Future Missionaries of America
At a time when there are so many good writers at work, it’s not easy to separate my “want more” from my “not right now” writers. It wasn’t easy to do so with the last generation either—a task which I nonetheless undertook in Suburban Ambush to talk about those writers who, having cleared away the late modern invasive growth being sustained by all the wrong economies, did something interesting with the plot of narrative ground they’d cleared. While I am mostly interested in seeing how the current generation will winnow itself, I find it impossible not to put, among American writers, books by the likes of Kate Zambreno, Suzanne Scanlon, and Amina Cain in front of students and savor the same kind of fireworks that went off thirty years ago when students read immediate generational predecessors like Lynne Tillman and Kathy Acker.
I find it equally hard not to write a few words when I do find a stack of books in which a writer senses the anemia of long-standing practices, the exhaustion of the old metaphysics now languishing in the cultural thrift shop, and yet also busies the writerly imagination in finding forms with a pulse that can trigger flashes of insight into being-as-it-is-now. Such was the unexpected discovery that followed a rather pleasant midsummer evening chatting under a slow-turning ceiling fan over the requisite G&Ts by which old India hands stave off the scourge of our malarial politics. Critics talking with writers under any circumstances is never innocent, nor was this talk as it turns out, and I found myself afterwards unexpectedly seeded with five conceptions that embed themselves in what follows.
Matthew Vollmer has five books under his name with more on the way. He edited two collections, Fakes with David Shields of Reality Hunger notoriety (wherein diverse writers produce fictional versions of daily forms purporting to be “real”), and A Book of Uncommon Prayer (an effort to see what can be done by appropriating the form of prayer). Two collections take the story form so beloved by the MFA world and make it work hard to disaggregate our tangled present (Future Missionaries of America, 2009, and Gateway to Paradise, 2015); another collection calling itself “thirty short essays, crafted as epitaphs, each one unfolding in a single sentence” is the 2012 inscriptions for headstones, a book that as easily could have been marketed as nonfiction stories, so hybridized is its performance of confusion at the lines between reality and invention.
All these works suggest, that is, that form is an emptiness we fill with life materials that become legible at the cost of the truth seemingly promised by form itself. Thankfully, they understand that emptiness is itself a form, be it in the not infrequent (in Vollmer’s pages particularly) shapes of guilt, or doubt, or fear (of death especially, but also of hurting a child or spouse, or of some version of the Law), or in the cultural fictions (of art, religion, social mores) by which we try to plaster over our nagging sense of the Great Nothing-in-particular that haunts our classic belief systems.
Vollmer writes, in other words, in the wake of all possible bedtime stories we tell ourselves about these grand fictions from human history, a wake made particularly piquant for him given his Adventist upbringing. There’s nothing like a steady diet of divinely-sanctioned rule systems during the formative years to make one keenly aware of the profound resonance of what we internalize as an invisible Thought Police. Moreover, there’s nothing like playfully engaging with all those system-forged forms that is as likely to capture our crucial long slide from residual tradition towards a latter day Nietzschean ludic relish for the pop-up domiciles we make for ourselves in words. Juggling the emptiness/form dialectic without lapsing either into despair or delusionary eureka is the postmodern game—and Vollmer plays it well in five ways.
Life’s a Mixtape
Stories are a mixtape, he says—an interesting metaphor that foregrounds the sheer heterogeneity of one’s sources, one’s rhetorical pricklings, and one's thematic efflorescences. There's sequence as on any mixtape, but one that meanders willfully in that ludic mode rather than trilling along through the concreted conduit of an older century's metaphysics of plot. If we are moving assemblages of genetics and history, then we are fields of live flashing components whose energetic brilliances are the messy wholes that, as postmoderns, are both our deflated ontologies and our willful narratologies.
It’s a dangerous metaphor, as all good ones are—one could imagine a simple-minded believer assembling found phrases from advertising and other such public spaces, and letting them substitute for the inmix of found phrases and those culture bubbles in which one finds oneself (such “stories” are out there—n’est-ce pas—they’re just not interesting). Such simplification swats down classic mimetic realism capably enough, but such a swat is nowhere near as interesting as the indeterminacy with which form and the emergent moment mix. The simple swat is still a piece of metaphysical syntax: this is (not) x, the indeterminacy maneuver being what instead allows narrative to breathe through both nostrils.
