Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: Gone with the Mind

Gone with the Mind Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have three completely different (and favorable) reactions to this bizarre and funny book.

1) I don’t think I’m the only one who’s irritated by a tendency in some contemporary post-modern work to deal with what I like to call “the disease of the self.” That is, we get major works that confront self-ness in ways that almost put Proust to shame. There’s a lot to enjoy in Karl-Ove Knausgaard, for instance, and the ambition in David Foster Wallace is impressive, but after a while, I’m frustrated by the unspoken premise: “If you pay attention to me in all my microscopic contradictions and discomforts, you’ll be more aware of your own hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Dive with me into the depths of my self, and you’ll get insight into all of us.” For all its brilliance, I can’t help seeing it as the equivalent of literary selfies.

The trouble with that, I can’t help feeling, is that, for all that we do have in common, we are also very different. I tend to admire fiction that puts our differences into conversation. In fact, that’s how my father and the great critic Mikhail Bakhtin define it: the collision between two or more perspectives through the specific narrative of the story. I’m not arguing for a glib superficiality; stories about multiple perspectives need to excavate those perspectives as full and meaningful selves. And I’m not rejecting the idea that great literature can be obsessed with the self – think of a lot of what Joyce did. Instead, I’m just saying that, for some of the literature earning praise in our moment, there’s too much emphasis on the individual self of the writer.

In that context, Mark Leyner is absolutely brilliant. This weird and wonderful book parodies disease-of-the-self narratives by presenting us with someone who writes a post-modern autobiography – complete with excerpts of various personality inventories and testimony from his mother – with the presumed expectation that others will want to read it. Instead, when he appears at the local mall food court for his part in the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series,” no one comes. Or, rather, two employees on their break sit at tables in the back and serve as reluctant listeners.

And yet, despite no one’s caring, Leyner (putting himself forward as his own character) keeps on reading. Or, without quite reading, he gives a five or six hour prologue to the work he tells us he’ll read. No one sits waiting for this work, yet it consumes his every bit of energy and creativity. In the loneliness of writing the book, he’s invented an “imaginary intern,” an invisible friend who helps him conceive of and research the autobiography – and who himself eventually tires of the project and leaves Mark entirely alone.

If all that sounds like an easy joke, Leyner is brilliant enough to pull it off. He twists and turns his narrative so often, and he brings new and bizarre lines of inquiry in so skillfully, that the concept never gets old. The spectacle of Mark’s navel-gazing is both pitiful and inspiring. This brilliant, neurotic, clever and (ultimately) humane thinker, never gets old. He really is fascinating, and the book leaves that irony twisting: our journey into his needy self is both a glimpse at someone craving attention and a reminder that none of us has the attention to give to another. It’s a parody of one postmodern impulse, and, in its humanizing of the need for one man’s wanting to be seen, it really does invite the rest of us into a fresh new conversation.

2) The trope of the Jewish mother as ‘smother has been done. Whether you locate its roots in Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, or Woody Allen, you have to recognize it as a cliché: the Jewish mother can see no wrong in her little boy and, as a consequence, she’s responsible for everything that’s gone wrong with him. Far less skilled writers have kept it going, and we’re left with awful examples of it in, say, Howard Wolowitz’s mother in The Big Bang Theory, or Evelyn Harper of Two and a Half Men (who, not Jewish, is written by the Jewish Chuck Lorre).

Here, though, Leyner, revisits that trope. Instead of demonizing his mother, he explores her sacrifices on his behalf. He finds her his best friend and, slowly but beautifully, his best critic. They may have impeded each other throughout their lives, each keeping the other from developing in other independent ways, but they have also built something together.

In what I think of as the climax of the book, the two of them find themselves in a bathroom, looking for faces in the cracks on the floor. She wants to see his imaginary intern, wants to enter that fully into his imagination, but she can’t. Or he won’t let her. Either way, the two genuinely embrace each other, and he discovers that his voice is largely hers; he discovers (as he’s talked of in his imaginary video game) that his ideal is to be united with her, but to be united in his own, full self. He doesn’t want to erase his life, and he doesn’t blame her for his failings. He just flat out loves her. And that’s a refreshing take on a now too easy cliché.

3) Or, I can say flat out that this is one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages. Forget context if you want: this book never goes more than a handful of pages without offering something profoundly funny, without making you laugh out loud. It’s a stand-up routine so smart, so well-conceived, that you could probably pick a random page and find yourself fully entertained.

Leyner knows what he’s doing, and it’s absolutely worth checking out.

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