by Guest Post: Matthew Baker
Depending on whom you ask, Michael Martone is either contemporary literature’s most notorious prankster, innovator, or mutineer. In 1988 his AAP membership was briefly revoked after Martone published his first two books—a “prose” collection titled Alive and Dead in Indiana and a “poetry” collection titled The Flatness and Other Landscapes—which, aside from The Flatness and Other Landscapes’ line breaks, were word-for-word identical. His membership to the Alliance of Icelandic Writers was revoked in 1991 after AIW discovered that, while Martone’s registered nom de plume had been “born” in Reykjavík, Martone himself had never even been to Iceland. His AWP membership was revoked in 2007, reinstated in 2008, and revoked again in 2010.
After his first two collections, Martone went on to write Michael Martone, a collection of fictional contributor’s notes originally published among nonfictional contributor’s notes in cooperative journals, The Blue Guide to Indiana, a collection of travel articles reviewing fictional attractions such as the Musée de Tito Jackson (most of which were, again, originally published as nonfiction), a collection of fictional interviews with his mentor Kurt Vonnegut, fictional advertisements in the margins of magazines such as Tin House and Redivider, poems under the names of nonfictional colleagues, and blurbs for nonexistent books.
But his latest book is perhaps the most revealing—Racing in Place is a collection of essays on Martone’s obsession with blimps, basketball, and the Indianapolis 500, symbols for him of “this kind of frenetic motion and also this kind of staticness in the Midwest.” Born in Northport, Michigan, Martone has often been described as a regionalist, and his relationship with the Midwest mirrors his relationship with literature: Martone thinks of the Midwest as a “strange, imaginary place, with no distinct borders or boundaries.”
Martone now lives in Tuscaloosa, where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Alabama. In spring 2011 Martone was arrested outside of Golyadkin’s Pub in Tuscaloosa for assaulting, allegedly, the writer Thomas Pynchon, allegedly. During Martone’s six-week sentence at Tuscaloosa County Jail, I was approved for a “non-contact visit” for our interview: meaning that Martone and I could meet face-to-face, but separated by a panel of bulletproof glass, talking to each other over yellow telephones. (It’s unclear why Martone wasn’t allowed a “contact visit”—typically an inmate serving time for a misdemeanor, especially one with a sentence as brief as Martone’s, is granted contact visits as a matter of routine, SOP—when I asked Martone about it, he refused to answer my question.) Martone wore an orange jumpsuit, did not wear but instead held a pair of tortoiseshell eyeglasses, and had not shaved since his incarceration. I was allowed one pen and one pad of paper—nothing more.
Upon his release, Martone and his wife left for Frankfurt, Germany, where they will spend what remains of his sabbatical year.
You mentioned in an interview with The Paris Review that over the past few years you’ve been working on what you call “fortunetelling fictions.” Could you elaborate on what, exactly, fortunetelling fictions are?
In December 1999, during the peak of all of that Y2K fearmongering, my great-grandmother was stabbed to death by a mugger in the Lower East Side. She’d walked to the groceria on the corner to buy more canned peas and jugs of water. As far as they could tell—based on the spotty testimony of some frankly rather iffy witnesses—after leaving the groceria, my great-grandmother was offered help carrying these cans and jugs by the mugger, which mugger then pretended to make off into an alley with those cans and jugs, only to lure my great-grandmother into that alley, where he stabbed her to death for the credit cards in her purse.
In the testimony of the owner of the groceria, he mentioned he had also sold my great-grandmother a gas mask, which the mugger apparently also stole, as it was never found among the cans of peas and jugs of water around my great-grandmother’s body.
All of which is just another way of saying that in December 1999, during the peak of all of that Y2K fearmongering, I inherited a fortunetelling shop in Alphabet City, which shop had been my great-grandmother’s for nearly eighty years. Instead of selling it, I decided to keep the shop and simply hire a new fortuneteller to replace my great-grandmother. So I hired a tarot-reader named Miguel Barroso, a twenty-something kid with dreadlocks and tattooed arms, under the condition that he fortunetell under the same name my great-grandmother had used: the Great Joanne. So in Alphabet City you can still get your fortune told by the Great Joanne, regardless of any mugger-related tragedies.
