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Untested Properties

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
p. 18 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0044

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reading Matthew Kirkpatrick’s Light Without Heat is like getting sucked into a phonographic mishmash of scrambled linearity, a sometimes dizzy place where the reliability of science and the unreasonable nostalgia provoked by photographs and memories collide. His narrative structures lean toward the unfamiliar, though not so far as to take us into chaos. Rather, the stories in this debut collection mirror the search for selfhood and stability of the Big Bang: Where are my rivers? Where are my mountains, my oceans? Where are the people to bear witness to my pain?

This existential cosmic ring (the collection is loaded with skies, constellations made by freckles, big and little dippers, belts, and swords) wiggles through these nineteen stories, two of which, “Light Without” and “Some Kirkpatricks,” incorporate photographic imagery.

“Light Without” begins, “Heat. This is the story of,” and is followed by a 2.5 × 3 inch image that finishes the page. The image is of darkness punctured by three windows opening onto blurred parts of a human. What follows might be described as a story detailing the plight of blurred humans seen through windows or stars. Didn’t folks once think stars were windows in the firmament?

“Light Without” contains thirteen windows, some more abstract reflections of the text than others. We are given a desert; snow-covered trees at night; blurred-motion-double-images of a man’s arms embracing or shaking a woman. Such photos overlap the story of an orderly who switches babies at the hospital where he works, taking one home to his girlfriend in a banana box, and a technologically savvy young woman who lives in her parents’ basement and steals magazines such as Glamour, People, and Stuff from her local 7-Eleven, digitally pastes her legs and arms and face into images of A-list celebrities, then returns them. The workers at the 7-Eleven, aware of her kooky pastime, run a string wall to wall in the back room, and upon it clip the pages of her handiwork. The baby-switcher also discovers these altered images and falls in love with the perpetrator’s hands, arms, legs, and face.

But the “This is a story of” from the first page (and this is typical of Kirkpatrick’s narrative trickery) reconnects with various lines throughout the structure, such as “the sky”—that’s a whole paragraph—and “Ruined constellations”—another full paragraph. Like cut umbilical cords, narrative threads reemerge, sudden babies in your hands. “Light Without” is rife with babies (stars), blurred juxtapositions of adults trying to relate to babies, people described in relation to gravitational pull, the pull of the tides, and heaven-and-earth divisions. While the heroine of “Light Without” is in her room, she listens to her parents’ footseteps, and

She imagines each footfall marks a point on a map unhidden between the floor upstairs and the ceiling above her. One day she will climb a ladder and remove each tile from the dropped ceiling to reveal the concealed map of some undiscovered place, routes formed from the pattern of her parents’ movement.

Such are the charmingly engaging thoughts of a young woman worthy of notice. Nobody sees her except for where she forcefully inserts herself. Alas, she follows paparazzi who are following stars and lingers about in the hopes that she might accidentally appear in the backgrounds of their photographs: but wasn’t she a famous baby once? Is she trying to recapture a forgotten memory? “A photograph is light,” Kirkpatrick writes in “Light Without,” yet the baby-switcher wants to “rescue her from light and fog and shitty music thrusting through blown speakers” when he finds her in a spooky house dancing with three drunks. As it happens, the baby-switcher photographs the babies he switches and hangs these pictures from a “string stretched wall to wall in the little room in the back of his apartment,” just like the workers in the 7-Eleven do with the young woman’s attempts to join the popular culture. The orderly takes her home while new constellations replace ruined old ones.

“Light Without” is a masterful and beautifully poetic short story that gains in richness with rereading, a work...


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