In an early lecture James Joyce said the “human mind, as it looks forward and backward, attains an eternal state … taking into its centre the life that surrounds it and flinging it abroad again amid planetary music.” I don’t know if Matthew Burnside was thinking of Joyce when he titled his chapbook, but Infinity’s Jukebox isn’t a bad depiction of the mind as Joyce described it.
The stories here are included mix-tape style, divided into “Slow Jamz” and “Headbangerz.” The jamz are powered by psychological realism; the bangerz aren’t.
In “Passengers” a group of druggie college kids ride south, through Texas, indulging in pharmaceuticals and detonating a firecracker in the butt of a stray dog. The bros lament their privileged, middle class upbringing. School doesn’t challenge them. Everything comes easy, so they seek out trouble. You root for these guys to go unredeemed, while regretfully empathizing with their first-world yearning for authenticity and significance.
Occasionally, the language takes a funny bounce, especially the language of characters on drugs (i.e. “liquid starlight”). The boys here are drug-addled, and many of the regretful phrasings are in keeping with that characterization. The overcooked language, while conveying the characters’ narcissism and raising questions about the grand contemplations that issue forth as the story winds down, distracts from what is, overall, a noble and worthwhile installation of the road trip archetype. Any verisimilitude or irony earned by liquid-starlight kid spouting world wisdom doesn’t seem worth the distraction of the corny language, especially when, at moments such as the chapbook’s coda, “Literary Short Story (A Mad Lib),” Burnside shows himself to be ecumenically shrewd with his diction.
Of course, I could be missing the point.
From the infinite view, what does a little awkward wording really matter? Do tired plots and cliché characters (let alone some overwritten descriptions) keep a story from revealing whatever truth it has to impart? Probably not. In fact, a bit of purple prose exposes its own truth, the shape of our snobby, literary bias and—yeah—ideology.
This is a beautiful sentence from “Biography:” “Years later, in the throes of withdrawal, he learns in some obscure textbook love is nothing more than a chemical cocktail and misfit burst of neurons firing.” The idea that love and addiction are different concepts associated with the same brain state is a good way of understanding how the stories in this chapbook cohere, varying in mode to accomplish similar ends: Just when you think you’ve found a theme, some morsel of insight, Burnside rattles the cage of artifice. The stories collude to provide a stark picture of our unromantic time. We are both junkies and lovers, only conscious at any given time of being more like one more than the other.
As for the bangerz, they are driven by conceit over character. “Procession of the Dogface Lepers” felt a little like a Matt Bell story, a cut chapter from Cataclysm Baby, not a bad thing by any stretch, and “Hey, Got a Light? (A Tribute to Jazz),” my favorite, is a noir set piece about a case of mistaken identity within a case of mistaken identity.
In the collection’s most accomplished experiment, “Pan’s Lobotomy,” a group not unlike that on the road in “Passengers,” finds itself marooned in a purgatorial chamber, left to seek out the meaning of eternity. One character uses math. Another spouts lyrical gobbledygook. Still another tears up the carpet, convinced he’s missed something hidden in plain sight. At one point, the crew seems on the verge of a breakthrough. Someone says, “Maybe it [infinity] has everything to do with everything,” and for a moment they stop. The action ceases only long enough for all present to disregard this suggestion. Each return to his or her work—the math, the nonsense, the carpet—compelled uniquely by a shared anxiety. In the end, the readerly footholds that allow us to track the moves of this story turn out to be the obviously flawed methodologies by which each character seeks meaning. In the end, all we can know is math, poetry, the next layer of stuff under the carpet.
And the urgency in these stories has to do with how we react to these limitations. Burnside’s characters want to be seen, to be named, to be assigned purpose. They perpetually curate, realizing value only through absence and negation, what’s been lost, what’s unknown, what’s left out. The pressure to show meaning and accrue value is unbearable. By labeling these stories for his jukebox, perfunctorily canonizing them as we would any addition to a playlist, Burnside quietly asks the toughest (and least condescending) question literature can ask of itself and its readers: Why does this matter?
Infinity’s Jukebox, is about the endless and often circular pattern of how we explore and test the relevance of our experience. Though often genuinely funny and emotionally poignant, Burnside’s stories always put more on the line. They each wrestle an angel.
Much blogging has been done about how fiction should enrich us, how it should help us make sense of the world and its people, and alas, the epoch is upon us when the careers of our most brilliant writers peak with thought-for-the-day-style commencement addresses, speeches tacitly arguing for the utility of fiction in the modern world. I guess that’s okay—what harm can a commencement speech do?—but I’m grateful that in Matthew Burnside we have a writer who’s willing to gaze forward and back, to use Joyce’s words, reminding us that the only true comfort literature can offer is that of another voice singing forever in our hearts.
Infinity’s Jukebox, by Matthew Burnside. Passenger Side Books. $5, paper.
Dan Townsend lives in Birmingham, Alabama. His fiction appears in Barrelhouse, NANO Fiction, and Drunken Boat, among others. He’s currently reading The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, and Even Though I Don’t Miss You, by Chelsea Martin.