In the title story to Gateway to Paradise, for example, we could tease out any number of passages to good effect, but let’s spoil the ending instead. Riley distracts her hapless boyfriend, Jaybird, who attempts to play out movie scenes—with the lottery-winner, with the couple and their disabled vehicle, with the old girlfriend, with the loot and the girl (not) in hand—but who plays each role badly, trying to recite an old script rather than relishing the zest of invention. If you read the story, you’ll get why mentioning “zest” in connection with Jaybird is amusing. In any case, Riley is the player. She’s stunned when Jaybird first blooper-reels his big scene, and she’s on red alert when they meet up again, but having found her writerly edge by feeling “like she might walk the hot knife of herself through the meat of another human body and leave two sizzling halves behind” (169), she’s ready to play.
She picks a set (in “the shadow cast by a large dumpster…behind a T-shirt emporium”), and he pulls out the loot in a replay of pulling a possum out of the trashcan. Both sets are dramatically lit. Themed with trash, featuring a dolt thrilled to be holding the future by the deadend of a possum’s tail, or its metaphorical equivalent. Then, in the present, the gun scene, and he buys it when she gets the one-word threat she’s painstakingly set up: “Ugly.” Jaybird doesn’t get it that she’s bluffing—too wrinkly a plot for his flat mind—or that just one word from him would likely have spun her around from her badass striding off into the sunset. Because “if Jaybird believed that she was brave enough to leave him, maybe she wasn’t just acting.” If this were yesterday year’s story, we’d be done. But it isn’t, and we’re not because it’s never a matter in postmodernity of real or memorex, actuality or acting. Hence the next line: “Maybe she was just playing herself.”
O luscious pun for a critic! Playing herself the way one plays the role that seems to be emerging like a readymade, a page out of the archive of standard plot devices. But also playing it the way one plays a piano which offers you an infinity of things to play, though, at the same, limited to what the physical instrument can do. But also playing herself the way a con artist fools his mark into playing out his scene. This is a well made story, but it is also an exemplar of the “well-made” story in that we have “the sense of an ending,” even if that ending turns out to be, as she anticipates remembering the robbery-gone-wrong way off in the future, she says “there it’d be: a terrible story she could tell without fear, because, by then, it would have all happened to somebody else.”
This figure in the carpet is not some hidden truth of the Real, but rather a stock design from Karastan carpet company—made from “natural fibers,” whatever that ever means, but still part of the much-branded Mixtape of Intellectual Properties leaking into the public domain through the copy facilities of our memory banks. It is the indeterminacy of this mix that is the zest of the narrative, and Vollmer plays this zest like a surfer or a lead guitarist with only trace elements of nostalgia for the old era of capital “T” Truths.
Which means, through a metaphor appropriate for a post-Adventist, Vollmer’s narrative practice willfully eludes Sunday School book closure and becomes an exploration of what happened to those "interesting" kids, as he put it when we talked—who because they did not get right with the lord, escaped the closure of the Barney kid types who would never deviate again. That eluding (or is that eliding?) is a complex idea, because it is partly what happens to you personally if you release the brakes of religious moralism’s inhibitions, and partly what happens when a writer surrenders the tight-assed foreclosure managed by religious belief (either its own or its post-religious “secularized” form). The synergy of those two planes is essential to the sly, wry power of Vollmer's stories.
We just saw one story end without the metaphysical side of closure. There’s a certain kind of narrative finality to the degree that “her” arc with Jaybird is blown, but whither it blows her, and more importantly how, is something like the non-answer of living her life as an open narrative. The title story of Future Missionaries of America illustrates just what is at stake in aiming beyond closure as a story. It is “about” a Goth girl and an Adventist boy who are paired off to “raise” an electronic baby collecting data on their parenting skills and who manage to produce miscellaneous sparks and resonances despite their apparent adherence to incompatible world views. The e-baby is surprisingly effective at tiring them, irking them, and interrupting them before their accidental near-consummation of those miscellaneous sparks and resonances after dinner at his Southern Living house. Her dad is the one who snatched a mint Millennium Falcon from a crying kid at the (ha!) Goodwill, his is the goodly Pastor Mel who manages his ascetic religion in apparent harmony with his thoroughly accessorized photoshoot-ready house. Typical of Vollmer’s wry humor, the weather (it is snowing, and, in case you missed it, from the mouth of a child we learn that she is “snowed in” there) is a random metaphor for how snowed everybody is by something, whether it’s goth angst, love story lyrics, religion’s body-shaming, or our consumerist feeding frenzy. There’s lovely frisson from the revelation that he’s been planning for months to teach English in Abidjan where perfectionist Harriet the Pen Pal lives, and Pastor Mel is aware of rising tension (demonstrated by his rising from his chair to order the youngest daughter to bed) in a nervously ineffectual way.
