Books In Conversation
MATTHEW VOLLMER with Evan Lavender-Smith
Permanent Exhibit (BOA Editions, 2018)
Matthew Vollmer’s latest book, Permanent Exhibit, is a collection of intimate, lyrical meditations that unfold according to the surprising associative leaps so often made by the human mind, but which, to my experience as a reader, rarely find their way into writing. The sentences meander and swerve and switchback from perception to recognition to recollection to speculation; the essays themselves, each composed of a single paragraph, capture the more gradual of the mind's movements, proceeding from a condition of certainty to uncertainty, of observation to hypothesis, of apathy to wonder. The writing also reflects the entanglement of a curious human mind with the abundance of information—wisdom, data, trivia, hearsay—provided by the seemingly omniscient internet search engine. Several of the essays involve Vollmer riding his bike down a steep hill; we fear, along with him, a catastrophe, a collision. But the collision with which Permanent Exhibit is primarily concerned—that between the private archive of the mind and the public archive of the internet—has already occurred. And rather than catastrophic, this melding of mind and machine can be, as Vollmer says below, "magical."
As of last year, Matthew and I teach at the same university, and we live in the same town—here we regularly spend face-to-face, IRL time with one another—but despite that fact, the following exchange was conducted over email, testimony to the extent to which the internet has become not only our primary mode of communication, but even, perhaps, of thought itself. We began our conversation by discussing the origin of the collection's essays as Facebook posts.
Evan Lavender-Smith (Rail): I remember you posting these essays years back, but then I think you disappeared from Facebook for a while. Did all of the essays in Permanent Exhibit start as posts? Finish as posts? And do you think of these writings as essays? Many of them seemed to me almost more like meditations, or even prose poems.
Mather Vollmer: The vast majority—all but maybe three or so—started as status updates on Facebook. In fact, the first and shortest one started out as a status update that I typed up late at night right before going to bed, kind of out of frustration with life and with Facebook. It was July 6, 2016. I had spent the summer, writing-wise, trying to write a memoir about growing up in a loving and deeply religious family in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina. The internet—and Facebook, especially—seemed like it was constantly outraged, and rightly so. The news was on fire with Trump and Hillary and cops shooting minorities and people saying and doing racist shit. I didn’t like it either, but there was something about constant outrage and the demonization of this or that group that I mistrusted and even resented. My initial status update was a mini-collage of stuff I had been thinking about that day—marijuana raids, tropical smoothie, the dishwasher, my bike, pizza, the mother deer nursing a fawn I’d come upon during my bike ride that day—writing it felt like a kind of rebellious gesture. Not only was there other stuff in the world to think about besides what the New York Times (or any other news outlet) was reporting on, and status updates could be used as a vehicle for reflection. I wasn’t thinking about that—at least not consciously—when I wrote that first “essay.” It was more of a reflex. Then, the next morning, when I woke up and saw how many people had liked and commented on a status update I’d basically rolled out into the world without much thought; I wondered what would happen if I could harness whatever initial impulse I’d used to make it: let one observation or reflection or memory or fact lead to another, and try to build a sense of movement, momentum—and let myself be led somewhere.
Rail: I think that’s my favorite thing about the form of the writing here, that sense of movement and momentum you’re talking about. I’ve struggled to describe to myself how it works—and obviously it varies somewhat from essay to essay—but there’s definitely an intensity of associative movement from thought to thought, from sentence to sentence, even from clause to clause. But more interesting than that, to me, is the speed about the movement, which in many cases makes tracking the associations, if not impossible, then sort of unnecessary or irrelevant, because it isn’t the individual associations that matter so much as it is the way they accrue, the larger shape or impact of the reading sensation they collectively create. I’m looking right now at an early one, “Last Blood,” in which an email you receive from Australia leads to a memory of your son’s soccer coach coming out as gay and the Oreo cookie pie he FedEx’d when your wife was recuperating from surgery, which leads to a memory of the flowers given to your wife while she was recuperating, which leads to a memory of the flowers you often see on your bike rides, which leads to a memory of an elementary school project you did involving flowers, which leads to a consideration of the origin of current academic grading practices, which leads to a speculation about the grading difficulties facing a cellist friend of yours in teaching an experiential art class…and all of this happens in less than a page. One of my favorite things about writing, maybe my very favorite thing, is when I see something happen on the page that reminds me of something that frequently happens in my mind, especially something that I've forgotten, frequently happens. Maybe it isn’t necessarily the case that we think the way these essays move, but, instead, that these essays are appropriating one peculiar move our minds sometimes make—the wild associative leap—and kind of standardizing or underlining it through literary form. Does that sound right? How do you think about the form of these essays?
