The thrill of reading Matt Kirkpatrick’s debut collection, Light Without Heat (FC2, 2012), is like the thrill of stepping into a carefully curated vintage store: each exquisite story has a talismanic magic unto itself, and a unique literary lineage. For example, the executives of a telecommunication company in “The AuralSec Story, a Corporate History, Chapter 7: Our Dependable Grampy,” who assure themselves, “Well, at least nobody young is going to die from what we do” have the fatalistic humor of a George Saunders character who’s mired in an insufferably corporate universe. Or consider the narrator in “The Board Game Monopoly,” whose thoughts gyrate around his destitute neighbors (lesbian heroin addicts, a little girl who steals his cigarettes, a mythomaniac neighbor who lies about “arm cancer”), whose threatening humor belies a deeper melancholy, not dissimilarly to Denis Johnson’s character, “Fuckhead.” Or consider “Glossary,” Kirkpatrick’s impossible encyclopedia whose absurdist linguistic humor is reminiscent of Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women:
Akron, OH: On June 12, 1978, the “City of Angels” burned to the reduction of artificial application of water to the soil.
Akron, OH: Forty miles east of Akron, OH, in a forest on a hill.
Akureyri: Show me cold water flowing and
Alan Alda: Badly burned on June 1, 1980, while freebasing cocaine.
Alan Alda: A sinkhole opens in a valley to one black cavern glistening. Cold black water glistens.
Kirkpatrick can clearly pen a story that rivals the most anthologized of our short story writers, but also in his collection are heretofore unimaginable forms, stories that mirror the moment when you arrive late to a Surrealist tea party, and you’re not entirely sure which parlor game is being played. Ecstatic linguistic pyrotechnics, multi-dimensional constellations: a character sketch written as a diagram of the pineal gland, erasures that leave the text cratered, an impossible encyclopedia, “basements with or without dens.”
Though Light Without Heat is an incredibly eclectic collection, with more bizarre forms than the DMV, cohesive threads run throughout these nineteen stories (though these threads are more like strands of mutant DNA, birthing beautiful little monsters): celestial imagery, the rotting past, bitched-from-the-start families, shrapnel-scapes. Particularly, though, I’m interested in Kirkpatrick’s obsession with holes—in his stories, ground becomes a tenuous terrain, threatening to collapse into some darker, subterranean life. Often, this hazard of distending holes is quite literal: in “Throw Him in the Water,” families, afraid of a fissure splitting the ground beneath them, have severed all contact with other families, and each patriarch becomes an autonomous Mayor. In “Different Distances,” a father falls down [metaphorical] wells, digs holes in the backyard using a metal detector, paints black holes, opens manhole covers and longs for darkness. “Crystal Castles” takes the form of holes, bifurcating into a long, two-columned text, with one column retelling the story of Baby Jessica who fell down the well, and the other chronicling the Atari-playing, Creeley-plagiarizing mole she meets there.
In the final story of the collection, “Some Kirkpatricks,” a vignette of images of tombstones with the name Kirkpatrick and imagined obituaries behind these deaths, the reader begins to meditate upon the subterranean histories over which one walks, the sinewy narratives lurking beneath the surface. Each gravestone acts an aperture to an impossibly irrecoverable story.
While the idea of holes pockmarks Kirkpatrick’s moonscape collection, the stories seem to also be conceptually interested in language as a type of hole—not only Kirkpatrick’s language specifically, but as language as having intrinsically sub-terrestrial properties. For example, in “Pennsylvania,” a story composed of a constellation of objects, each word is not merely representative of that object, but a vertiginous plummet beyond the textual substrate and into the domestic Pennsylvanian landscape. In My Life, Lyn Heijinian writes, “But a word is a bottomless pit. It became magically pregnant and one day split open, giving birth to a stone egg, about as big as a football.” In Light Without Heat, the reader falls into the wrenching, blackhole of language.
For Kirkpatrick, words seem to act as apertures, holes through which light travels. In “Light Without,” about an orderly who switches babies at the hospital where he works, and a woman who shoplifts magazines from 7-Eleven, photoshopping her face into the pictures, and returns them, cosmic light sears throughout the story. “A photograph,” Kirkpatrick writes, “is light.” Throughout, we fall through a beautiful chiaroscuro of darkness and illumination; grounding and freefall; loneliness and another’s fingertips.
Tasha Matsumoto received her MFA from the University of Notre Dame. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Quarterly West, 1913, the Nashville Review, PANK, and elsewhere.