In other words, the entire roster of well-made story moves wanders through the narrative while the whole cast, aware of the demands of satisfying closure, try to impose the requisite order upon events: the boy seeks simpatico coupledom in the service orgy of teaching in Africa, the girl drives their pheromones toward consummation, mother and daughter occupy a decorous background of aiding and abetting dramatic tension and its resolution, and pastor Mel seeks to father a suitable outcome, particularly after the crying e-baby spoils the consummation. And as usual, Vollmer spoils the story’s consummation—at least for a resolutely traditional reader. The comic arc that quickly goes cosmic begins with her dream of the house as a ship with a hold full of failed babies, as hers becomes when, as it lies there wanting “to be known” she tells it “you’re not even real” and a week away from being checked back into the cabinet of switched off babies. Such is America, perhaps.
In any case, Pastor Mel hears the boy’s “mother-fucker!” (his surgery to silence the e-baby fails) and opens the door where he finds two adolescents without pants and up to no good. In the last pages, they have “a talk” that her thoughts lacerate for its utter inadequacy and that ends, as it must in so Adventist a home, in prayer. Her thoughts have ranged over desire, jealousy, desperation to win her man, and general hormonal chaos in juxtaposition to Mel’s sedated commentary on god’s plan for bodies, virtue, and the healing act of prayer. But then it’s her turn. To pray. The praying goth girl seems not to fit into her psyche anywhere, but the well-trained reader expects that what she says will bring the story’s increasingly frenetic, and yet also comic, intensities to rest in a brilliant moment of oracular authorial wisdom. Except that what we get for a final line is this: “And then, in the unsteadiest voice, I begin.”
The well-trained reader can, of course, extemporize at this point; after all, she has “closed her heart” rather than opening it as Pastor Mel enjoins her. Surely, she plays her family history and that with her e-baby partner against the assemblage of pop songs and romance and religious earnest abundant in the household—or not. Because the story doesn’t generate the closure that such readers begin imagining. What the story does do, however, is set her up to perform that playing off the implements and forms strewn all through the story, an impossible performance given the contradictions that abound, but one she cannot avoid. Which is precisely what the story itself does—play the tradition of forms and expectations and available materials—and what the reader should realize s/he must do; namely to perform these elements in a scriptless continuum of open possibility that is, finally, more interesting than the Sunday School lesson closure Pastor Mel expects to emerge. Closure can contain performance, but authorial performance can also elude it by preferring a Way over the culminating Omega point of faith narratives with their trailing dots of universalizing moralistic mini-omegas.
It’s all about me…
Given such relief from the onerous agenda of micromanaging individuality according to a Master plan, the “me-ism” of recent pop culture offers up a consumerist self-validation—acquire the signifiers of membership in its own glitzy City of Light—which overlays the traditional rule system of religious dogmatism. Vollmer’s serio-comic dismantling of the orthodox life points to something like a performance-of-the-moment ethos more Eastern (how do I wisely live each moment?) than Western (what, ultimately, eternally, and universally, is The Truth, to which I must therefore conform?).1 Without trucking around all this intellectual freightage, Vollmer manages to use fiction as a vehicle of finding our way out of both our explicitly religious dogma and its less obviously pious sublimations in secularism.
Hence it should really come as no surprise that Vollmer laughs and says every story is about himself—if in a different sense than the narcissist’s—a report, we might say, from the "as if" trenches of what he would do were he going beyond voyeurism in some imagined situation. So a story is a look at a situation he knew about, one way or another, and then put himself in, but not just for the hijinks of alternative lives: this is not trivial fiction, though it is still amusing. Put more formally, we have a phenomenology of the hypothethical, the object being to see how his resituated self would perceive things, and how then he would organize them in remixing both a life and a sense of it formed as a narrative. Do please note that there is both epistemological and a rhetorical operation going on in a venture that is both ontological and narratological. Or, it is one because it is also the other, as if he were out to illustrate what Buddhists meant by dependent origination (i.e., all things arise together in mutual dependency). His written world is, of course, anything but neutral, or objective, or any such fantasy of adequacy, reliability, or plenitude. But it's also more than that: it's an ontological departure into the twilight zone of impure performance, both burdened by and shedding what one has downloaded from the cultural code base.
