After blasting Matthew Vollmer’s co-edited anthology, Fakes, for being “petulantly clever” and having an ass-backward sense of history, it seems wrong of me, somehow, to profess admiration for his authored collection of short essays, inscriptions for headstones, which neatly exemplifies the kind of writing that Fakes applauds. But I have to. inscriptions for headstones is insanely good. There’s a line in the introduction to Fakes that sounds overblown: “Language can transform even the most lifeless of genres and therefore has the power to resurrect the soul.” But that’s an accurate description of what Vollmer is up to with inscriptions for headstones.
The title explains the concept: thirty short essays that could be chiseled on the tombstone of our protagonist, known as “the deceased.” Each essay begins by invoking a burial site (“Here lies a man who…” or “This grave contains all that was mortal of a man who…”) and quickly moves on to relate an episode from the life of the deceased—an episode that maybe, possibly, just might sum up his time on earth and the perils of the human condition. One of them starts like this.
rest in peace man who refused to think of himself as a thief but who could, supposing the conditions were right, justify the taking of things that were not his, and who, as a thirteen-year-old boy visiting the mall during his annual pilgrimage from the mountains of North Carolina to the bustling metropolis of Greenville, South Carolina, where he would seek out Air Jordan high tops and severely tapered Bugle Boy stonewashed jeans and mock turtlenecks and checkered cardigans, once found an excuse to part ways with his mother to visit the mall’s only bookstore—a Waldenbooks on the first level—where he began nonchalantly browsing the periodicals, flipping through an issue of MAD that lampooned a Cosby Show spinoff, skimming a Sports Illustrated and noting the “Faces in the Crowd,” glancing every now and again toward the cashier—a short, squat woman with big round lenses, braided hair, and loose beige clothing—then back toward the top shelf, where, in prophylactic sacks, a host of magazines bearing titles in lurid colors—OUI and CHERI and CLUB—waited patiently for him to make his move [...]
You’ll notice there isn’t a single period in the book. The essays (they could also be called short stories) race across the page in one unbroken sentence, as if Vollmer thinks that by writing fast he might actually cram these words onto a headstone. His busy-yet-grammatical syntax reminds me of De Quincey, eloquently recalling his feverish opium dreams. Vollmer’s writing is my new favorite example of what it must be like to see a life flash before your eyes.
The essays would have been rewarding enough in a more conventional format. They cover such chestnuts as childhood and fatherhood, doubts about the Christian church, and plagues of snakes that you have to decapitate with a shovel. But the conceit of putting them on tombstones gives the whole book an element of the sublime. As epitaphs, they prove the absurdity of memorializing a human life with text. Even prose as outstanding as Vollmer’s will never capture the fullness of one average life. This elegaic book seems to carry that knowledge around like a sadness. But the reader feels uplifted. Think of it! Our lives are beyond words.
- Brian Hurley