this is a book in which there’s a considerable amount of drinking done. Sitting at a bar with Gaby and talking for hours and hours about everything under the sun is one of my great pleasures in life. That’s very energetically portrayed here. (I always think of the speech in King Lear where he says to his daughter Cordelia: “We two alone will sing like birds in the cage…and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies…and take upon us the mystery of things as if we were God’s spies, etc.”). That lovely speech. There are passages in George Eliot’s Silas Marner… And don’t even get me started on Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring—there’s so much in that movie that informs this book. But it was my feeling that this book and this book in particular, because it was so precious to me, because it’s so fundamentally about and made out of my relationship with Gaby, required an unusually high, unadulterated level of lucidity and acuity.  

Anyway, these are the different elements I began with, like this mad scientist on some lightning-riven night, mixing this with that, and the resultant potion somehow apparently manages to be—at least according to the people I know who’ve read it—pretty funny and touching at the same time.  

PK Tell us about how your daughter figured in both the making and telling of this father-daughter tale.  

ML Gaby—her avatar—is portrayed as a kind of co-author. Or at least that’s what the Professor (an important character in the book) asserts, to provoke me, to infuriate me! Look, sure, this is—in its way—a father/daughter book, a book about me and Gaby, about our relationship, although “about” is particularly wobbly word when it comes to what I do. It would probably be more accurate to say that it’s constructed of us. And that’s what I wanted to do from the outset. But there was a problem—Gaby’s a very refined, very sophisticated self-curator, so I wasn’t about to barge into her life like some bull in a china shop. Gaby, along with my wife, Mercedes, and I form a little cult.  (Mercedes is Ecuadorean with a strain of indigenous Quechua and all my grandparents are Eastern European Jews—so it’s a very hybridized cult.) There’s a passage in the book where I—my avatar—says to Gaby, “Let them say whatever they want.  My people love me. That’s all I care about.” And Gaby asks, “Who are your people?” Then I say, “You and Mom.” That’s our cult right there. And our cult’s slogan—our cri de guerre—is Stay Secret. Stay Hydrated. Rock on.   

So, this wasn’t going be some confessional, tell-all sort of thing. What I set out to do was see if it would be possible to take all those half-apocryphal anecdotes, all those private, cryptic allusions, all the jokes and the nicknames, all that encoded language that Gaby and I have hoarded over the years as our own secret treasure and make something out of it that other people might actually delight in themselves. To transmute the scrupulously private into the flagrantly public. (And, actually, one of the things I’d briefly considered very early on in the process was using some sort of simple Q&A format. My father was a lawyer, so court transcripts and depositions and interrogatories were among the first texts I can remember being fascinated by. But that ended up feeling a bit too skeletal for me.)

Mark Leyner by Mercedes Leyner

Photo of Mark Leyner by Mercedes Leyner.

PK[Since Gaby Leyner, Mark’s daughter, is such a big part of this book, I contacted her to ask her how it felt to be such a key part of his work.]

Gaby Leyner My dad and I began discussing his desire to write a book that somehow involved our relationship once he finished Gone with the Mind. I can remember evenings (I’m sure over drinks, at a bar) where we would roughly go over his initial ideas about how he was planning to structure this book. Truthfully, there was no way I could have possibly anticipated what this novel was ultimately going to become. Somehow the very fabric of this book, it’s materiality, is made up of me and my dad—all of these anecdotes, jokes, and nicknames we’ve produced became central to this story—our story. Our cherished improvisations became a boundless gift that is Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit.   

There really are few things I love more than hanging out with my dad. Whether we’re conversing at a bar, watching Fassbinder movies, listening to Hall & Oates, or watching mukbang videos on YouTube. Constantly pausing and rewinding what we’re watching, while we endlessly go off on tangents, analyzing, re-contextualizing, laughing until we’re wheezing.   

