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January 17, 2013

Book Notes - Matthew Vollmer "Inscriptions for Headstones"

inscriptions for headstones

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Matthew Vollmer's essay collection Inscriptions for Headstones is clever in both concept and execution, distilling 30 lives into one sentence epitaphs.

Hobart wrote of the book:

"Matthew Vollmer's newest book, Inscriptions for Headstones, is the kind of book that refreshingly resists categorization. Essays, fiction, poems. The thirty short texts, each a single sentence, each composed as an epitaph, are all of the above. Inscriptions is a book that burrows deeply. It is at turns hilarous, heartbreaking, strange, and profoundly moving."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In his own words, here is Matthew Vollmer's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection, Inscriptions for Headstones:


Inscriptions for Headstones is a collection of thirty autobiographical essays, each written as an epitaph and each centering on an unnamed character referred to only as "the deceased." What began as a subversive exercise—"take the conventions of an epitaph and explode them"—soon morphed into an obsession with form. Because I insisted that each epitaph unfold as a single sentence, and because I wanted, in some cases, to see how far these sentences could go (the longest in the book is ten pages long), I allowed myself to wander and digress. I wanted, in the end, to create a series of written "things" that would defy easy categorizations like "fiction" or "poetry" or "creative nonfiction." If anything, I hoped—however foolishly—that someone might think of them as songs, or as lyrical energy fields celebrating a vast catalog of earthly phenomenon, including, but not limited to: haunted houses, Noah's Ark, basketball, "backmasking," celebrity centerfolds, aliens, bus drivers, shaken babies, Native Americans, guardian angels, vipers, private property, astronomy, parental neglect, garbage, barbering, physical deformities, mountains, cremation, heaven, and Chipotle.

(Note: Originally, when these epitaphs were published in magazines and online journals, they appeared with numbers as their titles. Later, when collected together in a single manuscript, Roman numerals replaced the numbers.)


"Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen

I don't reference Springsteen specifically in the book but this particular song represents the kind of furious locomotion I hoped ridiculously long sentences might generate. Most epitaphs I've encountered are short, general, and—frankly—boring. "Loving Husband." "Devoted Father." Stuff like that. Why, I wondered, couldn't an epitaph better represent the force and energy of a living being? Why couldn't it—like "Born to Run"—be both self-deprecating and vainglorious? Why couldn't it take off like a "suicide machine" and refuse to stop until it ran out of gas or hydroplaned? And so: away I went.


"Straight Outta Compton" by NWA

I wasn't a huge fan of NWA but I remember listening to them with my friend Shawn, who's the subject of epitaph "IV." We were fourteen and living in a dormitory in north Georgia, on the campus of a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school. We loved basketball and Michael Jordan. We loved talking about girls we thought were "fine." We also loved music. But the only music we could listen to was the music we played on friends' guitars or the piano in the boy's dorm chapel, which was often commandeered to play jazzy gospel songs or Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting for You." At our school, we couldn't be trusted with radios or boom boxes or Walkmans, because we might use them to play rock and roll. Of course, that didn't mean we didn't smuggle them anyway. I wasn't a huge fan of NWA (I preferred, however lamely, the wit of the Fresh Prince) but this was the song I was listening to when Dean Heinrich (no kidding, that was his name) walked in and confiscated my friend Shawn's Walkman, saying afterwards that he had heard it from his office. Which made me wonder if our rooms were bugged, and what else he might have heard.


"Summer Babe" by Pavement

In epitaph "VI," the deceased describes a friendship with a guy named Gary. I met Gary in a creative writing class at the University of North Carolina. He, like me, was a transfer student. Unlike me, he didn't have an apartment, so he slept on the floors of people he'd just met. He sported a rockabilly bouffant and wore Adidas indoor soccer shoes. He fancied himself a ladies' man, in part because the ladies fancied him. Gary liked a lot of things: weed, J. D. Salinger, typewriters, soccer, and the band Pavement. It was 1994. We drove the streets of Chapel Hill listening to "Summer Babe" and decrying slackers and scenesters, wondering how a band called Pavement could make such a mess of noise sound so good.