Vollmer: Yes, that sounds right. I love the idea of the “wild associative leap.” I think that’s one of the things that drew me to this form—I think in the past you and I have both talked about creating “analogs” of consciousness, whatever that might mean, but the more I worked on these, the more they seemed to resemble the journeys my brain tends to make when I inhabit a kind of curious and introspective mood, AND I have access to the Internet. Case in point: “Night Thoughts.” I’d heard a K92 DJ yapping about Justin Beiber’s vacation spot, at Hawaii’s Water Falling Estate, this palatial house on a promontory that costs ten grand a night or something, and so once I had access to a computer I looked it up and saw it listed for sale on a real estate site hawking luxury homes. I looked inside. It didn’t look inviting to me. All that stone and mahogany gleaming luridly reminded me of a funeral home: perhaps the world’s biggest. So then I looked up “world’s largest funeral home,” and that led me to a series of strange websites, including one for a European cremation machine. Somehow I ended up also discussing Calamity Jane and late 19th century dime store museums, but subsequently found myself returning to Justin Bieber. That particular “essay” was fun to write, and I felt like I was teaching myself a new way of thinking about writing; I could somehow follow not only my thoughts but my thoughts as I browsed the Internet. And why not? Falling down a rabbit hole inside the internet is one of the main ways human beings entertain themselves. Or teach themselves. Or fool themselves. Or scare themselves. And maybe I’m not dialed into contemporary literature as much as I should be, but I don’t see many writers who seem to care much about replicating, on the page, the ways our brains interact with technology…or interact ON technology. I don’t mean to paint myself as some kind of genius innovator—that’s your job—but I am interested in reading more about how writers relate to the technologies they use, especially because when I assign my students to write about the steps they go through when Instagramming or how they use Snapchat, their writing comes absolutely alive in idiosyncratic and vibrant ways. I got excited by Tao Lin’s use of Gchat years ago when I was reading Richard Yates, and I’ve read novels that are appropriate forms readers encounter online—I think of David Llewellyn’s Eleven, which unfolds as a series of emails—but I don’t see a lot of storytellers or essay writers gravitating towards the modes of consciousness one associates with thinking while internet-ing. But maybe I’m missing something? What am I missing?
Rail: It does seem that some writers imagine a certain slowness or attentiveness encouraged by writing or reading as existing in opposition to the speed and inattentiveness ostensibly encouraged by the internet. Although I tend to regard this stance as pretty conservative and narrow minded, my own personal experience—my obsessive daily struggles to get the internet away from my body—has resulted in me empathizing with it. The attention I pay to the internet, the way the presence of the internet interferes with my ability to immerse myself in the real-life worlds of other people—not to mention the worlds of the books I try to read and the things I try to write—is a problem for me, as I imagine it is for many others. Nonetheless, it’s a very interesting problem. And it’s a relatively new problem for most of us, one that, as you say, many writers have struggled or failed to find exciting ways of formalizing in their writing, that is, to find novel or defamiliarizing ways by which the internet might pressurize the language and structure of writing. But, also, for many if not most of us, the internet seems like the best thing going, maybe even the best thing to happen in all of human history. People have been celebrating its near total domination of our communicative experience for quite a while now. When I’m not worrying about it or loathing it, I'll sometimes find myself celebrating it. In your essays, the form of the internet rabbit hole often possesses this kind of adventurous, exploratory, spelunking, even wondrous quality…who knows what completely surprising thing awaits us at essay’s end? Yes, I’m also interested in watching the ways writers and artists depict our evolving interactions with digital technologies, but I guess I’m most familiar with these depictions as occasions for describing contemporary ennui or stupidity or loneliness or awkwardness or even apocalypse. I don’t think I’ve asked a question here. Do you like the internet?
