Why Visit America by Matthew Baker

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Every now and then a book comes out that when you read it, your world is changed, whether that is that you’ve just discovered a writer who you now adore, whether it moves you in ways you’ve not been moved before, or that the storytelling is so sublime that the book you believe is destined for greatness. All of these things are true of Why Visit America the new collection from Matthew Baker – who is now up there as one of my favourite writers, and this book as one of the greatest collections I’ve read.

It’s a collection of thirteen stories and from the press release that accompanied my copy states that eight of these stories have been optioned by various TV and film agencies – the story ‘Life Sentence’ was won by Netfilx in a nine-way, six-figure auction – so anticipation was high with this collection and it didn’t let me down.

Matthew Baker is a new writer to me, his previous collection Hybrid Creatures seemed to fly under the radar but this one is showing up on that radar as a gigantic nuclear missile – Baker’s prose is astonishingly crisp, whilst his imagination and storytelling prowess are masterfully original and deeply touching, causing the reader to lose themselves in this most beguiling and transforming collection – once you’ve read Why Visit America, you’ll feel changed, you’ll feel enlightened and most of all you’ll be witnessing greatness!

The collection opens with ‘Fighting Words’ where our protagonist Emma is left with her mother’s brothers as she heads off to the capital to be with her new lover. Emma’s uncles are two timid creatures who take up the call, they wanted to say no, but were too timid to do so, so now they are Emma’s guardians. Her Uncle’s didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for when they became her guardians, and how strong the burden of protecting their niece is, but we soon discover that they would do anything to protect Emma, who is is being bullied by a boy called Nate – these twig tea drinking, petunia planing, rhubarb growing, squirrel feeding brothers now want to cave his knees in and destroy the boy who’s slowly destroying their niece. One of the uncles in this piece is a lexicographer and the use of word play, plays a fundamental part of the prose and storytelling which Baker wields as a double-edged sword, it’s both sharp and witty and adds more gravitas to the delectable prose on offer. ‘Fighting Words’ is about being consumed by the feelings of wanting to protect someone close to you, to help them any way you can, to change the circumstances they find themselves in, but in doing that, in being so consumed in trying to make things better, we seem to miss the bigger picture of transformation that is occurring within their lives.

The next story I want to talk about is ‘Rites‘, a story set in Minnesota, we join it when a family is gathering for the last rites of Pearl (a tradition that this community are observing) she wanted as it appears to leave this world in a Viking type funeral, being cast out on a lake in a boat where she would be engulfed in flames. All appears to be going as planned, some were shouting, some were cheering, but one of the onlookers, was crying (an odd sight at these events), drawing their eyes and their disdain, Orson. Orsen was the last of his generation you see, normally the rites were carried out at seventy, but he was now seventy-three; the family that had gathered to send off Pearl in this wonderful fanfare, were now growing in their anticipation for him to choose his rites, but they also feared that he was stalling and that wasn’t allowed.

‘Stallers often became eager to quit stalling as their health worsened, as rites became less of a menace and more of a relief. From a purely selfish position, that was what rites offered: escaping the intensifying pain of living with a deteriorating body.’

