Gone With the Mind
By Mark Leyner
250 pages, $25
By Ed Taylor
I want to have, or at least co-parent, Mark Leyner’s baby – just as a sign of devotion. We could pick out stuff for it together, and have endless kicked-back chats on the futon in our Jersey City loft, sharing our hopes and dreams and fears. We could josh and kid, debate possible names – Josh might be a good one, or Kidd. I am besotted at the moment because Leyner’s unruly “novel,” “Gone With the Mind,” is fearless, hilarious, charming and brilliant, and that’s just way sexy.
Aesthetically radical, but poignantly human – in the way the best stand-up comedy is – it is as much about ways of knowing and about ways of making sense at an existential level of this mad rafting trip called life (through which we alternately lazily drift trailing hands in water and shoot rapids with white knuckles) as it is about language and the uses to which it can be put to help in that sense-making.
Leyner’s “novel” is cast as nonfiction, an “autobiography,” and is both and neither. It doesn’t matter what it is. Labeling is for the marketing people. It’s wholly provocative, confrontational, unsettling and insightfully funny.
And smart. Did I mention smart? This is the voice of an OG polymath spitting epistemology, Japanese otaku culture, post-humanism, manga, zoology, Hollywood, post-structuralism, brutalist architecture, media studies, sports trivia, lexicography, 1,000 years of literature and a million other things like Kendrick Lamar, but all for a purpose and seamlessly and with total control: it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Leyner rose out of the experimental, post-modern fiction world into some version of the mainstream via story collections and novels including “I Smell Esther Williams,” “My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist,” “Et Tu, Babe,” “Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog,” “The Tetherballs of Bougainville” and “The Sugar Frosted Nutsack.” He also co-wrote the screenplay for the 2008 film “War, Inc.” and a series of popular nonfiction books (e.g., “Why Do Men Have Nipples? Hundreds of Questions You’d Only Ask Your Doctor After Your Third Martini”).
Just as Leyner’s influence can perhaps be seen in a number of contemporary fiction voices such as Gary Shteyngart, it’s possible if you squint and use your imagination to see Leyner’s work as a very American kind of tag-teaming continuation of Samuel Beckett’s existential absurdism and his belief in both the insufficiency and necessity of language; of continuing to speak, and Beckett’s humor and the poetry of his style. Both are voices out of darkness, disembodied, responding to the absurdities, both existential and those less challenging, of life – behold Donald Trump, on the same list of Republican presidential nominees as Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt – and one response is hysterical laughter.
Because voice is so personal it’s all about that voice, as much as any major writer, the high-wire act of saying: just listen, ride this voice wherever it goes and trust that it’ll go somewhere good. Leyner can be loved or hated – or hit or miss. I personally am with him all the way in “Gone With the Mind.”
It’s silly to attempt to “review” this “novel” in any conventional way – for what it’s worth, here’s a synopsis: There are three parts, all taking place in the food court and a bathroom at a shopping mall in Jersey City, N.J.
Part 1, “Introduction: Mark’s Mother,” begins thus. “Hello, my name is Muriel Leyner, and I’m coordinating director of the Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series here at the Woodcreek Plaza Mall. This series has been made possible by the generosity of the International Council of Shopping Centers and Douthat & Associates Properties.”
“Mark’s mother” is the mother of the main character, Mark Leyner. She proceeds for 42 pages to introduce Mark and his memoir “Gone With the Mind.” In “Part 2, Reading: Mark,” Leyner then proceeds to respond to what his mother just said, his life with her, his life, and what’s he’s about to read, for 170 pages, until “Part 3: Q&A,” which consists of Mark and his mother’s colloquy wedged into a single bathroom stall, on their hands and knees.
The “reading” begins with “Mark” climbing onto a food court table and saying: “Before I start I’d like to say: (bleep) everyone who said I was too paradoxical a hybrid of arrogant narcissism and vulnerable naivete to succeed in life (even though they were right). Also, I’d like to dedicate this to all the nematodes and hyperthermophilic bacteria who live in deep-water sulfide chimneys around the world. Good days are coming, boys.”
The audience for the reading is a Sbarro employee and a Panda Express worker, both on break, who pay no attention and are adamant about not being there for the reading.
There is no reading – there is “Mark” talking from his tabletop, creating “Gone With the Mind” as he talks, out of the “uncanny transtemporal ballistics of the mind’s eyeballs,” which is “one of the things we (my mother and I) mean by ‘Gone With the Mind.’ ”
Mark starts things off saying “‘Gone With the Mind’ was originally going to be a first person shooter/flight simulator game … the, uh, goal of the game is to successfully reach my mother’s womb, in which I attempt to unravel or unzip my father’s and mother’s DNA in the zygote, which will free me of eternally having to repeat this life. And I’m ferried from event to event by Benito Mussolini, who pilots a flying balcony. And ...” Got it? Doesn’t matter. Just strap yourself in.
This “novel” is a long soliloquy (as its three-act form and script-like format might imply), with the audience varying from the external setting to the speaker’s self to readers, to everyone everywhere and all the extremophile creatures in the abyssal fissures and sulfurous fumaroles of Planet Earth.
And this voice is one of the most humane, charming, wise, surprising, spit-take funny and entertaining in fiction today. Listen up.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo critic and the author of the novel “Theo.”