What does any of this have to do with your “fortunetelling fictions”?
I’m in New York about once a month or so—my daughters both live in Brooklyn—and when I am, I usually stop at the Great Joanne’s fortunetelling shop and work as a fortuneteller for the day. It gives Miguel a day off—Miguel, who actually has been trained as a fortuneteller, and whose fortunes I would consider nonfictional, in the sense that they are actually meant to communicate factual information about someone’s actual future—and gives me the opportunity to write a number of impromptu fictional fortunes, face-to-face with the both subject and reader of my fictions.
My specialty is fortunes related to fictional hauntings. If you were to come into the shop on days when I work as the Great Joanne, you’re almost certain to have some sort of haunting foretold in your future: a stay in a haunted hotel, or an accident on a haunted ferry, or your unborn daughter being born someday in a haunted hospital room. These fortunes, my fortunes, are always fictional, fictional in the sense that they aren’t meant to communicate factual information about someone’s actual future—rather, they’re meant to be untrue.
What is it that draws you to stories of hauntings, of ghosts?
A couple years ago my wife and I were in Mexico City, meeting with a pair of translators who had been working on translating my wife’s books into Spanish. And while we were there I talked my wife into renting a car and driving into northern Mexico to the town where her sister Beatrice was living. My wife and Bea hadn’t written each other in years, for various personal reasons, but we had Bea’s address there in northern Mexico from before everything between them had turned sour.
When we got to Bea’s town, however, Bea wasn’t there—nobody was there. The town had been abandoned: the houses, the train station, the paletas shop, they were empty, unlocked, each of them spotted with holes the size of bullets.
We later learned that what had happened was that the drug cartels, or the violence of the drug cartels, had driven the villagers away.
I’ve heard about these drug-cartel ghost towns; in one town, now partly submerged under Gemelo Lake, a U.S. citizen was murdered by a drug cartel earlier this year.
A few months before this we had been in Dublin—I was researching for a story I was working on, a story about sexbots—and we had seen the ghost estates there. Dublin’s ghost estates are these vast housing developments built during Ireland’s turn-of-the-century economic boom; when the recession hit in 2007, Dublin found itself with a surplus of housing, with hundreds of thousands of empty houses—painted, carpeted, wired for electricity. In some of these developments, you’ll have one tenanted house for every ninety-nine untenanted—one family living in a village of empty homes, parking their cars on a street lined with empty driveways.
What we saw in Mexico was a similar phenomenon, but with different causes. In Dublin the ghost estates had been created because it was more profitable for the Irish to live elsewhere: in cheaper developments, with older, smaller houses. In Mexico the ghost towns had been created because of a sort of violence.
But, with ghost towns, we call them what we call them for a reason: there’s this feeling that you can’t just abandon these things, that once they’re made, you can’t help but leave some part of yourself behind.
It was these encounters, in Ireland and Mexico, that got you interested in ghosts?
I’m interested in ghost towns, in ghost estates, because I’m interested in questions of identity, and they seem related to me in some way. We abandon identity for similar reasons: sometimes it becomes more profitable to abandon the identity you’ve built for yourself and move to a new identity altogether—the way that a company will sometimes change the name and packaging of a certain product, after that product has been connected to a baby-choking scandal, or a salmonella-poisoning scandal, or something of that sort; then other times we abandon identity because of a violence done to that identity—on the school bus, for instance, you might learn to abandon the identity you’d built for yourself as a child, and to adopt a less bullying-prone identity, one with black t-shirts instead of cartoon-character t-shirts, and lip piercings instead of bubblegum, and headphones instead of earmuffs. This had been my wife’s experience, as a child—in middle school she’d transformed herself, adopted a certain culture, a certain sort of identity, in order to avoid the fists and spitwads of an older girl on her bus. My wife had even changed her name, from Bethany to Betty; her sister Beatrice followed suit, from Beatrice to Trixy. They insisted that their parents, their friends, their teachers at school, call them by these new names. Then in high school my wife decided she wasn’t happy as Betty, so she changed her name again, to Beth; Trixy became Bea. Then in college my wife found that she didn’t need to occupy her hometown identity any longer—bullies were less of an issue. So then she went back to Bethany, her sister to Beatrice.