Vollmer: [Laughs.] It’s okay. I mean, it’s whatever. It’s destroyed my attention span, or at least modified it in dramatic ways. I think about my phone a lot, and how absolutely insane it is that I carry around this magic rectangle of glass and gems with which I can summon news, sports, weather, movies, recipes, video games, stock portfolios, maps, calendars, bank accounts, social media streams, radio, newspapers, books, an infinite jukebox of music, the faces of people I love—I mean all that stuff’s just a swipe away! It’s magical. Which is why I’m enslaved by it. I have dreams of giving it all up, returning to a life where I’m forced to engage more in the inherent wonder of not-knowing, rather than look something up immediately. But that seems as fantastic a notion as an episode of Black Mirror. I do find myself marveling at what I am capable of learning via the internet, like how to employ a transformative method for scrambling eggs, or how to “teen proof” my home, or what has Boz Scaggs been up to recently, or what’s that new Grand Theft Auto V update all about? I think I keep coming back to sites like Flipboard (an app that “curates the world’s stories so you can focus on investing in yourself, staying informed, and getting involved”) not only because it keeps opening new windows into the subjects I want to think about, but also because it offers new ways of seeing the world, new stories through which I can understand—and re-understand—what it means to be alive. Which, I guess, is also why I read books, and why, sometimes, I write them. I want to inhabit machinery that takes me closer to the real, whatever that is.
Rail: And do you feel yourself getting closer to what it all means? I worry that I’m getting farther away as I get older, as my neurons dig deeper and deeper trenches across my brain…I tend to associate my best understanding of what it means to be alive with childhood, if only because that question didn’t perplex me quite as much when I was a kid. There are a couple of references in the book to your religious upbringing. I’d be curious to know how you imagine your own childhood bearing on your attempts to work out, as an adult, these sorts of big, impossible metaphysical questions.
Vollmer: That’s a great question. My initial thought is that I don’t know, because “reality” really is to me a giant deception made by the mind and curated by the stories we tell ourselves about the world in which we live. I would like to think that acknowledging that—that the world is made up of stories—counts as taking a step towards understanding what reality “really is,” but how would I know for sure? I think what I really want is to be able to see the world around me, to walk into the backyard and watch a tree or a spider or a cat and to observe them without any preconception, or without the pressure of any particular story or framework of belief impinging on my ability to apprehend whatever it is I’m perceiving. I definitely relate to what you said about childhood, though, in that I definitely thought I “knew” or felt like I knew more about the world for sure, but that was because I was constantly fed a narrative about humanity having been lost and that the only failsafe rescue line was Jesus Christ, and that if you accepted him as your Lord and Savior and worshipped him on the right day and didn’t eat bacon or listen to rock music or go to the movies or wear jewelry or have sex out of wedlock or believe in evolution then you might one day be swept up to heaven when he returned. The “story of redemption” was an abiding presence and was like a membranous suit I wore wherever I went and which was always exerting some kind of pressure on me. With that suit on, I knew that everything on Earth happened for a reason and the Bible and/or praying to God with a humble heart could provide you with the answers to all life’s dilemmas and questions. There was an angel on earth assigned to protect me and an angel in heaven charged with writing down my entire life story—everything I said or did—which meant that I was a character in a story: one that would either wise up and stop touching himself or trying to moonwalk to “Beat It” and start following the straight and narrow, or face eternal annihilation and miss out on golden crowns and heavenly mansions and lions cuddling with lambs. I’ve since been able to strip most of this suit off, but it’s taken years. Decades. I still have a fondness for seeing the world as I once did, but I simply can’t believe—not anymore—in the idea that someday the curtain will be yanked and everyone will see that, yep, for the entirety of human history can be boiled down to a single, grand, coherent, overarching narrative. At the same time, I’m glad to have survived having once believed in it. I lived an idyllic childhood in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina, was raised by the two best humans I’ve ever known, and was loved and fed and clothed and nourished by the rich and ultimately very weird narratives that one finds inside ancient scriptures, and as far away and strange as it all seems today, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But wait—I want to hear you answer the same question: what does it mean for you to say that you tend to associate your best understanding of what it means to be alive with childhood?
