Mark Leyner’s electrifying and theatrical fourth novel, Gone with the Mind, opens in the food court of a shopping mall during a book signing. While the title recalls Margaret Mitchell, that is only the first of many literary touchstones for this imaginative autobiographical novel, initially narrated by Mark’s mother to an audience of two proles on work break. As her monologue proceeds for pages without a paragraph break, one is reminded of the final chapter of Ulysses, in which Molly Bloom’s river of consciousness makes her seem more formidable with each breathless word. Mark then takes the stage, and in his casual concatenation of pop-culture references with science, philosophy and OED vocabulary, the reader enters the rarefied and rich territory charted by David Foster Wallace.
You never know what Mark is going on about, but you can’t stop listening. It’s like Saul Bellow without the plot, a three-hour-long therapy session in which you are the therapist and Mark is the patient. Or a more frenetic Notes from Underground, with prostate cancer replacing Dostoevsky’s liver disease.
To wit: Mark is a 58-year-old struggling Jewish writer recovering from prostate surgery. He is unusually close to his mother and lacks two shekels to rub together. Mark careens from rage to despond and back again, while the two service workers in his so-called audience remain glued to their smartphones. Mark is often hilarious, but usually in a manner calculated to shock. Life, he says, is “pretty much like Carrie’s prom,” referring to the vengeful Stephen King character.
Leyner launched his writing career in the 1990s, alongside Jonathan Franzen and Wallace, and has worked as a screenwriter. His novels, which are cult literary classics, have titles like My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. James Wood called this “hysterical realism,” a genre aspiring to approach in fiction the mania of contemporary life, to leave nothing out. Gone with the Mind could have been written only by someone coping with the overstimulation of today’s cyberspace. Leyner suggests that any other kind of fiction is lacking, and he may, to our detriment, be right.