In his essay “This I Believed” (originally published in The Sun), Vollmer chooses the humorist’s mask to detail the nonetheless serious arc from religious absolutism to secularism’s brink of something different, arrested as it is at the final step past changing the words while keeping the form to full-on demystification. It’s not an easy passage, as we know from our collective history, and Vollmer uses the humorist’s light touch to launch an ironic vessel of self-discovery that, ultimately, undoes it all, as irony has a way of doing.
With the essay’s title fully marking the past tense of the starting block, he begins: “I believed, in the beginning, that I was not of this world. That is, I believed I should not love the things of the world, because it—this planet, this Earth—was not my home, and that my actual residence—the place where I truly belonged and would someday go to live, as could any human being who accepted the invitation—was Heaven….” No surprises here—the “invitation” comes in the form of laws to obey, and most of those laws run up against the instinct to pursue worldly things (music, sex, drugs being the usual suspects).
Hence it also runs up against the prime issue: “My first problem—and possibly my last—was that I loved my home—and the world—as it was.” With a chortle, he marks that point in the emergence of modernity when the world turned into a good thing, with self-definition by actualization through experience, and beyond which a u-turn back into an at least theoretical asceticism becomes increasingly unthinkable. There is a telling ambiguity in whether loving home is “possibly my last” problem because such love condemns him to perdition, or because he enters a ludic paradise on earth that, in a rush of post-Nietzschean hormones, seems much more pleasing than that promised Elysium, that “far-away paradise that existed beyond what we humans could see or know” and hence competed poorly in a world full of rock music, sexuality, and the magical ingredients that delivered a sin-saddled conscience from its strictures.
Vollmer richly evokes in terms a child’s memory would preserve the striking absolutism that informs the Adventist vision, one forged in the nineteenth century “awakening” sparked in part by the apostasy of such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson as Americans turned to secularized faith, pantheistic motifs, Eastern inspiration, and the spiritualism that spawned both the séance industry and theosophy. A series of paragraphs collects the Adventist spiritual landscape of his childhood, a bit like the church literature’s vivid illustrations that persist in his memory. Here’s a representative sample:
I believed that God created the world for man and that—in the beginning—it was perfect, and that there was no death or pain or monsters or fangs or bee stings or bleeding or headaches or diarrhea or killing or meanness or frowning or anything bad at all, just perfect harmonious living…
Children of the West start this way, whether in this language or its secularized cousin of science and rationality, and such a starting point both measures you against an (impossible) standard of perfection and grounds you in absolutely determinative rationales—“God had a plan, had always had a plan—had, in fact, not ever not had a plan—because, as the all-knowing and omnipotent Lord of the Universe, he had always foreseen,” including having foreseen the whole course of individuality in sacred history.
It’s hard to beat such a rap, hard to beat the resulting rap sheet, and especially when you begin discovering all that emerges in you from relating to and through what the world has to offer. The list for a boy raised in the mountains is predictable, if engagingly listed, but the response to the sheer intensity of the discipline prior to other-worldly perfection is more interesting:
And here’s the thing: I’d always felt sorry for Lot’s wife because I always predicted I would’ve done the same thing. It’d been one of the great themes of my life: tell me not, under any circumstances, to do something, and I would sit and wonder what would happen if I actually did what I’d been told not to.
This may strike some as a very common temptation—it is, perhaps, the temptation—but it is also historically freighted with the cultural emphasis upon the ultimate value of experience itself. We may come in trailing clouds of glory, but we still must crest Mt Snowdon, wander the moors, and trill with the nightingale. What had been a desecration of individual, family, state, and cosmos becomes “the road of excess [that] leads to the palace of wisdom.” Many of Vollmer’s reminiscences are versions of eroding the letter of divine law for a modicum of pleasure—maple syrup on pancakes rather than sugarless austerity, “clean” meat rather than their ascetic vegetarian norm, a keyboard for music rather than an absolute proscription of Satan’s lures (in his persona as the fallen heavenly choirmaster), and so forth. A few are ominous from the orthodox perspective, as with his not feeling different after baptismal immersion, or finding private prayer onerous and public prayer a harrowing test of having something good enough to say in front of the gathering of faithful. Everything becomes the anxious performance of self, stepping out from the narrowly defined ribbon of a path, rather than the safety of “blessed assurance” promised by orthodoxy. It is the stepping that draws him along, not the moment by moment adherence to what feels like a limited and tedious orthodoxy.
