“I began remonstrating with the men in the soap operas.” – A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley
I think of Wittgenstein’s notion of a great work of philosophy being one that causes the reader to eventually throw the book against the wall/toward the ground and after this the ideas melt forth. Whether we intend it or not we construct the histories of fictions as they’re read—the before/the after/the minute—and these (not the great fictive works of time) consume our minds for the days it takes. It’s something a bit like that. I obsessed over the rotund spectacle of the man. I found myself writing everywhere about his stomach and imagining Gass’s Tunnel. The answer was simple, the man needed to escape. Escape from what? It didn’t matter. His mother, the couch, the dullard walks and pressures. It didn’t matter. He would live. This is what mattered. He would leave the scrolled buried drafts and live. I needed it. And every act of literature is first and foremost that pathetic and selfish dross. I throw the softened paperback toward the floor and let this rise instead, while thinking over that quote somewhere when L.W. seemed to understand the child’s fascination with sand. – G.M.
It’s imagined as this voracious pile of minutes, Proustian almost but the TV never turns off. Walls covered in televisual artifacts for split seconds as his hands continue to craft something not quite comprehensible and a sea of memories bears down on him like death. It happens first and second and thereafter in narrative bursts that come seemingly from the air in front of his sweated brow and though there’s no sense of start, or finish, each day something happens, then ceases to happen, on and on that way. The room expands outward from his stomach, reams of papered frantic assertions that he was still here, living, not yet dead.
Exley sits and stares, completes a draft, calls strangers and speaks for hours on end, lays on the couch and falls asleep to old hearty programs; a wiry field of nonsense behind him he’d like to bring to some cohesive boil in a timely manner, his mother wonders when he’s leaving. Her hair is bluish and he seems an ungrateful son. But none of this happened, and all of it was written down, and every word is traceable to the actual rooms he bled over. It’s fairly un-unique. If you sit and stare and convince yourself of hidden inexplicable genius, inexplicable genius you’ll soon enough have, and no amount of pages will explicate any of it adequately enough for the thinking world to arrive at some consensus, and thus you’ll be cast into the pantheon of minds too dense and relentless to accept the fact they might be spent, dull, as the bespectacled mothers of history worry over you.
He would pace holding Salem after Salem to his bearded lips and rambling into the telephone to his aunt or uncle Maur-something about his father’s career and where young Ex stood and his Work—his Tome—as his mother vacuumed up ashes from the floor at his feet. In a room somewhere upstairs lay his masterpiece, waterlogged in some spots with beerspit or coffee dribble but here he paces, Truman Capote of the outskirts, obsessing over Frank Gifford or rambling end-over-end about the therapies he’d received.
One was insulin shock. He learned it well and thought at the time perhaps he’d like to write it clear for all to read. Townes Van Zandt received the same treatment, bloodsugar lowered to the fifties or so until seizures break out and doctors thought perhaps this might result in a calmer rest-of-your-day. For Ex and co. it typically resulted in a spread of cafeteria food covered in syrup and he’d done his best to remember every bite. His remembrance lay just upstairs, drying as he paces.
He called David Markson to discuss William Gaddis but the former wound up drooling so heartily over the latter that old Ex broke out in a singsong of “Autumn in New York” and David Markson suddenly developed an onslaught of pressing errands that nagged him like the plague. His mother’s dog was always near; good enough he supposed. He’d sit there petting the old thing and sharing cookies watching I Love Lucy some nights until five AM before sleeping through the day. Exley didn’t do well with restrictions, rules and such, and though he’d worked a bit as a teacher of high school English he found the work unfulfilling, and couldn’t muster much interest but for long walks until he’d sweated through his clothes and the world seemed an arid endless plain—possible—or Sunday afternoons seated at some tavern having eaten well and pored over the Sports of multiple regional as well as national newspapers and thus prepared to watch his Giants make their way to something; he’d be ready.
His friends wondered endlessly at his state. He didn’t seem to be doing all that well and the best you’d likely get from him by way of social interaction was either a quick thirty second hello before he fell asleep on the line or a dusty nine hour conversation about the cosmos and their reliance upon Gloria Steinem’s bellybutton. He was a complicated man born into and bogged down by simple skin. The world didn’t much care for his ilk nor he for theirs and his only relief came when watching certain spectacles or reading Henry James or Nathaniel Hawthorne, the latter just as lazy and reliant upon his mother as Exley was turning out to be.
