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