If you’ve ever heard Robert Vaughan read, you’ll know that sound plays a critical role in creating the texture and substance of his work. Vaughan’s first chapbook, Microtones—another is scheduled for publication this summer—is a collection of twenty-four moments of sound, of speakers caught up in the dissonance and consonance of memory. Together these tones form a story and a familial history—one might even say, to steal a line from Vaughan’s ‘Elements of K,’ “an entire family, harmonizing like the Van Trapps.”

And they are intimate treatments of these families’ microhistories, many of which are devoted to fathers and mothers. It would be an oversimplification to say these pieces are elegiac; but it is not stretching to say mothers hold a more comfortable place in the speakers’ memories than fathers do, the latter often characterized as stolid (‘When the Time Comes’), cold and pragmatic (‘Part of Life: Two Ways’), missing (‘My Bicycle’) or drunk (‘Wrestling with Genetics’). It is important, at least in my opinion, to see that ‘Wrestling with Genetics,’ the last piece in the chapbook, finally puts father and son in the same text as adults—and finally the son wrestles not only genetics but also memory to the ground . . . and takes the keys. I like this.

Reading Microtones as one story in which the characters, while inhabiting different worlds, represent archetypal opposites of Mother/Father, Lover/Abuser, but also Consciousness and all forms of Death (disappearance, absence, escape, separation, etc.) is like listening to a ballad with a rich harmonic structure—of course all of this in miniature. When I think of the collection in this way, I keep coming back to Vaughan’s image of the entire family harmonizing in the car. This is a rare, major chord in a story that strikes mostly darker tones.

In ‘Legacy’ we are briefly shown a photograph of a girl, a family member, and told that her death is her own fault, damaging to the family, contagious and stupid. In ‘When the Time Comes’ a father tells a similar story about a boy in the news. “The children should have known better” resonates here and elsewhere, sounding more like a comment on the adult than the child. Similarly, in ‘My Bicycle’ responsibility is shifted to the child since the father is missing. This prose poem is possibly about sexual abuse, possibly about a positive sexual encounter with a stranger. Regardless of which, the missing father is the acciaccatura for the sexual encounter—as if its mere and brief mention at the beginning sets up, and somehow explains, the story of the camper.

In terms of physical arrangement, many of these pieces are positioned so that they exist across the page in dialogue with a piece that treats a similar or at least complementary theme. A good example of this: ‘The Upswing of Falling’ and ‘Levitation,’ both about romantic relationships, the former ending, the latter in the throes of passion. I find this opposition, this balance pleasing.

Microtones (36 pages) is available from ČERVENÁ BARVAPRESS.


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O’Type. Allen, originally from Tennessee but now living in Germany, is the managing editor of Metazen, a daily ezine that publishes potential literature.

  1. Bud Smith

    I’ve read this chapbook and was floored by it. This is an excellent assessment of the content, Chris.

  2. Timothy Gager

    What a nice and complete review for a wonderful book!

  3. Jen Knox

    Great writing always comes back to balance. Mindful experience does, too, I think.

    The fact that all these short works come together in almost opposition to create a sort of holistic family portrait sounds like utterly divine reading. I have wanted to do something like this for sometime and have yet to get it to work. I seriously can’t wait to read this book, and even more after reading this review.

  4. Sam Rasnake

    What a wonderful review – but I have to say that Christopher had me when he wrote the words Robert Vaughan. I eagerly wait to read Vaughan’s new works.

    Opposition and balance is a perfect description of Vaughan’s writing. I’m not sure how he does it, but he does – story after story. This review made me follow the link to ČERVENÁ BARVAPRESS and make a purchase. I eagerly wait the book in hand.

  5. Tina Barry

    I purchased Robert’s book and have been doling it out to myself slowly, the better to savor each beautifully crafted piece. “Microtones” is the work of a grownup who can find humor amongst the heartbreak, and affection for all of it.

