Reading diversely isn’t just about reading authors who are diverse in their ethnicity, gender, nationality, or sexual identity. It also includes reading diverse kinds of books or literary forms, books from diverse time periods, and from diverse publishing houses. Matthew Vollmer’s Inscriptions for Headstones is a piece of nonfiction from indie press Outpost 19, 30 essays crafted as single-sentence epitaphs stretching out for as many as 8 or 9 pages. It’s an ambitious conceit that only works because of Vollmer’s excellent prose; sentences are stretched out naturally by the consistent voice of the project rather than grammatical pyrotechnics.
It’s rather pop culture heavy (not always something I find particularly resonant) and the consistent biographical details inherent in each piece make the autobiographical nature of the whole clear. The narrator struggles with his religious upbringing and the nature of parenthood, both as a parent and from his perspective as a child. The morbid framing device isn’t just a gimmick; by recalling these defining flashes of life as epitaphs they are given poignancy without becoming saccharine or overdramatic. At no point in my reading did I find myself irritated by the conceit of the book. It works.
Reading things like this always leaves me a bit conflicted. Vollmer talks about Tumblr and Nike smartphone apps and these things seem so ephemeral and dating. What will this book sound like in 15 years? Vollmer has some powerful things to say about this stuff, but I’m always uneasy about the inclusion of these kind of transient details, however relevant in the moment. Even if a book like Inscriptions for Headstones does lose some of it’s punch over time, it’s still an incredible piece of work.
Recommendation: Buy from an independent bookseller (fuck Amazon and the way they deal with small presses) and read. Reread the essays you like (IIXXX for me).