Miracle Monocle Reviews: Matthew Vollmer

Transgressing the Boundaries of Mind and Form: A Review of Matthew Vollmer’s Permanent Exhibit

By Quaid Adams

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you’re sitting at your computer, following link after link, watching a video of a chubby corgi terrorizing a small, toy village in velociraptor costume. Click. Try the latest celebrity diet! Guaranteed to make you slim in just forty-eight hours! Click. Oh, an article about the migration patterns of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher? Click. What? Kim Kardashian is going to be a lawyer by 2022? Click. FAKE NEWS! There was no collusion! Click. Before you know it, its 3 a.m., you have twenty-seven open tabs on your browser and you’re not sure exactly what happened. Admit it, we’ve all been there and will, without a shadow of a doubt, be there again. Matthew Vollmer’s Permanent Exhibit (BOA Editions, 2018) takes readers down a similar rabbit hole through snapshots of deep topics such as gun violence, political discourse, and climate change, all interwoven with hilarious, quirky, and sometimes borderline weird anecdotes and musing from his life.

          Permanent Exhibit is Vollmer’s fourth book, following on the heels of Gateway to Paradise (Persea Books, 2015), inscriptions for headstones (Outpost19, 2012), and Future Missionaries of America (MacAdam Cage and Salt Modern Fiction, 2010). He has also edited two anthologies, A Book of Uncommon Prayer (Outpost19, 2016), and Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, "Found" Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012). Vollmer’s list of other publications is impressive with his work appearing in several magazines ranging from The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, The Sun, PRISM International, Oxford American, and most recently, of course, in the 12th issue of Miracle Monocle. Vollmer received a B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina, an M.A. in English from North Carolina State University, and an M.F.A. in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Vollmer is currently serving as an Associate Professor of English and part of the faculty for the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at Virginia Tech.

          In its few, short months on the market, Permanent Exhibit has already been characterized as offering “captivating journeys with a playful, winsome guide” by Kirkus Reviews. As a reader who is admittedly not a huge fan of the stream-of-consciousness style, I would whole-heartedly agree. Vollmer’s writing style has a way of drawing me in and keeping me there until he has said what he wants to say. Each chapter/section of this wonderful book is its own enclosed, little world, starting at point A and sometimes ending up at the color blue. Just like in those late-night unintentional dives into the random reaches of the internet, readers will be taken deep into the corners of Vollmer’s mind as he interacts with the fast-paced and ever-changing world around him. These snapshots of life hit on topics in quick-fire succession, but throughout the chaos, Vollmer makes sure to slow down at times to reflect on his family, the good, the bad, and even the mundane things we take for granted like childhood memories of video games to his most recent order on Amazon. Vollmer shows readers that it’s okay to get lost sometimes in this crazy world, but the important thing is to take a breath, reflect, and enjoy the process as you journey through the chaos.

          If Vollmer’s style has its own unique way of drawing readers in, so too do the topics he chooses to explore have their own special way of grabbing hold of the reader. The secret to the allure? Sheer randomness. Where else are you going to find discussions of the whether or not the G.I. Joe action figure is considered a “doll” alongside discussions of Anton Levay’s (Founder of the Church of Satan) appearance on Geraldo Rivera’s talk show in the late 1980s? That’s a hell of a lot of ground to cover within two-and-a half pages of writing, but Vollmer transitions so flawlessly that by the end of this short essay, you’ll find yourself feeling like you’ve been magically transported—and pleased you’ve gone along for the ride.

          But Vollmer isn’t just interested in bringing readers along for the fun rides; he’s also interested in exploring difficult territories. From discussions of racism in the chapters “Hatchling” and “The Subordinate Fragment,” to discourses on politics in “Signs of the Times,” to analyses of social concerns such as obesity (in varying forms) in “Fat Kid,” to those god-awful reports of clowns creeping around random wooded areas around the country during 2016-2017, Vollmer takes these more “charged” topics and finds ways to not only deal with them in a productive way, but do so in an accessible way.

          While the stream-of-consciousness style of writing is a common technique used across many genres of writing, few authors have the gumption to pursue it book-length. In Vollmer’s hands, the style becomes a new genre of writing all its own. The writer transforms the established bounds of the creative nonfiction essay into something more fresh and contemporary. The vehicle for this transformation is digital technology: each of these essays were originally posted as a series of status updates on a popular social media website. As one of the quickest and most diverse forms of information transmission, people flock to these platforms to stay connected and to get their information in quick, digestible bits. Perhaps that’s why the genre of “flash” has become such a popular choice among readers today. Vollmer marries the brevity of flash and the discursiveness of stream-of-consciousness style to create something uniquely his own—a hybrid with the power to have a tremendous affect on contemporary literary readers.

          All of the pieces in Permanent Exhibit are non-fiction, but Vollmer’s facility with the tools of the fiction writer makes them read like short pieces of fiction. For me, this attention to detail and the intricate interweaving of different creative techniques increased the impact the text had on me tenfold. As someone who likes to read fiction to escape the dumpster-fire of our current reality at times, Vollmer’s carefully crafted prose drew me in and held my attention until the very last page. As I read, I found myself always wondering where he was going to take me in the next few lines. There's something exciting in not knowing what topics are going to be covered; it’s an experience you don’t typically get in other kinds of books and it was Vollmer’s writing style that pulled it all together. Before reading his work in Miracle Monocle, I was tragically unaware of his oeuvre; now, thanks to Permanent Exhibit, he has officially gained a new follower, both on social media and in the larger literary community.

Permanent Exhibit is now available from your local bookstore or the usual online retailers. Don't forget to read Vollmer's experimental piece, "Founders," in Issue 12 of Miracle Monocle

QUAID ADAMS is a graduate editor of Miracle Monocle.