But this description is way more ponderous than Vollmer’s account, which manages to keep to a lightsomely wry humor about foibles. Nobody dies in these essays, or experiences grotesque racism or classist persecution—even though the arc here is the personal version of that historical arc that delivered western society into the travails of late modernism on the verge of a postmodernity—about which it was mostly clueless. It ends, amusingly and for sports fans at least perhaps endearingly, with his adolescent narrative of being such an amazing football player that he’s allowed to go pro without playing high school ball (too many games after Friday’s sunset), college ball (far too many Saturday Sabbath games), or pro ball’s Sabbath practices—because his all time records are, shall we say, outstanding. As he concludes:
It was, of course, the ultimate fantasy: that I could use my God-given talent to become a part of the world without sacrificing what I believed. As long as I could prove myself to be extraordinary, my peculiar beliefs would be accepted and legitimized and honored. I would participate—and thus matter—in both this world and the next. It didn’t seem ridiculous at the time. I only had to believe.
The last line is lethal, of course. The essay has demolished the possibility of belief in the radical asceticism and imminent Second Coming of Adventism, and his “fantasy” is indeed the classic one of modernity in which outward signs of success legitimate inner authenticity without the tiresome subservience to spiritual and sociopolitical orders. Such a fantasy in which we can just move along—nothing here to see—is adolescence itself, the essay seems to conclude—an historical diagnosis without a very practical prognosis. Orthodox sacred history as a blueprint for personal or social destiny thus deposits you not in that far away paradise, but in an ineradicable cultural contradiction between the storybook of resolution and the experience of history as a moment-by-moment process—emerging in a free for all of forces that include the social, personal, genetic, and pure chance mutations of what we classically conceive as Order.
No wonder, then, that one can so easily pair “What I Believed” with “The World is Not Your Home” (originally published in Ploughshares), the title of which summarizes a dismissal of the worldliness which the essay shows him both internalizing and resisting—the “non-transformative” experience of baptism recurs here—except for a single moment singing a hymn about meeting up in the hereafter: “And here’s the magical part: when you’re singing, when your chest thrums with the reverberations, you have no doubts. The song is a sweetness, a foretaste of glory, a balm that allows you to feel—at least for the duration of the song—as if maybe the stories you’ve been told your whole life are true, and that now, today, you have been healed and made new.” Here the essay ends, leaving the “as if” in tension with “healed and made new,” as if orthodoxy gets the last word(s), but ones that don’t survive either the end of the song or that of the essay. And why? Is it because the experience of life shreds the orthodox austerities almost longingly, not quite wistfully, described in the daily lives of family and friends? The narrative’s closure is one that clears away the religious closure within which he is raised but which does not survive this moment in history. It is part of the great “as if” of storied experience which a nonfiction form has the license to pursue. In the form of story itself is the genetic code of western story-telling in the Christian era, and perhaps also in what precedes it, one that has the metaphysical closure he tries out and wears through in experience itself. He ends each essay with a pause, as if when one deeply interrogates the self, the forms of doing so dissolve in the waters of a different baptism altogether from what is imagined in the Adventist storybooks he recalls. It is, as he puts it at the end of mining his religious boarding school experiences, “to shudder with the terror as we realized that we were standing upon the brink of a future that was, whether we wanted to acknowledge it or not, absolutely uncertain.”
We emerge, then, with something like the rhetoric of “alchemy” in the mixtape elements that chemically interact to produce behavior, but also with endings that tease your anticipated closure and then stop “abruptly” before the closure or dénouement could occur. The point is not to produce a well-wrought urn, a beginning/middle/end machine, a closure that is always already foreclosure, but rather an art of bringing to the brink someone who realizes s/he is indeed at a threshold but cannot comply with the closure machine being operated by those empowered to do so. Like the goth in love with the adventist who fucks him, gets caught, and has to p®ay. Which she comes to the brink of without opening her heart; instead, the Sunday school teaching story's form is displaced by the open experimentation of the transgressive departure. It does not, however, replace one dogma with another—i.e., it is not modernist—but rather leaves us at the point of embarkation for a mixtape of reality we curate from the best we have stumbled upon suffused with a healthy dose of inchoate yearning and a play we must perform in the particular backwater of the Social where we find ourselves temporarily embedded—on assignment, as it were.
