"Ever since I was a little boy, I've been trying to reconcile constructivist aesthetics and fascist metaphysics...lucidity and violence...and the endless implications of that dichotomy."
That's Mark Leyner, ladies and gentlemen. One of the best, the brightest, the weirdest and the most influential modern writers of, say, 1996. Who once shared a stage (a talk-show set, actually, on the Charlie Rose show) with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen and didn't just hold his own, but schooled them both on the futility of seriousness and the seriousness of sentence structure.
He's the man who wrote My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (in 1990) which blew the minds of anyone who was in the right place to run across the book and the right age and temperament to have their minds blown. I was, absolutely, of that age and temperament. He wrote Et Tu, Babe a couple years later, and I Smell Esther Williams after that — both of which were just as full-bore crazy and just as ridiculously beautiful on a line-by-line basis. He disappeared for a while. Came back. And now, this.
"I think I'm sort a sort of weird composite of thrill-seeking heedlessness and crippling hyperanxiety — I mean, I've taken LSD before a root canal, but I'm equally capable of calling the police and area hospitals if my wife is even five minutes late coming home from a pedicure, so..."
Gone With The Mind is Leyner's new novel. A novel that is, by turns, autobiographical, fictional, touching and just flat-out insane. It takes the form of a writer named Mark Leyner giving a reading in a mall food court — one to which no one has shown up except for two fast-food employees on their break, and Mark's mom, who arranged the reading and drove him there. Who begins the book with a long, rambling, introduction, transcribed verbatim (as is everything else that happens — there is no narrator, just some passing, italicized notes that read almost like stage directions) and run on forever. So long that you get that it's a joke, then get annoyed by the joke, then come to a place of grudging respect for the author for his commitment to the gag, then get annoyed all over again. And then it ends. Then Mark's opening remarks begin.
He tells the story of the writing of his autobiography, Gone With The Mind, which was originally going to be done in the form of a videogame — a first-person shooter with Benito Mussolini as the player's sidekick-slash-guide — and then became something else entirely. He talks about the hallucination who helped him write the book (the Imaginary Intern, brought to life one day from a pattern of cracks in the bathroom tile and who Mark grew to love) and the various ways the two of them spent their time (playing videogames, watching Lifetime movies, watching internet porn) and relates 10,000 stories from his childhood (some or all of which may or may not be true), all while constantly promising to the audience of empty chairs, his mom and two fast-food workers, that at any moment the reading itself is actually going to begin.
Except that it never does.
Gone With The Mind is novelistic anti-autobiography. It's filling this imaginary headspace—this world within the world—with robots and ghosts, with memories of summers at the Jersey Shore and the web-fingered girl who gave him his first handjob, long digressions on the eroticism of the female armpit, and...you get the idea.
"If I were ever asked to give a commencement speech," Leyner writes, as Mark Leyner, "I'd say basically, they're all gonna laugh at you. Life is pretty much like Carrie's prom. So...stay secret."
I loved the thing. All of it. Or anyway, 90% of it. It is looping and self-referential, alternately bonkers and manic and depressive. The same stories repeat again and again, looked at from different angles. And it ends with a promised Q&A section, but even that takes place in a women's bathroom stall, exclusively between Mark and his mom, that reads almost heartbreakingly sweet. Weird and heartfelt both at the same time. Which there should be a word for, but there isn't, so I'm making up one of my own: Weirdfelt. Because that's what Gone With The Mind truly is.
The most Weirdfelt book I have read in a long time.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor ofPhiladelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.