Have you ever seen a ghost, or experienced a haunting of some sort?
No. My favorite story of a haunting, though, is a story of a haunted house right here in Alabama. There’s supposed to be a haunted house on the outskirts of Mobile, this estate that was razed to the ground during the Civil War—by, supposedly, a group of runaway slaves—with the plantation’s owners and the owner’s children and an elderly aunt trapped inside. The ghosts of whom are now supposed to haunt the site of their death. When you go to the house, you’re supposed to be able to see them, all of them: the father putting things into his dresser, taking them out again; the mother washing their baby with a wet cloth; the children reading books or staring out the windows; the elderly aunt talking to herself in an empty room. They’re there every night, from sundown to sunup, haunting that fourth floor that they died in, floating above the trees. Living out the lives they would have had.
But here’s the thing about this haunted house, the thing about the story that I love: even the house itself is a ghost—a door only appearing when one of the children opens it, the rugs only appearing when the mother leans out a window to beat them against the side of the house that isn’t there.
Did you ever find your wife’s sister?
We found her in a town nearer to the Gulf. We had a nephew we’d never heard of. His name was Salvador. He insisted we call him not Salvador, but Pelón.
Which story is this that you were you researching in Ireland—the sexbot story?
That was for the videogame I’ve been writing, The Other Edmund.
Is this for a videogame console? Or a computer?
I’m fluent in a number of languages, but none that a computer speaks. So working on the videogame has forced me to collaborate with a number of computer programmers right here in Alabama. I write the script and design the look of the characters and the setting, and then the programmers make it real, bring it to the screen. It’s similar, maybe, to the way a writer and an artist will collaborate on a graphic novel.
Because they’re here, we have them, they’re already being made. It’s not science fiction to write about sexbots anymore, it’s literary—it’s an examination of the complexities of what it means to be a 21st-century American human.
TrueCompanion.com was the first company to put a sexbot on the market—both Roxxxy TrueCompanion and Rocky TrueCompanion are available for purchase, although Roxxxy costs nearly twice as much as Rocky, which seems to indicate either that Roxxxy is far better in bed than Rocky, or that TrueCompanion believes that American consumers are willing to pay twice the cost of a male sexbot for a female one—but a number of other companies, mostly internet-based, now also have sexbots for sale.
Have you heard of TrueCompanion? Do you know the story behind the company? It was founded by Douglas Hines, a man from New Jersey who originally worked for Bell Labs. In 2001, a friend of Douglas Hines died at the World Trade Center in Tower 1, and afterward Hines and a friend were talking, and Hines said to his friend, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could create a robot with artificial intelligence and have it hold someone’s personality and preferences—that way, we could talk to the robotic version of [their friend who had died on September 11th]?” And so Hines sort of obsessively set out to manufacture a robot with the capacity to hold a personality, so that Hines could install his dead friend’s personality into the robot and bring his dead friend back again.
So the original concept for the company was similar to A.I.—Hines thought he could sell these robots to Americans whose loved ones had died. But what happened is—this is what it says on the company’s website, TrueCompanion.com—“After test marketing, the adult entertainment industry was also targeted and our robots were adapted.”
Which is maybe the saddest commentary on 21st-century Americans I’ve ever heard—what Hines’ marketing team decided, essentially, was that if American consumers were offered the choice between paying $2,995 to bring back someone they loved who had died, or $2,995 for a sex slave, American consumers would prefer the sex slave.
Do you think that actually is the case?
Well of course it is. We’ll use them—we’ll have them, all of us. Sexbots will be prevalent for the same reason that televisions are prevalent. Televisions are prevalent because we would rather sit in a room with a number of actual humans and, instead of having a conversation with those humans—which conversation we know would not be necessarily all that witty, not entirely gripping—we would rather, sitting there with those actual humans, watch a group of fictional humans having a scripted, fictional conversation.