Reading Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit was a profoundly sublime experience for me, that involved tears pouring down my face and uproarious laughter. I was utterly in awe. To have a book that my dad and I call ours is an incredibly sacred thing to me. It’s still a little strange that I have to share it with other readers! This deeply moving, hilarious, and exhilarating piece of literature my dad created for the two of us is now immortalized.  

PK [Back with Mark Leyner] Do you find writing these days in this climate more daunting than the past?

ML So, this question about whether it’s especially nerve-wracking to write these days, whether there’s a heightened anxiety about reception and taboos, is an extremely interesting question. But I can give you an extremely simple, uninteresting answer, which is no, I’m not anxious about any of this in the least. And the reason has to do with my way or working, my modus operandi, which I’ve stubbornly maintained all these decades and decades! I’m a hardcore materialist, a hardcore bricoleur, a hardcore miscellany-ist (if there’s such a word). I’ll never forget seeing Robert Rauschenberg’s combine “Monogram” for the first time—the goat and the automobile tire—and thinking, there are so many beautiful things going on there!  Rauschenberg said, “You begin with the possibilities of the material.” That really resonated for me. As did Alexander Rodchenko’s great statement, “Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades.” So, when I’m in the midst of my work, it’s just me and the material. The comrades. I’m not thinking of anything else.  

This reminds me of the first time—as a boy—that I saw that famous Hans Namuth film of Jackson Pollack painting. That had a big effect on me too. Sometimes I put scraps of paper and index cards with sentences on the floor and walk around them and move them around and shuffle them. It’s a very physical process to me, very kinesthetic. I much prefer writing by hand to typing. Scrawling notes in this tiny script legible only to myself, and also this large, childish print on big pieces of empty white paper—my big-character posters! I never really have a sense of myself ever sitting at a keyboard—in that way we typically picture a writer at work—thinking and then transcribing my thoughts, my psychic states. It feels much more to me like an accumulation of scavenged material. It’s this material (this flotsam and jetsam) that I’m constantly, spontaneously, almost involuntarily generating myself. But it’s the material, the material. It’s this thick impasto, this layered palimpsest. And the time is crucial. Because it’s got to accumulate and mutate. Now it’s bringing to mind Dubuffet’s “haute pâtes” paintings which used to slide off the support or Martin Margiela’s colored-ice jewelry which would melt and stain the clothes.   

So, there’s the material. And at some point—and this is the crucial moment—the “singularity” occurs and the material achieves its own subjectivity, its own agentic autonomy. It goes from being a comrade to being my guru—the book is basically teaching me what to do. Then, the material takes over completely. It’s like I’m a mathematician, and the equations all fly off the blackboard, and these swarms of numbers are chasing me around the room. I’m aspirating numbers. I’m impaled by vectors. It’s this long, drawn-out struggle. Or better—I’m a lion tamer who’s barely in control of his lions. This is the wild struggle for me of making a book. And the last thing on my mind is its reception! This is the most intense engagement with the world that I ever have, this tantric engagement with this material while I’m working. So, everything that follows that experience feels a bit trivial in comparison. But honestly, I feel lucky to get out alive. My experience of working on a book—it’s all like the last days of Siegfried & Roy! So, I’m underground with these swarming integers, with these deranged lions, and I’ve been working very, very, very hard to make something that’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before… and finally I emerge and, squinting in the sunlight, I hand you this book. Once you take it from me—and I mean this in the most genuinely friendly and generous way—I don’t give a fuck. Growing up, I was this very small, sort of Proustian, introspective, contemplative boy who got picked on in that Lord of the Flies way that boys pick on each other, so I learned to become tough and crazy like Little Nicky Scarfo, the great Philadelphia mob boss—so I’m not easily shaken up. And recklessness—a particularly flamboyant recklessness—is such a key ethos of mine. There’s obviously a version of I-don’t-give-a-fuck that I think is essential and exhilarating, that’s good for people, that opens people up to different worlds, to a multiplicity of universes. C’mon, do you want to be a vibrating strand of energy oscillating in eleven dimensions or not?  

