Foreword Momentum

Gone with the Mind BY Mark Leyner. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 256 pages. $25.

Mark Leyner is exhausting. Although often mentioned in the same breath as David Foster Wallace, with whom he appeared, along with Jonathan Franzen, on a classic 1996 episode of Charlie Rose, it is impossible to envision a Leynerian corollary to Infinite Jest that would be anything short of psychosis-inducing. Leyner’s books—recursive, often maddening, laden with an encyclopedic range of references, from the art-historical to the biochemical—are slim things, intended to accomplish niche seek-and-destroy missions before abruptly retiring.

It’s quite possible that Leyner exhausts himself, which would explain the gap between 1997’s Tetherballs of Bougainville and his lauded 2012 return to fiction, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, a saga about drunken, sex-crazed gods dwelling on the top floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Leyner’s latest book, an autobiographical novel titled Gone with the Mind, consists almost entirely of the transcript of the introductory remarks to a reading Leyner (the character) is giving at a suburban mall’s food court. It’s tough to imagine Leyner ever relaxing, but there’s something decidedly more low-key and less frenzied in this faux meta-memoir, which lacks some of the earlier works’ spastic, MTV-generation jump-cuts and constant eagerness to outweird itself. This novel’s purpose is twofold: to examine the abstractions of language (its powers and limitations) and the concrete personal pain of the body (specifically, the author’s recent struggle with prostate cancer). It proposes a way of sublimating trauma that is less talk therapy than speaking in tongues: a fumbling toward honest revelation through sputtering nonsense.

Leyner begins in a mode that demands patience. The first voice in Gone with the Mind belongs to Leyner’s mother, charged with introducing her son’s scheduled reading at a shopping mall. After tipping her hat to the event’s “indispensable sponsors” (Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Au Bon Pain, etc.), she rambles for nearly forty pages, offering a history of Mark’s upbringing in Jersey City (bris included) and of her own experiences with miscarriage, pregnancy-induced nausea, and anti-Semitism. The overall effect of the speech is soporific, though not unpleasant; a reader’s attention is likely to slacken and wander, the same way a son’s might during an overly long phone call home.It’s a feint, of course, because part 2, narrated by Leyner himself, returns us to relatively familiar territory, a torrent of language that is by turns obscene, hypereducated, and manic. Mark, properly introduced, is supposed to begin reading his recently published autobiography to a group of disgruntled fast-food employees on break. But instead he gives further introduction. It’s probably not a spoiler to reveal that this novel is all introduction, increasingly circular linguistic foreplay, an oversize frame surrounding a void. A looping exegesis, Gone with the Mind is the story of the writing of an autobiography that we never get to read, except via brief, teasingly absurd quotations.

That autobiography, we learn in the extended prefatory remarks, was written by Leyner in collaboration with an apparition he dubs the Imaginary Intern, a helpmate whose face he conjured from the patterns of a bathroom tile. Together, they plot, brainstorm, get high, waste time. The personal memoir they have in mind is never intended to be something so bland and predictable as a simple book. Leyner originally conceives of it as a “first-person shooter/flight-simulator game” in which the protagonist must “successfully reach my mother’s womb . . . [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.” Anything approaching convention is verboten, including “extended anecdotes or vignettes that had any ‘form’—we were always complaining about the ‘inanity of form’ because, to us, that smacked of ‘literature’ and of ‘novels,’ which we were both dead set against, I guess because of the unspeakable things that had happened to us in our lives.” Words, in Leyner’s laboratory for memoir-making, are a type of prison: ineffectual, frustrating, impotent little tools. Anything that can be easily expressed is probably not worth expressing. Leyner finds an unlikely model to aspire to in the cartoon character Popeye, who “had a very beautiful way of speaking, particularly of speaking to himself . . . this streaming, autobiographical play-by-play overlaid with all sorts of commentary and theorizing, this meta-mutter, the soliloquy of an electrolarynx, a sort of free-jazz didgeridoo solo.”

In the past, Leyner has attempted to re-invigorate the traditional traits of the novel with a variety of tactics: He incorporates swaths of screenplay and poetry into The Tetherballs of Bougainville, and indulges in stutter-like, crazy-making repetitions in The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. Leyner’s prose can be clever to a fault, jamming together left-field cultural references as if he’s scribbling in the world’s longest Mad Libs. Gone with the Mind is a quieter affair, daring you, at times, to be bored. It’s also more vulnerable than much of Leyner’s output: Here, the gap between the author’s biography and its fictional representation is narrower—particularly in its references to the artist’s prostatectomy following his cancer diagnosis (even his urologist, David Samadi of Lenox Hill Hospital, makes a cameo).

Leyner has appeared as a character in his previous novels, but he has never written about himself so baldly. The shadow of mortality looms large, and while he attempts to obscure death with the shifting veil of po-mo tricksterism (“Sometimes,” he notes, “stupidity is the only ‘way out’ for the mind”), there is also the sense that the old tricks alone aren’t quite enough. The novel is laced with signature Leynerisms—offhand references to possible assassination attempts in the mall food court, or to Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini riding a flying balcony—but Gone with the Mind’s melancholy puts something of a damper on the whizbang allusiveness and pop-culture pileups. It might be that linguistic and antinarrative gimmickry is no match for the baseline absurdity of the human body facing death.

Scott Indrisek is the editor in chief of Modern Painters magazine.