That’s how we live our lives; we’ll always choose to experience a utopian fiction over a less-than-utopian reality. Always the illusion of perfection over an imperfect reality.
Of course all of this is going to become an enormous problem once our society begins to attend to the issue of robot rights.
Currently our society is addressing the issue of LGBT rights: in the 20th century our society did not extend the same rights to homosexuals and bisexuals and transsexuals that it offered to heterosexuals, but our society is—it would seem—coming to terms with the fact that that contradicts the fundamental principles of our society itself. Before the issue of LGBT rights, or sexuality rights, our society was attending to the issue of gender rights, and before that race rights. You would think that after a while we would have caught on, that we would have just altogether disposed of this discriminating-against-other-humans-based-on-basically-unimportant-characteristics-of-those-humans, but humans are still animals, more or less, and will still evaluate and judge other humans based on appearance and behavior patterns—similar to the way one cow will size up another cow based on its size and its smell and the patterns on its hide—or at least will do so until our society officially recognizes that, okay, we’ve decided that you do need to disregard this whole race thing, or gender thing, or sexuality thing, or so on.
Next I think our society will need to address the rights of the obese: 21st-century Americans—including 21st-century Americans who are themselves obese—discriminate against the obese in what seem to me to be appalling and reminiscent-of-19h-century-racism sort of ways. The way, for example, our film and television literature use “the funny fat man” in the same way that minstrel shows used “the funny black man.” After obesity rights, I expect we’ll next need to address clone rights; with human clones already being manufactured even now, you have to imagine that by the end of the century there will be so many lab-born humans among us that they will begin picketing for those same rights extended to those of us who were biologically born.
Do you have any interest in being cloned?
Contemporary literature has already suffered one Michael Martone—I would never ask it to suffer several more of me.
And after clone rights, then, robot rights?
Just the whole prospect of humans-with-robots worries me. What’s going to happen is that we’re going to revive the entire slave trade without anyone even questioning it. TrueCompanion’s sexbots, for example: these are not RealDolls; these are not inanimate objects. TrueCompanion’s sexbots are animate objects, capable of walking, of getting dressed or undressed, of talking, of fucking, of living. And these are just the earliest, most primitive models. By the end of the century, our technology may have evolved to the point where these robots do become self-aware, and then we will have animate, living, self-aware beings being bought and sold and used for slave labor.
It’s the same way 15th-century colonialism evolved, from nations sending out boatloads of settlers to nations they wanted to conquer, to our 21st-century corporate colonialism—to our own nation sending out McDonald’s after McDonald’s and Starbucks after Starbucks to conquer other nations, not politically, but economically, culturally. The way the indentured slavery of the 17th century evolved, became our 21st-century version of it, the indentured slavery of the loan-holder, the mortgage-holder, the lifetimes-into-debt college graduate.
We keep the same systems, but give them new disguises.
To what extent is The Other Edmund about sexbots?
Edmund, the other Edmund, the protagonist of the videogame, is a sexbot. And he lives—not itlives, but he—in a society where robots are used for slave labor. In the opening scenes of the game, Edmund escapes the condominium where he’s kept and begins a pilgrimage to a nearby holy city to bargain with God, or God’s human spokespeople, for his liberty.
It’s a political videogame, in the sense that, over the course of the videogame’s narrative, players (or “readers”) of the videogame are meant to grapple with these issues of robot rights. I’m trying to get 21st-century Americans thinking about them now, so that we can maybe avoid the whole issue altogether. But, again, humans are still animals, more or less, and I’m sure we’ll make the sexbots suffer.
Are you a churchgoer? Or why the God plot?
I’m not, although my wife is Jewish, and my great-grandmother, the Great Joanne, was a devout Catholic.
