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“The Work That Matters”: Seven Notes on Grant Maierhofer’s Works

By David Vichnar.

Grant Maierhofer, WORKS (11:11 Press, 2020)

The work of the mason, who assembles, is the work that matters. Thus the adjoining bricks, in a book, should not be less visible than the new brick, which is the book. What is offered the reader, in fact, cannot be an element, but must be the ensemble in which it is inserted:

it is the whole human assemblage and edifice, which must be, not just a pile of scraps, but rather a self-consciousness. In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible. It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack.

—Georges Bataille

Édouard Levé, of whose Oeuvres Grant Maierhofer’s “own” title is a creative appropriation, was himself very much a creature of homonymy. In his 1997 series of photographs Portraits of Homonyms, Levé produced a survey of photographs of ordinary people who happened to share their names with those of cultural celebrities (Raymond Roussel, Georges Bataille…). In “No. 77” of Oeuvres, he describes the process as follows: “People bearing the same names as artists and writers are found in a telephone directory and photographed. Colour prints are made of their faces and framed like ID photos. Two contradictory signs of identity are thus juxtaposed: the face, unknown, and the name, famous.”

Thus, Levé introduces a disturbance in the reference by means of a split within the proper name, diverting the usual channels linking ostension and appointment. The fixed name/referent link is not entirely undone—since the people in Levé’s directory are André Bretons, are Yves Kleins—but it becomes parasitised by an alternate reality, the multiplication of the potentialities attached to the proper name, which no longer refers exclusively to a single referent, blurring the process of identification. Levé’s images counteract the singularity of the proper name by opening themselves up to plurality of its references, inviting the viewer to contemplate this strange coexistence of two contradictory terms. The derailment of reference, oscillating between the mental association drawn from the common culture and the image perceived on the photograph, freezes the image and its viewer in an unreal suspense.

Levé’s Oeuvres is at once the librarian’s wet-dream and the writer’s nightmare, for all narrative art aspires to the condition of the “non-paraphrasable” and “not-to-be-summarised”. Grant Maierhofer’s Works borrows from Levé more than just its title. Maierhofer’s writing similarly deals with semantic derailments of reference to convey the tensions between the conceptual written word and the iconic image and to express anxiety at the uses and abuses of fiction in the media-saturated (un)reality of 21st-century America. In the ensuing seven notes I shall address some of the defining features of Maierhofer’s poetics in Works: its functioning as textual assemblage, its reworking of the concept of literary labour, its multiple style of generic writing, its particularly American variety of literary anxiety, as well as its ethical dimension: conceiving of fiction as vulnerability.

1. Were the four texts that make up Works to be featured among Levé’s 533 “conceived but not realised” oeuvres, their individual descriptions would read something like this:

No.1. “A Bildungsroman about an aspiring writer coming to grips with the very real possibility of the failure of his writing, with as little Bildung as Roman. A Portrait of the Artist as a Relapsing Depressive Young Self-Harmer.” (Postures)
No.2. “Elliptical dramatis personae whose fragmented voices tell of psycho/pathological transmutations and institutional/ised madness. What The Waves could have been had Leslie Stephen’s daughter attempted to write her way out.” (Flamingos)
No 3. “Travelogues of dystopias both short- (the TV screens around and inside us) and long-distance (beyond the Kuiper Belt) and back. Tarkovsky’s Zone blends with Burroughs’ Interzone in these sci-fi stories that bleach fiction clean of science.” (Bleach)
No.4. “A user’s manual for a horrifically effective saw—stills from video tutorial and all—which dissipates into a meat vs. bone dialogue and ultimately falls apart altogether. Perec meets Guillon and Bonniec.” (PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual)

If Maierhofer’s Works as a whole were to receive the Oeuvres treatment, then with a tip of the hat to one of Levé’s homonyms, Georges Bataille, one would invoke his concept of the textual assemblage:

No. 0. “A new brick of a book composed of four adjoining bricks which, in the act of containing them, becomes more than just a pile of scraps, but rather a self-consciousness. An attempt at the impossible assemblage. An exercise in a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

A book, for Maierhofer as for Bataille, is never an autonomous unit but always appears with and within a more or less visible, complex network of texts and contexts. “We can’t really escape the reality that writing is always a conversation with previous texts,” Maierhofer observes in his online essay “Between Plagiarism and Art” for Literary Hub, describing how his earliest textual ensemble projects (part of which Works includes) took shape:

I knew that I could write about things like depression, addiction, insanity, media addiction or obsession, fascism, art and violence. However, I also knew that I wanted it to take place in five books. What’s more, I wanted things woven into the entirety that had weird conversations with one another.