Rail: Is that syntactically awkward? Maybe I should have written that it was during childhood when I felt I best understood what it means to be alive. It’s probably because back then my default mode of moving through the world was in that same condition of innocence and wonder you’ve just described. I’ve spent at least some of my adult life chasing after that same feeling, trying to have experiences that are unlike ones I’ve had before, or that somehow escape being shaped by preconception and expectation. And I’ve spent nearly all of my writing life going after it, trying to create experiences on the page that are unlike things I’ve read or written before. That leads me to something else I’d like to ask. Your last two books of creative nonfiction, this one and Inscriptions for Headstones, both seem intent on pushing the envelope with respect to form and structure, on creating forms for writing that feel especially new or different than those to which we've become most accustomed in literature. Is this something that’s on your mind as writer? Is this something that’s always been on your mind? What’s the allure of formal difference and innovation for you?
Vollmer: It’s been on my mind for a while. I have simply come to love the particular pressures that certain forms exert on “material”; I often think of structure as the container and language as the fluid that gets shaped by it—and that sometimes the fluid bursts the container to pieces. Inscriptions came from an in-class writing assignment where I asked the class to think about epitaphs, specifically the conventions of epitaphs. As a form, we could say that they were quite often pithy and generic (“beloved mother,” “devoted father”), so what if we turned that on its head? What if, instead of short and sweet, we wrote really long epitaphs that zeroed in on idiosyncratically specific details and character flaws? What if we wrote long, one-sentence, third-person epitaphs? So we did. So I did. And I kept writing them, in part because writing them was fun, was thrilling, actually; I’d just finished writing a novel that would never be published, a weird story about an ex-basketball player visiting the underworld to retrieve the soul of her boyfriend, who was an Iraq vet with PTSD, and though that may sound weird—and it was; maybe too weird—I had deployed fairly conventional, realist prose to tell it. Anyway, the point of mentioning that is that writing the epitaphs was so different, and writing them felt somehow liberating, transgressive even. I kept wondering if I was wasting my time. Was it stupid to write epitaph after epitaph? I didn’t know. I didn’t care! Well, I did kind of care. Of course I cared. Which is why I sent two of them to DIAGRAM, one of my favorite literary journals, in part because every single issue seems to have at least a handful of stories or essays that play with form and/or structure. They accepted them, and that was basically the validation I needed to keep writing epitaphs. Anyway, I think I was able to tap into a similar kind of energy with the essays in Permanent Exhibit. Most of the time, once I started writing one, I would have no idea where I was going; it seemed easy to recognize various starting points—a toxic algae bloom in Florida; the discovery of a large, Jupiter-sized planet orbiting three suns; the once-secret bunker in The Greenbrier hotel; Patches the horse, who could answer the telephone and liked to visit a local drive thru for cheeseburgers while riding shotgun in a convertible—but I had no idea where I, once I started, I might end up, which, for me, as a writer, was like riding a bicycle down a really steep, unfamiliar hill: I didn’t know where the switchbacks would take me. My eyes were wide open. I had to hold on tight.