As I was working on the plot of The Other Edmund, however, I was thinking a lot about thepossibility of God’s existence. I was never religious when I was younger because I am not the sort of person who can just believe in some unprovable thing. As a high schooler, and later as an undergraduate and graduate college student, I was obsessed with physics, with mathematics, with what could be proven to be true. As an undergraduate I was even a double major: along with English literature, I also majored in physics. I couldn’t believe in God because God was incompatible with science—I couldn’t translate God into numbers, couldn’t explain God’s existence in any scientific sort of way.
But several years ago I began learning about string theory—in particular the even-more-controversial M-theory—and that got me thinking about the fourth dimension.
Do you know about the fourth dimension? The first three dimensions are, of course, length, width, and height.
A line, a square, and a cube, in other words.
Right. Well, the fourth dimension is time. Which is difficult to imagine, visually, because time isn’t a spatial dimension like the first three are. It’s even more difficult to imagine because we, humans, are, of course, three-dimensional beings.
But it’s simple for us to imagine two-dimensional images: almost all of our media is in the form of 2D objects: photographs, billboards, comic books, print on a page. Despite that many of them create the illusion of a 3D image—such as a photograph of me and my wife standing near a fence with some llamas behind it—the image itself is still 2D.
It’s simple for our 3D brains to interpret and understand 2D images because they’re only one dimension beneath us. 1D images are more difficult to imagine: try imagining an object that has length but no width—something that extends in one direction but at the same time has no width whatsoever.
Hard to do.
And 0D images are even more difficult, because it’s nearly impossible to imagine a point that has neither length nor width—something that cannot be measured in any direction but that still somehow exists. Are you following me?
I think. More or less. I’m afraid I majored only in English literature—no physics to me.
Don’t worry, I’m almost to my point.
Okay, so, because we can interpret and understand 2D objects, I started thinking about what it would be like for a 2D being to try and imagine a 3D being—in other words, what it would be like for a pencil drawing of a snowman to try to imagine what my 3D existence is like.
In some ways, the 2D snowman could experience the third dimension. Let’s say you were to cut out the snowman and then set him on the floor. Now, if you were to lift him from the floor up to your waist—keeping him horizontal the whole time—you would essentially form a 3D representation of the snowman: the snowman would form a snowman-shaped tube in space as he traveled from the floor to your waist.
But even though the snowman can move through the third dimension, it would still be almost impossible for the snowman to imagine a 3D image. The reason is this: the snowman can move through the third dimension, but for him to become a 3D image (the snowman-shaped tube formed as you drag him through the air), he must also move through the fourth dimension, time. And so for the snowman to imagine himself as a 3D image, he would not only have to imagine himself moving through the third dimension, and gaining height, but also imagine himself moving through the fourth dimension, time.
And the 2D snowman could maybe imagine his 3D appearance, or develop some concept of it, but 4D images are so far beyond his cognitive function that it would be impossible for him to imagine the fourth dimension. And so his understanding of the third dimension is limited, because the third dimension is coupled with the fourth dimension.
Which is why it’s nearly impossible for me, a 3D human, to imagine what I might look like in the fourth dimension. I’m the same as the snowman: I could maybe in some ways develop some concept of myself as a 4D image, but my understanding of the fourth dimension is limited because the fourth dimension is coupled with the fifth dimension, and the fifth dimension is beyond my comprehension entirely.
I thought this was about God.
It is about God. Here’s how. If the fourth dimension is time, I think a 4D image of myself would look like this: it would be me from birth until death, all of the space that “I” had occupied for the time that “I” had existed.
As a visual image, then, it would be like seeing my entire life at the same time. As if I were to become a 4D tube version of myself, like the snowman became a 3D tube when he was lifted through space.
So my 4D tube version would look like this, maybe: it would be this blurry stream of me-shaped colors that emerge on the fifth floor of Blodgett Hospital in Northport, Michigan on November 6th, 1955, which then squiggle all across Michigan and the United States and occasionally Germany and Mexico and Ireland and the UK, and which then disappear—disappear, well, somewhere.
So like Donnie Darko.
I’ve never read it. Seen it? Never seen it. Anyway, that’s how I think an actual 4D being would see me as a 4D image.
