By Jason M. Rubin
At his best, Matthew Schultz’s abilities as a writer transcend the small, tight canvases he has prepared for himself.
What Came Before by Matthew Schultz. Tupelo Press, 156 pages, $19.99.
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Social media, especially Twitter with its forced brevity, have had a significant impact on today’s literature. Everywhere you turn you see flash fiction, six-word poems, and other forms of intentional pithiness seemingly designed for people who have lost the ability to concentrate. This writer has had three pieces published on a site called 101words.com — which seeks submissions of fiction that are exactly 101 words long for some reason — but boredom and a desire for details took precedence over bragging rights for being “published.”
Suffice it to say, I am not a fan of the current trend. All the more ironic, then, when a collection of — get this — micro-essays was thrust into my hands. What Came Before, is a slender volume of 156 pages that nonetheless contains more than 180 essays (some are multiparters). Quite a number of these micro-essays are but one line long; several are one short line, but the prize for literary austerity must go to the selection entitled “You Said You Needed Space.” Save for the title, this essay has no words at all.
“Is this a put on?” I asked myself numerous times while reading this book. I tend not to think so, though it is often witty and, as in “You Said You Needed Space,” there is meaning even when words—or sufficient words—are absent. The author, Matthew Schultz, is a Bay Stater currently living in Israel. His work has been published in various places, but this is his first book. He clearly is knowledgeable about a number of subjects, including the Bible, history, and science, and he has traveled broadly. He name-drops cities like Jerusalem, Istanbul, Krakow, Berlin, and Pompeii with nothing of the accidental tourist about him.
I must say that I enjoyed a number of Schultz’s pieces, though many more left me frustrated because they seemed incomplete. This feeling of mine contradicts the author’s intention, so I have to take ownership of the fact that it is not comfortably within my wheelhouse to appreciate a micro-essay. I can’t help it: I like words, and I think they serve a purpose. So when I read a piece like “I Saw a Rocket Get Intercepted in the Sky Behind Your Head While We Had Drinks on Jaffa Street,” a 19-word title followed by only 12 words of content, I feel like the author is deliberately withholding information from me. Similarly, a piece called “On Gay Men and Cats” tells me only this: “There is a special relationship between gay men and cats.” That terseness may well be emblematic of the author’s approach to his art, but it doesn’t fulfill the purpose of an essay, micro or otherwise.
To be fair, there are a number of essays in this collection that are page-length and longer, and some of the multipart ones are my favorite because they take on a subject from different angles. The best of these is the four-part “Rock Collection,” which discusses pyrite, geodes, petrified wood, and shrapnel. One can tell, just from those subjects, that Schultz is addressing ideas of substance that span eras of a life, from childhood to adulthood, examining things we unexpectedly find that fascinate us. Some pieces read better as poems than as essays, such as “Glass,” the entirety of which follows:
When a glass breaks, one sees how very little it wanted to be a glass in the first place
How eagerly it cracks and reclaims the abilities it once had as sand:
and be countless.
In pieces — and moments — such as these, Schultz’s abilities as a writer transcend the small, tight canvases he has prepared for himself. And yet, for every micro-essay we can chew on, there are several like “Self-Help,” which imparts only this much wisdom: “By the end of this sentence you’ll be fixed.” At minimum, I would have lengthened the piece by inserting a comma after “sentence.” A piece such as that sends me into mourning for the 99.9 percent of the page that sits blank, and the tree that died for a fortune-cookie insight.
Again, the tragedy of this is that Schultz does have good ideas when he can be bothered to fully express them. “On the Second Day” takes us into God’s messy workshop, where the Creator, like so many of us trying our hand(s) at a potter’s wheel, can’t seem to get his creation quite right. Near the end of the page-and-a-half (!) piece, we read, “He raised His fist to smash our world to pieces.” And that, it turns out, is where we continue to find ourselves to this day, under a sword of Damocles that could fall at any moment. A collection full of pieces such as that would be worthy of an award.
As it is, What Came Before is a brisk and occasionally very satisfying read. Perhaps other readers will be less antagonistic toward the volume’s concision than I was but, as I said at the start, I don’t care much for the trend toward appeasing the attention deficits brought on by social media. It’s fine on Twitter and Instagram, but please keep it out of our books. Based on his best pieces, Matthew Schultz is better than that.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 35 years, the last 20 as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective (neiac.org) and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.