Permanent Exhibit by Matthew Vollmer
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2018
200 pages / BOA
The fragments that make up Permanent Exhibit by Matthew Vollmer read like memoir, like essays, like poetry. They are unconventional, short, and punchy, imitating the lexicon of contemporary internet discourse while sharpening the rhetorical edges to enhance the language’s poetic qualities. Ranging from a few sentences to a few pages, each piece is laid out in sprawling, uninterrupted single paragraphs. Within the short paragraph of the opening essay, “Status Update,” Vollmer approaches themes that will appear repeatedly throughout the collection: technology, family, literature, and death. The essay, like the collection as a whole, attempts to keep a variety of dissonant impulses in conversation: the natural and the manufactured, the political and the personal, irony and sincerity, the grand and the mundane, comedy and tragedy:
2016 and homes are still being raided for marijuana. Tropical Smoothie Cafe opened in Blacksburg today. Another black man was shot by police. I can’t believe I’m running the dishwasher again. My bike can’t ride itself. I miss the ocean. My closest family members are in Wyoming, which is possibly the most beautiful state ever created. I saw a baby deer nursing from its mother today in the middle of the road. I ate a slice of pizza big enough to wrap around my face. Ernest Becker’s DENIAL OF DEATH is a good book. My best friends don’t live next door. But my neighbor brought me a piece of junk mail and laughed at the look on my face because I was sure she would be a proselytizer. I don’t understand all the New Yorker jokes. A chipmunk lives in my basketball goal. Earth is a planet I live on. Time to watch TV with wife.
The essays are difficult to excerpt because of the way each sentence rolls off the back of the one preceding it. No sentence stands in isolation, each is beholden to the sentence before it and responsible for the sentence after. At the same time, the sentences are sporadic, with no necessary fidelity to some ultimate resolution. When one reflection in the text gives way to the next, with stream-of-consciousness pacing, the first reflection waives its right to be traditionally resolved or considered again. The sense of resolution in each essay is akin to the resolution achieved at the conclusion of a poem. It’s a resolution that is not dependent on a conclusion, but on some final evocative situation, a twist of language or emotion that leaves the reader in a place of unsettled appreciation.
The essays in Permanent Exhibit are about contemporary life in America, but even more they are about the life and thoughts of one man in America. We are rarely granted a direct look at our narrator, but we learn about him by his reflection on his wife, his children, the blue flowers that line the back roads of rural southwestern Virginia, and the trauma he observes in 21st century America. Intimately inhabiting the mind of the narrator allows us to acquaint ourselves with his sorrow, his joy, his disassociation, and the paralysis he feels at the intersection of these three. I am intentionally writing about familiarity with the narrator, rather than familiarity with Matthew Vollmer. A character and a voice develop in the essays that create a version of the author which stands apart from himself and looks back on his own experience. It may very well be the result of what Vollmer refers to in his 2018 interview with The Collagist as fictional nonfiction:
I am trying to write what I’ve lived, to catalog the significant idiosyncrasies of that life, and I’m using language to do that, and because words are merely representational and fail to capture the radiant fullness of experience, and because I am an unreliable narrator whose memory can’t be trusted, it feels to me as if I’m working in the realm of myth. In other words, my nonfiction is fictional.
The character of the narrator is fully fleshed, endearing and quirky. His experience is not so different from the experiences of the rest of us: trying to explain ourselves to the world while making sense of the world in disrepair. By writing with a vivid curiosity and turning his attention in constant, swiveling wonder, Vollmer proposes investigation as one possible antidote—or coping mechanism—for despair.
The essays interrogate our preoccupations, and the moral implications of our attention—the impacts our attention and our inattention have on our collective conscience. So much of contemporary experience is digested, reacted against, and forgotten. An implicit moral claim of the collection is that our inattention and our forgetfulness are, in part, responsible for areas of cultural and personal decline. Permanent Exhibit demonstrates an alternate way of digesting experience by taking hold of it and expanding it. By decompressing even the trivial, the essays highlight the absurdity that runs rampant around us:
According to a DJ on K92, Justin Bieber—a Canadian pop star and heartthrob who’s afraid of elevators and clowns and who once got an F in school but changed it by drawing two additional curves on the letter to a B so he wouldn’t get in trouble—is taking a much-needed vacation in Hawaii, where he’ll stay at Water Falling Estate: a mansion that sits at the edge of of a promontory overlooking the Pacific. For $10,000 a night, you too can enjoy the amenities of Water Falling Estate, which includes a rooftop helipad, a basketball slash tennis court with stadium style seating for 450 spectators, and a trail leading to a naturally-occurring, three-tiered waterfall.
In the essays, Vollmer repeatedly chooses whether or not to engage the violence of video games, news reports of tragedy, or the echoing voices and needs of his family. As he decides where to direct his attention, he further shapes his sense of morality in a morally undulating world.