Rites‘ is a deeply original take on small town America ways of life (cults would be another word we could use) and is deeply touching whilst also being shockingly brilliant. Baker goes on to deepen the mythos of this tale with discussions about other ways this family have taken their rites – such as pills, a banquet of poisonous mushrooms, suicide, caffeine, being eaten alive by wolves, drink, insulin and as we know, some people chose fire like Pearl. It’s the conversations and the deep sadness of this story that really grips the reader, an old-timer discussing his views with a family that have grown apart from him, his loneliness is palpable (feelings of disconnection), but his wanting to live, his wanting to have all that life can give you is a bold and uplifting part of this quite remarkable story.
I’ll touch on a few other stories from the collection, as I don’t want to go into too much detail, as I feel that this collection is so brilliant that it’s best discovered coming at it blind like I did, there is so much to enjoy, so much to discover and I don’t want to do the stories a disservice.
The Transition‘ was one of my favourite stories within the collection (it’s hard to choose between so many great stories – but this one spoke to me in a deep and powerful way), our protagonist Mason wants to transition, he’s grown dejected in the body that he has, doesn’t feel that he belongs in it, feels that he’s living a lie, so he raises this life changing quandary with his parents (an initial conversation that is beautifully rendered by Baker, a cluster-fuck of emotions being spilled out and spat out within his family unit – who don’t take his decision seriously or offer any sign of support), it’s gone on too long and he can’t keep living his life like this. Mason informs his family that he is planning to have his mind converted to digital data and transferred from his body to a computer server, where he will be able to finally be the person he believes he was born to be, where his soul can be free from the restrictions of his confining life.
The alarm and distress shown by his family especially his mother was perfect, her initial thoughts were of her sons insanity, but the scene where she is brushing her teeth recalling her son’s demeanour how he was a slow realisation creeps in that he has been unhappy, unwelcome in his body and perhaps this is what he was born to be – really powerful as we compare this to a person transitioning from gender, the grief of loosing a son but gaining a daughter or vice versa- it’s extremely powerful writing. He seemed happiest when alone, on the computer he seemed to come alive at those moments, other than withdrawn and apathetic of life when doing things ‘normal’ boys his age should be doing.
‘If you’re born in a body, then you belong in a body, and that’s that.’
‘He’s just lazy. Doesn’t want to work anymore. Just wants to live for free. God knows we’ve got enough of those types in this country.’
‘Life Sentence’ was a stonking short story. The story starts with our protagonist Wash (Washington) being dropped off by a police cruiser to a house and life that he has forgotten – his memories have been forgotten, he doesn’t remember his wife (Mia), or his son (Jaden) or his daughter (Sophie) he can’t remember his favourite meal, or even his mutt of a dog (biscuit) – everything is a haze of a life he once lived. But what happened to Wash?
We’re soon introduced to his Reintroduction Manager (Lindsay) who explains to him that his memories have been erased; informing him that his semantic memories (general knowledge) remain, but his episodic memories (personal experiences) have all been wiped – due to him receiving a sentence of life for a crime he had committed.
It’s a stunning short story that talks about a time in the not too distant future when such a thing could happen, where the failing prison system is replaced with this mind wipe process, it’s subtly woven into the prose and dialogue and we soon discover that we are immersed in this new dystopia of law enforcement. It’s actually masterful the way Baker puts this across and is reminiscent of the type of crazy that Philip K Dick would come up with.
‘…his wife hands him a rubber syringe and a plastic bowl and asks him to flush a buildup of wax from her ears, an act that to him seems far more intimate than intercourse.’
You see ‘wipes’ cost, some people wipe a horrid memory, some a comment that keeps playing on them, addicts if they can get it, wipe the need for a fix, survivors of traumatic experiences do too. It’s an elective procedure, one that criminals get it for free, whether it’s a year for a crime, then that year is wiped, it’s missing from there memory recall – if you get life, it’s all erased, everything you ever knew… gone. A new form of prison, of punishment. But you’re able to continue to live your life as a free person, away from a life behind bars and with your family!
Can you mourn a life you can’t remember? Can your family mourn the loss of that member? Can you be held responsible for the things that have been erased or the tiny echo of that past the remains in the pained expression of your children, in the flinching and of the unspoken facts? Do you try to find out what you did? If you got life for something it has got to have been recorded somewhere, right? And this is what plagues Wash – building to a deftly crafted conclusion.
I could talk more about this book, but I’ll stop myself here, as I mentioned previously, there are only a handful of books that come around where you will remember where you were when you read it, and this is one of them.
Why Visit America is brilliant, beguiling and brutal – a marvelously crafted collection of stories that brim with menace and moments of truth – reflective, humane, tremendously evocative and absorbingly readable ; some of the finest writing I’ve read in a long while!

Why Visit America is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

Matthew Baker

Matthew Baker is the author of the story collection Hybrid Creatures. His stories have appeared in the Paris Review, American Short Fiction, New England Review, One Story, Electric Literature and Conjunctions, and in anthologies including Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission and the MacDowell Colony, among many others, he has an MFA from Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review. Born in Michigan, he currently lives in New York City.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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