Works does include some of these “things,” published as well as new, and by commingling forms and genres, orchestrates their “weird” conversation.

2. Postures (2015) is set sometime from mid-2011 to mid-2012, as one gathers from oblique references to “Occupy beginning to permeate things” and Lars von Trier having “recently discussed his feelings on Hitler”. It tells the tale of X, a writing-programme student and aspiring writer who “welcomes ambivalence, detests normalcy,” and so finds himself adrift amidst “students at their laptops writing important properly-cited things,” and teachers who know fuck-all about “real writing”. He is a man of paradox: an obsessive bookworm for whom writing is “not a craft, a job, or a way to kill time” but “his calling, his connection to the humanity,” and yet he is American, too American in that his “womb”, that is, the “avenues, buildings, or frames of mind” developed throughout life, is the cinema: “listening to the slow drone of the projector and watching the beautiful, anachronistic on-screen beauties make horrified faces at the men vying for their love, […] it didn’t seem so insane to want to keep on living”. Repo Man, Paris, Texas and Alphaville rub shoulders with Fante, Nabokov, Cocteau and Exley, and the resulting mixture of “the choices of who you emulate” helps X redefine his “own way” of writing.

Soon enough, X’s struggles with completing a novel and the trauma of entering the literary biz (“the monotony of sending out hundreds of submissions only to receive that many kindly-worded rejections”) and having the manuscript turned down and/or “processed” by editors begin taking their toll. X progressively relapses—after a few halcyon Celexa-padded years—into depressive episodes of self-harm, and so, in one of Postures’ most memorable scenes, X ends up pissing on the returned editorially processed manuscript:

He pulled out his cock, and eyes closed every second, letting go, covered the manuscript in piss. He opened up the pages with his left hand as he did it […] just to ensure that every single page would carry markings. The piss turned the manuscript into a swollen pile of rubbish momentarily. […] the morning that started with X’s urinating all over his most prized possession culminated with him in the bathtub reading about murderers that love Bach.

Here the “novel” undergoes a mental breakdown, abandoning a linear progression and disintegrating into fragments jumping from one chunk of flashback/fast-forward to another daydream/delirium. X’s sickness and suicidal urges worsen and the self-destruction quickly escalates, with X winding up drinking his own urine, to try to placate “the beast that lurked in his soul”, as per Exley. There are many awful endings intuited, but then one day, pulling himself up by his bootstraps, X takes a final train-ride back home in order to enter therapy and undergo medical examination, only to find out his mental sickness has had a rather physical cause: type 1 diabetes. In a final twist, the tale of dark beginnings and darker middles achieves an almost bright finale:

Either way, you endure, you endure and you watch the leaves change each season and you take your medication and you attend class and you write the novel you’ll call Shadows to the Light and you hope it will be something splendid, and when you write the final line—the final word in one long-winded argument—you contend that it is finished, and nothing written before it could end that way.

Flamingos (2016), “A Dramatic Work,” takes a step further in the direction towards which Postures gravitates but ultimately refuses to go: the disintegration of self and polyphonisation of the voice. In Germán Sierra’s description, Flamingos is a text “assembled from the concentration of narrative and stylistic relations between a constellation of texts attributed to the metaphorical dysphoria of nine almost-archetypal characters, which could be read as a disordered collection of recordings done by a mad therapist” .

Introduced by a motto from Jeffrey DeShell (“A story? No. No stories, never again”), Flamingos oscillates between a teasing implication of a narrative possibility (“a story?”), and its derailment, obstruction and abandonment (“no story”). There are the nine “dramatis personae,” some with as exorbitant a name as Haydn or Attila. Most prominent among them are Patient (“a neurotic poring over lived experience and print”) and the eponymous Flamingo (“a daughter, sunlit, driven by manias”). There is the introductory italicised “frame tale”, which pits eight of the nine personae as foils against Simon (“a healer, a messiah, M.D., D.C.L., L.L.D., Ph.D.”), some kind of false-messianic sick doctor: “Simon, a future, a renewal. […] Simon, ever the miserable failure. Simon our Christ, our Cunt Fear our Cock Fear our Man Fear our Woman Fear our Plague Fear our Head Fear our Love Fear our Death Fear”.

From then on, 130 pages of “sift[ing] through notes to find something revealed,” as Patient has it, of listening to dramatic monologues of “embittered voices asking after daddy,” of dismantling and recomposing an “assemblage, your research, the work” . Throughout these monologues, Flamingo’s “urge to tell” is found coupled with Simon’s awareness of “I have nothing to tell”. The cinematic again rubs shoulders with the literary: “Nicole Kidman” meets “Arthur Schnitzler” in a not-so-veiled reference to Kubrick’s final opus, and there is “the colour pink everywhere” for John Waters, of course (“I sleep on one leg,” Flamingo reports). As “Patient” observes midway in a narrative meta-comment:

It was then that you began your seated, drugged endurance. You’re not anti or pro narrative, you simply see things for what they are and record them thus. Propelling botches of narrative culled from heads around. You’ve developed great nostalgia for their speeches.

