In his debut collection Postludes, Matthew Burnside demonstrates his deft hand for juxtaposition. He sets the humorous against the painful, the bizarre against the familiar, such that they complement but never clash. Take Oblivion’s Fugue, a story that details the strange, unknown and tangential consequences and circumstances of the events of an orthodontist’s life. After revealing to the orthodontist, addressed as “you,” that the reason his grandfather forbade him from “playing guns” in the house was a harrowing act he committed during World War II, the narrative immediately follows up with: “That strange baby carrot you found in your salad wasn’t a carrot.” It’s jarring, yes. A bit silly and irreverent. But — call it cliché to say this — it feels true.
For its capaciousness — the collection contains twenty stories, seven of which are the titular postludes, and external links to six digital works by the author — Postludes manages a sense of cohesion, bound by each story’s sense of grappling, in some way, with some thing’s or time’s or person’s ending. The stories are often ruled by the sort of dream logic that pervades the work of Kelly Link and Karen Russell. The prose is placid but searing, effortlessly poignant.
I had the opportunity to talk to Matthew Burnside about Postludes, writing in the prime of the Internet and his beloved Steve Buscemi.
Many of the pieces in Postludes focus on things coming to an end or, as you put it in an interview with the Ploughshares blog, “undoings.” Do you write with an ending in mind?
It used to be the only way I wrote. I almost never started at the beginning. The ending and glorious messy in-between were always more interesting to me, so I would always work backwards. To be honest, writing anything linearly has always struck me as inauthentic to life. For me, moments always crash together. Yet, somehow we find a way to make it all align. We yank meaning out of the bright, swirling chaos.
But what Postludes is also about, at least to some degree, is the part we play in our own fate. There’s always that little wedge of responsibility, that millisecond to a lifetime — which Flannery O’Connor might call “grace” — when we get to decide what we’re all about, and what kind of person we’re going to be.
Interesting you bring up O’Connor’s idea of grace. She’s quoted for saying that “human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful” in a letter to the writer Cecil Dawkins. It feels both at odds and strangely in accordance with the act of taking responsibility for one’s self and, as such, it’s not surprising that these stories are deeply character-driven and often portray individuals working their way through the process O’Connor describes. You say you start with a compelling image and work backwards, but what comes next for you? Is plot determined by character or is character determined by plot?
Another interesting aspect to that grace thing is that through that epiphanic moment where we see ourselves, we glimpse our grand connectedness with others. Just as O’Connor’s collection was titled Everything That Rises Must Converge, our ultimate fate doesn’t depend just on us but our reckoning with a world full of others, some more like us than maybe we’d like to admit. The first story in Postludes (“Oblivion’s Fugue”) is all about that phenomenon, written in a kind of chorus. It’s about not knowing but sensing what Hawthorne called “the magnetic chain of humanity.”
As for plot, if I could get away with never thinking about it I would. An image comes first, then a situation, then a character. Language permeates all, binding it together. Plot tends to be an afterthought. I’d be lying if I said I never outlined anything, but I really do try to do it as little as possible.
At what point did you realize these stories were something of a piece? As in, was there a time where you sat back and thought, “oh, I think I have a collection on my hands here?”
One of my favorite television shows is this somewhat obscure anime called Paranoia Agent. It’s like a more stylized version of The Twilight Zone, except far stranger and instead of Rod Serling there in a sharp suit to bind all the episodes together there is a supernatural pre-teen serial killer on roller blades called Lil’ Slugger. My very favorite episode of that series is called “ETC.” It doesn’t really follow the plot of the episodes that come before or after it, and is itself a kind of mini-show within the show because it offers a bunch of smaller snippets of stories that seemingly have nothing to do with the other. In one yarn, a hyper-stressed student begins leaking all the memorized test data out of his mouth and ears. In another, a boxer battles his food addiction. In another, a young lover paints a romantic scene for his dying girlfriend. It’s all seemingly random. Yet, somehow, it works. The result is this work of art where anything is possible and style and tone blink and flit wildly by, switching on a whim. I wanted to write a collection like that. That is, something that shouldn’t work but does.
Formally, what binds Postludes is that pretty much all the pieces are formally dissimilar, experiments. Thematically, what binds it is its obsession with endings. Each individual piece wasn’t initially conceived to fit into a collection. It was only after the fact that the sinews were allowed to grow. It’s like a zoo: you can’t just pour all the animals together in one cage. You have to test which ones play well together, and which ones will eat all the others.
As another writer who draws from television, I appreciate that you talk about television as a source of inspiration and a means of explaining your ethos. If you had to situate Postludes with other work, what other pieces of media (television, film, literature, music, criticism) would be put in conversation with it?
