Author Interview | Mark Leyner: Gone With The Mind
Photo: Rene Johnston / Getty Images.
No one captures the chaotic pattern of thoughts on the page quite like Mark Leyner. His new fictional autobiography, Gone With The Mind, is a stream-of-consciousness tour de force of an aging author trying to find meaning in the nonsensical trajectory of life.
Set in a food court, the book begins with a lengthy and intimate introduction by Leyner’s mother. A “reading” follows, though Leyner never arrives at the narrative, instead detailing the process of writing the book with the help of an Imaginary Intern. (No matter, though, because the audience consists solely of Panda Express and Sbarro workers on break.) The book concludes with a Q&A between mother and son in a restroom.
Throughout, Leyner’s train of thought takes detours through armpit fetishes, internet porn, prostate cancer, a tarot reading, Jewish delicatessens, and funeral soundtrack selections. The book’s existential meanderings and random tangents may frustrate you to the point of wanting to throw it at the wall, but once you surrender to its insanity and minimalist structure, resonance will prevail.
Leyner is the author of three previous novels including The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. He also co-authored the humorous medical guides Why Do Men Have Nipples? and Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?
The 60-year-old writer spoke to Crave from his home in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Crave: Gone With The Mind reads like someone asked you to write a memoir but you gave them this book instead.
Mark Leyner: [Laughs] I love that.
It really feels like a “fuck you” to the publishing industry.
That’s a great characterization. That might be a characterization of my entire body of work. Before this book, if I referred to myself, it was almost in an inside-out version of myself, the opposite of revealing what I am. I always enforced this embargo on anything that was really autobiographical. It was probably to avoid a certain sentimentality that we associate with memoirs. At some point over the past couple of years, I realized, “Why do that anymore?” I’ve always rummaged around different worlds and used whatever I wanted in as disparate and miscellaneous a way as I could. I realized you can do the same thing with the stuff you hold inside your head about yourself. I also wanted to do something as different as possible from my last book, which didn’t include me in any way and was a challenging, aggressive kind of book conceptually, and in its vocabulary and structure.
How did you shape the narrative?
It has a very preconceived, careful structure that I came up with before I started, which was a reading. It was going to be an introduction, a reading, and a Q&A. I knew if I engaged my mom to contribute material that the introduction would become a phantasmagoric soliloquy of its own. That’s really what I wanted. The “reading” I give is a deferred reading. It never gets to the reading because I keep trying to introduce and contextualize the reading. And the Q&A is a real Q&A, but not what one would expect. I think of the book as having three very definite, legible containers, but within those containers, there’s this swirling vortex of gaseous substance.
The introduction by your mother reads in a totally different voice than the rest of the book. Was it a transcript of her speaking?
To some degree, yes. At one point, early on, I had this idea that maybe I could write an autobiography about things I can’t know anything about, like my life in utero or get a psychic who could tell me about my future. I goaded my mom into talking about what life was like when she was pregnant with me. It ends up being this wonderful, evocative portrait of what it’s like being a pregnant woman in Jersey City in 1955, and having very little to do with me. It’s about her, about the sociological milieu that she was in then. I did very little with what she said. I contextualized it. I fictionalized some of it to the extent that I needed to so that it appears to be an introduction at a reading. It was very collaborative and a lot of it is verbatim transcription.
I discovered a wonderful thing doing this book. If you ask a writer who their predecessors are, who influenced them, writers will name all kinds of people like Dante and Homer and Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. I discovered, working on this book, how much the way my mother speaks influenced the way I write. It was a wondrous, happy kind of discovery.
Is she proud of the book?
She appears to be. She seems very happy. It’s enabled us to have some wonderful times with each other. We recorded the audio book together. Audio books are kind of grueling to do. You’re doing a performance in a claustrophobic place. It was fantastic. She was so good. Later, we were sitting at a bar near MoMA and thinking, “Look at us. Look what we’ve done. We’re now characters in this book and we recorded it together.” It was a really beautiful moment that I hadn’t ever dreamed of having.
Is the Imaginary Intern character a part of your psyche? A part that wants to distract you from writing?
It’s a part of my psyche, but it’s a part that wants to collaborate with me. To become a writer of novels requires you to be by yourself. It’s an insular kind of life by necessity. I like that. I don’t think a hugely gregarious person would do this. On the other hand, because there’s that forced solitude, it’s made me very interested in collaborative work. I’m really interested in reading about fashion designers, because they’re with people constantly. I’m interested in film for the same reason. I think the invention of the Imaginary Intern is my way of giving myself a collaborator, of making a team.
You end the book with an apology in Japanese. Why?
I once went to a kabuki performance and before the performance even started, the performers came out on the stage and apologized for how insufficient their performance was going to be and I thought that was such an amazing thing.
Listening to or reading this book is an expenditure of time that you’ll never get back. As an artist or a writer, you really take part of a life of a person that that person can’t ever get back. It was an apology very much pregnant with gratitude for that.
Part of the apology at the end is also part of a kind of goodbye. I think there’s a valedictory feeling at the end of the book where I say goodbye to this mind, and in a way, say goodbye to fiction writing. I don’t know how literally a reader should take that. I can imagine that someone reading this book could feel at the end that I’ve decided not to write any more books. There’s such a sense of farewell at the end.
That is how it reads. This isn’t your last book, is it?
I don’t really think so. There are times when this book feels to me like a culmination in a way. Books have a very different position in our culture now than they did when I started. It seems to me they’re more marginal than they used to be. One could argue about that. But at the same time, I’ve never been more ecstatically devoted to doing it than I am now. It’s hard for me to imagine this being my last book, but if I were going to have a last book, this would be the one.
What would you do for the rest of your life if you weren’t writing?
Probably secretly writing. [Laughs] Marcel Duchamp has been a hero of mine and, on and off, I’ve been fanatically fascinated with him. There was a long period in his life when he publicly retired from making art and was ostensibly just playing chess. It turned out he had a secret studio where he was making this last, very fascinating piece now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If I stopped writing, I would secretly continue doing it.