Exploding Autobiography: An Interview with Mark Leyner


At Work

Photo: David Plakke Media NYC

When The Paris Review last interviewed Mark Leyner, in 2013, he announced his next book. “Gone with the Mind is my autobiography in the form of a first-person-shooter game,” he said. “You’ll have to blast your way back into my mother’s womb.”

Now, three years later, Gone with the Mind has arrived, and it’s … almost nothing like that. The autobiographical elements are intact, yes, and Leyner’s mother appears early and often—but the notion of a first-person shooter is unceremoniously jettisoned on page forty-six. (“Pretty much everyone I mentioned it to thought it sounded really cool, but what is that, actually? What would a book like that actually be, y’know?”) In its place is a loose frame story in which Leyner appears at the Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series at Woodcreek Plaza Mall, where he reads before a crowd of precisely three: a Panda Express employee on break, a Sbarro employee on break, and his mom.

The introductory speech he gives comprises the bulk of Gone with the Mind, a discursive farrago that touches on Freudian mother-son dynamics, constructivist aesthetics, fascist metaphysics, Twizzlers, women’s antiperspirant commercials, prostate cancer, and formative episodes from his youth. In earlier novels, Leyner cast himself as a paranoid egomaniac (Et Tu, Babe) or a feckless, oversexed adolescent (The Tetherballs of Bougainville), but the Mark Leyner we meet in these pages is transparent, erudite, self-deprecating, even tender. This is an autobiography that dramatizes its own creation—the pathos in attempting to express “the chord of how one feels at single given moment, in this transient, phantom world.”

I met Leyner at Marco & Pepe, a restaurant in Jersey City, where he arrived with a copy of Gershom Scholem’s The Messianic Idea in Judaism tucked under his arm. We began our conversation by learning, courtesy of our waitress, what a Portuguese muffin is.

So it sounds kind of like an English muffin, but bigger.

Does that mean anything called Portuguese is just a bigger variant of the English version?

Yes. Portuguese-breakfast tea is just a vat of English-breakfast tea. Anyway—it’s been three years since your last interview with the Review. I gather there’s been a sort of formalist struggle for you since then.

I waited on the idea for this book for a very long time. It’s important to me that each book is starting from scratch. I’m trying to think of a vital, unprecedented idea for a book that I haven’t seen. It’s not because I’m so ambitious—it’s just the way I’ve always worked. I have a feeling it comes from my being most engaged and inspired by visual artists when I was younger. Duchamp, Picabia, all the Cubists, Apollinaire and his people, André Breton, his people. And then all the great Abstract Expressionists, whom I adore still. I’m a big Clement Greenbergian. I’m a high formalist. I would always say that when, back in the day, people talked about postmodernism and things. I thought, No, I’m a card-carrying modernist, and I’m proud to say it. I approached this book in a formal way. How does one represent an autobiography, which in itself is a representation of confabulated memories? I began thinking about my mother—the meals we used to have at various restaurants and how we’ve always been so keen to make an audience out of each other. And that’s one of the really fundamental themes of this book—how intimates make audiences of each other. I really do think there’s a reading of this book that sees it as just me and my mom talking, and the rest of it being some kind of wonderful filigreed delusion—this pathetic event. 

You capture the energy and potentiality that books have in their incipient stages. At one point you’re watching a Twizzlers commercial “where everything in the world is made out of red Twizzlers,” and the thought comes—“That’s exactly what Gone with the Mind should be like! It should all be made out of the same thing!”

I’m very interested in Russian Constructivism and this idea of transparency. There’s this Russian word, factura, that’s used about transparency of process, and the volition of your material things. In a way the book is a relentless explanation of what I’m doing as I’m doing it—it may be a book-long explanation of what the title means. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack also shares that. I’m constantly saying, Okay, that’s what we mean by x … that’s what my mom and I mean by Gone with the Mind. It comes from this idea of transparency. I think this is my most accessible book, sentence to sentence, but it’s also the most conceptually complex. With my other books, you’re kind of just watching me do my thing. It’s like concert footage of me writing. This is very different.

