Reviews — From the April 2016 issue

Disappearing Act

Mark Leyner’s self-consuming fictions

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Discussed in this essay:

Gone with the Mind, by Mark Leyner. Little, Brown. 256 pages. $25.

Gone with the Mind, Mark Leyner’s seventh book of fiction, might seem like a high-spirited satiric romp if you haven’t read the other six. It is the transcript of a fictitious reading delivered by a fictitious writer named Mark Leyner as part of the Non-fiction at the Food Court Reading Series at the Woodcreek Plaza Mall. Mark, who has come to the mall to read excerpts from his new memoir, also entitled “Gone with the Mind,” is introduced by his mother. Her introduction is forty pages long; it commences with her description of the crippling morning sickness she suffered when Mark was in utero. The number of people in attendance at the reading, it is important to note, is zero; two workers, from Sbarro and Panda Express, are technically seated in the food court, but they are on break, and they resist all attempts by Leyner mère and fils to get them to look up from their phones and pretend to be a legit audience.

Mark means to preface his reading with a few remarks about the genesis of “Gone with the Mind”; it becomes clear after a while that the reading proper is probably never going to begin — that Mark, standing atop a plastic table in order to be better seen and heard (at least in theory), will do pretty much anything to keep the meta-narcissistic experience of talking about writing about himself from coming to an end. (His mother, the only one listening, reassures him periodically that he’s doing great and that she could listen to him indefinitely.) “Just a little background before I get started,” he says:

Gone with the Mind was originally going to be an autobiography in the form of a first-person shooter/flight-simulator game. . . . The, uh . . . the 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 having to eternally repeat this life.

Though the novel we’re reading does, in a very loose fashion, describe how the “Gone with the Mind” project morphed from this idea — with the collaboration, Mark insists, of a key, hallucinatory figure known as the Imaginary Intern — into the memoir from which he is nominally about to read, it has little resemblance, and even less aspiration, to what might conventionally be called a story. Mark makes plenty clear his revulsion toward any “rigid chronology of pivotal incidents,” at one point advocating the replacement of “incumbent imperial narratives” with a new artistic medium based entirely on smell. What we get in lieu of such a chronology is a long, associative series of memories, digressions, and musings, some about Mark’s own life (mostly identical to that of his author, from the Jersey City childhood to the actual name of the Manhattan doctor who performed his robotic prostatectomy) and others on subjects ranging from Mussolini to a proposed reality-TV show about self-endoscopy to a recent article in a scientific journal: “South Korean Microbiologist Discovers That Even Amoebae Fall into the Five Basic Archetypal Categories: Nerd, Bully, Hot, Dumpy, and New Kid.”

Illustration by André Carrilho

Illustration by André Carrilho

The word “riff” sometimes seems pejorative in a literary context, but it’s hard to avoid here — not for reasons having to do with jazzlike improvisational skill, but simply because Leyner is very funny. While anecdotal experience in getting people to agree with me on this point suggests a certain gender divide, I will assert nevertheless that he’s as funny as any writer I could name. His frame of reference, within the space of a paragraph, or even a sentence, is dizzying. (He was once called “the poet laureate of information overload.”) He gets a great deal of mileage out of the names of things. Sometimes it’s a familiar high-low move, as when he refers in passing to “a group of experts” consisting of Alan Greenspan, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and “controversial Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Giancarlo Capella.” More often, though, it’s his specificity with obscure common nouns, and his establishment of a Buster Keaton–style deadpan through his fastidious verbal exactitude. Most writers would have stopped this sentence eleven words sooner:

And I tend to believe that this inclination to look back on one’s life and superimpose a teleological narrative of cause and effect is probably itself a symptom of incipient dementia, caused by some prion disease or the clumping of beta-amyloid plaques.

Or spot the Leyneresque word near the end of this sentence about the Imaginary Intern:

Life’s a harrowing fucking slog — we’re driven by irrational, atavistic impulses into an unfathomable void of quantum indeterminacy — but, still . . . it’s nice to have a friend, a comrade, a paracosm, whatever, to share things with.

He is, to pick the kind of arcane cultural referent he might enjoy, the Alexander Popov of comic fiction: not renowned for endurance but unbeatable in a sprint. “If it weren’t for Internet porn,” he apologizes to his “audience” at one point, “I’m sure we would have finished Gone with the Mind a lot sooner. If it weren’t for Internet porn, there’d be a cure for cancer, there’d be human photosynthesis, levitation, time travel, everything.”

In the aggregate, Gone with the Mind’s uninterrupted associative riffing resembles narration, or even stand-up comedy, much less than it does psychotherapy. Mark has been prompted — it scarcely matters how — to start talking about how he came to be the fifty-eight-year-old son, husband, father, and writer he is today; as with any venture into talk therapy, maybe something comes of it, maybe not. The mountainous exercise in narcissism that is this “reading” is of course dramatically undercut by the fact that no one is listening, that no one (with the exception of Mark’s mother) cares, and that it requires a heroic effort of magical thinking on Mark’s part to keep this awareness of his own insignificance at bay. It also requires that he not stop talking. Gone with the Mind is a triumph of the will: it’s as funny as Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot, and as horrifying. Mark has to work really, really hard — tragically hard — to maintain the fiction not simply that he is a public figure but that he exists at all. You get the sense that if his mother weren’t there, he would disappear.

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is the author of A Thousand Pardons (Random House) and other books. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Residence on Earth,” appeared in the October 2015 issue.

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