The overriding topic of all this, of course, is madness as socio-political construct: “Call it the need for social deviance or deviants and how we’d come to live in such a world”. As Maierhofer has avowed in his online “Research Notes” on Flamingos, “like most broadly-brushed notions, madness is a literary thing […] a term that had been politically warped over time to marginalize an entire body of people.”

Foucault is the éminence grise behind Maierhofer’s thinking, as are Laing and Lacan – but the strength of Flamingos lies in its resistance to becoming yet another disquisition on the medicalisation and commodification of mental health. Instead, Flamingos stays on the level of language: the chief impulse behind the assemblage aims toward stories, narratives, voices that “let a personal understanding of madness and treatment become warped in transmission” (“Research Notes”). Flamingos’ voices and perspectives are described as “screaming at various walls, responding to a prompt like: ‘what is madness for you?’ or ‘how can you possibly live and breathe in twenty-first century America?’” and it is to Maierhofer’s credit that the answers provided always remain tentative at best. The closest we come to definitions are avowals of their impossibility (“Just what they are I’m hard-pressed, I’m afraid. It’s tiring, this.”) or cryptic detournements like “COME IN, WE’RE FUCKING CLOSED”.

Why flamingos, you may ask? “A flamingo is an understanding thing, and almost entirely, globally inedible. It’s eaten sure, but seldom” – and it is on a note of harmless togetherness bordering on understanding that Flamingos concludes, “seeking coherence where there is just implosion”, looking not for a “way out”, but only “through”:

We go together, wear the same drab white and blue cloth and stumble along the walks they let us pass and visitors come on Sundays and we are still […] seeking life where there is none, coherence where there is just implosion, sanity where there is a list of ways your head simply does not fit. There couldn’t be a way out, but through.

Bleach is an assemblage by the sheer fact of its genre, “A Collection of Stories”. Introduced with a Félix Guattari motto on how “every machine works for itself according to its operations”, Bleach opens with “Howlings in Favor of Sade,” a story borrowing its title from the famous image-less 1952 Godard film. Its narrator is the first of Bleach’s legion of nameless first-person voices living in a dystopia that is at once alien (“They farm us. We’re given something for what we do. We watch. We stare”) and all-too-familiar (“I watch a lot of television […] on a laptop computer propped on my chest in bed with the lights off while feeding my facehole from a bag of rusted potato chips”). Still, shining through the mind-numbing monotony are a few exhilarating observations like “Is this the most frightening thing about spiders, that they do not pay rent?”  and conjectures, e.g. “Perhaps our teeth are something we don’t yet understand. To visit a dentist is to visit a grave”, that show, if not a way out, then at least through.

Bleach proceeds in a similar vein with stories like “New Rose” and “Grand Illusion”, the latter an obvious if also mysterious reference to the 1937 Jean Renoir classic, as the story itself features another nameless “I” who is “in the room, watching my life spin out”, addressing a disappeared “Mary” as “suddenly you’re just not you but the dying you” and remembering some shared halcyon days contrasting with the maddeningly passive(-tense) present: “Holidays are spent jokily masturbating what can’t be masturbated as I eat and eat from cold cans beans that were never warmed” .

There is the occasional Burroughs nod: in pieces like “Interzone”, where an “I” and his “dying friend” have “trespassed while dying on sacred ground deemed thus by some ancient tribe of teenagers who’d frozen themselves,” their main “problem” being “never making bad feel good, but something else entirely” . Maierhofer’s dystopia peaks in its geographic specificity in “Pruitt-Igoe”, a slice of a life of a teen gang playing their day-to-day survival game in the thirty-three 11-story building complex in Near North Side of St. Louis, Missouri – and Maierhofer’s narrator is as teenage-blasé as they come (“Kids don’t know much. I guess we weren’t kids maybe. I don’t care. We were clueless though.”) and equally resentful: “I hate the fucking city. These cowards build homes to keep the outsiders out then burn down the homes when they don’t like the consequences of pure neglect”.

