Henry Holt and Co.
Hardcover (also available in e-book and audiobook formats), 978-1-2502-3720-0, 368 pgs., $27.99
August 4, 2020
There are textual scholars who suggest that the first hundred pages of Moby Dick was Melville’s way of instructing readers on how to read the rest of the novel. In the case of Matthew Baker’s short fiction collection Why Visit America, that Melvillian lesson would be for the reader to expect aesthetically crafted, finely woven and layered storytelling on a challenge-level located somewhere between Saul Bellow and John Updike. Yes, it’s that good.
The opening story, “Fighting Words,” is the most conventional in terms of both subject matter and composition. Here Baker lets the embarking reader gain sea-legs suitable for the rolling, ocean-deep descriptive storyline of good and bad, power and weakness, anger, pain, sorrow, and regret of middle-school bullying as well as hapless parenting. The subtle genius of a lexicography and academia overlay (“My brother is a professor of dead languages”) against the ruthlessness of “a lout, a brute, a ruffian” allows Baker to inspect the inner-clocklike workings of power and regret, with a deliciously constructed tale of unresolved, perhaps unresolvable, failure—parental and childhood. The writing, the description, the metaphor is all seamlessly vivid, almost tactile. For the reader, you’re in the narrative—not just reading, but living the story.
The writing is accessible and engaging, which is necessary to smooth and ease the complex subtext of human emotions interwoven with themes of competing oppositions in every tale. Throughout, Baker has the literary command of an Andre Dubus, with the raw descriptive power of a Cormac McCarthy or a James Wade. Baker’s subject matter ranges from ordinary to nearly fantasy, but the potent, habitable aesthetics move him closer to Baudelaire’s “supranatural” than the supernatural mainstream fantasy genre. Individual page counts put these works at the longer end of the short-story spectrum, but Baker controls the exposition and the exploration so well that length is not an issue.
After “Fighting Words,” “Rites” prods the reader beyond the threshold of convention to the fantastic in a macabre examination of designated mortality—and a chilling human confrontation with ritual and expectation. Baker probes even further into the notion of sentience and humanism in “The Transition.” The reader, like Mason’s tormented mother, must come to grips with what makes a person human and, in that humanity, where precisely authentic personhood resides.
Maybe the most simplistic—which is still a lofty standard in this collection—is “Testimony of Your Majesty,” in which Baker juxtaposes real and figurative consumption, and the result is a bulimic consumerism set against the backdrop of teenage cruelty. This is perhaps the most rudimentary allegory in the book, but the message is nonetheless high impact.
By the time the reader reaches the final story, “To Be Read Backwards,” one would expect to be prepared to take on Baker’s most ambitious challenge—but I was not. Yet that’s part of the captivating brilliance of this collection: certainly, the stories read wonderfully and engagingly without necessarily deep drilling on thematics and meaning. But if the reader is willing and able to deep-dive below a simple surface linear consumption of a well-crafted story, a kaleidoscopic galaxy of time, space, and meaning unfolds. This final, decidedly oppositional story is a uniquely diachronic timeline: not only is the sequence backwards, so is the logic. Baker toys with dimensionality in both time and space, and if you read it carefully, thoroughly, you begin to reopen and reconsider the meaning of all the stories in the collection.
Then, dear reader, you actually are “reading backwards.” The end is the beginning, the conventional notion of scene and sequel is unlinked, and looking at the other stories in retrospect, new possibilities, new inferences and meanings, take shape.
In this very real way, you’re never really done with this provocative, stunning, aesthetically beautiful, and narratively unique collection of stories. Short fiction doesn’t get any better than this.
Named one of Variety’s “10 Storytellers To Watch,” Matthew Baker is the author of the story collections Why Visit America and Hybrid Creatures and the children’s novel, Key Of X, originally published as If You Find This. His stories have appeared in publications such as New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, American Short Fiction, One Story, Electric Literature, and Conjunctions, and anthologies including Best Of The Net and Best American Science Fiction And Fantasy.
A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center For The Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, Prairie Center Of The Arts, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, he has an MFA from Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review.
Born in the Great Lakes region of the United States, he currently lives in New York City.