Inscriptions for Headstones
By Matthew Vollmer
Reviewed by Chris Vola
"Death is one moment, and life is so many of them," says an angel in Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, urging the play's dying protagonist to fully seize her last moments. It's hard to argue with the ultimate, light-snatching truth of death's finality. But can't life also be described as a series of small and large deaths—the sudden shift from stagnating childhood spirituality, the dissolution of a friendship, the soft descent towards "normal" suburban isolationism—an inevitable, undulating, continuous shutting off that occurs each time, as Pink Floyd so aptly puts it, "the sun is eclipsed by the moon"? And, perhaps paradoxically, might this multitude of flickering darknesses serve to illuminate greater truths about oneself, to reconcile one's own identity with reality? Matthew Vollmer puts this hypothesis to the test in his collection of essays-as-epitaphs, Inscriptions for Headstones, a courageous, honest, and decidedly non-angelic dissection of the instants, both mundane and macrocosmic, that shape a man, and the malaise that tears him to the core.
The book's thirty inscriptions all begin by addressing the unglamorously deceased, the owner of each sentence-long headstone ("here lies a man who loved basketball..."; "this stone marks the final resting place of a man who, with his wife, had quote unquote by accident created a child..."). Vollmer ingeniously subverts the classic obituary—that politely bland compendium of geographical data, imagined achievements, and descendants produced—and creates deeply jarring and richly detailed expulsions of controlled emotion, the scattered craters of much larger explosions. And though none of these men are identified by name, we can assume, with some degree of certainty, that they are all parts of the same man, likely Vollmer, constructing a personal history and using as mortar the "daily" deaths described in the Book of Corinthians that forms part of Inscriptions' epigraph. In roughly chronological order (with plenty of flashes in both directions) we follow his early days as a child obsessed by the ridiculous minutiae of biblical dogma, his younger adulthood as a skeptical sinner with a penchant for hard rock, pop culture and deconstruction, and his later years as a re-blogging procrastination zombie and less-than-doting father. It is an existential purging of ghosts that really don't want to be purged, like "a house that was no longer his but always would be a place that no longer recognized him, a home that had died and that came to life only in dreams."
What makes Inscriptions so readable—I couldn't put it down—has little to do with liking or caring about what happens to the deceased. Rather, it is readable because of the universality of his flaws and the depth with which Vollmer describes them. Fearing damnation and then shirking it off during adolescence in favor of more secular pursuits, enduring the shrug and pull of a complex family dichotomy, not connecting with one's own child as profoundly as one could and instead succumbing to "the drudgery of daily life," contemplating one's demise and subsequent reputation, how soon it will fade from history's memory—it's all so familiar. The inscriptions take the form of thought processes, specific events trigger earlier memories, fears, philosophical musings, extensive mental lists of the brand names and technological appliances that flicker endlessly along the periphery, our collective brain searching with Vollmer for meaning amongst the careless joys and heartbreaking deformities of a very particular, well-traveled and prickly zeitgeist that wants us "to go away and we would and we will and we will be missed, and then forgotten." The text performs the enviable feat of hoisting up a man who is at once himself and a voice for an entire generation of calorie-fearing and pixel-viewing Americans, nervously immersed in a milieu of McTownhouses and six-year-olds' soccer games, slouching towards middle age and the imagined futility it brings.
Vollmer's meandering, hypnotic style also allows for a startling breadth of self-exploration. The prose rides verbal loops that are both lofty and elegiac and clinically modern, and often intersect in the same sentence:
and even when the deceased wasn't listening to the symphonies, even after the battery on his MP3 player had been drained, he found himself hearing them in bits and pieces when he least expected it, meaning that he would become aware of dopplering autos or the centrifugal whirring of a neighbor's heat pump or the gurgling and hiss of boiling potatoes and think without irony or sentiment that what he was hearing was indeed the timeless and improbable music of the spheres
At the hands of a lesser writer, a five-page sentence runs the risk of becoming a convoluted, self-serving jumble, but with Vollmer's careful pacing the result is freeing, each block of unobstructed text unfurls with a mesmerizing morbidity that builds to an often startling, uneasy revelation the deceased "would someday take to his grave." Intense, yes, but Vollmer also skillfully injects a good amount of subtle, self-deprecating humor into his always potent and witty observations to make the starkness of their truths a little more bearable. The deceased derides Larry Bird's gauche paleness (a trait that reminds him of his father), equates pregnancy to a wacky science experiment, realizes, with the hilarious shame of an embarrassed dog, that the dent he begs to have surgically removed from his chest as a child could be a lot worse, "a dent those other chests would have probably killed for." And though each of the individual inscriptions can more or less stand on its own, the absence of any concluding punctuation and capitalization, along with Vollmer's brilliant rhythmic cadence, creates the visual effect of the headstones bleeding into one another through the white space, that blind spot of purging that exists outside of time and keeps the ghost stories connected and alive. Collectively, these Inscriptions constitute one of the saddest, funniest, and most insightful (non)obituaries ever printed. And perhaps one of the best.