Inscriptions for Headstones
by Matthew Vollmer
Matthew Vollmer’s newest book, Inscriptions for Headstones, asks: when we die, what will matter most about how we lived? The issue of legacy preoccupies many, especially writers. When they die, they leave their words behind. Authors wonder what those words will say about them when they aren’t able to speak for themselves anymore. So Vollmer is in good authorial company in exploring death. Despite all the writings that have come before his, Vollmer manages to find his own way into the weighty subject.
To do it, he mixes key ingredients from his previous works. In Vollmer’s first book, a collection of short stories titled Future Missionaries of America, he used his skill with detail to create an assortment of lively characters. Then, in the collection of essays he cowrote with David Sheilds—Fakes: Pseudo-interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts and Other Fraudulent Artifacts—Vollmer experimented with unconventional storytelling forms. In Inscriptions for Headstones, he brings together vivid descriptions, believable characters, and a unique format in a take on death that feels fresh, playful and specific.
The book is composed of thirty five- or six-page chapters, formatted as epitaphs. Each one begins with a traditional tombstone platitude such as “rest in peace . . .” or “here lies a man who . . .” Then they spin out into rambling stories, each written in a single sentence. The stories all seem to be about the same man, referred to only as “the deceased.” The chapters float out of chronological order like a train of thought. Sometimes the leaps between chapters seem random and interruptive. Other times it is clear that the theme of one story triggers the next. For instance, a story about the deceased’s mistakes as a father is followed by a story about how his own father never seemed to make any errors.
The stories are selectively vague. The deceased’s wife, parents, son, and friends appear often in the book. Their actions, words, and settings are rendered with evocative precision. This makes it seem as if the deceased is someone specific, with a full life. At the same time, few of the characters are named or physically described in detail. So it also seems as if the deceased could be any number of people you know.
The chapter-long sentences can be unwieldy. Vollmer must perform awkward syntactic acrobatics to sustain them. Some sections must be read two or three times in order to untangle the subjects, descriptions, and actions involved. For instance: “he had once dressed up in an Elvis costume he’d borrowed from his creative writing professor, a man who’d not only written a novel about an Elvis impersonator but had also become an impersonator himself, as a sort of experiment upon which, thanks to the urging of his publisher, he had based a memoir . . ” Readers have to slow down when they should be thrust forward.
But the single-sentence chapters work more often than they don’t. Sometimes they show flashes of easy, breathless connectedness. Chapter XV gracefully describes a narrowly avoided car accident without even pausing for a comma:
the car spinning in slowmo everything silver and streaks of ruby taillights the car crossing the median and swinging into a lane there the deceased braced himself for the impending impact of an oncoming semi he predicted would crush his body to roadside jelly but suddenly the car after having completed a three hundred and sixty degree turn came to a stop in the middle turning lane facing the direction he had been traveling and he had no words for what had just happened except that it felt like a miracle . . .
The headstone inscription conceit allows Vollmer to display a single life from thirty different angles. The deceased could be judged based on any one of the stories that follow each chapter’s opening clichéd platitude. But the book, as a whole, makes the point that a man is defined by more than one thing. The epitaphs must be layered on top of one another to build a complete story. Together, they portray a man who is nuanced, flawed, and realistic.
In an early chapter, Vollmer describes the deceased as a boy taking a bath. His bathtub becomes the outer hull of Noah’s ark, and the deceased imagines that he is drowning in the biblical flood that wiped out almost all of humanity. The deceased uses his imagination to unlock the possibilities in his ordinary surroundings. Likewise, Vollmer unlocks the rich themes contained in the deceased’s daily life.
Vast ideas about the nature of life and death bloom inside of mundane activities. When the deceased goes jogging, he slips into philosophical anxiety: “his lungs were burning and he could feel his pulse in his temples and the phone was pumping epic beats through his head he would become overwhelmed by the ephemeral nature of life and acknowledge that, at any time, any of these things could be taken away from him . . ”
Occasionally Vollmer succumbs to heavy-handedness. In the last chapter, for instance, he directly asks the question the rest of the book asks more subtly: “please ask yourself what you would say if you knew you only had maybe five or six more breaths before dissolving into oblivion, would you say ‘sorry’ or ‘I love you’ or ‘I never loved you enough’ . . .” Fortunately, though, Inscriptions for Headstones doesn’t wallow in grand ideas. The deceased is only ever able to philosophize for a moment or two before his son or his wife or some other tangible concern interrupts him. He easily slips out of touch with the cosmic significance of his life. Vollmer realistically portrays how difficult it is to stay appreciative, connected, and fulfilled. He shows that life barrels forward like a sentence without a period, and ends whether you are finished attuning yourself to the universe or not.