Many of Vollmer’s stories show these characters whose circumstances are about to lock them into a plot and which—narrator, character, or both—refuse and pull back, sometimes switching channels into another prefabricated story, sometimes just seizing up like locked machinery refusing the next turn, any turn. Kyle, in “The Digging,” for example, refuses to tell the backstories leading to his punishment drill of digging a hole and filling it. His newly hitched mother allows him to be sent to Wildwood Adventist Academy, the mission of which is a fulfillment of religiosity in scripting his life. It “insures that every hour of every day has a purpose and that every student is accounted for.” Kyle interrupts the régime by pulling the fire alarm, gets in deeper for having a clutch of things taken from his dead father’s glovebox (Skoal, a Metallica tape, and a knife), and winds up sentenced to digging a hole that inevitably reminds him of a grave—his father’s, his own literal grave in waiting, and perhaps the school into which he is dumped by his zealot of a stepfather. What he won’t tell the principal is where this illicit trove came from, or about his mother’s remarriage, or about the letter in his back-pocket in which he’s dumped by his girlfriend back home. He takes off running to rescue its last page from the wind, “forgetting, at least for the time it takes to cross the field, that there’s a hole with his name on it that has to be filled.” The joke is on both Deep Readers and beachfront readers, the latter for taking it as the rude way life holds us to our allotted punishments (no escape), the former for “getting it” that the multi-stranded pathos of his adolescent life is pretty lousy dirt with which to fill out his identity. That his identity remains an unfilled (and unfillable) hole is the postmodern human condition, quoth the Deep Reader, whose reading is perhaps the title’s “Digging” made necessary by the implied author’s wry act of pulling James’ art of fiction carpet out from under both consumerist and critical readers.
In “Second Home,” we are set up for the grand reconciliation between a widow and her estranged son, but when they finally meet—she goes to his door before she’s fully awake in the morning, and he answers the pounding on the door poised in boxers with a baseball bat—we don’t get much at all. She has been a bit of a zombie thus far, and we’ve seen him only from a distance with the sound off: we get details of the drama roiling the family, but the details are slender and commentary nonexistent. We’re told he looks “like a boy waiting for a story he wanted to believe,” and that she parts her lips to speak his name “as though, for the first time in his life, she might have the right words to explain.” Alas, “story” lovers, that was the last line, and any sense of an ending is tortured by “like” and “as though,” free-floating destabilizers of the arc that satisfies. Maybe he is that waiting boy, or maybe he’s just a grown man ready to clock a psychopath; maybe she does have the right words, or maybe she’s going to just drive, metaphorically, past this scene the way she bypassed the opening lines’ homecoming scene. On the brink of why we’re taught stories are written—the big scene shown, not told—the story stops. It’s not even so much a roll your own closure. It’s more like being slapped for wanting that form in which everything fits together in precisely the way it never does in real life. Do we really want an Order of Things that places every impulse, ties up every strand, and seals it all in a well-wrought (funeral) urn? Life, perhaps, is what happens as we flub our lines in others’ scripts.
There are others that work similarly—an office romance that seems to be working out but doesn’t, a dentist leaving messages on his dead bride’s phone and waiting endlessly for her reply, a man feeling his dead wife’s bony hand reaching out of his navel to drag him out onto a windswept rock, a woman whose dog doesn’t perform to her script, a visiting writer who does not in fact have anything to do with a narrator’s imagined sex scenario, a man replacing his life on probation with a fantasy of a fugitive being eaten. In each case, the focal character resorts to absurd but tight stories in which the plot of desire is menacing, perhaps fatally, whatever mishmash of chance events and backstory is their actuality, the tones varying from comic to sad, but the form of all of them contrasting falsifying order and mute inglorious events mixed together in a flow of circumstance. The mundane sequencing of social genes strives to express an order beyond their abyssal realities, a perhaps devalued cousin of that far away paradise with which religious narrative hopes to compensate for a dull, hurtful, or outright intolerable reality.