One day his mother took it upon herself to get the mossy Fred off her couch and into the surrounding world, and adept as she was with pruning shears and the like she severed the cord connecting the television to the outlet that allowed his daily post-scribbling stupor and pulled her dog along to her bedroom where she sat to read his manuscript until he woke.
“Mother… what’s all this?” said Fred four hours later, one o’clock PM.
“I won’t have it. You need your time, that’s all well and fine, but I’d like to read this now. You go out and have yourself a day. I won’t have it”
“Feels awful Freudian ma,” Ex mumbled before he figured much.
“Just go and have yourself a day, I’ll be fine.”
Shocked a bit at the sudden sense of freedom from ennui, Fred didn’t know what to do with himself. He’d figured all along his mother had seen fragments of the work and didn’t worry too severely about her reading it, but nonetheless a day from thinking as he had the past months just seemed impossible. He put on his shoes and forgot his pants. He put on his pants and forgot his coat. He remembered everything but nearly sobbed at the prospect of a day without the work. He wandered apace up the sidewalk and looked back up at his mother’s room like Norman Bates then slapped his fat cheek and laughed at the idiocy. His stomach seemed to grow with the manuscript, and he wondered what shape he’d be in for any sort of an author photograph if this war ever finished.
The sky was miserable and blue. He loved it well. A sense of dying inside the suburbs always hung close to Exley’s heart. He didn’t so much hate this place, that wasn’t quite the term, he just hated something deep inside his gut from which the whole universe seemed to grow, perhaps that was more like it. His shoes scratched maybe on the pavement, sort of wallowed like the mood. His hair grayed at the sides but not in the moment, had been thus for several years now since he’d taken up smoking and drinking and eating to excess on top of endless hours seated before the television with open editions of classics of American literature strewn about the floor from which he read at each commercial. He liked to imagine Balzac filling his face with whores and coffee while he sat. Ex the bastion of glut. Ex the hero of the war. This was living. This was something like death, sure, and what a stomach. He thought of the time he’d seen Norman Mailer and wondered about the misery. He didn’t like him much. Markson was better but never got the credit. He worried maybe Markson might off himself before getting some more work done. He worried. Gaddis was a stuffy old fool, he didn’t much care for him. It’d been years since he’d actually seen Frank Gifford but he’d started to pen the portions of the work in which Gifford provides the spine for his own life, which either made for abject nonsense or American genius, critics might differ.
The street on which his mother lived was curved and seemingly bled into the very guts of the United States, he felt it did. He rubbed the fingers of his right hand against the fabric of his trousers and noticed a trail of black dust from the cookies he’d shared with the dog the night before or typed ink and winced a little at how disgusting he’d become, then he remembered the whole of humanity’s reign on earth and smiled a bit, farted. Now he might’ve been graying about the temples even as we speak, it’s uncertain. His anxiety seems to rise no matter what medication he takes and it’s getting older and older being a demented young aspirant in the twentieth century. Suddenly he’s surrounded by a pack of nervous wolves, maybe. It’s just the local kids with better lives. He envies them, his father was always an overgrown kid all his childhood and now that he was older he just wished he could sit aside some creek farting and spitting after long days moving rocks from one spot, to another.
On as he walks the road seems to go and he’s smiling rubbing at the tum with which he’s blessed and it’s fun, righteous. He finds an incline of grass a safe distance away from his mother’s home and pulls his shirt over his head to reveal the bulbous paunch, haired over and hellish almost in the too-bright sun. It’s nothing special. It’s quite romantic. He’s a mad, mad citizen under the arrest of light. Exley burps again and runs his ink/cookie-stained fingertips over the skin of his gut leaving trails of former masterpiece in the gray-black strands alive there. He wonders what his mother reads now but doesn’t really wonder much. It’s unimportant. She and they and all might read it someday and yes he’ll wind up destitute and yes this was all a lark and yes he’s not much for gainful employment but there’s something, O there’s something, as he walks. Coming up to the incline now Ex sort of descends to meet it gut-to-grass and swims there a bit doing the breaststroke across the blades as the world below him seems to open up. It’s slightly forested, or at least the beginning of the possibility of forest and he thinks momentarily about letting go for stranger frontiers. It doesn’t take much. Off he runs into the wood with his shirt wetting with grass and drying of sweat on the lawn behind him, he fantasizes about the whole of America stuck as a blot of gum beneath his shoe as a stick cracks beneath the other and he howls out through the hairy cheeks some note of this as freedom.
