This World Is Not Your Home
(Eastover Press, 2022)
The moment that seems ultimately to set the stage for This World Is Not Your Home, Matthew Vollmer’s latest collection of essays, stories, and reports, occurs on the second page. The book’s opening piece, titled “Supermoon,” depicts a husband and wife who go for a walk described in the following manner: “The couple walked at the same brisk pace… though they never held hands, as this had the tendency to introduce an awkwardness that impeded their gait.” This fleeting portrayal of synchronicity tempered by physical remove is easy to miss, yet in time proves highly valuable in understanding the book as a whole. This World Is Not Your Home ultimately coheres as a collection committed above all to exploring the ramifications of emotional candor, a task it approaches in subtle ways that can alternately charm, haunt, and leave one wanting.
“Supermoon” stands apart from the book’s other works in both its tenderness and its comparatively traditional narrative structure. After articulating the image above, it traces the ways its married main characters are simultaneously succeeding and failing to connect. The essay unfolds as a wistful tragedy of errors until its climactic moment of belated communion, which is heartfelt, poetic, and (at least for this reviewer!) moving enough to moisten the eyes.
The works that follow address similar topics but differ in aesthetic approach. Extending the themes of family and astronomy (and incorporating additional interests in religion and music), the book’s subsequent pieces are absorbing not only for their aesthetic ingenuity, but also for their subject matter, which readers of similar age and background to the author will undoubtedly relish. Vollmer offers much pop-cultural nostalgia in the book’s cheekier works about male adolescence—among them “How to Write a Love Story,” in which a teenaged romance is both widely relatable and distinctively marked by Vollmer’s Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing. For similarly topic-based reasons, the essay “NeVer ForgeT” is riveting in its depiction of life at Virginia Tech after the 2007 shooting; “Keeper of the Flame” likewise presents a richly tense account of a childhood visit to the home of a Nazi historian.
But the book’s most unifying throughline remains its understated commitment to rendering life’s various pressures to express and conceal emotion. The collection is filled with characters who, like the walking spouses of “Supermoon,” erect strict barriers between themselves and their environments, eschewing complete self-exposure for the sake of peacekeeping or awkwardness-avoidance. This theme is summed up well in “NeVer ForgeT,” whose distraught narrator keeps to himself because “it seems presumptuous to make public my own private and conflicted sentiments.”
And in contrast to “Supermoon,” many of the book’s other pieces explore these interior conflicts by means of swirling and exploratory narrative structures—ones that reflect the complexity of their uniting theme, but that can also be, at times, difficult to parse. “Notes for an Essay on Special Music,” for example, presents as a series of ambivalent fragments: the narrator admires his tape collection, but worries about not going to heaven; two elderly relatives dance at a Christmas party, but nobody joins them; a roommate loves Simon Le Bon, but burns his tape collection. These isolated portrayals of thwarted enjoyment intermingle with notes on Seventh-Day Adventist thought, prompting the impression that religion is potentially to blame for their thwarting. And yet they pass without comment or consequence (leaving such inferences neither contradicted nor endorsed) until the essay’s conclusion ultimately casts religion as a tentative source of hope. We thus leave with a clear-eyed sense of some tension at play in the narrator’s life, but perhaps wondering what else (if anything) we were meant to derive.
Similar ambiguities attend the book’s expository style, which deploys a level of encyclopedic detail that can at certain points become difficult to process. Take for example this sentence, which opens the book’s titular work: “The town where you grew up—the place you’ll always think of as home—has three stoplights, a grocery store, a twin cinema, a post office, two dozen churches, three banks, a hospital, a video store, a handful of gas stations…” etc. etc. The less patient among us are quickly at risk of losing interest (especially as we read further to learn of the rec center, the barbershop, the convenience store…). Some readers will very fairly interpret these details as poignant testament to the narrator’s loneliness, evoking an ethnographic divide between himself and his surroundings. Those of us less charitable might characterize them as tedious.
Why focus on these details? Why structure the essay in this manner? Reflection allows us to hypothesize answers to these questions (“the married couple’s refusal to hold hands must be symbolic of emotional suppression!”), and yet the reading experience itself seems often to mask rather than render the compelling psychological conflicts that the pieces seem meant to explore. One ultimately gets the sense that these essays might be more entirely satisfying on their second read-through, once one knows what to look out for.
All of which is to say that this book is most highly recommended for those who approach it with some pre-existing investment in its subject matter: fans of Vollmer’s previous work, family-oriented Gen Xers, and anyone with an established interest in astronomy, Seventh-Day Adventism, or rock music. For these readers, Vollmer’s unconventional essays, stories, and reports are certain both to amuse and to satisfy.