So what do stories look like once we’ve recovered from inner essences, closure, the eternal “I am,” and the capacity of narrative form to deposit us on the brink of something perhaps altogether new? Vollmer doesn’t always simply hijack the well-made forms all young writers still learn. Increasingly, he infiltrates, as his collecting with David Shields does in Fakes, existing nonfiction forms with fictive ends akin to what we’ve seen him do with more conventional looking stories. Inscriptions for Headstones captures single sentence renderings of lives (in assemblages of obituary-speak); more nonplussing to traditional readers, Permanent Exhibit subsumes the form of Facebook status posting.
In other words, it’s not hard to see that, in many ways, our era’s written form is the post—“long” in Medium, medium in blogs, short in Facebook updates, flash in Tweets. As we survey especially these digital forms, we’ve seen wit combat (the daily one-off humor bandied about in the Retweet Zone), and we’ve seen done on these stages the same smart plays that could as easily have been done via literary press fiction with sharp fonts on thick textured paper. We don’t, however, see too much real infiltration into the site-geist, and especially we don’t see very many participants purposefully suspending their habits of literary form in favor of a relatively unfiltered flow into the deliciously entitled Status Updates. That is to say, in the performance of daily life you win points and you lose them on the great “Likes” Leader Board in the Cloud. But if you peruse the typical Facebook population, you find SUs that are mostly effusions over baby robins, (s)inspirationals (often Biblical or at least evangelical in origin and also often dubious beyond feeling a little rush of happy), or occasion notices (for first day in school, last day in schooling, anniversaries of joy or the macabre, etcetera).
Vollmer’s SUs appear like unfiltered flows, but the rascally writer playing twicks on us Fudds manages to arrange pops that scattergraph into arrays of stylized performances rather than cohering into anything like traditional conceptions of transcendentally essential and spiritual beings. Along the way, one becomes amused at the code bits that are spliced together to finesse the illusion of a moving picture of that thing that is (supposedly) a person, but one is also a bit discomfited by the suspicion that Vollmer knows exactly what he’s doing and that our tidier inherited concepts are the bumbling butts of his Bugsy jokes.
What, then, do we get when someone jettisons the formal engine narrative shares with our culture’s religious and secular schematics? In Vollmer, at least, we get that mixtape itself, unadorned, mostly unordered, minus shaping commentary demystifying or otherwise, with extraneous details that stay that way, with sequences that are flow rather than revelation of a developmental arc (to Vollmer, his narrator, or reality itself), that are non-causal sequentials—reading Krishnamurti takes over his waiting room experience during his son’s dental appointment not because the sage refused his anointment by Theosophy as the World Teacher, but mainly because, if we can use such a word, “Vollmer” was carrying that book at the time. It’s true that he reads Krishnamurti warning us against submitting ourselves to the punishments that the worldly powers use to control us, which sends him off to thinking about being spanked as a child, which reminds him that his son as a toddler fought back the one time he, father Vollmer, attempted to spank him, which makes him wonder at the lack of natural punishment for the boy’s bad dental hygiene habits when he emerges cavity free and with a “groovy” bracelet from the treasure box, all of which spirals off into empty space as he chooses not to interrupt his son singing along to “Don’t Let Me Down” coming over the radio. The narrator has a complicated sensibility that receives a series of impressions from the flow, and a mind well-trained by the “institutions” Krishnamurti disparages pauses, fingers over the keyboard, perfectly capable of orchestrating some Order of Things out of the flow but doesn’t.
A “Status Update,” it seems, doesn’t triangulate on your footfalls along the curling ribbon of destiny in God’s (or Nature’s) fully lawyered up universe, but rather renders in snapshots the tracers of incoming sensory data and their splashes into a pool of memories without apparent aim, purpose, or correlation with external meanings. It just is. The first brief entry in the volume is called, in fact, “Status Update,” and is seventeen sentences, each a tracer different in origin, nature, content, resonance, the raw material for a totalizing psychological portrait that does not happen, or a similarly DOA day-in-the-life arc that completes its portrait of a patterned existence rendered as a quintessence of its whole. There is no whole, there is no core, there is no Aristotelian resonance of spheres of emanation of central universal essence, there’s just the cultural chatter of artifacts strewn across a temporal landscape foregrounding our temptation to take them up and make something of them.
