This book is nuts and I won’t sugarcoat it for you. Don’t let the obviously perfect and attractive title fool you: this is a totally bonkers, post-modern wankfest to the nth degree. But it is also science-fantasy about gods messing around with humans, so I had to read it. Online ratings nicely gravitate to the extremes of ones and fives. Let’s give it a fair shot. Let’s give it an honest shot, without preconceptions.
My first impression is that this is a rambling shaggy-dog story about complete nonsense, the highest-density military grade bullshit that I’ve ever read, but written by someone who is obviously very intelligent, with a great command of language, a huge ready memory of pop culture, and who loves to make strange lateral jumps from one association to the other to maximise absurdity. And that someone uses a postmodern literary style, with a clear aesthetic of “more is more”, to talk about fantasy images and poop and sex jokes and finally to deconstruct the entire idea of what a novel even is and what acceptable forms it should take.
The story begins 14 billion years ago with the arrival of the Gods into our universe. I feel so overwhelmed by the flash flood of silly little details and asides that I can’t decide what to say about it next. Leyner introduces these idiots with all their nicknames and schisms and gives us a history of why Gods like having sex with humans so much. Leyner obviously has great powers of the imagination and a sense of humor that screams that you shouldn’t take any of this seriously, but just lay back and either let him take the wheel and enjoy the absurdism or step out and search for another novel. It’s perfect if you enjoy that sense of what the fuck am I reading?
I’d better give some samples. So the Gods appear in our universe in a Mister Softee ice cream van after they had their own version of Spring Break:
“The first God to emerge, momentarily, from the bus was called El Brazo (“The Arm”). Also known as Das Unheimlichste des Unheimlichen (“The Strangest of the Strange”), he was bare-chested and wore white/Columbia-blue polyester dazzle basketball shorts. He would soon be worshipped as the God of Virility, the God of Urology, the God of Pornography, etc. El Brazo leaned out of the bus and struck a contrapposto pose, his head turned away from the torso, an image endlessly reproduced in paintings, sculptures, temple carvings, coins, maritime flags, postage stamps, movie studio logos, souvenir snow globes, take-out coffee cups, playing cards, cigarette packs, condom wrappers, etc. His pomaded hair swept back into a frothy nape of curls like the wake of a speedboat, he reconnoitred the void with an impassive, take-it-or-leave-it gaze, then scowled dyspeptically, immediately turned around, and returned to the bus, where he sullenly ensconced himself, along with the rest of the Gods, for another 1.6 million years.”
“There was once a birthday party for the God of Money, Doc Hickory, who was also known as El Mas Gordo (“The Fattest One”). Exhausted from feasting, El Mas Gordo fell asleep on his stomach across his bed. Lady Rukia (the Goddess of Scrabble, Jellied Candies, and Harness Racing), who’d been lusting after El Mas Gordo the entire night, crept stealthily into his bedroom, rubbed a squeaking balloon across the bosom of her cashmere sweater, and then waved it back and forth over his hairy back. The way the static electricity reconfigured the hair on his back would become the template for the drift of continental landmasses on earth. ”
The story really starts when all the Gods start to obsess over a random human named Ike Karton from New Jersey. An epic poem is constructed of Ike’s life that is endless recited and added upon and eventually received many titles, one of which is The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, which is also this novel. And so, a story about a human torn between opposing groups of Gods, making it a satire of Homer’s Odyssey if you really squeeze your eyes. But the God XOXO, known for his bad poetry and mindfuckery, intervenes in the telling of the epic with gratuitous additions, in effect making the author apologise in advance for the more puerile sentences. Every new recital of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack traditionally has to include every new cough, sniffle and meta-commentary that was added in the previous recital, and since this book explains the epic to us, it in turn becomes (part of) The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. So, the novel is giving commentary on itself, including on its previous chapters and typeface choices, and so The Sugar Frosted Nutsack endlessly swells in a recursive manner. In fact, this review commenting on the novel is now also part of it and needs to be added to the next recital. After a few thousand years, most of the content of the epic is commentary on the epic, with only a tiny part being actually the story of Ike.
It also lampoons journalism and high-brow discourse, in the way various intellectual movements are parodied and the jargon they use and invent. The novel constantly poses new theories about Ike Karton’s epic – endless theorising and analysis over a ridiculously short and nonsensical piece of “mythology”. The “mania of experts to find hidden and farfetched links and correlations.”