Born and doomed to die in a place that couldn’t care less about your flesh, he felt his life amounting to this. Sorrow for his mother as the caregiver over his wilting interest in interest. Sorrow for the city and its hopeless practitioners of menial task after menial task. Sorrow for the football game and its proximity to death. Sorrow for the history he’d assembled bereft of luck and honor. Never a shortage of sorrow to spread beneath the hell-sky of dying America. Exley winced at the imagined specter of skyscrapers after the world met its demise, then dwelled long over the thought of Scott Fitzgerald driving the route to Zelda’s asylums late in life and suddenly the local world seemed tenable, feasible. Imagined Zelda’s face as Scott walked up well-dressed and hopesmeared, bearing pages of what he wrote to exchange for hers and stories of his ill-reception amid the Hollywood set. Imagined Scott’s hangover and the shiftless existence of an upper-class talent constantly at odds with breathing. Exley felt whole and like the work might never finish as he fell to crying on the grass, hands spread out in submission before him, the tears like wet debris.
Of a sudden Exley paws the sod. Gulping sifted mitts of earth aside, he makes his way. The sweated gut slides through to tunnel, he’s dusty-mouthed, nightmarish. He cannot see. He pulls his way down bodily, shoving head hard through new walls of wetter dirt. He feels it giving way thus, compares it to the work. His hands have grown useless for little but changing channels and typing intestinal tracts of woe-is-he. It isn’t safe. Momentarily Exley feels exposed and thinks perhaps the ground around will soon fill thick with life, teem with nuclear smiling. Admiring then the afternoon breath he relaxes and grabs a then-formed pipe of mud to pull himself in and presses right foot-ankle into grass in soldier fashion then left foot-ankle until he starts making his way underground. He feels the earth as apparent and potential but only at depth. He thinks of months of cleanliness then farts a cloud of coal into the air as his midsection becomes submerged and things grow dim. He can feel himself more thoroughly than he has in months seated in the flowery chair his mother’s mended any number of times after tyrannical nights picking out his meanings. The earth seems to want his form as ravenously as he should hope to cancel out the moment. Rather than reach an ending he figures he’ll reach the status of the worm. Rather than aspire to art he’ll aspire to the bowels and fester there awhile as the world shops for heads of lettuce, cans of Andy Warhol, busts of John Wayne, spires of candied rock, decaying emblems of a decaying humanity, useless. Rather than write for the world above he’ll be exhibition for the termite.
Pulling through and settling to an ant’s rest, Exley thinks: Beckett the overlooked. Molloy the overlooked. Molloy the religious text. He thinks: where I lay is where I lay is where I lay, and none of this too soon. He thinks: I wanted always to be a limbless boy neckdeep in sand, let the world worry over itself. The dirt ceiling presses firmly to Fred’s shoulders—he’s nearly encased in it—slow dust drink through the lungs. He thinks: I watched the father destroy the prospects like the sea, my heart weeps with duckfat and plastic chips. Exley thinks: what I’ve written is a nightmare I’m a nightmare, I’ll accept this if the Giants breathe. He’s hiding neath the stuff of history, will hide there for long life. His mouth filled up with moistened earth and through gritted teeth Exley sucks time’s hearty nutrient. He imagines there he’s inhaling antique farts of Aristotle. Darkness becomes him as his eyes close over with grubs of new-dead filth. He thinks: I’ve gone as prairies go; I’m hollowed out these rutted guts. My liver is an orb of angry shit. His breath slowed to this frustrating crawl, snail on razor and just as late-in-life rotund as Welles while priming. Exley imagines Kurtz as a dried out husk of former life and withers there for moments. Either this is it and Beckett wins or Kafka and this subservient life of secret possibility. He thinks: maybe mother is Max Brod and she could burn the work. Exley squeezes into what he assumes must be the last breath of his descent and wonders at the mess of error he’s left behind. He thinks: I could bury my hands like frightened idiots without careers. He thinks: I’m a fraud, an excellent, superlative, glittering fraud. Exley thinks: when dinner’s done my teeth will eat the document.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of Marcel, The Persistence of Crows, and Postures, his second novel, and the eighth in Publication Studio’s Fellow Travelers Series. He lives in Idaho.