The Mark Leyner character in this book is much more reflective, sensitive, and forthright than the Leyner in Et Tu, Babe and The Tetherballs of Bougainville, which are sometimes regarded—unjustly, I think—as mere exercises in irony. Do you have the hope that Gone with the Mind has a retroactive effect on the Leyner of the earlier books?  

It wouldn’t hurt. One of the things I like especially about this book, and talking about it, is that it forces readers to ask about the process of writing it and the “real” Mark. It’s a good way to point out to people that there’s no such thing as a real me or a real you. We’re all engaged in manufacturing ongoing fabrications of ourselves, making audiences out of one another, all that kind of stuff. The book is just a rumination on what goes on.

I suppose it was silly of me to expect that someone else would realize this, but when I wrote Et Tu, Babe, I thought the persona was so obvious. The character in that book is a kind of antipodal representation of myself. It’s so hyperbolic as to be the inverse of me in every way—so honestly the opposite of who I am—and for that reason I felt that there was no irony to it. I even thought, at the time, that I was being so completely vivisected with candor about it. So to hear that this is some kind of postmodern irony, to me it was like Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath telling you, Really, everything? In the days of grand book tours, people would see me and invariably I could see them sigh and shrink in disappointment. I was this small, nice guy, and they were like, Oh, that’s it?

I saw Et Tu, Babe as the most unsparing portrayal—of someone little and insecure, of the little kid in Jersey City looking across the river at Manhattan and thinking, I’m going to live and die here, and perhaps never make it. That author is a complete fantasy of the child from that socioeconomic milieu thinking, That can never be me. Coming at it from that angle, it was strange when someone would see me on the PATH train and say—this happened a number of times—You take the PATH? Like, you’re not choppered in or shot through a pneumatic tube or something?

So that’s a beautifully empathic, insightful thing to ask me about. Will Gone with the Mind have a retroactive effect? Yes, I hope. I think of it whenever I’m appearing somewhere to read from this book—that for these few people in the audience, it’s good. They’ll all go back to the previous personae and see that there’s more, actually, to them. They’ll maybe be aware of the deep, mystical constant of my work. That, between us [he leans over and taps the Gershom Scholem volume] will only be revealed when the messiah comes.


Three years ago, you said you wanted to write about fascism, about Mussolini. Plenty of fascism seeped into the final book, but it’s there obliquely.

I have a very longstanding fascination with fascism, with despots and demagogues. What is it like, I wonder, maneuvering each day and not trusting anyone? But I shudder when Trump is compared to Mussolini. I feel bad on Mussolini’s behalf. Mussolini was an enormous intellectual, and spoke several languages. He wrote many, many, many, many things throughout his life, and had relationships with D’Annunzio, Marinetti. And then, come on, we’re talking about Trump? [The meal arrives, featuring a Portuguese muffin.] Thank you so much, that looks beautiful. What a nice, neat-looking thing.

You’ve set the book in a shopping mall, too—a freighted place for people my age, who grew up as malls were dying. Many of my formative experiences are knit up in these aspects of consumerism that, in an intellectual way, we’re supposed to revile. But there’s a warmth there, too. I have these immensely pleasurable memories of drowning myself in consumer culture at malls, and then a few years later they were gone.

I have the same, but over a longer period of time. When I was in high school, malls were relatively new. There were two pretty big ones near where I lived in New Jersey. At the time, they seemed—if you can imagine this word being applicable, because malls are such moribund things now, symbols of American death culture—but then they seemed very futuristic. Like something out of The Jetsons. They brought all the stores into this one incredible space station, like a colony on an asteroid, and everything was filled with wonder. The ambient noise of the fountains, the smell of Mrs. What’s-her-name’s cookies wafting. There was a chain bookstore called Brentano’s, long folded, and there was one really nice one in this mall. My friend and I would get a ride from someone’s mom, and they’d drop us off at this Brentano’s and come back and pick us up, like, seven hours later. We would stay there, split up, and just look at books. For seven hours. And so, oddly, one of my enduring, abiding associations with malls are books. The mall is supposed to represent the citadel of totalitarian consumerism, and yet there I’d be, reading some Yeats. That was something that interested me. The main valence of the mall is its moribund quality, and I used that in this book. It’s the site of my own constant reappraising of what I’ve made of myself in life. And what better place to reappraise than a completely empty, dying mall?