  6. Len Kuntz

    This is a terrific review of a terrific book. Christopher, you caught the right cadence and depth of Robert’s work. Bravo.

  7. Steven Gowin

    Robert deserves the best reviews and this one lives up to his work.

    The discussion of arrangement (editing) of the work is very instructive .

    “In terms of physical arrangement, many of these pieces are positioned so that they exist across the page in dialogue with a piece that treats a similar or at least complementary theme.”

    Thanks Robert Vaughn for wonderful work, and think you Christopher Allen for this thoughtful review.

  8. Jen

    Thanks for this astute review, Christoper. If I was looking forward to digging in to this collection before, I’m even more so now!

  9. Nathaniel Tower

    Fantastic review of what I am sure is a fantastic book. I’ll be ordering my copy very soon!

  10. David Tomaloff

    Excellent. Glad to see this, and I am now even more stoked to get my hands on a copy.

  11. james claffey

    hearty congrats to robert on his publication! can’t wait to read it. and fine job by christopher allen in reviewing the work! kudos to both of you.

  12. Gessy

    Microtones is a spellbinding treat to read. Christopher’s observations about sounds is astute. There’s something about loving too much and hurting the ones we’re meant to cherish and protect. There’s something about the conflicts, contradictions, and resolutions in families, biological or social. That something is imperfect and beautiful. Thank you, Christopher for this fantastic review. And, congratulations and continued success to Robert.

  13. Sheldon Lee Compton

    Wonderful review. Gotta get this book in my hands.

  14. David

    A powerful insight to the human condition. This contemporary voice truly benefits all fortunate enough to own this work of art.

  15. Linda Simoni-Wastila

    Just received my own copy of Microtones, so this wonderful review feels like the appetizer to the main course. or perhaps tapas is a better description? At any rate, excited to read more, as Vaughn always pleases.

  16. susan gibb

    It’s hard to not gush over Robert’s work and leave it at that, so Christopher’s realistic and pointed praise means much here.

  17. Eryk Wenziak

    LOVE Robert’s new book. Picked it up at AWP and read it that night! Great review, Chris!

  18. Marcus Speh

    Wonderful review to a much-expected work . I especially like your pointing out the physicality and the soundfulness of the writing. Marvellous! Good luck to Robert and his micro but perfectly formed tones!

  19. Michelle Elvy

    I usually don’t like to read reviews before I’ve read a book that I know I’m about to read — Robert Vaughan’s book is on its way to me all the way here in NZ, yay! — but in this case I was glad to come here and see what Chris Allen has to say. What an excellent close reading he has done of these stories. I look forward to seeing how these stories relate and interrelate, and how they are laid out on the page. Cervana Press does excellent stuff — congratulations to all involved! Will gladly share it with folks in my hemisphere…

  20. Michelle Elvy

    ČERVENÁ BARVA PRESS, I mean… was typing fast there and meant to go back and place the proper accents and spellings and emphases… apologies there. :)

  21. Meg Tuite

    This is a brilliant and incredibly insightful review of the amazing ‘Microtones,’ by Robert Vaughan! WOW! YES, YES AND YES! Thank you, Christopher, for your in-depth review that captured the layers, the brilliance of Robert Vaughan’s collection! LOVE!

  22. Charlotte

    After reading this review I immediately went to ČERVENÁ BARVAPRESS and bought it. Looking forward to a great read.

  23. Nicolette Wong

    Insightful read into the strengths of Robert’s writing. Thank you Christopher for the astute review and congratulations to Robert! Looking forward to reading the book.

  24. Betsy Lamoureux

    Robert is a dear old college friend and this glowing and insightful review has reminded me to order a few copies of Microtones.

  1. 1 Review of Robert Vaughn’s Microtones |

    […] editor Robert Vaughn’s debut collection, Microtones, received it’s first review at Fictionaut, and it’s a good one: Reading Microtones as one story in which the characters, while […]

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