Virtually every page of Mark Leyner‘s book made me want to reach out and strangle the insufferably pretentious protagonist: a compulsion that sat awkwardly beside the way in which the author of the book has intentionally conflated himself with the central character (nested several times), even imbuing him with his own name. The Tetherballs of Bougainville is an absurdist collection of miscellanea. It cannot really be called satire because it doesn’t have enough direction to constitute a criticism. If anything, it both glorifies and mildly rebukes the emotional shallowness and obsessive character of society, as perceived by Leyner himself. The book can be funny, when one is in the right frame of mind, but it most frequently struck me in the way Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas did the few times when it came across as crass and monstrous, rather than comic and off-the-wall.
The self-referential plot betrays the abject narcissism of the protagonist. In the opening section, a straightforward narrative of his father’s unsuccessful execution is presented. The second section consists of a screenplay written for a contest mentioned in the first. Again, author/protagonist Leyner is at the centre of the narrative. The same is true for the extended review of a fictional movie read by the Leyner character in the screenplay. The non-existent film is described at great detail, and also features Leyner as the protagonist. Screenplay Leyner, reviewing the non-existing Leyner-starring film judges it as “a movie that consistently subordinates meaning to titillation. And it is a movie that perpetually teeters between puerile perversity and puerile sentimentality.” It seems that author Leyner was hoping to achieve something similar with the book as a whole.
In the end, this book feels like the product of a high school student trying way too hard to be clever: writing impossibly detailed (though not error-free) dialogue as a kind of intellectual fantasy fulfillment. Nobody has the real-life inability to expound upon minutiae so extravagantly and tirelessly. In that sense, the book reminded me of The Gilmore Girls: it had the same tendency to replicate the idealized conversations of ex-Ivy League screenwriters. Leyner’s work is dramatically more explicit and tries to be more disturbing – the most successful attempt being an anatomically ludicrous by nonetheless revulsion-producing scene involving a woman without a cranium – but it has that same feeling of over-eager whiz-kiddery behind it.