The climax of the collection are two “pure sci-fi” pieces: “2157”, which takes a future vantage point from which to look back at an interplanetary collapse of the (post-)human civilisation. The brutally honest retrospective of “a rotten era [in which] to have a body imprinted with what you thought eyelets of the sun,” is delivered by yet another outcast inhabiting a much-harmful and much-harmed body, who attempts an escape from a world that had “prioritized meat and work and thus within cities rooms were made to great efficiency and factories churned out cloned, replicated bodies to eat”. He is tracked down eventually, and is made to listen to his verdict that manages to out Kafka, “The Penal Colony”:

You were found ungrateful, of the body, a person in every sense. You were found having eaten the bodies of these. You were found having eaten the bodies of these drifters and beyond the purview of our court. You are not to think and feel and access anything beyond those possibilities and exigencies just in front of you. You are not an original. You contain the bodies of others and you are disgusted with yourself. We are not interested in apology or meat.

“Orphic Hymns” is a piece of epic scope in four sections, following the mission of spaceship Orpheus-2 a.k.a. the Cocteau (the motto from Jean reads “I am burning myself up and will always do so,” its first section is called “SANGD’UNPOÈTE” and the last, “ORPHÉE”) beyond the Kuiper Belt, “the furthest touch of man,” and towards Pluto and Charon. The mission’s task concerns finding out about the causes and purposes of a mysterious “growth” discovered in Pluto’s system by spaceship Orpheus-1, offering “the prospect of understanding something in non-earthly terms”. Yet as the crew led by the mysterious and increasingly “outlandish” Klimt penetrates further into the deepest reaches of space, the drama becomes earthly, all-too earthly: one of ego vs. super-ego, mania vs. depression, individual experience vs. collective responsibility. As in Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Kubrick’s 2001, the cosmic journey into the future turns into one individual’s coming-to-terms with the past, the endless immensity of space shrunken to a single-person pod adrift in vacuum:

I have no inkling of what’s what and my memories have grown beyond the journey […] to my children that never lived and my father that never died and my living that will ever and forever emanate around this belt of hulking stones […] and I am living within the history and dying within it in turn […] as the world jettisons me and I am cast ever outward into the mass oblivion and rot.

Yet, the collection as a whole bears the title “Bleach,” of a story of a character referred to solely as the “killer” whose project is to kill without “coherency” and whose M.O. involves removing the trails of his deeds with the use of said detergent. Gradually he ends up stalked by and eventually stages a face-off with his doppelgänger, who may or may not be hallucinated. Certainly the most narrative-driven if also mysteriously American story in the collection.

Finally, PX138 3100-2686 User’s Manual is a composite multi-genre text, featuring a text-image interface whose level of incongruous incompatibility would make Levé blush. The manual is for the horrifically effective “anti-update decompressive saw […], one of the most fantastic machines ever engineered by human being”. As Maierhofer has divulged in an online conversation with Thomas Moore,

rather than writing something about language and disconnection and violence, I wanted to try and write something that was language and disconnection and violence, as garbled as that might sound. I was working with translation software and coding and the like to rework what I’d originally written […] into something considerably more fucked, but hopefully nonetheless new in its effect.

The operation of the saw requires the operator to cover their eyes and ears, as well as to “avoid serious thought” and stay clean of “the influence of pharmaceuticals” – very much the law-abiding citizen’s bread-and-butter in 2020. Following these caveats is a SAWMAN’S JOURNAL, an account of the machine operator gradually “falling apart in public” – except this time, the text disintegrates together with the narrative subject, blocks of unsegmented text (ISAWTHEWHITELIGHTTONIGHT.IJUSTDONTCARE.) alternating with spatialised ungrammatical phrases sprawling across near-blank pages: “These are jotted notes. These are notes, jotted.” / “when have i fell sleep…”. The rest are fragmentary notes on brokenness (sawing and being sawn) and violence, some eerie (“This is the trial. This is the trail. The trail leads to the bench in the park where I’ll sit. The trial leads to the internal place we all must go to reach some level of understanding here.”) some hilarious (“My kinship is with jack Torrance. My kinship is with jack Torrance. My kinship is with jack Torrance.”). There is a pageful of curses (from “Cursed yr family / Cursed yr animals” to “Cursed yr saw / Cursed yr fucking forearm / Cursed yr”), in-between pages that divulge no more than “i am a little macchine” and “now it hurts to breathe…” . Before END OF SAW come six full pages of binary-code strings. What does it mean? “What could it possibly fucking mean. I go about in uncertainty. What a glorious state. There is nothing else to learn. Nothing to hope for. Continued feeling and endless worry”. EXEUNT. EXEUNT. EXEUNT.

