Inside the Castle, 2019. 454 pages.
Reviewed by J S Khan
As suggested by its title, Peripatet meanders about, considering as it does the life and work of not only its author, Grant Maierhofer, but the lives and works of multiple other artists and writers. A work of ambient nonfiction, the book does not make what lies inside its pages the reader’s focal point, but rather draws its primary affect from the contextual experience that informs the event of its inscription. Maierhofer’s eighth book-length work in the last decade (as far as I can count), Peripatet builds its central concerns around its author’s feelings of guilt and despondence—especially concerning his turbulent adolescence, father’s death, and fears of inadequacy as a father and husband—and ruminates with an obsessive recurrence on anxiety, depression, and the struggle to live and create in the face of death and (likely) failure.
While the author has explored similar subject matter in previous publications—mostly novels or works that act as experimental prose poems—here he approaches the same ideas in a full-length nonfiction setting. This choice of genre only makes the writing—bleak, erratic, and often compulsive in its repetitions—more arresting, strange yet relatable:
“Attention. Pay attention. Still. Focus your attention on the matters at hand, a youth looking out the window in his parents’ room long before any issues present themselves, any depressions. My parents divorced. So what. I’m depressed. So what. I’m angry. So what. Still. It never ends and it’s always moving. I remember rewinding video-tapes.”
The taut fragmentary phrasing, poetic leaps in thought, and repetitions of syntax and individual words all work to make Maierhofer’s anxieties leap off the book’s page into the reader’s mind. The word and sentence fragment “Still” becomes an ironic refrain throughout, especially considering the way Peripatet roves in unexpected ways only to circle back and gnaw the same old wounds.
True to the aesthetic of its publisher, Inside the Castle, Peripatet challenges its reader’s preconceptions of what literature is and what it can do. As an aesthetic object, the physical book is something to behold. It lacks page numbers, and the text changes layout and size. Its words sometimes line up in columns, shrink to an irritatingly tiny font, or enlarge to fall off the margins and spill across the pages’ divide. This arrangement is deliberate, however, seeing as each page marks a separate section or thought (often enough ending with the aforementioned “Still”). While Maierhofer himself wrote a majority of the text, quotations from other works appear throughout, primarily Herman Melville’s Pierre but also Montaigne’s essays, Bataille’s Guilty, and Gaddis’s Recognitions; the list goes on and on. As a work of ambient literature, the book seeks to enmesh its reader in a trans-medial experience that dissolves categorical boundaries and the usual binaries between subject and object, acknowledging the materiality that informs its preoccupations as well as the specific space and time in which it dwells. To accomplish this, Peripatet cannibalizes and later reincorporates earlier drafts of various sections of its body, as well as internet links to videos and black-and-white images of (presumably the author’s) coffeepot, bathroom, doodles—even his Google history.
This inclusiveness of other voices, genres, and media—along with the eccentric layout of the text—makes Peripatet read differently than other books, often like a confessional or autobiographical collage, but also like a meditation on the melancholy that accompanies artistic endeavors in general. “The laziness must be part of the work. The horrible food must be part of the work. The anger and petty frustrations must be part of the work. The imperfection must be the work. The failure must be the work… It is the smear of identity wherever it bleeds through.” Maierhofer openly references his indebtedness to Tan Lin—a forerunner of ambient literature and one of the work’s primary influences—and goes on to describe the book as such:
It is an appreciation and presentation of Geoffrey Sirc’s ideas and other composition scholars who have moved me. It is an attempt to bring my own ideas together with theirs in the form of pasted blog posts, screenshots, and manipulated images that indicate my fascination with the process and praxes of all aforementioned.
In these moments, discussing its own form with the same anxious preoccupation it does its author’s personal history, Peripatet also reads like a work on compositional rhetoric.
Despite its chimerical form, Maierhofer’s prose and collaged texts begin to feel almost claustrophobic in their obsessiveness. Each turn of the page reveals a new brick of words whose cumulative effect unsettles even as the same unease drives its reader through disjointed development of previous ruminations or reframed memories. Angst laces the entire work, but its naked honesty achieves beauty in its repetitions and permutations, and includes meditations on how Melville’s and Joyce’s lives influenced Pierre and Finnegan’s Wake respectively—both novels received as critical failures at the time of their publication. “I am a fan of failure, in art,” Maierhofer states, “I’m far more interested in the works of a given ‘master’ that were shitted on, berated, and smeared on their release.” Whereas he envisions Pierre as Melville’s literary (and literal) attempt to accept critical failure, he portrays Finnegan’s Wake as Joyce’s attempt to stave off death. Other artists whose lives he explores include professional wrestler Yoshihiro Takayama, writer Yukio Mishima, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. A fatalistic theme develops from the lyrical essays interwoven and juxtaposed with reflections on these various artists, Takayama having been seriously injured, and these other writers and musicians eventually completing suicide.
Ultimately, the book makes visible how works of art often refract and reinscribe death, pain, and daily misery in ways most popular contemporary books seek to ignore or sublimate in factitious ways. In this sense, despite its author’s palpable guilt, it is a work brave enough to refuses easy resolution. “We are all fuckups and fucked up,” Maierhofer announces somewhere in the middle of the book. “There is nothing left to grasp and the entire world is our problem and our mistake. Each day we wake and fuck up and ruin the world a bit. This is the jubilee of living.” Peripatet wanders but wanders fruitfully, insisting that its reader accompany it as it seeks not to avoid puddles and pitfalls, but wade through mud and traverse uninviting—even treacherous—terrain.
J S Khan has published fiction and nonfiction in journals such as Post Road Magazine, Fourteen Hills, and Impossible Voice. A novel Khan wrote, We Three Thieves, was published in December 2019.