The hero is too late. The dragon is unstoppable, and the princess has died prematurely. Must the story end there? Could there be a hint of redemption in the years to come, when the hero finally comes to terms with his guilt and grief? Matthew Burnside explores what happens after life falls apart in Postludes, a collection of short stories published by KERNPUNKT Press.
This collection features a wide variety of writing styles, ranging from interactive flash fiction to sprawling confessionals. Each story carries its own unique rhythm and form, inspired by Burnside’s interest in music. However, they all gravitate toward the same themes of pain, despair, and hope. His characters are almost always facing oblivion or in the darkest moments of their lives. We see them long after tragedy has struck. Now they’re usually just struggling to survive and put the pieces back together. This isn’t to say that Burnside’s stories are ultimately depressing or cynical. This negativity is contrasted, complemented, and ultimately overcome by a quiet, but ever-dogged notion that there is still some good in life no matter how elusive and tenuous it may seem. Again and again, his characters are borne into darkness, and that darkness is intimately described, but at one point or another they all manage to catch a glimpse of that elusive light. There are a handful of beautiful, joyful moments in this book. If the story is ninety-nine percent dark, there is still that redeeming one percent that gives the reader hope and the capacity to accept how painful life can be. This seems to be an inherent part of what Burnside hoped to accomplish.
Although the collection mostly stays in the jurisdiction of realism and maintains a contemporary setting, it does so in fantastical ways. A character is referred to as having a heart made of Legos. Three drug addicts take an odyssey across the Southwest. A father’s entire life manifests itself as clickbait article. This technique creates a wonderful contrast of somber emotions and unexpectedness. It is particularly noticeable in the poignant story “Rules to Win the Game,” exemplified in this passage: “The Samurai and The Crocodile watched on, with their eyes exchanging the terms of a silent pact that I knew would never be broken between us. I could hear the dreamy murmur of the sirens in the distance, long red and blue shrieks wailing, howling the night into a shredded song of youth. I counted back from thirteen, grabbed The Zombie, and, for the first time in our lives, we were free.”
There is a freedom of style in Postludes that allows each story to feel fresh and well balanced. Burnside seems willing to choose whatever best fits the content, whether that requires the rambling first-person of “Passengers” or the tantalizing list of “Oblivion’s Fugue.” That being said, there are moments found in almost every story where Burnside tends slip away from the format and soliloquize for a while. These are moments full of grandiose imagery and lyricism, but this focus on acoustics often comes at too great a price, leading to a jarring lack of rhythm and plot. As a result, these soliloquies feel somewhat out of place.
The collection is also held back somewhat by the shorter, more abstracted stories in the collection, particularly in the eponymous “Postludes” series that runs throughout the collection. Although there is certainly a manageable story within each of these pieces, they tend to come off a little too vague. That being said, they do serve the purpose of spacing out the better stories. This creates a nice flow of tension and relaxation. Perhaps it is because these stories don’t seem to share the theme of the rest of the collection that they feel lackluster.
However, Burnside has shown that he’s not afraid to take stylistic risks. One of the more outstanding pieces in Postludes is “Escapology,” a look back on a troubled childhood told through the lens of a tabletop game and a twenty-sided die. Also of interest is “Sunken Dreamers’ Almanac,” a six-page meteorological forecast portraying the inner struggles and connections of a small town (and the most poetical piece in the collection). Beyond that, he has a collection of interactive pieces spread throughout the internet (and linked in Postludes), some rather small in scope and others wildly ambitious. Each one seems to again hammer at the idea of perseverance in spite of difficulty. This earnestness and tenacity come off as the strongest tools in Burnside’s inventory. Other than the aforementioned moments of lyricism, these stories are often stripped down to their essentials, with no extended metaphors or symbolism to filter and censor emotion. There is no appeal to intellectualism here, but rather a direct appeal to the human spirit.
By the end of the book, it is hard to not believe in Burnside’s optimism. The last piece, “Bestiary,” features a man named Leonard balancing precariously between life and damnation as an institutionalized sex offender trying to overcome the lust he feels for a newly hired nurse. Although he seems doomed to commit his crime, nevertheless you believe in him. You want to believe he is capable of better. He is already damned by society’s standards, but there is still a hint of redemption in his damnation. Burnside’s stories continue to insist that there is no “Game Over” screen where life is irreparably shattered. There is a sliver of light for Leonard, just as there is for all of the characters in Postludes, and that hope is offered to the reader as a reminder to never give up, even when it seems like the story is already over.
Postludes, by Matthew Burnside. KERNPUNKT Press, February 2017. 145 pages. $14.99, paper.
Luke Jeffrey is a graduate studying at Winthrop University. He is the lead writer for the indie game Vintage Story and a contributor to Kindlyn, an expanding multimedia album.