3. As a whole, then, Works is a hybrid ensemble whose entirety exceeds any single perceptive process, an ever-shifting entity larger than any one reader’s (the present one included) consciousness can keep hold of. A bird’s-eye view of its entirety enables one to see its multiple genres reduced to their elemental forms; the whole assembled as a prismatic constellation of competing, mutually reflective discourses and discursive gestures. In Bataille’s conception of assemblage just as Maierhofer’s, the interplay of genres and forms becomes the interface of discourses and types of knowledge, wherein each type of writing brings with it a range of stylistic tropes and possibilities, as well as referential and epistemological assumptions and limitations. What can be said somehow in one form must appear otherwise in another, provided it can be said at all.

There is, thus, a number of textual interlinks between the four adjoining bricks that make up the new one, and a few equally important conceptual ones. The literal links include several faint echoes of Postures in Flamingos. When Flamingo (the character) states, “I make sure X gets from A to B. I make sure the nightmare wanes I guess, defer to cop lingo and back coffee, retain monotony” , is this X an “anonymous patient,” or X from Postures receiving his treatment, diabetes or other? When Patient describes the books he cares for, he talks of “works of fiction written in the negative, that is negate-ive, made up of the opposite parts” . Is it just a coincidence that when X speaks of his own writing, he observes he “was not taught to write by the works of another writer” but “learned to do what he now does through the process of negation” ? A User’s Manual similarly features a few surprising reappearances, as when instalment V of the video tutorial mentions “unknown documentation of the execution of one G.G., […] really rotten stuff”  – is this the same G.G. as the dramatis persona from Flamingos, described as “criminal, involved with strains of black metal, survivalist,” who “never gave a ready piss for this America” ? If so, how/why? Does “YAMA: for robbery, those rotting already in the pits fiery pits were torn in half for good and good, torn in ha—”  have anything to do with architect Minoru Yamasaki from “Pruitt-Igoe,” the builder of the fiery pits of modern urbanist hell?

Most of these are teasingly unanswerable, but they do illustrate how reading these side-by-side, conceiving of Works as a continuous text, yields considerable interpretive enrichments. Even more importantly, the Works’ variegated discourses and genres provide commentary on each other, showing us what individual genres permit and forbid, how they convey and conceal, where they excel and fail. Thus, in the context of what comes after, Postures’ X turns from a Kafkaesque marker for a half-concealed, yet clear-cut individual identity, into a mark of a subject in progress and thus unidentical with “itself”, a subject under erasure (a 2014 excerpt from the novel in Berfois was indeed titled “Postures, Erasures”). What indeed about the title “postures” itself? In the context of the various masques and personae that follow, the very title Postures comes under scrutiny: what, in the world of fiction, indeed is a posture, as opposed to what exactly – “authenticity”? Experiencing Flamingos in the context of Works allows for an opposite process of unification: unriddling the nine disparate and isolated “noisages” as nine entities within one transpersonal collective, nine voices in a single debate about insubordination against artificial notions of “normalcy”. Reading Bleach after Postures and Flamingos invites a reading of the individual stories as fragments of larger wholes, re-imagining them as bigger textual stains “bleached” into whiteness by the limitations of the short-story genre – none of the stories, after all, feel quite as “finished” as the two larger texts preceding. Finally, User’s Manual, the only hitherto unpublished text, abandons narrative linearity altogether and offers textual brokenness instead while simultaneously bringing Works to a close (“EXEUNT”), a paradoxical function it could not serve as a standalone piece.

4. The inconspicuously rich title Works also points to the notion of the “labour” of writing soliciting the “work” of reading. To write, for Maierhofer, is a struggle, and to rewrite him through the reading process is a complementary process. In the piece on “Plagiarism,” he has this to impart about his writing procedure:

I’m someone who has struggled to make texts, or books, for some time. I’ve sat in workshops and written the words of others into typewriters or computers trying to figure out their workings. This method, the choice of a textual home that you can enter, rewrite, reimagine, read from before starting the day’s work, narrows the writing process incredibly so that one’s focus is sharp and clear […] creating an anxiety of influence that’s solvable only by yet more writing, more explaining, more running from the words of another until I’ve created something new.

Maierhofer comes back to the notion of the difficulty of “work” vis-à-vis the writer and the reader in his essay for 3AM Magazine on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, whose “pages of linguistic forest fires simultaneously enact and subvert their own interpretation.” The attraction of “FW” for Maierhofer is chiefly twofold: its proto-conceptual objecthood and its performativity.

The former was so dear to Eugene Jolas and the whole transition gang, busily co-opting Joyce for their avant-garde project of autonomous art: “The work”, observes Maierhofer of FW, “is also a thing entirely its own: a novel following no traditional pattern for the novel […], a piece of fiction apparently wholly disinterested in storytelling.” The latter has to do with how reading FW is “a bodily thing”, consequence of Joyce spending “the bulk of his life” thinking about “what printed text might venture to do.” In Maierhofer’s experience of FW,

I find I’ll begin with resistance, certain I’m misunderstanding every letter until suddenly a dreamy rhythm overtakes me and I’m able to stomach paragraphs in breaths. I’ll often slow to crawls in turn and view the pages as discrete, visual, concrete passages rendered as micro- and macrocosms for diligent poring and slackjawed stupor alike.

