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Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer is the author of Future Missionaries of America, and inscriptions for headstones, a collection of essays. He is also the co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, "Found" Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts.

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"Expertly structured and utterly convincing, these stories represent the arrival of a strong new voice."

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Inscriptions for Headstones

Amplified with the Accumulation of Additional Constraints

03/04/13

Matthew Vollmer is a cheater. Not the kind of cheater who breaks rules, mind you, but that's almost worse. He's the kind of cheater that twists every rule to his own devious advantage and smiles an artful smile as his dumbstruck peers watch on in seething jealousy. He's not the easily dismissed kind of cheater, no — he's terribly smart, and generally a compassionate human being, besides. He's the kind of cheater you want to have around in literature. In fact, he's a little like Tom Sawyer.

Inscriptions for Headstones is a remarkable deception. The project of the book is astoundingly audacious; the volume is comprised of thirty short essays that unfold over a single sentence. All of these essays are epitaphs. Of course none of these epitaphs would fit on the face of a headstone (unless the were chiseled in really tiny letters), but what they accomplish with such a constraint is truly remarkable.

Writers struggle, I would think, with what to leave in and what to leave out. Perhaps the most important rule of writing is that a writer has to be choosy. Given a finite amount of space and the scope of a single project, the challenge is to express that which needs expressing. In the service of the whole, whether it's an essay on a single subject, a single chapter in a biography, a short poem, or a single, marvelous sentence, it is often necessary to leave certain things unsaid. If the act of writing at all presents this de facto constraint, then it's effect is only amplified with the accumulation of additional constraints.

Consider the obituary. The single sentence. The epitaph, which has to hold the whole of a person, and is a one-time affair. There are no second epitaphs, and that's one rule that Vollmer breaks. Or maybe he just bends it. Is church-camp Matthew Vollmer the same Matthew Vollmer that whiles away the hours in his writing room, devouring animated GIFs instead of writing epitaphs? Is melodramatic bath-taking Matthew Vollmer the same Matthew Vollmer that records the trials and tribulations of parenthood? If the answer is “no,” “maybe,” or “kind of,” then perhaps this is a rule bent and not broken. In this context thirty epitaphs might be permissible, if not entirely “fair.”

If the rules governing epitaphs can be made more fluid than they might seem, there is one that must certainly go unbroken: the deceased must not be aware of the specific content of his epitaph. Maybe. Tom Sawyer, though, happened to die without being dead, and found himself privy to the goings-on of his own funeral. Whether he knew it or not, this afforded young Sawyer an opportunity for reflection. He saw, in a moment, that his small, stupid life was sad, happy, and beautiful, and that it was impactful in ways that few readers might have expected.

Inscriptions for Headstones is all of these things and more. It's honest, it's hilarious, it's sad, and it is awe-struck. Most importantly, given that this is my only opportunity to recommend it to you, it's damn good. This collection is thirty good ways to spend a few minutes reading a very good sentence. One could ask for more, but you may find that you don't need to.

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