Reviewed: Light Without Heat: Stories by Matthew Kirkpatrick
(Fiction Collective 2/University of Alabama Press, March 2012)
Every month, Indie(cent) Exposure will review a book from a small, independent publisher. This month's selection is from Fiction Collective Two, an author-run not-for-profit publisher of artisically adventurous, non-traditional fiction, and also an imprint of the University of Alabama Press.
The nineteen stories in Matthew Kirkpatrick’s Light Without Heat are disorienting. They employ a series of devices—photographs, diagrams, side-by-side points of view, multiple nameless characters, big blocks of unattributed dialogue, and pleasingly unusual plots—to either defamiliarize the reader by making the familiar strange, or jar the reader, often into laughter, by making the strange familiar.
The most successful pieces in the collection, like “Monopoly the Board Game,” do the latter:
Usually when I drive home late at night the lesbians are either sitting around a little bonfire they’ve built in their front yard drinking beer while one of them stands in the middle of the road juggling torches or spinning a long pole with flaming ends. When I get to their house I slow down and wait for the person with the flames to move out of the street and wave to them.
In this story the narrator is a passive witness to a whole mess of unusual action in his neighborhood, from winking prostitutes fellating men in the front seats of cars, to neighbors trying to buy children from the refugees across the street, to, of course, the fire-twirling lesbians. “Nothing too serious,” the narrator says, “but if you are playing with fire in the street you are advertising to the world that you are high on drugs.” The narrator exemplifies Kirkpatrick’s strategy for dealing with the bizarre: There’s nothing to see here—just wait for the drunk woman with the fiery spear to get out of the road, and then move along to the next sight.
“The AuralSec Story, A Corporate History, Chapter 7: Our Dependable Grampy,” uses a similar brand of casual absurdity to examine loneliness and fear. The first person plural narrator of the story works for a cellphone company that makes Version 2.0 of the Dependable Grampy, which lets elderly customers hit an emergency button to randomly call any one of the customer’s pre-selected emergency contacts. (Version 1.0 of the phone hit a snag when customers mistook the special stun gun feature for the “end call” button.) The selling point is that the new model allows the senior citizen to call one of the emergency contacts “just to chat, talk about the Pirates games or the weather or how the power people had come and cut down the tree out front.” Being as the call is identified as “emergency,” the recipient will pretty much have to answer. While the plot darkens as the nefariousness of the company is revealed, the humor never disappears: “Some of us live by the mantra: ‘Well, at least nobody is going to die from what we do’ even though that has allegedly happened at least five times.” Kirkpatrick is at his best here, deftly and entertainingly examining how we protect ourselves from the truth.
Like much experimental literature, Light Without Heat aims to defamiliarize by forcing the reader to slow down and see something previously taken for granted. But the question is whether the challenges the experimental writer puts on the reader enhance the reading experience. Kirkpatrick’s “Celebrations” listens in on multiple relatively unrelated conversations at what appears to be a party, in pages upon pages of exposition-less, unattributed dialogue. The reader doesn’t get to the question of “what’s going to happen?” until he can answer “what’s happening right now?” For this reader, even after multiple reads, the answer is: I’m not quite sure. Letting dialogue alone carry a story requires incredible skill, and when reading “Celebrations,” I felt like I was overhearing an inside joke that I had no chance of getting.
Even more frustrating is the author’s refusal to give character names or narrative clues in “Light Without,” a very promising—and in the end, confusing—story, where recurring images of light without heat are one of the only connecting threads for the reader to cling to. One character steals celebrity magazines from 7-Eleven and “scans them into her computer, sitting cross-legged with her fingers on the laptop, cropping and pasting herself into other lives.” Later, another character (or maybe the same one—I’m not entirely sure) reveals, “She thinks she will make a really good reality series.” So there’s good writing here, as well as an interesting situation. But we skip from various hes and shes so frequently and without warning, that I’m too defamiliarized. I can’t connect emotionally because all my energy is spent trying to figure out what’s going on. One could make the argument that narrative and character development are not the aim of this story, so giving the characters names, separating the narrative threads into individual sections, or inserting any form of transition would be beside the point—we’re moving associatively here. But neither “Monopoly the Board Game” or “Our Dependable Grampy” are about narrative or character development either, yet in those pieces, the author at least gives us the tools we need to engage with the story.
While some of Kirkpatrick’s forms are more alienating than they are illuminating, Light Without Heat is also filled with tenderness (notably in “Crystal Castles,” which features a mole who takes Baby Jessica in when she falls down the well and plays Atari with her, and “The Saddening,” which is about a John who pays a prostitute to cry) and packed with delightful surprises. If Kirkpatrick can discard the unnecessary obstacles while still upending expectation and form, his next book could fulfill the promise of his first.