The level to which conceptual autonomy is achieved in Works progressively intensifies, from the primarily narrative-driven Postures to the well-nigh conceptual image/text assemblage in User’s Manual. And Maierhofer’s account of reading FW comes uncannily close to my own experience of the “resistances” of his writing, especially Flamingos. Germán Sierra’s useful introduction refers to Johannes Göransson’s theorization of the new “rhetorical punk” styles defined as “atrocity kitsch”. Flamingos, in Göransson’s account, becomes “a noir without the proper detective to piece back together the crime and its narrative” – and “without the narrative cure, the novel becomes sick.” However fickle—especially in the mental compartment—the categories of health and illness, what piecing together fragments has in common with treating a sickness is that both are anti-entropic processes requiring energy and work.

5. Maierhofer’s Works is no “FW Redux” of course, and although his modernist inheritance does feature some of the Joycean exploration of the materiality of language and semantic overlay, his style is more deeply embedded in the Woolfian tradition of the idioms of the individual psyche (sans her aestheticism) and the Beckettian vein of the paradoxes of unsaying, negation, failing better. A text like Flamingos brings these two together implicitly but also explicitly:

You’re a bit like every seeing eye in Molloy. What you have are inklings. […] And you cannot think of the era, slurping coffee in the car in hot Florida misery, without thinking of V. Woolf. Was it she with whom Beckett spoke in these moments? Uncertain.

More significant for Maierhofer than the Anglo-Irish high-modernist tradition, however, seems to be the black-comedic existential hard-boil of the French (both Céline and Cocteau have provided more than just mottos), Kafka’s bureaucratic wet-dreams-turned-nightmares, and the native US tradition of semi-autobiographical journalist/fictioneers (Exley, Fante, Thompson).

All in all, Maierhofer’s style is that rare species of what Roberto Bolaño’s savage detectives would call “visceral realism”, with three prominent features. First, a positioning of radical ontological uncertainty, oftentimes substance-induced and of a hallucinatory nature—what Louis Armand’s fiction has explored under the rubric of “acid noir” (Breakfast at Midnight, The Combinations)—as a last resort from externally imposed standards of “normalcy”. The second is a foregrounding of the technological underpinnings of the “human”, its “intermedial” state and its possible transcendence—Maierhofer’s Postures does to TV and the “screen culture” at large what Germán Sierra’s  own The Artifact does to “big data” and artificial intelligence. Third, the psycho-sci-fi heights to which Maierhofer brings his two concluding stories in Bleach brings to mind Harlan Wilson’s “splattershtick”, the ultraviolent form of metafiction as practiced in his “scikungfi” trilogy and most recently in Natural Complexions.

This exercise in name-dropping is not meant to detract from Maierhofer’s originality – rather the opposite, it is meant as a proof, if further is needed, that “originality” most often comes about as an effect of a new recombination, as a solution to an anxiety of influence entailing “yet more writing, more explaining, more running from the words of another until I’ve created something new.”

6. This anxiety is of a particularly American kind. As I write this Afterword, the state of the U.S. politics has become such that to trust the President is to believe that chugging bleach can increase your chances of survival of the current pandemic, thus hitting an all-time low/high in coupling its traditional dog-eat-dog cynicism with unprecedented levels of dangerous stupidity (#WhatDoYouHaveToLose #JustTakeIt). As this book’s publisher informs me, “we’re all taking our daily micro-dose of bleach, mixed with vitamin water and an alka seltzer, of course. America, once again, is the laughingstock of the world”.

The 2015-16 vantage point of Postures and Flamingos feels almost quaint from the point-of-view of 2020. Yet even in these earlier texts there is the odd prophetic note struck (“America was entirely absurd of late, entirely alien. The orange skin. The earrings that cause your ears to turn green.”), and a sustained reflection on what it might mean to be a 21st-century fictioneer in and of a country like America permeates Maierhofer’s Works throughout.

As Postures details through its own exercise in name-dropping, the “gigantic melee of confusion that was [and is] the United States” has first of all produced its gigantically confused culture. Its pantheon features not just Acker and Burroughs and Exley but more canonical figures like Jackson Pollock (whose work “chronicled the American Mess in such a phenomenal and ground-breaking way that it defies petty judgment or mere criticism”) and Mark Twain, “a brilliant man because he remembered through the flux of his life those things most Americans choose to forget” , like racism, sexism, social inequality, all the American evergreens. The Midwest setting of Postures also accounts for some of its disturbing regional realism: “You saw nightmares. You saw sleepwalkers. You saw an American Middle-West on the brink of being completely bankrupt, completely miserable, and completely nameless”.

