The Tetherballs of Bougainville

2008-04-02

in Books and literature, Rants, Writing

Air conditioner fan

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.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan March 31, 2008 at 1:16 pm
Emily Horn April 2, 2008 at 3:35 pm

Interesting review!

Though, the book is very close to my heart; I consider it essential reading for when we start taking life too seriously.

I think all the points you make are valid. Though, I would argue that for me it comes off as less of a high-school student’s attempt, and more of a bored and imaginative obsessive-compulsive, educated, media-addict, who vomits up for us all the ridiculousness that we absorb unthinkingly in one quivering, at times tedious, non-linear mass of plot and character.

Thanks for reading it.

(Also, Your use of the term ‘whiz-kiddery’ is duly noted, and celebrated.)

Milan April 2, 2008 at 3:48 pm

Part of the reason the book annoyed me so much is because I know so many people who invest their time in developing specialist knowledge.

The idea that there is some strutting shirtless teenager, wearing tight leather pants and talking with an air of authority about all manner of obscure subjects, is understandably unnerving to those commited to acquiring knowledge.

So too the way in which knowledge about interesting and important things is indifferently combined with knowledge about trivial and superficial ones.

Milan April 2, 2008 at 3:49 pm

Your book for March – John Wiseman’s SAS Survival Handbook – is an excellent example of hard-won specialist knowledge.

We each need to pick one for the other to read in April…

Emily Horn April 2, 2008 at 3:59 pm

The idea that there is some strutting shirtless teenager, wearing tight leather pants and talking with an air of authority about all manner of obscure subjects, is understandably unnerving to those commited to acquiring knowledge.

I’m not sure exactly why that’s unnerving.. It’s more just an exercise in absurdity, and a kind of elbow jab to people who become far too absorbed in esoteric fact collecting.

Milan April 2, 2008 at 4:06 pm

Because people struggle for knowledge and it can be the basis of their livelihood and a fair bit of their identity.

On the one hand, the annoyance is a manifestation of one’s fear of being upstaged. On another, it is being offended about the presence of knowledge in the absence of ‘wisdom’ (mad scientist / cocky teenager syndrome).

All that being said, probably most of the knowledge described is of a trifling or blatantly incorrect or implausible variety.

Emily Horn April 2, 2008 at 4:20 pm

I experienced a sense of falling behind when reading the book, simply because the sheer amount of obscure references is overwhelming, and hard to keep up with.

But, I find it hard to feel threatened by the content of the book simply because it’s presented in this dead-pan, self-referential, condescending, and at the time cringingly self-aware manner that I think is really entertaining.

I think taking the book seriously is probably a mistake. Essentially, it is the work of an unfocused factophile who understands the humour in juxtoposition, poking at our attempts to be serious about all the silliness that post-modernism presents in earnest.

Attempting to draw anything more gravitous than that is likely to make you a little mad.

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