The Persistence of Crows,
by Grant Maierhofer,
Tiny TOE Press, 173 pp.
The notion of an art world devoid of dark subjects is dangerous: it would construct a dishonestly escapist field. To attempt isolating sinister themes would be disastrous, because art needs them to continue being a catalyst for meaningful discourse. The tediousness of depression is perhaps inherent in the creative force of artists who have struggled with it.
Yayoi Kusama’s work provides a strong example of the sort of creativity that is dealing with some of the dark themes of mental illness, but does so in a triumphantly creative way. In an interview for BOMB, Kusama states: “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease. I create pieces even when I don’t see hallucinations, though.” Obviously, mental illness itself does not suffice, as a subject, to create art. Still, as Kusama’s case illustrates, it is commonplace for artists who are dealing with mental illness to address the confrontation of these issues in their work. This confrontation may even shape their creative individuality and strengthen their uniqueness, artistically.
I first noticed Maierhofer after reading his piece “Some Unscientific Thoughts on Depression.” The brief essay begins by stating his belief that “precedents” offer comfort. By “precedents,” the writer refers to figures of the past that serve a paradigmatic purpose similar to that of idols. The essay then moves on to the realization that such precedents, as he has defined them, in the realm of depression are fairly limited due to the relatively recent chronology of the illness. He then presents two examples of individuals whose work he admires who function as precedents in the realm of depression: David Foster Wallace and Lars Von Trier. The writer points at the individuality of depression, and scoffs at past oversimplifications of the disease within the public sphere. The ways in which depression is manifested in the work of his two chosen precedents differs, conveying the complexity of the disease.
Based on this essay, we can assume that Maierhofer’s fictional writing exists as a means to deal with his depression. His writing is not first produced with the intention of providing readers with entertainment. Rather, it is his attempt to make sense of his experiences through prose. For example, he examines his experiences in pursuit of romantic intimacy and how they played out. Of course, the writer’s intent behind writing does not necessarily conflict with the reader’s experience. Luckily, this holds true for The Persistence of Crows. Maierhofer constructs a simple and strong Bildungsroman, dealing with the familiar tropes of drug & alcohol abuse, self-doubt, young love and finding one’s place in the world. Maierhofer chronicles experiences that seem familiar in their depressive notes thematically, yet different due to his simple and comic tone.
The Persistence of Crows follows Henry Alfi, who finds himself on a brief trip away from the Midwest to New York, a trip he is attending with his college journal. His story is a subcategory of the depressed person. He is often unsatisfied, often for obscure or unclear reasons. This constant sense of dissatisfaction leads him into addiction:
It got so bad after a while that I was going to the gas station every morning before school to buy a box of Nyquil or Benadryl and I would take the entire box just to feel something, and needless to say after too long I couldn’t take it, and my family knew because some people had seen how bad I was getting and told my sister that I called them looking for shit, so I went to rehab.
Like his author, Henry writes through his depression. He confesses that it was while he found himself in rehab that he learned how to write passionately, how to put his thoughts and observations on paper, how to question his surroundings and how to try to understand.
If at times Henry tends towards the solipsistic, he is also endearingly romantic in a way so genuine he invites our sympathy. Around the mid-point of the narrative, the story evolves into a romantic one, when Henry meets Sara. Henry and Sara share their vulnerabilities without hesitating to reveal their many imperfections, trusting and confiding in each other with relentless vigour.
Henry is very much a softie with good intentions, a romantic at heart who feels helpless at times, but still wants. Wanting is foremost important; it is what Tao Lin’s Paul was missing inTaipei. If Henry is ever capable of causing harm, his own self is the primary receiver of the potential pain. The stark antithesis between Henry and Paul as characters is particularly fascinating if we consider their creators different approaches to their exogenous circumstances: it is ultimately a difference about how they navigate their lives. Maierhofer tries to mediate a protagonist who is prone to fall to extremes, while Lin dopes a nonchalant protagonist to maybe perhaps feel something. As a reader, I prefer encountering the highs and lows Maierhofer presents to the painful anhedonia Lin put me through, even if I highly respect his stylistic devotion.
The dialogue, which constitutes the largest segment of the prose, is very strong, because it is not scared to be dramatic. The words spoken are ones coming from people being vulnerable, theatrical and maybe even cheesy, but never contrived. The friendly and casual tone is refreshing, and balances out the character’s capacity to be a little much, calling his love interests things like “sweetheart,” “doll,” and “lovebird.” It seems that the impressive readability comes from the combination of the vibrant dialogue and the esoteric narrative detail enabled through first-person narration Maierhofer employs.
“What do we do now, Henry?”
“Absolutely every single thing there is… lovebird.”
“What if we don’t have time?”
“Doesn’t exist tonight.”
“Are you a murderer or something . . . perhaps going to take me through the city? Show me the world of my dreams, then cut me up into little bits while I sleep in your arms?”
“Oh heavens no, why do you ask?”
“Because you seem a bit too right, boy from Wisconsin, just a little too perfect.”
“Well, you’ll just have to wait and see, that is if you’re brave enough.”
“Oh, I’ve dated far worse than murderers.”
“As have I.” We walked. We walked the other way down Fifth Avenue, slowly heading toward Central Park and Rockefeller Center and all of it, not knowing at all how to get there, but knowing exactly where to go.
I find the descriptions of New York incredible, because of their capacity to be refreshingly saccharine in their wanting. Maierhofer manages to create characters who find enthusiasm in the banality of a city so tourist-intensive it almost appears like a triumph. The New York described is one I have never seen, and I have lived here for a while.
Ultimately, the proximity of Maierhofer’s writing to his own life births both the biggest strengths and the biggest weaknesses of his novel. To me, the novel’s title reflects the writer’s reprehensibly self-defeating attitude: it indicates the writer’s view that to create something meaningful one has to be an outcast. During an intimate moment between him and Sara, they briefly exchange thoughts on Bukowski. Both of them seem to like the writer and admire his work. Henry then calls him “a crow,” by which he means Bukowski was an outcast or an outsider. Henry speaks highly of both Bukowski’s poetry and his novels, stating that “the humanity” of his work appealed to him. Yet this humanity Henry speaks of makes Bukowski an addition to the “precedents” for Maierhofer discussed in “Some Unscientific Thoughts on Depression.” By framing his work as such, it seems clear that he sees a binary that is not necessarily reflective of a broader truth: one needs not be an outcast to create meaningful art. As a narrative exploration of the writer’s depression, one which conveys the complexity of the disease, The Persistence of Crows is a meaningful addition to the literature on this—a priori—depressing subject. Then again, it might be this very attitude that is responsible for all the merits of the novel.
Piece originally published at Berfrois. Image by Dave Gingrich.
Elias Tezapsidis grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, prior to attending Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It was there that he discovered he was too neurotic and OCD for the Midwest and had a low-tolerance for the MN-nice. The move to NYC post-graduation seemed like the logical next step, and since then downtown New York has been home.