The novel opens with a forty-page introduction from your mother, Muriel, ostensibly the coordinating director of the Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series. Much later, we learn that her remarks are drawn from actual transcripts you’d made. What was it like recording your mom?

I felt ever so slightly guilty about it, because I had to use a certain amount of subterfuge. If I said to my mom, I want you to be introducing me, and here’s the premise—I’m such a failure that you have to drive me to a mall no one comes to. She would, because she’s such a great sport, try to do that. But it’s not what I wanted. I wanted her to tell a very convoluted, expansive, prolix story about herself, only marginally connected to me. And her pregnancy was perfect, because it has everything and nothing to do with me. She was just going about her business most of the time. So I said, Talk about being pregnant with me. And then, as I like to joke—it’s not a joke—like, six hours later, I said, I think we’ve got enough. And she said, But I’m just getting warmed up.

Opening the book in someone else’s voice is something of a gambit, since you’re known for your prose style—you’re eschewing your trademark. And it inflects your part of the book with a spoken quality, too.

The part in my voice is painstakingly created to seem extemporaneous. Sometimes I’m giving clear signals that it’s not, because I’m using a certain kind of big word—say, indexicality. I would pretend to search for that—“the uh … uh … um … indexicality.” I sat and thought, maybe I need another uh in there. It’s so easy to vitiate the effect of extemporaneousness. The tiniest thing can fuck it up and disrupt it, where then it seems very contrived in a way I didn’t want—and then at other times I did want to open the door a little on the contrivance. It was very tricky, doing everything I wanted in that register.

I write sentence by sentence. I’ll write a sentence and then think about that for a very long time. I think of the photograph of Mark Rothko sitting back, smoking a cigarette, and looking at one of his big canvasses. That always seemed to me paradigmatic of being an artist. It wasn’t so much making something, it was thinking, What is that, and what does that augur, possibly? I think about whatever dialogue exists between the few sentences I have and the next few, and then some third avenue opens up. I can look at a paragraph for a week and keep reading it and looking at it and writing things in the margins, and it will amplify and grow, but by the time I’m done with a section, with very few exceptions, it’s done. I move forward at a very methodical, glacial pace—inexorably forward. When I finish the book, it’s done. And I never read the book again. I don’t go back. With Gone with the Mind, that was a very good feeling.

I have to ask about the ending and its … finality. “And so with this I say goodbye to you, a very real goodbye,” you write. It makes it seem—and I can only imagine this was purposeful—as if you’re not going to write anymore.

It’s so perfectly evocative of that, that I probably should stop. I hadn’t intended to. Of course, I had feelings like that at the time. I really am, as I’m writing, rummaging through everything I’ve encountered in that day, including my own feelings, as evanescent or fugitive as they might be. There are very incidental things that become absolutely essential to books of mine, because I try to maintain that sense where there’s no prioritizing anything. If I’ve had an idea for a hundred and fifty pages that a book is about something—or, I don’t mean “about,” because that’s a pretty, as they say, “interrogated” term in my work—but if I think, Oh, there’s a kind of underlying thematic to a book, and then one day I’m at a stoplight and I get another idea, I’ve made a sort of pledge to myself that my new idea needs to be taken as seriously as the year-long commitment to something else. So I incorporated the feelings I was having toward the end—they’re certainly genuine.

If I were to have a last book—and I’ve said this elsewhere—this would be it. To the extent that each of my books feels like both a corollary and a refutation of the last book, it’s possible, somehow, that this can be my last book. If I were negotiating—if I were, like, an Iranian nuclear negotiator—that’s what I would say. It actually is my last book, even if there’s an ensuing book.

There’s a political dimension to it—to how you’ve structured it. You argue that conventional forms of narrative and autobiography are “counterrevolutionary.” I think about that Breton quote you’ve cited before. “I salute Antonin Artaud for his passionate, heroic negation of everything that causes us to be dead while alive.” How do you bring about that negation—politically, aesthetically, whatever?