"Symphonies of the Planets" NASA Voyager Recordings

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration appears on a Wikipedia list of "dark ambient artists," sandwiched between "Nadja" and "Necrophorous." While it seems like a stretch to include NASA on a list of "artists," the above album is an absolute must for anyone interested in ambient music, or simply looking for music to "zone out" to. Basically, it's a collection of data—electromagnetic pulses, charged particle emissions, radio waves, etc.—recorded by Voyager 1 and 2 as they orbited the various planets in our solar system, which a NASA scientist subsequently turned into sound waves. Epitaph "XIII" (which you can read and listen to here) describes the deceased's relationship to this "music," as well as to the book of Revelation and the fate of our planet.


"Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin and "Just Like Heaven" by The Cure

I took Bible every semester of the four years I spent at boarding school. Oddly enough, I have few memories about what we studied. I know we read books of the bible and dipped into volumes written by Ellen G. White—the visionary prophetess who co-founded Seventh-day Adventism—and that we once watched a video titled "The Secret World of Mormonism" and entered a discussion about the otherworldliness of Latter-Day Saints. I also remember a documentary called "Hell's Bells," which analyzed video excerpts of dozens of rock bands in order to prove that they were dangerous, God-hating, Satan-worshipping, sex addicts, but which instead had the effect of introducing new music to rock-deprived kids. Epitaph "XIV" begins on a similar note, with a description of the deceased listening to "Stairway to Heaven" backwards, during which a voice can be heard saying what sounds like, "My sweet Satan, whose path would make me sad." It was difficult to argue that anyone should listen to a song that included these lyrics—backwards or otherwise—though I wondered if the notes of the song, which half a dozen of my friends could play on the guitar, could be said to be evil, and if specific sounds could be said to be "good" or "bad." I had heard friends wonder whether any song that failed to praise God was "of this world" and therefore shouldn't be listened to. That seemed absurd to me, in part because I loved all kinds of music, most of which didn't seem to be praising God at all. I loved R.E.M. and The Smiths and New Order and Depeche Mode. I loved Duran Duran and Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. But most of all, I loved The Cure. I copied their song lyrics into notebooks, inscribed my Trapper Keeper with the band's name, imitating the palsied handwriting that appeared on their album covers. I bought T-shirts and high-priced bootleg CDs and concert videos and posters of the mascara'd and lipsticked Robert Smith and his haystack hairdo. I taught myself to play the lead guitar part on "Just Like Heaven" (which, as it turns out, is basically a descending G scale). Of course, I sometimes worried that maybe I shouldn't listen to The Cure, that even this particular song—a rather saccharine expression of romantic love—was misleading, if not downright dangerous, because it compared earthly love to paradise, and according to 1 Corinthians 2:9, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." But it's just music, I'd think to myself, hitting replay one more time, hoping that's all it was.


"Die Slow" by Health

Epitaph "XX" explores what I can only assume an event all active people can look forward to: exercise-induced injury. Before I tore a hamstring and underwent physical therapy and subsequently took up cycling, I used to jog. I'd create playlists of anthemic rock songs and roam my neighborhood, tracking my progress with an app on my phone, and congratulating myself afterwards for completing three miles. "Die Slow"—an unleashing of relentless, rhythmic noise—was a song I counted on to propel me forward when my body said, "no more." The video's worth a watch, too, supposing the excessively flashing images of weird kids writhing in a mosh pit while being splashed with bloodlike liquid doesn't send you into an epileptic seizure. On second thought, you could probably just skip it.


"Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" by Uncle Tupelo

A number of the epitaphs in this book reference the mountains where I grew up, and one in particular discusses the family plot where I'll likely end up after I die. Although covers of country classics by contemporary musicians can often sound cringe-worthy, this song, like any of the others that appear on the album March 16-20, sound genuinely and effortlessly Appalachian, despite the fact that it's being played by Midwesterners, and always makes me think of mountain people and their songs.


"Abide with Me" by Ella Fitzgerald

Someone sang this song at every funeral I attended as a kid. I always liked the line "fast falls the eventide." I wasn't sure what "eventide" was but it always made me think of sunsets, which were beautiful, and marked the end of each day, and reminded me that it's possible to die peacefully, which is a nice thought, and something I hope to experience one day myself.


Matthew Vollmer and Inscriptions for Headstones links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (at Berfrois)
excerpt from the book (at Gabriel Blackwell's website)
excerpt from the book (at Hobart)
excerpt from the book (at New England review)
excerpt from the book (at the publisher)
excerpts from the book (at PANK Magazine)

ARDOR review
HTMLGIANT review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for his short story collection Future Missionaries of America
The Minnesota Review interview with the Author
Tottenville Review interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists
The list of online "best of 2012" music lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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