The obsession with “watching” and “watchability” generated by all-pervasive infantilising “smart” technology, diagnosed as the American sickness by DFW all the way back in the early-90’s, has been taken to whole new, “kaleidoscopic-fucksreen” heights:

Teenaged millionaires; teenaged billionaires; teenaged forty-year olds; teenaged icons and Cut 4 Whomever; everything teenaged. Nineteen-eighty-bore. This is what Big Brother would have on humanity, nothing more; a kaleidoscopic fuckscreen of bad camera angles that make mankind look like half a speck of civilization when you pick it apart for just a moment.

When coupled with our second lives on social-media, purportedly designed for “connecting people” while keeping them imperially alone, this addiction to infotainment becomes a potentially lethal disease. This is Maierhofer still in 2015, three years before Cambridge Analytica dawned on even the most unsuspecting ones:

X lamented those like Mark Zuckerberg, who may act like he’s created a fantastic way for people to stay in touch […] but Zuckerberg hasn’t. What he’s created is yet another hoop to jump through before anyone will even consider being your friend. That film about Facebook had recently been nominated for various awards, and X found that both the filmmaker […] and its actors were perpetuating and attempting to justify one man’s creation of an absolutely unnecessary system and the resulting billions of dollars he received afterward […]. So, fuck this, X thought. Fuck Mark Zuckerberg, fuck the creators of Twitter, fuck the Internet, fuck designers.

Transposed into the clinical realm of “mental health” in Flamingos, there is a pervasive “love(-ish) and optimism, or hate(-ish) and pessimism/nostalgia for a simpler, printed-text era”, before the internet came and made all the dormant hydras inside rear their ugly heads. “Again the watchers,” bewails Olivier, the surveillance. What to make of it, I’m unawares, but keen on most sensation. I think I feel bogged down, morassed. I term it ‘depression’—their phrase—and try to walk it off, yet it won’t go”.

Germán Sierra’s introduction is right: Flamingos deals with the stultifera navis that is the American society at large: “We watch as entertainment entertains, pulls and nags and distorts his image to celebrity” (Edmund); “Why this preoccupation with television? Why this preoccupation with signs and cans of bubbled water? The why never seems to figure much into it” (Patient); “Freshly showered, I turned the water warm as it went and scalded my stomach. I put on the television afterward and let its light put something out” (Flamingo); “What I’m paid to do is stare at screens in evaluation of items that might be pumped through imagined pneumatic tubes into the skulls of various Americans and Elsewhereicans” (Edmund again). We the Globalicans might “all be living in Amerika” now, but Americans have traditionally been blessed with a far closer proximity to the wellspring than us Elsewhereicans.

Flamingos stages Neil Postman’s famous juxtaposition of Orwell’s fear of being governed by those who would ban books and deprive us of information, and Huxley’s fear of being governed by those who would give us so much of it as to reduce us to passivity and egotism, having no more reason to ban books, for there would ultimately be no-one to read them. As Huxley remarks in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists, who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny, “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Quoth Maierhofer’s Patient: “Late-late-late capitalism has done what it does: it has capitalized on this distraction and turned it into a godly hand upon their social shoulder”. Quoth DFW: “Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” I have described “Bleach” one of the most “American” stories in the collection, and here is a passage to justify the claim:

This sort of thing, the process of removing life from a body, creating a corpse, grew in importance with each iteration. The ritual mattered. The peace and quiet mattered. The killer […] had enjoyed the freedom to execute matters with a bit of reckless abandon.

7. Which begs the question of what fiction can do about all this. At the end of the day, Maierhofer is no extreme conceptualist like Levé, for he knows all too well that conceptualism is postmodernism’s masterstroke, which in turn is capitalism’s masterstroke (thus spake Fukuyama), churning out “art” that comes furnished with its own USP’s and with price-tags attached to every word.

As is argued in Sean Kilpatrick’s introduction to Postures, in this “how to write” manual, “Maierhofer has committed a great atrocity against homeownership by displaying affection for shit you can’t truly buy. […] A book is only ever in a container until it rots your thought”. “Rot your thought” is a very apt descriptor for one effect of Maierhofer’s writing, not least since the 350-odd page manuscript of Works contains close to 50 mentions of “rot” and its cognate forms. “Rotting” is not an idle metaphor here as it implies a process of decomposition essential for the recycling of the finite matter in the biosphere – or textual matter in the infosphere. In Flamingos, Maierhofer is using his Patient as mouthpiece when observing:

The diseased and afflicted body is the norm in twenty-first century American society, is perhaps a place to start. You don’t think much on American society anymore, just the hands within it cracked and grasping at the promised some such something.

