Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Grant Maierhofer writes about Flamingos from Itna Press.
The writing and unwriting of the manuscript that became Flamingos started with disparate elements and fragments, all guided by a thematic impulse of anxiety at the uses of fiction in the twenty-first century, and a more personal fear at becoming a parent for the first time. I wanted to write about madness, using at first two books and writers as models: Jeffrey DeShell in his first book, In Heaven Everything is Fine, that remains one of my absolute favorite Künstlerroman works because it entertains multiple voices, perspectives, and takes on the young aspirant’s life. Then Mary Robison, particularly Why Did I Ever, and the question of whether apparently disconnected elements, writ in anger or dissatisfaction at the writing being done, can be made into something more than.
The process, then, became a problem I created for myself: generate X amount of material, only focusing on feeling, on theme, and let the voices exist. Then, responding to the problem, I had to find coherence. Working with Travis Jeppesen on the manuscript was huge for this. He’d had, in some ways, a similar impulse with The Suiciders, I think: letting voices bleed and mutate and not aspire to great fictive heights, but rather exist in squalor. Finding out I’d have the chance to work over the manuscript with his insights was an immense boon, then. I knew how I wanted the end result to feel, or exist as a theoretical object, at this point, but finding a form became crucial. I’d made nods throughout to Virginia Woolf and other voices in the Modernist set, and Travis mentioned on reading being reminded both of The Waves and Kathy Acker’s Florida — a state and textual mode the book was already fucking with a bit. Thus the resultant clarity of individual voices given their time, and the book’s “Dramatis Personae” for quick reference as to who, what, or why certain individuals are speaking at present. I thought, too, of Faulkner here, either his extremely muddled narratives that eventually required color coordination at great expense, or something like Light in August that embodies the same thing, but holds the reader’s hand a bit more.
Like most broadly-brushed notions, madness is a literary thing. Foucault talked about his sense of himself as closer to a fiction writer at times, someone engaging with language first hand and content to live a bit in that between-space. Beatriz Preciado too, talks of Testo Junkie as a possibly fictive work. I thought a lot about this in the final revision stage, when the aspect of madness was feeling fully realized, and 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.
I think of homogenized rock ‘n’ roll in the seventies and laughable, moneyed idiots in stadiums while punk started to gain its foothold in seedy clubs and basements. We might be at a similar moment in literature. Willful misusers of language occupy huge venues to enact this, but at the local level writers like Jackie Wang, Sean Kilpatrick, Chelsea Hodson and others are pushing back, creating texts that embrace the queerness of being, the inexactness of language rather than its iron fist. I am interested in this.
So Foucault, then, and his notion of madness as a term that had been politically warped over time to marginalize an entire body of people. 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. Is a memoir sufficient? A nonfiction exposé on the rhetoric of drug companies? Treatment centers? It’s part of it, I suppose, but my impulse is toward language itself, toward stories, narratives, voices that let a personal understanding of madness and treatment become warped in transmission, a bit murky, more colorful and strange, human.
The characters within this book, then, are iterations of those impulses, voices and perspectives 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?” How closely they get to answering these is a problem of transmission, but the process for me as the person who wrote and assembled them was more or less that.
This short novel, in turn, is also the inaugurating book in a cycle on madness, very much indebted to Dennis Cooper’s George Miles Cycle. The first in Cooper’s, Closer, offers a case-by-case model that helped, finally, in stitching the mass of Flamingos together. Each of those books is a fascinating object on its own, but read in toto they enact something world-altering in the reader. One, Guide, is a sort of sigil, while Try is almost a Dostoevskyan quasi-confession/retraction, while Frisk and Period are brilliant takes on violence, teenagerdom, the abject in America, et cetera. My hope, then, is for something similar. This is the first book, and Flamingos looks at madness perhaps most broadly, as well as its treatment, and the effects of cultish, messianic figures on the order of B.F. Skinner or Arthur Janov, for people who fall under their teaching. The second, Drain Songs, is finished, and focuses on addiction, John Berryman, and the myth we’ve had (too long, in my opinion) of the drunken, Dionysian artist. The third, Girnt, focuses on American iterations of fascism, Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism, and Richard Girnt Butler. The fourth, Drome, focuses on television and mass media, and Unacabine, the final book, looks at art and isolationism, figures like Ted Kaczynski, Tehching Hsieh, and others.
I am in turn indebted to John Waters, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Samuel Delany, Vi Subversa, the Melville of Pierre — as well as Leos Carax’s Pola X, Blake Butler, Nick Blinko/Rudimentary Peni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and all who’ve made contemporary literature/art such a vibrant thing in the face of such totalitarian ugliness.
Whether anxious or not, influence persists. Flamingos is a willful burial beneath influences and an attempt to dig one’s way out. It is a search for new forms, new modes of interacting with the world we’ve got, and a blip within the mass of media pressing on our heads. I do not want an art of clarity, simple declaration and reduction of understanding. I want an art a bit like life and stripped of tendencies toward understanding, the body and head rendered in text and the text as distillation of body and head — a performative thing. These are the strains that have resulted, I guess, in a single thing, a series of choices made within the sea of possible choices. Flamingos is a love letter to the apparatus of fiction, its practitioners, and readers who’ve found coherence in an art that embraces incoherence. Life wants certainty, exactitude, solid bodies and heads on which it can impose order. Fiction, at least the ilk of fiction I’ve found increasingly important of late, wants otherdom, queerness, uncertainty and the flux of consciousness more apparent in actual lived experience than arbiters of Truth might have it. This is a work of fiction that attempts to explore these concerns, and the question of “why fiction?” in turn. I wanted a project, a space to ask these local questions as to craft, as well as these global questions regarding madness. This is the first effort within the project, and 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. The final decisions made were in this vein, a desire to transmit for readers whatever it is I’ve gained from writing the book. All I want is fiction, writing that opens up the world and lets it bleed a bit.