So, what? Readers are either bored and turn to some other more well-ordered form that will reward their ability to explicate the always already there nested order of things, or they realize they must make a different kind of something out of them, something in which meaning works differently from oracular pronouncement, or the exemplary lyrical emotion of the sensitive or insightful subject, or wry ironies about the disparity between what we should be and what we are, or so forth on through the list of properly “literary” affects. Even in “Status Update” there are traces in the language from the institutional discourses in which they typically circulate. Sentence by sentence, the discourses slithering into consciousness derive from jurisprudence, consumerism, state violence and racial justice, appliance eco-guilt, sloth guilt, vacation escapist fantasy, cute Bambi syndrome, food guilt, death angst, suburban friendship angst, suburban proselytizer guilt/angst, angst over one’s coolness rating, planet Earth, TV self-medication. Labeling them this way is halfway to a Reading of deep order and meaning, but I’ll just leave matters there, almost as is, leaving visible the thick tangle of wirings striving to organize our blips and synapses into a meaningful neural network, the institutional orthodoxies coursing through the neurons functioning as unactualized memes of identity and significance. We are, it would seem, organismic “fleshware” capable of inmixing multiple operating systems in uneasily shifting affiliative identifications we’re enabled to combine out of these systemic possibilities. Perhaps we are best understood as performers of cultural languages uttering experiences as we narratize our way along, anxiously unaware of the AI driving the illusory self-effect of the whole process.
The more narrative version in this volume is found in a piece like “Signs of the Times” in which a compilation of literal signs from (literally) all over the map slides into a brief narrative bubble in a bar about an Iraq veteran we hear constructing, out of the stock signage of the culture, a bridge into his drink-sipping present from the death-dealing horrors of Iraq. His eyes “glazed over” before turning away with a “V” sign, not hearing the narrator muttering something about “learn[ing] how to be a machine.” We are, Deleuze and Guattari tell us, machinic, and our increasingly militant defensiveness as a people may have a lot to do with our underlying anxiety that we are living, as the clickbait headlines tell us, in a simulation—but one less like The Matrix than being Lost in the Funhouse of language mirroring language mirroring infinitely in its distinctive finite sort of way. Vollmer’s Mourning Posts have traces of nostalgia for the classic master narrative, but they leave it in pieces instead of composing them, as if to foreground the sorry state of a present in which we still desire the ontology imagined in the no longer so masterly narrative form.
Vollmer is, in fact, a touch Eastern without perhaps fully realizing it. That is, writing leads him not to the Truth but to a Way. Truth pretends to a (bogusly) universal status by which the West has whipped the droves into the shape appropriate to the way it does its business in the world. A Way, on the other hand, is an anarchic, often circumstantial, and finally unpredictable bricolage by which one finesses the next step away from the kind of order favored by the social machinery and towards an existential space in which one can play off that machinery’s contradictions, making what’s been aptly called a temporary autonomous zone. If that zone can be called, although with irony, a gateway to paradise, it’s because the west has been profoundly confused over what the Kingdom might actually be like. Becoming conscious of the process by which we are produced may be the only available step to enabling our status as players rather than simply played, though it is no exit from the game itself. And that, to me, is what makes Matthew Vollmer’s fiction compelling at a much deeper level than the play of wit, sensibility, and intelligence in his craft.
Vollmer, Matthew. Future Missionaries of America. San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage, 2009.
Vollmer, Matthew. inscriptions for headstones. San Francisco: Outpost19, 2012.
Vollmer, Matthew. “This I Believed.” The Sun Magazine 454 (2013): 24-27.
Vollmer, Matthew. “This World Is Not Your Home.” Ploughshares. 40.4 (Winter, 2014-15): 127-140.
Vollmer, Matthew. Gateway to Paradise. New York: Persea Books, 2015
Vollmer, Matthew. A Book of Uncommon Prayer. San Francisco: Outpost19, 2015.
Vollmer, Matthew. Permanent Exhibit. Rochester: BOA Editions, forthcoming.
Vollmer, Matthew, and David Shields, eds. Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.
- I’m not alone in being willing to play this old game in new ways, despite the perils that await the unwary comparatist. Consider, for example, the waves in east-west polemics made by S. N. Balagangadhara’s The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion or its shorter redaction in Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem? The Making of Indian Religions. In his take, even (in fact, especially so) in the postcolonial critiques of characterizations like “East” and “West,” it is western scholarship and its underlying categories that determine the argument.
ROBERT SIEGLE is the author of The Politics of Reflexivity: Narrative and the Constitutive Poetics of Culture; Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency; Mirror to Mirror: Postmodernity in South Asian Fiction.