For the reader approaching Grant Maierhofer’s Works—a collection of new and previously published fiction by the author including two novels (or one novel and one novelette really), a cycle of short stories, and one “dramatic work,” each printed here with its own celebratory third-party introduction—somewhere between the overdetermined flattery of those same introductions and the clear bid for intertextuality implied by the collection’s title (Works, or Oeuvres, also the name of a 2002 catalog of imaginary texts by Édouard Levé, whose own experiments in auto-fiction resemble some of what’s presented here), one may be forgiven for rolling one’s eyes just a bit, expecting yet another example of that particular variety of vaguely hawkish, academic-post-academic contemporary surrealism which appeared to grow increasingly popular with the migration of zine literature to the internet, the prose of such works immediately recognizable for a jittery and often violent, almost cyberpunk-inspired peacocking. Luckily enough for readers, then, while it’s true that Maierhofer’s language shares several of the tendencies of that modern surrealism, including at once an expected defamiliarization and the by-now equally predictable Gary Lutz-ian recasting of common expressions, etc., it’s also clear that at his best, which can be awfully good indeed, Maierhofer possesses an interest in units of meaning extending beyond the mere stylistic flash of the sentence-level, the author embracing just as often not simply the local effects of sound and attitude but those macrostructures available in a piece of work which, when manipulated against the textures of individual sentences, can create a real tension and even moral complexity in this style of writing far more renowned for a somewhat obnoxious singularity of purpose.
Take, for instance, the true novel of the collection: titled Postures, the work details the familiar story of an aspiring writer in a large city (Chicago in the days of the Occupy movement) as he navigates aesthetic rejection and a mental decline. To make such material stand out, however, Maierhofer shifts between at least four main varieties of language, each with its own tonal range and sense of internal contradiction within the narrative fabric as a whole.
By and large, the novel is realistic, and in the first third of the text at least Maierhofer will often begin a scene with a piece of generalized social observation—i.e., “Sitting across from somebody in any diner can be a very trying experience if you don’t happen to know them very well, and if you haven’t negotiated just what sitting in a diner together will entail for the both of you,” etc.—before opening up the language and narrative frame to better accommodate his characters’ presence. In this way, Maierhofer appears to be moving in similar territory to the nouveau roman with its prioritizing of objects and institutions over anything like the internal identity of a character not already inspired wholesale by that same crush of institutional surfaces: a claim more than a little reaffirmed by any number of aesthetic choices made in the novel, the least of which are a painstaking, if not totally painful, recreation of small talk (“Chicago? Man, I love it there. I’m headed from Wisconsin Dells—where my sister and her husband live—to Minneapolis where me and the wife have lived for the last fifteen years or so,” says an Amtrak seatmate in a several-pages-long scene midway through the novel) and a main character whose name is never revealed but is only ever referred to as “X.”
Maierhofer plays further with adjusting and readjusting narrative distance, introducing a series of satisfying stylistic wrinkles which manage to expand on those earlier experiments in surface-based objectivity while at the same time injecting just a little more personality into the proceedings. On occasion, Maierhofer zooms out so completely that he writes as if observing X and his strivings from a far-off future: “In those days, to be an island was a near impossibility,” he notes. Or, later on: “Such was the status in the minds of young ones. A season of laughter; laughter at the expense of anyone and everything that could possibly evoke even the smallest chuckle.”
Once again, X is presented as an individual member of a sort of blank herd—absent his own island, among the “young ones”—while the tone of the first sentence in that second excerpt in particular threatens to run away in all directions, offering at once the slight stiffness of phrasing expected from more formal rhetoric—“such was,” etc.—and the strangely computerized, vaguely alien (or, perhaps, translated-seeming) manipulation of common language—“the status in the minds of young ones,” for which Maierhofer could have just as easily written, “the mental state of young people.” The effect is particularly unnerving when coupled with the emotionally patronizing, even scorning, tone of that same excerpt’s concluding sentence (“a season of laughter”), a tone Maierhofer carries over into the second half of the novel where the narration’s hostility and omnipresence butt up against X’s passivity—“Anyway, another day probably started, and X was probably being some pervert, trying to assemble his manuscript and beginning a reflection on his own upbringing”—reminding one in the end far less of Robbe-Grillet’s cold flatness than the social-historical anger present, say, in the work of Michel Houellebecq, a copy of whose own similarly half-distant, half-indignant novel The Map and the Territory X hilariously gifts to his sister in one scene, along with Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, as she prepares to move to France for work and sweetly asks her writer-brother for anything “he could suggest for her to read connected with Paris.”
