This Is Not a Love Song
by BRENDAN MATHEWS
reviewed by LUC LE
Little, Brown and Company, February 2019
There are the love songs that we are told. You know them: the ones of the Taylor Swifts and the Sam Smiths of the world, full of roses and romance and lovers who fall in and out of love in dramatic, Shakespearean fashion. But this life, as we know, is rarely that simple, rarely that flawless.
And this is not a love song.
This Is Not a Love Song is an incredibly varied, both in style and in subject matter, collection of ten short stories from Brendan Matthews, author of 2017’s World of Tomorrow. The stories that Mathews tells in this collection encompass a breadth of settings and cultures, genders and sexualities. In one, a photographer captures a fire on film and is blamed for arson. In another, two journalism students traumatized by war swap stories of love and disaster on a retreat in idyllic suburban Chicago. And one, “The Drive,” dabbles in the abstract, concerning a sort of collective consciousness of suburban life, referring to simply “mothers and fathers, boys and girls.” And yet through all this variety, there’s still something that binds this collection together—the notion of our relationships, whether romantic, within friends, or within family, and the ties that bind us or what drives us apart. It’s all rooted in a theme of emotional investment: the need for us to come to terms with the realities of life as time goes on, or the lengths to which we will go to maintain our romanticized idealism.
And so we feel a connection to these characters, despite the often fantastical subject matter—there’s something universal in these characters’ experiences, and so we relate them to our own lives. We feel the fraying of the family unit over time in “Dunn and Sons,” as a family round of golf fails to mask the distance between a father and his sons. We relate to the all-encompassing fear of losing our loved ones that causes us to act irrationally in “Airborne,” as we watch a father tear apart his home in a vain attempt to find some phantom mold. And perhaps we remember the pain that comes of unrequited love in “My Last Attempt to Tell You What Happened with the Lion Tamer,” as a circus clown pines for an acrobat from a distance. His protagonists are interesting, tortured creatures, yet intensely relatable as they attempt to navigate turmoil and tragedy in their lives. And Mathews takes great care not to portray them as mere victims: like much of life, much of their trauma is self-inflicted. They are fascinating, flawed, and deeply human.
Mathews’ prose is sharp, frank, and above all, honest. He lays the bare truths of the lives of his protagonists wide on the page – their dreams, their hopes, and their fears—some so stark we almost feel the need to pull away. But oftentimes Mathews allays this with humor. In the standout “How Long Does the First Part Last,” a protagonist’s issues with attachment come to light with an often hilarious tale of falling in love with a cardboard cutout of a man. There are elements of black comedy at work here, like the irony of heartbroken clown in “Lion Tamer” ; some, like “Look at Everything,” even venture into the absurdist, as the story slowly ventures further into more and more far-fetched territory. This allows the stories to explore the dark side of emotional investment without venturing into all-too-familiar traps of cynicism and melodrama.
What may be most unique about this collection, however, is the vast variety of styles and storytelling devices that Mathews employs. Almost every story employs some novel storytelling method that causes his worlds to jump off the page. The eponymous “This Is Not a Love Song” uses a series of photographs as headers, placing us in location and time as it chronicles the relationship of a rock star and her photographer. “The Drive” refers to its subjects only as a collective, with every sentence starting “the mothers,” or “the fathers,” trapping us in some perpetuity, some universal, endless truth about suburban life. “My Last Attempt to Tell You What Happened With the Lion Tamer” is told almost as an apology, being told entirely and directly to the reader. Not all of Matthews’ experiments are successful. But it does show an author relentlessly experimenting, willing to improvise and adapt his formats to tease meaning into his stories—and as a result, there is rarely a moment you can call dull or This Is Not a Love Song.
Mathews’ collection comes at a timely moment in today’s society: one where we are more connected than ever through the likes of technology and social media but somehow feel further apart, not only in our relationships but along lines of society, gender, and race. As such, it’s an opportunity to reevaluate ourselves and our own relationships (and maybe even laugh at them a little), and appreciate what makes us truly human. And so, Brendan Mathews’ This Is Not a Love Song may not be a love song that you might be used to, but it’s well worth having on repeat.
A child of first-generation Vietnamese immigrants, LUC LE is a writer living in Seattle, Washington. Currently, he attends the University of Washington studying Political Science.