On Mark Leyner’s “Gone with the Mind.”

On Mark Leyner’s “Gone with the Mind.”

51X3wwTcE9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_At his best, Mark Leyner is one of our most strikingly original writers.  His ideas lurch frantically from topic to topic, his verbiage is spangled with startlingly beautiful words from math & science (in the opening to “Fugitive from a Centrifuge” he writes, “Dad was in the basement centrifuging mouse spleen hybridoma, when I informed him that I’d enrolled at the Wilford Military Academy of Beauty.”), his narratives are propelled by nightmare logic.

The tragedy, of course, is that Leyner at his best is so striking that his novels can feel shambling and uneven.  Even he can’t always pull off an entire novel’s worth of the incandescent rage that shimmers in his finest passages.  The attempt might very well prove suicidal.  In the faux-autobiographical opening of Et Tu, Babe? he writes,

3sypvkr8o8006va8tnvjk260i.284x420x1 When I was eight, I was sent to live on the melon farm of an uncle–a sixth-grade dropout who attributed his IQ of 70 to sniffing gasoline and glue from the age of five, and whose manner of compulsively clawing at the skin behind his neck was a characteristic sign of amphetamine toxicity.  One morning he served me a cereal that consisted of sweetened corn puffs and marshmallow, hook-nosed, bearded “Jews.”  I asked him never to serve me that cereal again.  The next morning, he set a heaping bowl of the same cereal on my place mat.  I killed him with a 12-gauge shotgun blast before lunch.  That night I buried him in the cyclone cellar.  I stole his pickup truck and drove out to a huge diesel-run electric turbine plant near the outskirts of the city and I had my first sexual experience.  Afterward, I lit a cigarette and looked up into the sky–there was God, wearing a pink polo shirt, khaki pants, and brown Top-Siders with no socks, his blond hair blowing in the powerful wind of charged particles and intense ultraviolet radiation from the galactic center.  I hated him.  And he hated me.

I’m compelled to wonder, for how many pages could Leyner write like that without rupturing an aneurysm?  Longer than me, I know.  But perhaps not for the duration of an entire novel.

This is an unfair criticism.  After all, few other writers produce anything like the passage aboveIt’s avarice to demand from Leyner pages upon pages at that intensity.

But, once you know he can do it, it’s hard not to want him to keep doing it.

619eSNf4TYL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_This same greed plagued my reading of Jack Handey’s similarly madcap The Stench of Honolulu.  The problem is not the book.  There are great parts, like Handey’s summary description of jungle ecology:

In the jungle you come to realize that death is a part of life.  The bat eats the moth.  Then the giant moth sucks the life out of the bat.  Then the monkey eats the giant moth, pulling the wings off first, because he doesn’t like that part.  Then the monkey gets a parasite from the moth that slowly eats his brain.  It’s all part of the beautiful circle of life.

Charming!  That is exactly what I want to read!

Nostalgia, Ultra makes abundantly clear that Frank Ocean is a great musician. Photo by NRK P3 on Flickr.

Knowing what an author is capable of, though, can lead to crushing disappointment with sections of a book that fall short of its peaks.  It’s like listening to Frank Ocean’s second record, in a way.  If it had been made by somebody else, maybe Channel Orange would’ve seemed fine.  But Nostalgia, Ultra was such a phenomenal record that the follow-up sounded wan.

I’ll still give everything he makes a listen.  Artists should be judged by their best.  Nostalgia, Ultra is great, ergo: Frank Ocean is a great musician.

Likewise, Leyner is a great writer.  I’ll always read his books.

The Sugar Frosted Nutsack was published back when I was doing a lot of my reading & writing at the local mall.  Writers are supposed to work in coffee shops, I know, but coffee costs money.  A buck or two for a cup to justify my presence would’ve added up.  Whereas I could sit in the mall and feel a closeness to bustling humanity and be subjected to mind-numbing overhead muzak for free.

Outside Abercrombie & Fitch, I found myself reading about the Gods.


Specifically, Leyner’s homemade pantheon.  Specifically, why these Gods, like most assemblages of Gods in human lore, expend so much energy seducing human beings.

510w8wdRcJL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_For them it’s a kind of slumming, a rough trade, a nostalgie de la boue (“nostalgia for the mud”).  And many of the Gods — including several of the major deities — feel that human beings’ finite life expectancies and their comparatively limited intelligence simply make them SUPER-SEXY!  These Gods find human existential angst — being aware that death is inevitable, but not knowing, at any given moment, exactly when or how it might occur — to be a total TURN-ON!  They paradoxically find those very characteristics that so definitely subordinate human beings to the Gods — mortality, benightedness, and impotence — to be HOT, HOT! HOT!!  And the very thought of abjectly defiling themselves — of wallowing — in all the pungent excretions and effluvia of the human body maddens them with desire.  This is the good news.  The bad news is that, for a human, having a sexual/romantic relationship with a God can be a daunting, traumatic, and even tragic experience.