Where Houellebecq’s anger, even more evident in his recent works, emerges from a deep weariness, almost a malaise, in Postures the indignation appears combative, a final element of the self at risk of being taken under by the swell of institutional disinterest: “These publishers will not break your determination with hammers, they’ll break it with thousands of little pricks from all directions, and slowly you’ll begin to fade, and fade,” thinks X.
To some extent, this is old hat: a lone individualist howling into the void, yet Maierhofer deepens the material with a series of intermittent structural passages presented either in italics or in the second person, the language here containing most clearly the defamiliarization strategies previously expected from Maierhofer’s position as an ambassador of sorts for contemporary independent press literature. The language in these sections borders on the nihilistic, describing X as, among other things, “an under-developed cancer,” yet when a late reveal retrofits these sections as having been, in fact, from X’s own pen after a misguided attempt to wean himself off anti-depression medications, an interesting complexity is added as the reader navigates exactly how much trust to put into either X’s own vitriol or the static ennui described by that earlier objective style: the narrative as a whole turning away from the red pill/blue pill choice so many texts of this kind can fall into and becoming, instead, neither simply a nouveau roman nor a cut-up anti-consumerist howl but, rather, a living and even hopeful document about the narrow road one must attempt to take between this imposing cross of worldviews and aesthetics, like a diagram itself of the letter “X.”
This structural gamesmanship reveals Maierhofer both at his most playful and honest as a writer, and one can see it again in the short story “Bleach,” which depicts a few months in the life of a serial killer. Once again, there’s an apparent French influence to the story, which begins, “The killer awoke before dawn” and ends, “He put his boots on,” both a nod to The Doors’ song “The End” and, in its way, a reiteration of composition methods put forth by Raymond Roussel, who would often build his fictions by challenging himself to find a narrative that would link two individual sentences (in Roussel’s case, homophonic sentences).
Aside from a risk of superficiality, the danger, of course, in anything like this intertextual winking is that the prose will harden over, becoming merely academic, something Maierhofer avoids by picking what appears to be a supplemental reference-point in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.”
Take these two passages, the first from Maierhofer, the second from Hemingway:
1) The next morning, he woke up and before he opened his
eyes, he took ten slow breaths, attempting to fill up the
whole of his body as the sun warmed the tent. He exited and
surveyed the small beach amid a stand of trees high and
imposing. He was alone. He removed his clothing and
walked slowly into the water. He felt the sun on his back and
noted the apparent lateness of the morning. The heat felt
good and pure against him. The sun felt like a sort of home
and he closed his eyes facing toward it.
2) Nick slipped off his pack and lay down in the shade. He
lay on his back and looked up into the pine trees. His neck
and back and the small of his back rested as he stretched.
The earth felt good against his back. He looked up at the
sky, through the branches, and then shut his eyes. He
opened them and looked up again. There was a wind high
up in the branches. He shut his eyes again and went to
More than an issue of shared subject matter—both texts concerning wounded men attempting to hold on to what small, dignified control they can muster—there’s a similar tamped-down quality to the prose, mimicking each character’s head-space while avoiding flatness via both repetition and what appears to be a genuine pleasure taken in process.
