Matthew Vollmer

A Book of Uncommon Prayer

Reading Log favorite Matthew Vollmer edited this particular anthology, an artifact that began as a personal writing project and expanded to include the work of many writers. Everything in here is a variant of a prayer, specifically, an uncommon one, a prayer for people watching airline safety demonstrations, for people seeing their new home in the harsh light of objectivity, for people who bought Brazilian waxes on Groupon. Some of these prayers are very funny, some of them reveal an upsetting reality, some of them are simply thoughtful or meditative.

As will be the case with any anthology, some of these pieces didn’t do much for me, but the vast majority ranged between decent and excellent. Verbalizations are often an indicator of how deeply I am engaging with a book, and there were both audible laughings and muttered “fucks”. There were at least a dozen or so prayers in here that really stuck -not a bad ratio at all.

The rather novel conceit of this collection seems to have forced writers to either adapt existing work or to stretch themselves into a slightly different form, and with generally excellent results. I would recommend reading this collection over a week or two at minimum, rather than blasting through. The format holds up best when you aren’t subjecting it to a binge.
Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Very solid and diverse collection that does something different without trying too desperately to be different.


Gateway to Paradise Revisited, and Further Notes

I recently had a conversation with someone more familiar with this book than myself, and it brought up a few things that I didn’t really address -or that I addressed badly- in my original reading log. As such, I want to set the record straight. This project is, and will continue to be, a series of rough drafts, and as such I did not want to edit the original entry (which can be found here:

The main complaint I had about Gateway to Paradise was that I felt it was timestamped. In addition to the aforementioned conversation, I have re-read the book, and while I still feel it falls short of his other work, my complaints were a bit too generalized. I had not realized this, but almost all of my irritations at the “ephemera” in this collection were centered on one story, “The Visiting Writer”. Vollmer references Malaysia Airlines flight 370, (the missing plane that dominated CNN in 2014) The Walking Dead, (”I slid out my phone and texted my wife, who, at this hour, would no doubt be curled up in bed, binge-watching a show that followed the survivors of a zombie apocalypse”)and Instagram (“…my eleven-year-old daughter’s recent obsession with a photo-sharing social media app, and that she now spent the majority of her free time taking pictures of herself wearing sunglasses or of the strawberry sandwich cookie she was about to ‘crush’ or simply posting kissy-face Emojis to a variety of boys’ comment streams…”). This is a story that I actually found very memorable, very good both as a whole and with regard to specific passages that jumped out and grabbed me. I found this story (and to a very slightly lesser extent, “Probation”) to be the strongest and most memorable story in the collection, yet the things that irritated me most about this book were all within my favorite story. This seems to tie in with my larger experience with the text -I’m going to be most critical of the things that interfere in any way with the kind of writing I enjoy most. When I go into a book written by an author I love, I’m going to dig out any and all irritations, especially in those stories or sections I enjoy most.

This brings me to an evaluation of the methodology of my way of logging my reading experiences. As longtime readers know, I always keep these reading logs to three paragraphs, and I tend to refrain from quoting or referencing the text in question. I want to communicate the general experience of the text to my readers, rather than analyze the particulars. I love literary criticism and analysis, but that isn’t what this project is for. I think there is value in this kind of general and quickly digested approach, (and I’ve gotten comments and messages to that end) but it is going to leave a lot of important information out. So, to clarify, these writings are not reviews. They are not an in-depth examination of a text. They are recollections and impressions, intentionally recorded at a distance from the source material. There is a different kind of truth to be found in these sorts of observations, and I find it to be worth pursuing.

Matthew Vollmer’s Gateway to Paradise

This is the third book of Vollmer’s I’ve read, the most recent, and the one I’d be least likely to recommend. I loved “Inscriptions for Headstones” -it was a fantastically novel and cohesive piece of work that employed both an engaging literary device and a compelling literary voice. And his short story collection, “Future Missionaries of America,” made good use of religious theme and held itself together well. As for this collection… the most unified feature of it was it’s frustrating propensity to time-stamp itself with references to Snapchat and Twitter. This book is not good right now, and it’s going to be a real slag in about ten years.

I don’t have any issues with incorporating the ephemeral into fiction. But Vollmer’s way of doing it serves no purpose -if anything, it distracts from the narratives and from the voice. And the voice, while not as powerful or engaging as I’ve found it in the past, is still the strongest part of Vollmer’s writing. These stories have clearly been worked over, but they remain badly flawed. There’s so little to hold on to. While I vividly remember sections of “Inscriptions” and complete stories from “Future Missionaries,” almost everything here is forgettable.

Vollmer is a strong writer, and the stories here are still a fair bit higher on the shelf than most of what is available. But this story collection is measurably worse than other things he has written, and I’m pretty disappointed.

Recommendation: Skip it. Read his other stuff.

Matthew Vollmer’s “Future Missionaries of America”

Future Missionaries of America
Matthew Vollmer

This was my favorite short story collection of 2016 (of meaning “read during”). Vollmer’s book “Inscriptions for Headstones” was high on my list in 2014, and I seem to really enjoy everything he writes and edits. I’m looking forward to reading his two other short stories as well.

The stories in here often relate to the religious -some, like the titular short that closes the book, and a handful of others, revolve completely around that theme. Others interact with the idea more subtly, portraits of men and women wandering around those struggles and questions that lead others, not them, to faith. Vollmer’s illustrations of religion pass no judgment either way -happy families come together in their faith and a schizophrenic interprets her hallucinations as divine instruction, and both of these are written with an authentic sense of remove that belies the author’s deliberate relationship with organized religion.

Vollmer writes very good contemporary literary fiction. He plays with form, (a story written as a will) his structure, mechanics, and narrative change to fit the piece, and everything is meticulously edited and clearly worked out. It’s tempting to call people like Vollmer “writer’s writers,” but that seems to sell them short. This is very good fiction that deserves -and ought to appeal to- a wider audience than currently read it.

Recommendation: Read it. Long live the short story!

Reading Log: Matthew Vollmer’s Inscriptions for Headstones

Image via Outpost19

Image via Outpost19

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).