June 2012

James Tate Hill


Light Without Heat by Matthew Kirkpatrick

How much you enjoy Light Without Heat, Matthew Kirkpatrick's debut collection of experimental fiction -- calling them short stories feels imprecise -- will depend largely on what you like most about fiction. Readers interested in relatable characters who undergo change through a series of events might be disappointed and intermittently confused. Readers open to less traditional structures, however, will likely take to the book right away. Playful but not pretentious, occasionally elusive and consistently evocative, these pieces resonate on the same emotional plane as any conventional story. That Kirkpatrick seeks out new paths to emotional connection should fill any reader with gratitude rather than trepidation.

No single piece seems a representative sample, but a few types of stories eventually emerge. The type that perhaps sets the book apart from ninety-nine percent of other collections is the use of visuals in several stories. One piece, "Pineal Gland," uses a diagram of a human brain to explore the ways we are shaped by arguments, obsessions, desire, and memory. In other pieces, pictures work in conjunction with words in ways that don't always feel, to this reader, as vital as the words themselves, though I suspect I'll be in the minority soon enough. As more and more reading is done on interactive devices, the harmony between word and image is increasingly inevitable. Some of this has been done to clever effect by Ander Monson in Vanishing Point, and it's hard to imagine other formally innovative writers not moving in that direction.

One consistent strand throughout the collection is the author's wry sensibility, which rises to bona fide comedy in "The AuralSec Story, A Corporate History, Chapter 7: Our Dependable Grampy." The Grampy of the title is "a prepaid cellular telephone with a single red button programmed to randomly call one of ten people on whom our imaginary customer, a very dependable grampy, could call in case of emergency, a twenty-first-century I've-fallen-and-can't-get-up." Employees of AuralSec are celebrating the upgrade from the prior version, which had a self-defense feature and an extra button, often accidentally pressed by its elderly users, causing their electrocution by stun gun. The cubicle culture and first person plural point of view recall Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, but Kirkpatrick nudges events into the realm of satire all its own.

Equally whimsical is "Crystal Castles," in which Baby Jessica -- remember her, the one who fell down the well in the 1980s? -- falls underground into the lair of a video game enthusiast who happens to be a mole. If that premise evokes, well, forget what the premise evokes, because the execution is astonishingly tender in its blend of poetry, graphics, humor, and philosophy. "The Mole leads her and she lets him wrap a blanket around her and she takes the joystick in her hand. Despite knowing its function, she lacks the hand-eye coordination required for video games and loses on the first level." The entirety of their interaction is as charming and heartbreaking as that exchange.

Another link between seemingly disparate pieces is Kirkpatrick's prose, which alternates deftly between spare fragments and lush arrangements. The opening story, "Different Distances," establishes the author's gifts for eloquent, versatile prose in its impressionistic portrait of an artist's son,

Conceived in a canopy bed in the Waldorf overlooking the wet black street along Central Park at dawn Sunday morning after an exhibition of my father's artwork at the Grace Gallery downtown. Warhol was there. Everything sold. Even the charcoal sketches tucked in Dad's black portfolio. Fabulous. Cocaine piled on silver trays and cases of Dom and Mylar pillow balloons. Best night of their lives.

Although the story tracks the lives of father and son over time, the trajectory of this and other stories feels more emotional than chronological. In "Throw Him in the Water," a mayor governs a town that has had to relocate to avoid a never-ending fire. Not a lot happens in terms of events, but the progression from page to page is sizeable as the author charts the fears and desires of the mayor and his family. The collection contains many short shorts, a form that tends to foreground what is felt more than what happens. Part of this is imposed by the limited space, but these one and two-page stories serve to magnify the sense of compression in the longer stories as well.

It's difficult to speak in absolutes or generalities about a writer or collection so versatile and adventurous. This isn't to say the pieces are listless or incompatible; Kirkpatrick simply refuses -- and good for him -- to ignore any corners of his palette. A handful of moments in Light Without Heat recall the simultaneously unbridled and controlled pieces of Black Tickets, Jayne Anne Phillips's startling debut collection, although that book suggested a writer who was and who remains more interested in narrative than I suspect Kirkpatrick will ever be. That's fine, for much of the pleasure of his fiction isn't what he sees, but the many lenses with which he looks at the world.

Light Without Heat by Matthew Kirkpatrick
Fiction Collective 2
ISBN: 978-1573661669
192 pages