It’s tempting to view Maierhofer’s story as prankish: turning one of the most celebrated pieces of American fiction into an at-times quite gruesome serial killer narrative, but the texture of the prose overall isn’t callous, and there are a number of moments in the story which could even be called moving, with this poignancy a direct result of Maierhofer’s manipulation of his references, each one of them in some way or another a kind of dead form. After all, Jim Morrison hardly retains his power as a poet when the music goes away and you turn fourteen. Maybe you watch Apocalypse Now again and feel a little of the old thrill, but more often than not you wonder at what’s been lost. Hemingway’s “River,” similarly enough, has only been drained of its essential openness over years of being decoded in the classroom. Nick’s conflict is by now all but axiomatically understood to be a mean case of PTSD, yet such an easy answer does as much to occlude the narrative’s unhurried pleasures and sense of awe and fear and mystery, just as it’s become a self-important cliché that the stories of serial killers are really the stories of artists. Yet by linking these forms, Maierhofer focuses in on that common element of process, creating, as in Postures, a complex elegy for those loose and frantic and simple moments directly following the inception of an artwork, when the work is done and it is not yet art, but possesses, even still, the purest share of its potential.
If there’s a weak point in the collection, a work that gets lost or fails in some structural way to import the same depth into its subject matter, it’s the “dramatic work” Flamingos. More a series of loosely intercut monologues than a closet drama proper, the work is willfully hazy in terms of its plot, though something in the way of a premise at least can be parsed out eventually after several pages: Simon, a psychiatrist and possible statutory rapist, reconfigures his medical practice into a kind of “big tent revival” road show, mortifying himself and becoming the personification of all the ills and mistreatment achieved in the name of mental healthcare. “The diseased and afflicted body is the norm in twenty-first century American society,” says one of his patients—often called “followers” in the text—while Simon himself becomes a kind of cult leader, equal parts Manson and Christ figure, inscrutable to the public masses who cannot for the life of them understand his rebellion, while he stands more real than ever in the eyes of those who’ve already been put through the institutional wringer.
Though the premise here is solid, Maierhofer deliberately avoids giving the narrative a shape, as if to better assist his characters’ sense of alienation and hopelessness and create along the way something like Beckett’s relentless yell in Not I. One of the most immediate problems, however, is that the characters’ voices—there are nine “speaking roles” in total—all more or less sound alike save for certain messily deployed, token speech habits, as in a character whose only given name is “Patient” and who speaks almost exclusively in the second person (as if a ghost of X), asking directly after the narrative’s peculiar formlessness and putting to the reader such questions as: “what about a writer or artist whose works were made physical by their lack of a coherent body?”
Theoretically, this is territory that has worked for Maierhofer in the past. Postures and the best of the short stories all gain their meaning from contradicting styles and structures, from, in a word, incoherency, but here there is a fundamental lack of debate between the nine voices in Flamingos. They agree or disagree only with themselves, which in conjunction with the vague definition of each of the voices causes the piece overall to come across as stagnant. Rather than using the interplay of characters to create grounded linguistic shifts, Maierhofer’s characters speak a muddled tangle of varying syntactic approaches, as if trying and failing to create movement on the page. Here’s an example:
Where I’d worked, the place was a muddled panopticon
where nobody and everybody watched nobody and
everybody simultaneously. A home my father’d established
privately with others leaving ripples afterward for refuse;
children who hadn’t made good. Of late I’ve held interviews
with college-aged inepts about their hopes and dreams,
asked if they could wipe and sit, watch and administer meds
through various orifices and apparatuses.
Even avoiding issues of scattered diction, notice the awkward shifts here between colloquial contractions—“Where I’d worked,” etc.—and an almost mock-heroic prose borne of syntactic inversion (“Of late I’ve held interviews…”). The prose is sweaty, humorless but trying (“asked if they could wipe and sit”), like an assemblage of tics and quirks in the see-the-writer-behind-the-curtain dialogue of an overwritten television drama, and while elsewhere in the text the absences of a concrete setting and narrative-present put us more firmly into the dreamy nowheresville of the disturbed psyche similarly found in Beckett’s most oneiric works, without a clear understanding of the characters themselves, all is rendered into a soupy hash, one interrupted occasionally by yet further personality-occluding intertextual references and merely clever meta-commentaries on the playscript’s actual existence.
The arc of Works, however, is not a tragedy. Nor, for that matter, is it some blurbable story of a young writer “coming into his full powers.” That would be too easy, and beside the point, I think. Each book collected here is an experiment. To hold it in your hand is to hold its work, messy but honest, even thrilling. “I am a failure,” writes X in Postures, “Not just in the Beckettian sense, nor even in such a dire sense as Céline, but in a much simpler, more loving way.”
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