It has to do with alienation. This sounds so pretentious, but I think one of the deepest kind of politics to engage in is that question—what is politics? I revere Artaud almost beyond any literary figure. And that quote comes from a really beautiful piece that Breton wrote. They had a very contentious relationship. Artaud was routinely excommunicated from the surrealist group. Breton loved purging people, and I love that in Breton, that he would consider these things important enough to issue excommunicatory edicts over—because of what someone said the night before at some café. Breton said in an interview, I realize in the end that Artaud went further than any of us, meaning as a Surrealist. Breton sort of fired Artaud—he said Artaud’s work got too violent. So to see Breton say, in the end, that Artaud was the person who most authentically lived this life was a remarkable thing—to do that is a kind of deep politics. And maybe in a naive but deeply felt way, I’ve always been aware of that. It’s a hard thing for me to describe in a precise way, and inherently so, because part of what I think is so corrosively political about it is its indeterminacy. But from the minute I wanted to write, I’ve always felt that there’s value in alienation. If one wanted to look at my work and find some sort of antibourgeois thematic thing, sometimes fascist antibourgeois, sometimes Maoist antibourgeois—it’s there, yeah. It’s part of whatever liberational politics derive from, like, the radically, cosmically alienated person. At a certain point you have to say, as Breton did, On behalf of everyone you’ve alienated, thank you.

And yet there’s so much in your work that’s not at all alienating—the humor, most readily.

I’ve always had the really simplistic idea that laughter is a kind of communal, consensual acknowledgment of how incredibly hard and shitty life is. That sounds right to me. And I’ve always been interested in kind of hidden literary techniques in nonliterary procedures, stand-up comedy being one. When I started out doing this, I was thinking, Do I really have to do all this stuff within books, like, if I have someone in a house, do I have to start describing the walkway and what it’s made out of? But stand-up comedians have this completely artificial way of linking their bits, these interstitial techniques.

The sort of alienation I’m engaged in—let’s take something I knew was a truculent feat, the repetition in The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, where whole paragraphs repeat for, like, three pages, and then another three pages. I thought that people were going to think it was a manufacturing mistake—but if I did it enough, it would become so obvious that it would kind of tickle the reader. The reader will finally start laughing, like, An author couldn’t seriously be doing this. It would become transparent, and there would be pleasure in that. This idea of transparency was always really appealing to me, even as a kid, when I saw the fourth-wall breakdown in something like a Chuck Jones cartoon. Bugs Bunny would be doing something to Elmer Fudd and he’d turn to the camera and say, Can you believe they’re making me do this stuff? I just think that’s so cool. It’s demystifying, and kids love that. Demystification of any sort is an enormous relief for a kid, because everything seems impossibly complex and beyond one’s reach.

So yes, when I write there’s a kind of alienation keeping you there and me here. But it’s so you can sort of see what I’m doing—you can be palpably in contact with me, even as I’m watching you. We’re getting back to how this book is maybe retroactively instructive—I think this book unveils all of that to some degree.

Since you gave us “a huge scoop” about your new book last time, I wondered if you’d do the same now.

I was thinking of maybe doing a book that involved my daughter. I’m very close to my daughter. My daughter is like my red line. I’d kill for that girl. I would. I also—and I don’t know if this is the same book—I want to write something about alcohol. Because it’s a part of my life. I can be a really big drinker. I mean not day after day after day, but when I do, it’s very willful. I commit to it. Again, in contradistinction to the Et Tu, Babe thing, I’m very, very, very, very, very, very shy. I very much prefer a solitary life. Alcohol is a handy way to deal with that, to be with a bunch of people. It would be conspicuously avoided if someday I didn’t think about it a little bit. Again, maybe through formal means.

I’ve heard that on Bon Jovi’s extensive property, he rebuilt the bar he liked to go to when he was young. He had it rebuilt, every stick of it, to precise specifications. And I was thinking about that. In the way I like to re-recapitulate, through painstaking methods, something that is supposed to be off-the-cuff, I’ve thought about what it would be like to write a drunken book in the most sober way. What are the locutionary tactics that make the text feel drunk? I would want this to feel really drunk. I don’t know if this is the same book as the one about my daughter, that sounds so perverse, but maybe it’s exactly right. She’s seen me in dire straits.

If you want to do some shots right now, we can get this thing started.

Let’s just forget the rest of the day and tomorrow.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.