Rail: I love that container-fluid figure for the relationship between form and content. I also really like the analogy to riding your bike down a hill, but of course it isn’t just an analogy: when we encounter you in the “dramatic present” of these essays, you’re often on a bike, racing down a hill. While reading, I did sense the relationship between the condition of the bike ride and that of the essays’ form, but I also found myself wondering if your real bike rides, the ones you take in real life, are where you get some of your early drafting done. Are you writing in your head while you’re on your bike? How does that work?
Vollmer: Sometimes. When I was writing the book, I felt very “awake,” especially in the manuscript’s early days, when I was trying to write an essay a day. It was an arbitrary goal—the whole “write an essay a day for ten days straight” prompt I gave myself—but one that taught me what I suppose I already knew, which was that I could produce a good deal of writing if I had my heart and mind set on it. Because I started each day with no idea what I was going to write about, I had to—as I already said—keep my eyes open. Everything I looked at was potential material, and so the especially strange stuff “popped,” and that was what likely made it in. I am always very awake when I’m riding, whether or not I’m thinking about essays or not, because I’m gliding down curvy back roads populated by king crab trucks gunning upwards of 60 mph, and because I know that not too far in any direction there could be a deer who might get spooked and fling itself out of the underbrush and dart out in front of me, and I need to be able to swerve or cling to the shoulder as closely as possible. My mind is always racing. And I almost always see something spectacular, as it relates to the natural world: alien-like plants, mountains swathed in cloud, a flotilla of cows fording a stream, a beautiful songbird dead in the road. It turns out that, if you pay attention, you find that the world is a universe of cool stuff just waiting to get sucked into some kind of narrative. But the nature of a ride is almost always meditative; maybe it’s the rhythm of pedaling, the way your environment scrolls past, and the steady breathing—I feel like whether or not I’m actually working on an essay, I’m always processing something, trying to get to the bottom of something in my mind.
Rail: So what kind of stuff is going to get sucked into Matthew Vollmer’s next project? Can you talk a little about how the new book is coming along
Vollmer: The next book is tentatively titled All Together in the End: A Meditation on Growing Up in and Growing Out of the Loving Embrace of Fundamentalism. Or, maybe, just All Together in the End. Not sure yet. Right now, it exists as a series of long, braided narratives, each of which explores, more or less, what it was like to grow up in a loving and deeply religious family in the middle of nowhere: specifically, one of the poorest but most beautiful counties in western North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge mountains. It’s about my dad, who’s worked as a dentist in the same small town for 45 years. It’s about my mother, who—once upon a time—was the most industrious and creative person I knew, and how Alzheimer’s has contributed to the slow but gradual erasure of her mind. It’s about remembering to keep the seventh day of the week holy. About feeling guilty for not loving the writing of the 19th century prophetess who co-founded the church to which almost everyone in my family—going back for generations on both sides—belonged. It’s about attending a private, church-sponsored elementary school in an A-frame with thirty other kids in grades one through eight. About getting baptized in a mountain stream, and dreaming of a future when a one-world government would chase the members of my church into the wilderness—deeper even than where we already lived, which, for me, was already much deeper than I would’ve liked. It’s about snakes and demons and fugitives and homemade coffins. About getting hazed in boarding school. About falling in love. About having sex for the first time as a terrified 17-year-old on a beach on a tiny island in the Caribbean, and immediately thinking, post-orgasm, "This is what Adam and Eve must have felt like." It’s about singing, as a kid, that this world was not my home, while secretly wanting nothing more than to live a life as a regular person—someone unbounded by the rules and constraints of the denomination to which I belonged. It’s about a lot of things, I guess. But most of all, it’s about what happens when you decide that the story that is most central to your understanding of the world—and the one your family cherishes more than any other—represents the kind of narrative you can no longer endorse. The manuscript is kind of a mess right now, and it will probably be something of a mess whenever I decide that it’s ready for the light of day, which is maybe as it should be when you’re writing about the family you love, with whom you have shared so much joy, so much sorrow.