So imagine the capabilities of a 4D being—a 4D being could change anything about our 3D world at will. Again, it’s the same as the drawing of the snowman. The snowman can only see in terms of length and width, so when I use an eraser to erase his carrot nose, or when I use my thumb to smudge his striped scarf, he can’t see me do it, because the eraser and my thumb both exist at a height above his, on a different 2D plane. All the snowman can see is that his carrot nose vanishes, or his striped scarf smudges.
A 4D being would have those same abilities in our 3D world—it could trigger a tornado at the edge of a wheat field, or erase cancer cells from the brain of a seven-year-old child. And we would never even see its pencil, so to speak, because it would exist outside of our seeing.
And when it looked at a 3D image, a 4D being would be able to see all of that image all at once. Again, back to the snowman: a 2D snowman can only see certain parts of himself at one time. If the 2D snowman looks at a 2D box, the snowman can only see the side of the box, or the top of the box. But when I look at the 2D snowman, I can see its entire outline, all at once, can seeeven its insides—if I look at the 2D box, I can see all four sides of it at once.
A 4D being would have the same capabilities: it would be able to see all six sides of a 3D box, all at once, and, at the same time, it could see inside of the box, the contents of the box. And it could change those contents of the box—or erase those contents—without ever opening it.
In other words, a 4D being would be both omniscient and omnipresent. It would see everything at once and be everywhere at once. And it could change anything at will.
It isn’t proof that God exists. But it’s proof that it’s possible for God to exist, that it’s scientifically plausible. That’s what I needed—I needed some way to make God fit into the math of all of it. I needed to understand how it was possible for there to be a being who could see inside of my head, who could see the words I might say before they’d even been fully formed as thoughts.
Does Edmund then actually get to meet God—or some four-dimensional being—during the course of the videogame’s narrative?
I shouldn’t say.
But I can say that during The Other Edmund, Edmund does encounter 3D beings with certain 4D properties. Ghosts, for example.
What do ghosts have to do with it?
Well, if ghosts are real, then maybe they’re just part of the 4D shape of things. Moments so prominent that they’re visible from other parts of the shape. Or maybe not even prominent moments—just moments somehow connected to your own. Like a 2D comic book character getting a glimpse of the panel on the opposite page when the book has been closed and the panels pressed together.
Edmund also encounters fortunetellers, mystics, prophets: humans with prescient abilities. Or, in other words, humans with an especially keen understanding of the 4D shape of things—4D artists. That’s what’s most fascinating to me about all of this. Not whether 4D beings exist or don’t exist, or what 4D beings are capable of, but what 3D beings can do using the fourth dimension. What if it were possible for a human to see in 4D? What would they see, what would they be capable of? Well, they could see the 4D shapes everyone and everything ever had occupied and ever would occupy. And they could even manipulate 3D objects in the present. They could read classified papers locked in a safe, or locate a parasite within a human body, or see a catcher in a yellow jersey flip a pitch sign to his pitcher and the pitcher in the yellow jersey nodding and the third base coach in a red jersey flashing a steal sign to the base runner on firstand the base runner on first nodding at the third base coach and then know that the pitcher was about to throw an outside fastball and that the man on first was about to steal second and that the third base coach was chewing a wad of tobacco and had a bit of gum cancer developing under his tongue.
4D sight would be more than simply predicting the future, or anticipating future events—3D humans do that sort of thing all the time: planning what they’ll do next weekend, or predicting what someone will say in response to something they’re planning on saying. 4D sight would beknowing those things, not just anticipating them.
And maybe there have been humans who have had this 4D sight. Curing blindness, or predicting a volcanic eruption, those sorts of things would be simple for someone with the ability to see in 4D.
