In an interview with The Paris Review, Mark Leyner, author of such postmodern classics as Et Tu, Babe?, said, “I think there has to be some kind of crisis before I really feel there’s a book I should write.” In his new book, the fictional autobiography Gone with the Mind (Little, Brown and Company, 250 pages), Leyner shows us that his biggest crisis is his own life.
Gone with the Mind is an existential, experimental autobiography that covers, with broad absurd strokes, the course of Leyner’s life up to the present. The story begins at a food court, somewhere between Sbarro and Panda Express, where Leyner and his mother, Muriel, are holding a reading for Gone with the Mind. The only attendees, besides Leyner’s mother, are some food court employees on break, who are referred to every now and then throughout the novel. We never make it to the reading, however. Instead, we are given a lengthy introduction by Leyner’s mother (in which she gives us the story of her difficult pregnancy and its culmination in Mark, showing us the sort of household Mark grew up in), followed by a lengthier speech by Leyner, then a Q&A session that has neither questions nor answers.
Leyner’s speech is a long, winding stream of consciousness that begins with how he had initially conceived of his autobiography as a first-person-shooter video game. His narrative weaves in and out of childhood stories and metaphysical treatises on subjects like religion and masturbation. He introduces us to his muse, the Imaginary Intern, who appeared to him on the tile of a bathroom floor and helped him to write this autobiography. Amid these ludicrous vignettes, he talks about the traumas in his life, like his battle with prostate cancer and his complicated relationship with his father.
Stylistically, Gone With the Mind is exhilarating. The narrative is self-referential to the end, looping around to prove earlier points or expand on a memory. Leyner’s digressions in his pre-reading speech are always entertaining, even when it seems like they’ve drifted too far. In one story, Leyner describes his experience in a poetry workshop at Brandeis University. Anxious about being not only a new student but a new writer, his reaction to his classmates’ self-righteousness is to write a violent and irreverent poem meant to annoy them. But his professor “got it” and is so excited about the depth and understanding in the poem that he invites Leyner to his office where they touch on Leyner’s misanthropy and his family pain. Just as this story (and others like it) gets tender and reels back to gut-punch us with emotion, Leyner defuses the blow with a diatribe on semiotics or his obsession with dictators.
Though it’s this technique that perhaps keeps the story from getting stale, some may find the humorous, perennially wandering narrative exhausting, like keeping up with a high speed chase through Leyner’s innermost psyche. But it’s this method of peppering the autobiographical details with funny musings (and vice versa) that prevent us from getting too confused or too frustrated with Leyner. We can forgive his upbringing, his academic language, his highbrow leanings, because he undercuts his musing with a painfully awkward story from his childhood. At the same time, he elevates his material from the ironic, from indulgent cynicism, with passages showing us his mind is made up of more than just poop jokes and sexual innuendo.
What’s particularly curious about Gone With the Mind is how Leyner seems to be reticent about certain parts or people in his life, such as his wife, who tended to him during his cancer treatment (the only image we get of her), or his daughter, whom he briefly mentions and only appears in the book to take part in his elaborate jokes. It’s as if he is afraid we wouldn’t understand. Or maybe it’s that he doesn’t want us to think of him as we do of other writers, the type that see themselves as martyrs, as visionaries who are able to, as Leyner says, use their “mind’s eyeball” to see into the past and pinpoint the exact moment they became an artist. Whatever the case may be, behind Leyner’s self-deprecation and deflective humor, we see hints of sincerity shining through.
At one point, Leyner shares his thoughts on reality television and how the ultimate reality show would be people watching fMRI’s of their cingulate cortexes. He writes, “it’s watching your own mind watch itself (which is another way of describing autobiography, I suppose).” This line captures the book essence. Gone with the Mind isn’t an autobiography. It’s a screen on which we can watch Mark Leyner watch himself as he dissects his life story into key plot points, analyzing the way he analyzes himself. Despite the lengthiness of the diatribes, the labyrinthine format, and the seemingly endless barrage of quotes from the Imaginary Intern, it’s this that makes Gone with the Mind one of the most refreshing pieces of psychoanalytic fiction we’ve come across.