The reason for this Foucauldian reversal of “starting with the diseased and the afflicted” as opposed to “the healthy” is not just for the sake of theoretical savviness. As Maierhofer reveals in his “Research Notes”:

Personally, I’ve been engaged with the discourse of madness a good while, was hospitalized when seven as a result of the ADD/ADHD impulse in America in the 90s, and have had more and less severe bouts of unipolar depression as long as I can remember, so this is where my mind goes in writing.

This horrendously obsolete notion of fiction growing out of a personally “authentic” dimension is what gives Maierhofer’s writing its rhetorical force, but would paralyse it as fiction if that were all. True, each of Maierhofer’s Works are also almost pedagogical, as they have a “message” to impart, and “argument” to develop – a word featuring prominently in the final paragraph of Postures quoted above.

But what makes Works compelling as fiction—not as memoir, not as treatise, not as socio-political critique—is the awareness of its own status as product of language, a tool for constructing thought-systems “posturing” for truths. When compiling notes for Flamingos, Maierhofer reveals,

A use for fiction had presented itself: Language as a lie, a systemic means of painting the world one way versus another, then. Our present reeks of this: “alt-right,” and crypto-fascists, angry knee-jerkers reacting to “identity politics” and turning basic civil rights into something manipulative. I am scared of shifting definitions, and I think fiction, poetry, literature has a good deal of work to offer to counter this tendency.

And regarding Postures, Maierhofer has confided to Mike Seitz that “the final version feels more like a treatise than a novel,” a treatise for those in need of accepting literary failure, for whom Postures has aimed to provide “a comfort, a sort of friendship, that they’re not enduring these things without reason, and that they’re not alone in doing so.”

What “enduring” means in Works is, first and foremost, directed towards vulnerability, the ability to be wounded – openness to fiction is readiness to meet people and undergo experiences that might otherwise “hurt”. Which in today’s society of well-padded untouchable Facebook users, for whom “to take offense” and/or “feel insulted” is to breathe air, is believe it or not nothing short of scandalous – to say nothing of its “alt-right,” crypto-fascist segments. It hurts to read Maierhofer, and that is good.

What is also refreshing in today’s social-media climate of public shaming, no-platforming, and cancel-culture at large, is how Maierhofer’s characters permit themselves (or they are permitted) to be wrong. This is particularly though not exclusively true of Flamingos and as Sierra points out, “the most important thing for keeping a ‘sustainable’ community may not be the acquiescence in a common truth, but the desire to implement an indeterminate network of reciprocal trust” .

It does not surprise, then, that in the conflicting and ambivalent fictional universe of Works, the disquisition on vulnerability is delivered by one of the “wrongest” of all Maierhofer characters, Klimt the mass-suicidal egomaniac:

“Sometimes vulnerability is necessary to fully understand substance. I’ve chosen individuals for this mission capable of a certain kind of vulnerability […]. What kind of vulnerability exactly? I’m prepared to accept an alternate sense of time out here. I’m prepared to witness a disease and cure in simultaneity, but beyond that I’m interested in growth alone. Fungi are communicative as a scab is communicative.”

“Preparedness to accept” is perhaps the no.1 demand Maierhofer’s fiction makes of its reader if they are to witness a “disease and cure in simultaneity” and allow for something like a “growth.” As stated in his “Notes” to Flamingos:

This is a work of fiction that attempts to explore the question of “why fiction?” in turn. I wanted a project, a space to ask these local questions as to craft. […] my only hope in going forward is that it might exist as a voice in a conversation with readers, pursuing their own projects and navigating life, […]. All I want is fiction, writing that opens up the world and lets it bleed a bit.

At the end of the day, this is the only “work” of fiction writing that truly matters.

Prague, May 2020

*The above text will be published as the Afterword for Grant Maierhofer’s WORKS.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Vichnar teaches at Charles University Prague. He is also active as an editor, publisher and translator. His translations both from/into English include Philippe Sollers’ H (from French) and Melchior Vischer’s Second through Brain (from German), as well as Louis Armand’s Snídaně o půlnoci (from English into Czech). He has been active as programme director of the annual Prague Microfestival and manages Litteraria Pragensia Books (since 2006) and Equus Press (since 2011). His articles on contemporary experimental writers as well as translations of contemporary poetry and fiction—Czech, German, French and Anglophone—have appeared in numerous journals and magazines.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 15th, 2020.