Like the work of Grant Maierhofer, addiction takes many forms. There are the typical vices—alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex—but otherwise innocuous activities like exercise, dieting, or shopping can mutate into compulsion just as easily, with the same damaging results. Writing likewise can become a sort of addiction, accompanied by the requisite highs and lows of substance abuse. In his latest book Drain Songs, Maierhofer explores the complex relationship between art and addiction, creating a kaleidoscopic meditation on dependency, chemical or otherwise.
A collection of short stories capped by the titular novella, Drain Songs is stylistically removed from the “ambient nonfiction” of Maierhofer’s more experimental Peripatet, while still being formally inventive in its own right. The novella “Drain Songs” in particular consists of a dizzying array of narrative threads. Like David Markson’s later work, the text often eschews narrative, addressing its own self-awareness, “You are searching for something. Hence the assemblage.” Maierhofer masterfully unites these elements into a singular treatise on the cycle of addiction, recovery, relapse, and sobriety.
Some scenes depict the lives of infamous literary alcoholics and addicts. John Berryman and his posthumous novel Recovery, for instance, become a major touchstone, as does Jean Cocteau. Other sections feature different speakers at AA or NA meetings. These monologues highlight Maierhofer’s expert use of voice. Like the disparate fragments, each speaker’s story is unique, every character’s diction given its own special flavor. One such veteran of the rehab scene captures the humble wisdom that accompanies years of addition, “‘I fail every day. That’s the most useful thing I could tell you here tonight though. We wake up, and we try, and we fail, and it’s alright.’”
Maierhofer’s command of language lends a propulsive momentum to the text. Even though the structure is loose and free flowing, the book never feels disjointed. I was swiftly carried along by the oftentimes stream-of-consciousness passages, perfectly content to follow Maierhofer’s words without the slightest clue where they were taking me—“Is addiction literature worth a piss… A conspiracy… LSD-25… Opium… The opioid crisis.” This unpredictability is what makes Maierhofer so exciting to read. Strings of declarative statements written in all caps read like chaotic prose poems. Italicized sections with winding run-on sentences and odd syntax mirror the addict’s addled brain.
The effect is collage-like. I often felt as if I was reading a distorted version of Al Anon’s Big Book. Indeed, there is a spiritual quality present throughout the work, where God—like addiction—takes many shapes. Maierhofer’s characters wrestle with the religious fervor accompanying the bulk of recovery programs. They reject and embrace salvation in equal measure, “The addict and the ever-present question of death, the notion that we’re all working toward that one goal.” Some find solace in literature, others in spirituality. All have chased annihilation.
I always appreciate authors who are themselves careful readers. Maierhofer’s diverse reference points make clear he is a close study. Writers, rappers, actors all cohabitate the space. Carl Jung and Eric Clapton show up on the same page. These intertextual conversations trace the lineage of artist as addict, highlighting oftentimes bizarre intersections between high culture and the bleakest degradation. One character quips what would make a fantastic tagline for the novella, “I keep a copy of Sade next to my Big Book.”
Drain Songs is fiercely contemporary but still manages to hearken back to the past. Modernists like Beckett and Joyce are present in the narrative, and their influence is evident. Maierhofer seems to marry Beckett’s off-kilter minimalism with Joyce’s buoyant maximalism. A paragraph-length sentence is followed by a three-word sucker punch. There is a careful balance to the text’s construction, even at its most frenetic—“I WANT DEATH. I WANT ABJECTION. I WANT SORROW. I WANT PILLS. I WANT WHINING. I WANT CONSTRUCTION SITES.”
The language is transcendent, at times both beautiful and grotesque, steeped in a palpable sense of despair. The characters in these stories are widely varied but equally miserable. “Lifers” follows a hedonistic janitor, “Maintenance Art” a college professor on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Despite their omnipresent darkness, the pieces maintain a darkly comic quality. “Drain Songs” goes as far as to offer a glimmer of hopefulness. Though straddling death’s precipice, the addict embodies the tenacity of life. Addiction and recovery are consummate companions. In this way, Drain Songs feels intensely personal, perhaps even redemptive, the work of an author who has lived many of the experiences about which he writes.
Published by FC2, the long-standing bulwark of innovative and unconventional fiction, Maierhofer’s work evokes that of the criminally under read Ronald Sukenick, who was a founder of the original Fiction Collective. Sukenick lamented the rigid politics of the literary establishment, dedicating his career to destabilizing these lines of authority. He sought ways to liberate readers, creating texts that defied the stuffy dogma of capital-L Literature. Maierhofer is one of a few active writers continuing this subversive tradition. Drain Songs does not present itself as a conventional short story collection and should not be treated as such. Maierhofer, like Sukenick, challenges us to read differently.
Maierhofer himself has spoken of his affinity for Dennis Cooper’s masterpiece of the transgressive, the George Miles Cycle. Drain Songs is apparently part of Maierhofer’s own attempt at a series of interconnected books, following 2016’s excellent Flamingos. That Maierhofer’s output has been so prolific is a blessing for those of us entrenched in the literary underground. Drain Songs marks another essential addition to the catalogue of American experimental fiction. Purchase your copy here.
Matt Lee is an actor, teacher, and writer from Maryland. His work has been featured at SURFACES, Tragickal, and Occulum, among other venues. He has produced numerous original works for the stage with Maryland Ensemble Theatre. He tweets @Gallows_Ticket
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