To my mind, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack marked a transition in Leyner’s writing.  In contrast to the swerving overabundance of his early world, in which strange concepts flicker unremarked upon (those mouse spleen hybridomas, for instance — in Leyner’s world, if a pistol hangs upon the wall in act one, the second act might feature death by drowning, or an untreated teratoma, or perhaps no death at all), Leyner launched into Mahabharata-esque redundancy, explication, and niggling detail.  At times, this is no less confusing than the chaos of his early work.  To quote the physicist Richard Feynman,

Richard-feynmanThe real problem in speech is not precise language.  The problem is clear language.  The desire is to have the idea clearly communicated to the other person.  It is only necessary to be precise when there is some doubt as to the meaning of a phrase, and then the precision should be put in the place where the doubt exists.  It is really quite impossible to say anything with absolute precision, unless the thing is so abstracted from the real world as to not represent any real thing.

Feynman was criticizing the way math texts descend into pedantic incomprehensibility in order to maintain “rigor,” but an equivalent hurdle exists in mythological exegesis.  During the Mahabharata recitations that Leyner parodies with The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, a persnickety effort to convey one small concept exactly right might stall the narrative for hours.  The forest eclipsed by a studied description of striations in one tree’s bark.  This might be interesting if the pattern were caused by a virus or weather pattern or the like, but often it’s as coincidental as the Virgin Mary’s visage on a piece of toast.

9780316323253_custom-ea88ea31ad47c2cfbc9d7890a47a1369cf3c51bc-s400-c85Leyner’s new work, Gone with the Mind, continues this trend.  The sentences are often beautiful, the word choices unique, but the story spirals so densely inward upon itself as to go nowhere.  In the following passage he alludes to his existential goal of purging narrative meaning from his writing.  Even dream logic would be too logical:

The Imaginary Intern claimed to only have nonexpository dreams (or “dremes,” as he called them).  He said — and again, his diction tended to be very juvenile and somewhat ghetto, so I’m paraphrasing here — he said that his dreams were a sort of kinesthesia of mathematical torsions and arabesques and fractals, and could never be represented in language, that they eluded and exceeded rational transmission, that they were pure quivering, contingent thought in its barest provisionality. . . an evanescing froth that represented the abolition of meaning in favor of form.

Very precise, yes.  But so dizzyingly precise that, by the end, I lose track of what he’s talking about.

Because my personal taste is for writing that uses no more words than necessary, I wouldn’t recommend Gone with the Mind to someone unfamiliar with Leyner’s work.  At the same time, I would express a clear dismay — probably by a guttural bellow — that anyone could still be unfamiliar with his work.  Because he is fantastic.  I’d recommend that someone start with either his story collection My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist or his novel Et Tu, Babe? 

As it happens, Leyner’s new Gone with the Mind contains the best description I’ve seen of his early writing.  Here Leyner describes more travails suffered by his eight-year-old self:

When I was ten or so. . . maybe even younger, maybe eight, nine. . . I was already thinking to myself: Can a series of completely unrelated, violent, hypersexualized, scatological lines of prose be a kind of writing, a kind of literature?  Just one violent, hypersexualized, scatological line of prose after another.  Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi — no climax, no resolution, no meaning.  Because, I have to say, even then, at eight years of age, every other kind of writing struck me as banal and outdated, and just boring beyond endurance.

Leyner’s writing is not for everyone.  K is not a fan.  (I once made the unfortunate remark that all her opinions were either superfluous or wrong.  Obviously, this is not true!  Still, this opinion of hers is wrong.)  Some people consider his early work too chaotic.  Too disconcerting.

But it is never boring.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

9781925240238I assumed I was the ideal audience for Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound.  It’s an epic work of magic realism, and there are bountiful parallels to Gabriel Garcia Marquez — just like everybody else, I love Garcia Marquez (some friends once used iron-on lettering to make me a shirt reading, “Almonds: The Official Scent of Unrequited Love”).  Kurniawan alludes frequently to The Mahabharata, which is like the bigger, badder, beastlier younger sibling of The Ramayana.  And a major theme of Beauty Is a Wound is the tragedy of pervasive violence against women.

Kurniawan’s interests mirror my own — why wouldn’t I love his book?  Why wouldn’t I tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too?

Well, some stylistic parallels to ancient mythology affect how enthusiastically I’d be able to recommend his book.  From The Iliad to The Bible to The Mahabharata, one common characteristic of epic mythology is repetition.  Stories are told over and over again by and to different characters, the same turns of phrases recur throughout.  This is reasonable for a work composed orally, but can seem excessive to contemporary readers: consider this passage from Mark Leyner’s egregiously-titled sendup of epic mythology:

T.S.F.N. : If we were to ask you to pick the one thing you liked most about the performance of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack you just listened to, what would it be?

REAL HUSBAND: The sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness of it.  And the almost unendurable length.

Repetition makes the parallel between Beauty Is a Wound and The Mahabharata more explicit, and even though that choice improves the work from the perspective of someone who understands why he’s doing it, I fear it might also make the book seem less accessible to the average reader.