How about your own prescient abilities—you’ve been known to make certain predictions about the future of literature, for example. In an interview with Ninth Letter you said to the interviewer, “My generation grew up with only print, so we have a nostalgia for the printed novel that might keep it around for another couple decades. Your generation grew up between, so I suspect your loyalties will lie somewhere between the two. But this next generation—the one that’s grown up on iPods and the internet and has never known anything different—they’ll be the ones to bury the printed novel.” The poet Thordis Bjornsdottir, however—a member, in fact, of your former Alliance of Icelandic Writers—has argued that print will always be the dominant form for written storytelling.
My wife and I often summer in Frankfurt, and we know a number of American expat writers there—Paul French, Elizabeth Klemm, Jack Dowland—who can spend a three-to-four-wine-bottles period arguing over the future of print. French and Klemm, in particular, are determined to revive print from what they see as its inevitable and untimely death.
But it doesn’t matter what French and Klemm and Dowland believe, what Bjordnsdottir believes for that matter—the e-book is an unstoppable force. Resisting the e-book is the 21st-century equivalent of resisting the printing press in the 15th century. French and Klemm sitting around arguing about print vs. e-book, they’re like 15th-century Germans arguing about scribe-produced vs. print. It doesn’t matter whether the 15th-century Germans thought that Gutenberg’s printing press should become the dominant form for written storytelling, whether they wanted it to replace scribe-produced books. The printing press was an unstoppable force: printed books were cheaper to publish, they were easier to distribute, and they were more convenient to carry around. And what are the characteristics of the e-book, in comparison to the printed book? E-books are cheaper to publish, they’re easier to distribute, and they’re more convenient to carry around. With respect to the technologies of human communication, cheaper and easier always wins out over the artistic, over the visually pleasing.
You’ve been described as an experimentalist, a regionalist, a science fiction regionalist—whom do you write for, Michael?
In terms of heritage, I’m a cliché. I’m a European mutt. Part German, part Dutch, part English, part Irish, part French, part Italian. But I don’t want to write for white Americans, because that would be interpreted as writing for the Klan. And I don’t want to write for men, because when you write for men that’s generally seen as misogynist—Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike—which is a negative term, whereas if you write for women, you’re a feminist, which is a positive one.
I can’t write for any of the “literary” regions of the United States: I’m not a New Yorker, I’m not a Southerner, I’m not from New England. Michigan gets lumped into the Midwest, but I can’t really identify with the Midwest either. The Midwest is a strange, imaginary place, with no distinct borders or boundaries. It’s a made-up region. And anyway, Michigan doesn’t share any characteristics with most “Midwest” states. Michigan is all forests and lakes and snow. It’s more of a Northern state, like Vermont or Montana. It’s nothing like Ohio or Iowa.
What I’m saying is that I don’t write for anyone.
Do you consider yourself a literary writer?
The only advantage to being a “literary” writer is that you might get canonized and have your work taught—in other words, hundreds of thousands of uninterested college freshman might be forced to read your work. Thus you attain a sort of immortality, at least until you’re dropped from the canon, or until the English language evolves to the point where you have to be read in translation.
But I’m not interested in that sort of immortality. I don’t care if my stories live a thousand years. I don’t care if they even live twenty. What I’m interested in is contributing to the evolution of literature—I want my stories to be the code of DNA that gets reused by a younger writer, gets spliced into that writer’s stories, and then reused by a younger writer still. The way that The Castle becomes The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle becomes The Way Through Doors. That One Hundred Years of Solitude becomes The People of Paper. That Ubik becomes Coraline. That We becomes A Clockwork Orange becomes V for Vendetta. Even if nobody’s reading Yevgeny Zamyatin, they’re reading Alan Moore. Through Moore, Zamyatin’s DNA lives forever.
But wouldn’t a longer lifespan mean having a larger influence? And through that, more “offspring”?
Some novels have the heart to last a thousand years, but don’t have the balls to father even a single writer. Some novels shoot blanks.
What’s your DNA, as a writer?
My stories are the mutations. They’re the mutant DNA.
Like feet webbing? Six fingers to a hand?
We need mutations to resist disease.
* * *
Matthew Baker was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana and this summer is interning at a munitions factory in Budapest. Baker is the primary English translator for the online serial novel The Numberless, which can be read at www.thenumberless.com.