Matthew Kirkpatrick’s debut collection of short stories, Light Without Heat, embodies a range of voices, geographies and rhythms, drawing from many of the recesses of our society: mundanity, procrastination, hope, delusion, despair and escape. These sentiments, positions, predicaments and feelings are performed vividly through Kirkpatrick’s masterful creation of character. He plays with his world in a profound way, like a child molding clay into macabre and hilarious creations. While a reader might feel that not every story is fully realized, the overall depth, breadth and daring of the collection makes it an uncommonly animating and enlightening work.
The collection begins with three stories, “Different Distances,” “Instructions” and “Light Without” (respectively), and all are written in a shattered text with scattered chronology. “Different Distances” and “Instructions” might, at first, seem more like exercises in voice and rhythm than stories unto themselves. In “Light Without,” we see these ideas realized fully as Kirkpatrick manifests characters and defines environments with the slivered and anxious rhythm and narrative of the prior two pieces, but in this story the characters are indubitably alive in their conditions and surroundings from the start: cold lights: camera flashes following the self-created B-list actress, the 7-11 fluorescents, “flickering light of the television until dawn” (22), et cetera. And here one feels provoked to reflect on the title of the collection, to ponder what ties these stories together; these lights without heat inform the lonely dreams of the characters and the habitats and environment in which they exist: “She removes the staples from Glamour and peels the leaves of the magazine apart, spreading them around her. She scans them into her computer, sitting cross-legged with her fingers on her laptop, cropping and pasting herself into other lives. She prints the pages on glossy paper and reassembles the magazine, stapling the pages so perfectly, so practiced, that only she would know the difference” (18).
“The Board Game Monopoly” is a story in this collection that evokes landscape and character both lyrically and through the mundane. One of the narrator’s first person experiences watching his neighbors is as follows:
After she’s given the cab driver money and he drives her son away, she looks at her dog, a big slow bloodhound with two strands of drool hanging out of his mouth.
"I think I’m going to have to put the dog down." (121)
The weight the characters feel in this story, the oppression, the seeming lack of hope, is fully accessible, drawing the reader into the story, right onto the porch watching the neighbors and the block.
The wasted and deserted suburban landscape that Kirkpatrick imagines in “Throw Him In The Water” is vaguely reminiscent of the current ‘mortgage predicament’ that many towns (now deserted) and individuals are finding themselves in. He twists it, though, into a fiery and almost demonic world of underground fires caused by an ignited coal vein. The characters all seek their literal and figurative escapes in very ordinary, but ingenious ways; they’re escapes that many of us follow today.
Kirckpatrick’s inclusion of photographs in some of his stories both works and detracts depending on his narrative. In “Light Without,” the lo-res photographs may distract from the text-built landscape Kirkpatrick’s words strive to create; the written environment here is so wonderfully encompassing it seems a shame to try to realize them via imaging, Later, in “Some Kirkpatricks,” the photographs he utilizes lend well to the listing-narrative of the story, and they add a sense of urgency to the reading as they become more prevalent in the piece.
Kirkpatrick has a profound way of exploring real world circumstances and locating them, through his writing, in the atmosphere above where our dreams are and in the minerals below that house our nightmares; emptied towns, the horror of lost children, the fear of leaving a company or position or recognizing the false belief in that job or company-- all of these spheres that we exist in everyday, Kirkpatrick handles with empathy, whimsy, charm, sorrow, and anxiety. While these stories vary stylistically, they consistently hone in on a certain mundanity found just outside the frenetic fringes of the country’s metropolises; instead of playing into it, he plays with it.
I look forward eagerly to a longer work by Kirkpatrick–-one in which he examines the situations that are explored in theses stories and creates as a whole this dark, dysfunctional, disparate and hilariously hopeful world.