Once upon a time I was a film major. I eventually settled on creative writing because I realized my love for storytelling was more textual than visual, but I still love TV and film. This may be why I tend to write weird hybrid stuff, like new media projects with lots of visuals and occasional interactive components. I don’t think there’s any limit to what can or should inform your art. Cartoons, video games, old radio shows, paintings, sculptures, even landscapes: let it all bleed in. The work will be richer for it.
But I would say most influential upon Postludes is music, actually. Every single piece within the book can be traced back to a song on this YouTube playlist I would listen to and watch (if there was a music video) over and over and over. The playlist included: “Hyperballad” by Bjork, “We Share Our Mother’s Health” by The Knife, “Dang Spot” by Plaid, “Silk” by Wolf “Alice, Heavy Metal” by White Rabbits, “The Party’s Crashing Us” by Of Montreal, “Up the Hill Backwards” by David Bowie, “The Tree That Went Up” by Peter Gabriel, “Green Grass of Tunnel” by Mum, “Psychic City (Voodoo City)” by Yacht, “It Is What It Is” by Blood Orange, “Fin” by Pavement, “Two-Headed Boy” by Neutral Milk Hotel, “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do” by Captain Beefheart, and “Hoppipolla” by Sigur Ros, which is probably my favorite song in the world.
Music has a way cutting right through to the bone of the thing, shining a light on all that holy marrow. What it does so well is what I’d like my writing to do: express a feeling or drip a tone, even if it is surreal or doesn’t make logical sense.
Fantastic playlist. I’m glad you’ve mentioned the multimedia aspect to your work. The last six pieces in Postludes are under a category titled “Interactive Miscellania & Ephemera” and are digital works, ranging from an accurately depressing Choose-Your-Own-Adventure called “Adjunct: A Survivor-Horror Adventure” to an interactive version of the story “Bestiary.” How has the Internet influenced your understanding of or engagement with narrative?
I’ve accepted that I will forever be unable to extricate myself from the Internet. There used to be a little angel on my shoulder (speaking in the voice of all my old mentors and professors) that would say: “Get offline. No good can come of this.” I decided a while back to do the opposite, for better or worse. It’s encouraged me to risk more, and certainly reminded me that while art should always strive to be enriching it should also be entertaining. Play is a word I love. I think it’s a valid way to engage with art.
Readers are more willing to engage with stuff that’s multimodal these days. This is a good thing, even if as a society our attention span has suffered. That’s the trade-off I think. The Internet offers possibilities, but too many perhaps. For example, one of my favorite things to do is fall through Wikipedia rabbit holes, but what I gain from it in terms of breadth I lose in terms of depth. I learn a little about a lot of things I’d otherwise never know, but I hardly ever read the whole article or go deeper into the subject. I almost never read an article and think, You know what? This is worth learning more about. I almost never order a book about a subject I’ve stumbled upon and end up doing more authentic/less superficial research, in other words. I think this can tell you a lot about modern readers like myself: we’re insatiably curious, but we get bored easily. It’s something I’m working on.
To the surprise of no one who knows you or is familiar with your Internet presence, you thank Steve Buscemi in your acknowledgements. What’s your dream day with Steve Buscemi look like?
Answering questions about Steve Buscemi has been the highlight of the last two interviews I’ve done. My dream day with the Buscemi would be fairly simple. I’ve imagined it many times. We would convene at the Olive Garden, ordering endless soup, salad, and breadsticks. We’d probably share an appetizer. I’m thinking bruschetta. He’s the kind of guy who would encourage me to have the last bite of it, and I’m the kind of guy who’d not argue with such a proposition. I imagine we’d talk about film, books, and art. It would all be terribly mundane, but not in a bad way. Mundane in the way that old friends share a meal without feeling the need to cram conversation into every other silence. It would be an affair blessed with comfortable boredom.
At the end, we would part. We wouldn’t hug inside the building, it would be strictly handshakes. But in the parking lot I might finally crack. “The world is going to shit, Stevey,” I’d confess, shiny splotches creeping at the corner of my eyes. “I know it is,” Stevey might say. That’s when the hug would come. “Look, kid, the world has been falling apart from day one. From the second those dinosaurs spotted a comet whistling down from the heavens. From the moment we’re born, we’re learning how to die. That’s the way of things. But listen. We have something those dinosaurs never did: the benefit of knowing that comet is coming for us all, one day. So, make your art. Live your one wild life. Love as deep and true and fearlessly as you can. Because that’s what’ll save you from the comet, even after your body has been smashed to bony-bits and slimy smithereens. All that art, all that love: it remains for the ones we leave behind, sealed stamped and signed first class with our soul’s signature. And it’s the one thing they have to help them face the comet coming their way soon.”
My goodness. That was the most beautiful Steve Buscemi fanfiction I’ve ever read.
That’s all I’ve wanted to hear in this world.