So, circling back to this notion of anxiety about reception…  

No one can possibly hate this book as much as I’ve hated it at times. Or love it as much. That’s the daily rollercoaster you’re on. You know what that feels like, right? By the time I’ve finished something, I think I can anticipate every possible reaction to it (and every possible exegetical response) because I’ve had that reaction myself. Nothing’s going to surprise me. Having said all that, there’s one crucial thing here that’s absolutely paramount. This is, when all’s said and done, about pleasure. This is a joy ride, with occasional detours down into the underworld, but a joy ride nonetheless. I want you to have a great time.  

I want you to emerge from one of my books sweaty and happy.  

PK What would your mood board for this book look like? Even in this interview you refer to so many things, and a great pleasure in reading you is hunting and pecking through your various eclectic references and name drops.  

ML I think you’ve hit upon something brilliant here! A brilliant critical insight! My books are more mood boards than actual novels!  

I’d say: photos of me and Gaby, various sorts of booze, Meet Me in St. Louis, regular bars, karaoke bars, Virginia Woolf, Lizzie McGuire, Higglytown Heroes, Elizabeth Taylor, Jefferson Airplane, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds, supermodels, mukbang videos, Jo Malone, Momofuku, Amelia Bedelia, Below Deck, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Hall & Oates’s “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen,” the rudra veena music of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, death metal, anything related to Gene Tierney—Leave Her to Heaven, Laura, etc., all Ozu, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us, I Saw the Devil, Human Centipede, Gun Woman, the manga and anime Dorohedoro, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Luther Price, Isa Genzken, Rachel Harrison, Larry Poons, UFOs, Filipino knife fighting, Jerry Lewis, Shining Path, Meyer Lanksy, pineapple Danish and potato salad, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Raymond Roussel, Tristan Tzara, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, Elizabeth Grosz’s The Incorporeal, Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, Breanne Fahs’s biography of Valerie Solanas, etc., etc.     

PK You and I also share yet another thing in common: an obsession with K-pop. What do you love about it? What are your other pop fascinations? And why, like me, do you also have such an appetite for pop culture?  

ML First of all, I’m crazy about K-pop—Blackpink, BTS, TVXQ, Big Band, Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation—because to me it’s the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk. If a spaceship traveled lightyears across the universe and discovered some utopian super-intelligent planet, K-pop would be its culture. It includes everything at once—chivalric romance, polymorphic perversity, heaven, hell, ancient tropes, sci fi tropes.  

It’s eroticism as ontology. (I have NO idea what that means, actually. But it sounds absolutely correct.) And that neon, candy-colored palette they use in the videos is to die for, right?   

I was the beneficiary of a remarkable, phantasmagoric childhood growing up in Jersey City when I was a little boy, a childhood that, from the outside, would look perfectly mundane and unexceptional. There’s a line I love from a Hölderlin poem called “In my boyhood days…” It’s the last line: “I grew up in the arms of the gods.” That’s how I feel about Jersey City back in the late ’50s, early ’60s. And for whatever reason it instilled in me a completely omnivorous and osmotic interest in the world I encountered. I loved crawling on my hands and knees watching ants on the sidewalk, wandering around in department stores, in hardware stores, pharmacies, staring out the windows of buses and from the backseats of cars. In terms of my engagement, there was never the slightest distinction in my mind between a Popeye cartoon and a sunset or a landscape. You know, between pop culture and “nature.” Nor between high and low culture. I’ve just always had this wide-eyed, open-mouthed, promiscuous interest in everything. It had nothing to do—certainly not back then—with any notion of the commensurability or conjunction of high and low culture, of working in the gap, in the interstice between the two, of otaku culture, etc. It was just my innate predisposition. It was just my way of leaping into piles of leaves.  

At the same time, I first discovered Keats and Shelley; I was completely obsessed with Days of Our Lives. It’s always seemed absolutely compatible to me. I’m perfectly comfortable sitting there watching Ice Road Truckers while reading Nerval’s sonnets. You should try it! Ice Road Truckers and Nerval have a very intensified synergistic effect when consumed together!  