The first 30 pages of the novel, about the arrival of the Gods, is quite different from when the story about the epic really starts, but it is later explained how that first chapter became the Genesis chapter in the epic when Ike Karton, probably high on drugs, related it to his grandson and was subsequently added to the body, so that’s why it is the first thing that we read in the novel. The novel is constantly giving meta-commentary on itself in a way that is quite inventive. A bit similar to the way William Goldman framed The Princess Bride (1973) (as written by S. Morgenstern). And random details about Ike Karton’s life, or just random observations by Leyner, gel together into a life story about Karton, so it isn’t all that random in the end. There is a layer of control and meticulous insertions in the text that at first glance merely feels like rambling. I’m constantly reading things that make me think: “hey, he referred to that a few chapters ago in some random bit.”
“In Season Seventeen, a protracted battle begins between El Brazo and Mogul Magoo over who owns the rights to T.S.F.N. Mogul Magoo (who was originally the God of Bubbles) had asserted himself as God of the Nutsack. He’d dutifully submitted his boilerplate rationale: Anything Enveloping Something Else. Just as a bubble is a globule of water that contains air, the scrotum is a pouch of skin and muscle that contains the testicles. Ergo, it’s perfectly logical and reasonable to conclude it falls within his purview. Thus, he reasoned, he owns exclusive worldwide rights (including all derivative works) to T.S.F.N. This completely infuriated El Brazo, also known as Das Unheimlichste des Unheimlichen (“The Strangest of the Strange”), who, as the God of Urology and the God of Pornography, considered the nutsack his inviolable domain and thus claimed ownership of exclusive worldwide rights (including all derivative works) to T.S.F.N. The antipathy that developed between these two Gods (and, subsequently, between Magoo and the Goddess La Felina) would have significant consequences. El Brazo threatened Magoo and his cohorts with liquidation in a “Night of the Long Knives.” In response, Magoo beefed up his posse of “Pistoleras”—the divine, ax-wielding mercenary vixens who are total fitness freaks with rock-hard bodies, each of whom has a venomous black mamba snake growing out of the back of her head, which she pulls through the size-adjustment cutout on the back of her baseball cap. Neither of them could care less about the literal or the allegorical and mystical implications of the epic, or that many fashion critics are saying “Finally, a drug-induced epic that celebrates real women’s contours and silhouettes.” This is just a heavyweight dick-swinging contest between two Gods.”
Ike Karton’s epic has so many odd, idiosyncratic moments that if you were to just lay them down without comment before the audience it would be a strange, nonsensical piece of writing. But through the repeated commentary on the epic, Leyner uses repetition to create familiarity with its details. And so, in effect, recreates the making of mythology. Scenes become recognisable scenes, laden with a feeling of meaning, as if they are the end result of hundreds of years of oral tradition and learned study, and the effect even works with a story that is practically meaningless. Leyner gradually adds more detail, causing the Nutsack to swell.
“Adults and children alike would be familiar enough with the plot to already know (before the bards even opened their mouths to deliver the first words “There was never nothing ” ) that the saga of Ike begins with him making a lewd mandala of Italian breadcrumbs for the Goddess La Felina and then engaging in an extended adagio with the waitress at the Miss America Diner and writing his narcocorrido “That’s Me (Ike’s Song)”
Chapters keep twisting themselves inside out. One chapter starts with a general impression of what it is like to listen to a recital of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, then moves to an interview with one of the attendees, who then recites from memory some parts of the epic, but since the commentary on the epic has become part of it, that commentary is also part of what attendee recites. Every new paragraph destabilises what came before and creates the novel anew. The attendee then becomes one of the new bards, and holds a Q and A session, which then in turn also becomes part of the epic. And the questions are about why the epic is so weird and gross, which are questions that we as readers are also asking ourselves.
There is this layer underneath all of it that says: isn’t it weird how Ike Karton was hit by a Mister Softee ice cream van and then started to hear his own life getting narrated by these Gods? Isn’t it weird how these Gods have the same sexual interests as Ike and how the bards have fetishised Ike’s tastes so that they seem representations of him? The book gives us a list of possible explanations early on. You can’t point down anything about this slippery novel as it keeps acknowledging its own strangeness. If an epic is self-aware that it is an epic, are its gods real? But what if the gods are messing around with their epic, doesn’t that mean that they exist externally of it? Leyner acknowledges in an interview that the book is in part about living in a solitary world constructed of your own thoughts, and Ike’s worldview is exactly that. He is living through a personal vision of reality.
I kind of loved it. I loved the constant invention, the weird imagery, and lines like “fate is like the ultimate pre-existing condition”. It pumped me full of energy after Asimov had sucked it all out. But thank XOXO that it is only 250 pages.