CaptureIt reminds me of stylistic choices made for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (although this is dicier to write about, because Wallace did not have the chance to compile a final version).  In The Pale King, Wallace approached boredom with the same multifaceted concern he’d devoted to desire in Infinite Jest ... so it’s natural that some passages in The Pale King needed to be boring.  I understand why he did it.  At the same time, I worry that the choice may have turned away some readers, and that’s a shame because there are some beautiful ideas in the book (here’s an essay about my favorite passage).

A reader unfamiliar with the incessant repetitiveness of traditional mythology might be puzzled why so many phrases in Beauty Is a Wound recur.  This is especially noticeable with the more striking imagery in the book, like,

bananaThe other [murdered communists] had been left to rot on the side of the road, until those who couldn’t stand them anymore finally buried them, but even then it was more like burying some shit after defecating in the banana orchard.

followed, less than a hundred pages later, by,

But it wasn’t like burying a corpse — it was more like burying a turd after taking a shit in the banana orchard.

That’s a choice I wouldn’t make, but that’s fine — fans of traditional mythology are accustomed to, in Leyner’s words, “mind-numbing repetitiveness.”  So, yes, characters’ histories are recounted anew several chapters in a row, imagery recurs, linguistic tics crop up again and again.

(I’m culpable of this last one too, it seems.  I never grew accustomed to Kurniawan’s / translator Annie Tucker’s use of way where I’d say much, like “way better,” “way more modest,” “way more frightening,” but during a Skype chat about my novel with an overseas draft reader he expressed befuddlement why I’d written couple instead of few so many times, “a couple batteries,” “couple beers,” “couple hours,” etc.  All I could say was, “Whoops.”  I guess we speak worse English here in Indiana than they do in Tehran.)

The thing I found most off-putting in Beauty Is a Wound, that makes me hesitant to recommend it, is that, despite Kurniawan clearly caring deeply about the plight of women, the book still felt vaguely misogynistic.

This probably is not Kurniawan’s fault, entirely.  He seems like he might well be a feminist, protesting the callous mistreatment of women in traditional mythology — in The Mahabharata, for instance, the heroes gamble away their wife, who is then forcibly stripped in the middle of an assembly hall. That the vast majority of female characters in Beauty Is a Wound are raped, with their violations described so cavalierly, seems like a valid commentary to make.  Even that victims are then portrayed as falling in love with their rapists seems valid — in the United States, victims of sexual assault often have subsequent consensual relations with their attackers, and the Bible instructs for victims to be married to their assailants.

At the same time, it made me sad that the women in Beauty Is a Wound are so uniformly depicted as irrational and cruel.  I was reminded again and again of Scott Aaronson’s blog comment describing the way that geek culture often fears and reviles women for being sufficiently beautiful to invoke desire:

scott6-smHere’s the thing: I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.  I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.

Aaronson’s case might be extreme because he began college so young, but I think the general psychological progression is pretty common amongst geeky, nervous males: desire women, fear women, dislike women.  The misogyny of geek culture seems to be rooted in the expectation that women will be cruel.

Kurniawan depicts that same feared cruelty.  This wouldn’t have seemed so odd had it come from a single character — some people are cruelbut almost every female character seems beset by similar motivations.  It’s stated most explicitly when Almanda is crushing geek dreams:

kapowEach would grow more confident, feeling like the handsomest guy on earth, like the kindest man in the universe with the best hair on the planet, and convinced by all of this at the first opportunity that arose they would speak up or send a letter spewing their prehistoric pent-up desires: Alamanda, I love you.  That was the best time to destroy a man, to shake him up, to tear his heart to pieces, the best opportunity to show a woman’s superiority, so Alamanda would say, I do not love you.

“I like men,” Alamanda said once, “but I like to see them cry from heartbreak even more.”

(It’s also unsettling that she is later “tamed” by methods prescribed by jerktastic pick-up guides like Neil Strauss’s The Game.  Alamanda rejects everyone until a character “negs” her, then she finds him irresistible.)

While I appreciate that Kurniawan is so passionate about the dire straights of women, it’s a shame that misogyny is so pervasive that it inflects even books written in defense of women.  I just began reading Franzen’s Purity, for instance, and it already bothers me how frequently Pip, a twenty-something year old woman, is referred to as “girl.”  Again, this isn’t necessarily Franzen’s fault, it’s pervasive — consider Flo, the Progressive Insurance “girl.”

Calling an adult male “boy” is noticed to be demeaning by most people, but “girl” is (still!) used so routinely that it can slip by unnoticed.  Even though it shouldn’t.  That sort of language helps perpetuate our misogynistic culture.

I don’t know much about how woman are treated in Indonesia, but judging from Kurniawan’s book the situation seems to be just as bad as here, or worse.  Which obviously saddens me from the perspective of someone who cares about social justice.  But it affects me as a reader, too.  If Kurniawan had been immersed in a culture that talked about & treated women respectfully, I bet he’d have written something I’d really enjoy.