It also occurs to me that “pop culture” may be a more all-inclusive, subsuming category than we tend to think. Pop culture may subtend all cultures. High canonical culture may be a subset of pop culture. Science and religion may be subsets of pop culture. The entire dispositif may be a pop culture. But that’s a conversation for another time.  

PK Since we are doing this during a pretty historic week (coup, impeachment, inauguration): what is going on with America?! How much does this factor into your mindset as a writer?

ML Every couple of months, the flasher’s trench coat is flung open and there it is. There’s the white nationalism, the settler colonialism, the capitalist nihilism and depravity. And everyone’s aghast with this “that’s not who we are” bullshit. This is exactly who we are. Exactly what this country is and has been since its inception. Porochista, you’ve said all this much more eloquently than I ever could. It’s the whole crackling subtext of your book, Brown Album. Everyone should read that book. And read James Baldwin about all this, about who we really are. Watch some videos of Fred Hampton. You want to know what’s going on in America, read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Read Nick Estes’s remarkable Our History Is the Future.  

PK I often think of that very famous interview with you and David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, all very young, on “Charlie Rose.” Wallace is obviously dead now and Franzen, well, in a way he has had a different sort of death, and then there is you, consistent as ever. A survivor, perhaps! At least of a certain literary Brat Pack kind of era. What is your secret?  

ML You know, the thing I remember most vividly from that whole Charlie Rose experience was, first of all, how nervous Wallace and Franzen were. I could be wrong, but I think this might have been their first experience on television. It’s about forty-five minutes or so before we’re supposed to tape the show, and I’m reassuring them that it wasn’t going to be so bad. (At this point, I’d already been on some shows with big studio audiences, and, believe me that’s nerve-wracking!) But Wallace seemed particularly fritzed, and I suggested we go downstairs and have a cigarette outside. So, we go down and we’re out there in front of this building somewhere in midtown Manhattan, smoking, and after a couple of minutes, Wallace looks at me and apologizes for calling me the anti-Christ of American literature (in some essay or another). He claims it was taken out of context (which, by the way, seemed kind of hilariously implausible to me). I told him that I enjoyed being called the anti-Christ of American literature, not to worry about it, and keep it up.  

The three of us was a grouping that some Charlie Rose producer found somehow representative, but was completely arbitrary. I didn’t feel any more artistic affinity with these dudes back then than I did with, say, Jay McInerney, Bret Ellis, and Tama Janowitz, y’know? Nothing at all against any of these people, it’s just that I’ve never felt part of any literary tendency or movement in any way, shape, or form. In terms of my sensibilities, the people I probably felt closest to, back in my early days—and this really is ancient history, back in the ’80s—were probably Kathy Acker and the whole Between C&D scene. But even with that, I’m just not a hive-minded or particularly gregarious sort of person.  

I never thought of this as a “career” or of other writers as “colleagues” really. This is just my way of life. It’s just me trying to figure out what the world is trying to tell me. It’s a practice, my sadhana. And I’m a solo act, a solitary predator. Excuse the gory analogy—I watch way too much on the Nat Geo channel!—but I’m just a leopard being a leopard, hunting on my own, dragging my prey up the tree, and eating it by myself.  

In folkloric terms, I never wanted to live in the citadel; I wanted to be the bandit who lived out in the forest. That was my romantic notion of what an artist was from the time I was a little kid. This has always been my own private folktale that I’ve inhabited. And it still is. It’s always been my intention to just relentlessly continue doing my thing, completely, stubbornly on my own, self-protectively indifferent and aloof from what anyone else was doing—and this sounds sort of pugnacious, but, more than anything, it just suits my shyness—to just keep doing my thing until I drop dead. So here we are!     

One last weird thing on this note: the more isolated, marginalized, and cornered I feel, the more exuberant my work is. Figure that out.  

Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit is available for purchase here.

Porochista Khakpour is the author of Songs and Other Flammable Objects, The Last Illusion, Sick, and Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity.

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