The bank of human experience Vollmer draws from is not limited to contemporary absurdity. Many of the essays are culled from Vollmer’s memories, American mythologies, and oral histories. The essays feel as if they were written outside of any particular time or context. Reflections on the television show, Survivor, seamlessly gives way to consideration of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. The way that Vollmer explains social media or Justin Bieber as if they are not commonly understood, also creates the illusion that the essays are written from somewhere outside of our current situation. When Vollmer makes reference to himself in the present, it is usually in motion, on a bike, riding for miles on a country road. The reader is left with the sense of the narrator as a sort of bicycling spirit, in motion through the world, carefully attentive to it, but detached.
An implication of the book’s moral core is its refusal to turn away from matters of politics and religion. Vollmer writes about climate change denial, gun violence, and church. He handles the political and the religious in the way good literature has long treated such subjects: as absurd, but strangely comforting, side-effects of our humanity. I’m thinking here of literature like Malaparte’s otherworldly observations of the cruelty of WWII in his novel Kaputt, or Vonnegut’s comic critique of religion in Cat’s Cradle. Vollmer investigates religious and political impulses while standing just outside of them. He embraces what Camus denotes as the necessary disinterest in writing, the renunciation required by art. At the same time, he is willing to locate himself in every system he critiques. In his essay, “The Subordinate Fragment,” he lists a litany racial abuses within which he experiences a degree of complicity. The list acts as a devastating exploration of the ignorance and racist subtext that was only recently considered inoffensive:
Because whenever I heard the word “Indian,” the first thing that popped into my head were those chubby guys from Cherokee who stood on the side of the road in red and yellow Plains Indians headdresses, gripping spears and holding feathered shields. Because Tonto. Because plastic tommyhawks. Because once upon a time I liked to sing along to the song “What Made the Red Man Red” on my Peter Pan record…Because me Chinese me play joke, me put pee pee in your Coke. Because my dad’s Japanese and my mom’s Chinese and I’m both. Because how many Polacks does it take to screw in a light bulb. Because kids turned their lips out and stuck their tongues flat against their upper lips. Because the only nonwhite person in our church—which was where the majority of our family’s socialization happened—was part Mexican. Because the only black people I knew were from TV and magazines and therefore mythical…Because watercolors of black women in headwraps holding white babies hang in the houses of white people I know. Because there’s a cute little figurine of a black boy in overalls toting a sack of cotton on my grandmother’s windowsill…Because my other grandmother, when I said I was dating a Korean girl, said, “Now, Koreans—aren’t they the ugliest of the Asians?”
The essays in Permanent Exhibit are in equal parts funny and devastating. When Vollmer writes about his children, his fear for them is palpable. When he considers the possibility of his own small-mindedness or lack of exposure to the world, the anxiety of complicity is relatable. His refusal to deny the seemingly mundane in and around him proves, ultimately, to be an act of generosity. In his reflections, Vollmer asserts that beauty is everywhere, untamable, undefinable; that it will always morph to fill and color our monstrous perversions, our hideous treatment of the world—it will forever usurp our grandest attempts to diminish it. The essays hinge on this proto-religious defense of beauty in the face of human tyranny. It is not a claim that beauty will overcome or ever suppress cruelty and our ongoing affair with inexplicable violence, but it is a defense of beauty in spite of violence. And in its linguistic celebration and cerebral flourishes, it is a defense I want to believe.
I went into the next room, to check on my own child, who, I realized, had been unconscious for twelve hours. I had no reason to believe he would die peacefully in his sleep at age thirteen, but even so, the sight of his breast rising and falling was a relief, and the first thing I said once he woke was, “Do you know that girl who went missing?” and he said, “Yeah,” and I said, “They found her,” and he said, “They did?” and I said, “Yes. She’s dead. Somebody slit her throat and dumped her body on the side of the road,” and my son said, “That’s awful.” And I said nothing, because I wanted the information to sink in, wanted to provide my son with the opportunity to acknowledge that the world in which he lives is a home where terrible things happen that we cannot comprehend. It is this same incomprehensibility —the unfair and ghastly throat-slitting of a young girl—that I’m thinking of now as I pedal my bike. Rain is misting my face and slowly melting mounds of snow, which is seeping into the ground, creating muck and dirt, and shiny areas on the road that I worry will cause my wheels to slide out from under me, and I am cold and tired and splattered with grime after riding over miles and miles of countryside. I wonder why the missing girl had to die and how were her parents preventing themselves from storming the jail to inflict their own brand of renegade vengeance and what drives a person to kill, to methodically and with such care and patience plan the demise of a fellow human being, in this case to select one of our community’s most vulnerable children and to create with the aid of modern technology a scenario in which this child would willingly barricade her door with a dresser and climb out her bedroom window and into the arms of a person who, unbeknownst to her, planned to slice open her body and let her life drain out. And it’s here—in the middle of my predictably feeble quest for answers, for figuring out the why and how the girl had to die—that a heron appears, out of nowhere: a sudden cipher overhead. I recognize the familiar angular wings, the S of its neck, the vaguely pterodactyl-like form. It’s beautiful to watch—the graceful flight of an ungainly bird—and for a moment I imagine what it must be like above the world, knifing through air, gliding forward without kindness or empathy. But then the bird disappears behind a stand of trees, and I am back in my own earthbound body, pedaling furiously this last too long stretch of road to get home.