This much is known: Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1955. In his sixth collection of stories, titled Michael Martone, the author gathers together forty-five fictions in which he imagines and then reimagines his own life. At first glance, they look like like the contributors' notes at the back of literary journals. Each proceeds from a straightforward autobiographical premise, describing where he was born, where he went to school—just the facts. But Martone's notes soon exceed the limits of that form and blossom into whole stories rendered with exquisite precision and a humane touch. Martone, who also wrote Alive and Dead in Indiana (1984) and Seeing Eye (1995), has here dreamed many lives for himself, shifting shapes and metamorphosing. In some stories, his parents are alive and well. In others, they succumb to mysterious illnesses or die in tragic accidents. In most, Martone leaves Indiana; in some, he aches to return. But in one, he remains in the state and roots himself there, becoming a successful businessman.
Martone tilled the fertile soil of the American Midwest in his earlier fiction and created his own Indiana. He wrote autobiographically only in the sly, casual manner of Donald Barthelme, who told a Paris Review interviewer that on the night before his daughter was born he wrote a passage in which a character "compares the advent of a new baby to somebody giving him a battleship to wash and care for." Glimmers of the real Martone exist in his previous work—stray bits of facts secreted away between the lines. But with this new collection, he has turned more fully and overtly to his own life. And yet these "contributors' notes" don't conceal Martone's memoir behind a fictional disguise. In lieu of another tell-all for this age of conspicuous confession, the book offers a set of origin myths, in all their competing versions, that capture the many contradictory stories Martone, this curious tribe of one, tells himself as he explores—and then explains—how he came to be.
Some of those myths may even be true. In one, Martone the character, like his author, attends Indiana University and participates in the school's Living-Learning Center. There he joins a group of "self-motivated and ambitious students" as likely to produce a season of theater and a literary magazine as to repeatedly play the same Gordon Lightfoot song loudly and at all hours. One night, Martone gets involved in an educational game that simulates "the dynamics of world politics and international economic systems." (It was either that or listen to the strains of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.") Martone becomes the leader of a small African country, a newly liberated colony whose people are quite poor. For the first several rounds, he negotiates with his larger, richer counterparts, but while they promise aid, they demand from him in return cheap exports and even cheaper labor. Soon Martone's country faces certain disaster:
At last, after the next hand was dealt Martone looked at his cards and realized everyone in his country was dead or dying though babies were still being born. His country was a desert. Its forests had all been burned for fuel, its animals poached. Its polluted rivers were all diverted to neighboring countries for aborted power schemes. Its once abundant lakes were silted and brackish. The tribe that once lived on floating islands of reed making distinctive basketry from the same versatile fiber was now scattered or emigrated to Europe to work as taxi drivers or street vendors.
Martone quits and takes a walk around campus. He stops to watch a friend play water polo and describes the ball sailing across the pool and "the floating heads below turning slowly in the water to watch it go by." While Martone idles, the world—and its simulation—go on. No one notices his absence from the game until much later, when, as he learns, "the scattered pile of cards he left behind was discovered, and the narrative of his country's decay and doom was archaeologically reconstructed from its relics."
Always the observer, Martone stands to the side and takes close note. In one story, when some friends start a Beatles cover band, he prefers to be manager Brian Epstein. Earlier in the book, he plays a small part—an "extra extra," he says, a face in the crowd—in the movie Breaking Away, which was filmed and set in Bloomington. In a story that takes place during the final days of the Vietnam War, Martone turns eighteen, and the draft board designates him 1H, meaning he's not subject to induction into the military but nonetheless remains on hold. Martone waits, though nobody's sure for what, or for how long. "It seemed," Martone writes,
that it was always the case that he would miss, by a few years, the important events of the time. Things happened some other place than where he was and those things happened to some other people. He watched on television these things happen elsewhere, the war and the riots, and listened at the dinner table to his parents and grandparents fight about all the fighting.
Such attenuated perspectives, however far removed from events, offer unexpected bonuses. Martone sees from acute angles, perceiving what others miss. Consider the farmer in a story about Martone's experimental upbringing by a team of home economics students. He's so accustomed to talking on telephone party lines—his home's line is wired together with his neighbors', so they all can hear one another's calls—that he masks the grief he feels over his wife's death behind "perfunctory replies" and emotional reticence.
Many of the tales in Michael Martone reveal how people, such as the brokenhearted farmer, tell their own stories. Martone himself, for example, describes how his parents threatened to leave him at an orphanage. He tells that story often, he admits. We all tell each other such stories. We say, in effect, "These experiences formed me, they made me who I am." Then we repeat the stories to new acquaintances and worry the details like beads on a string. Martone wants us to see that being our own narrators is also how we understand ourselves.
Though his stories are quite short, Martone is no miniaturist. Their form may be brief, but his stories contain life, served in generous helpings. Three pages of Martone's writing feel as full of experience and detail as whole chapters of other authors' work. Like Borges, who famously declared that he never wrote novels because he found it more pleasing to write essays about his imaginary books, Martone has discovered the virtues of the deceptively small gesture that carries a gigantic force. In one of the stories in Michael Martone, John Barth tells the author that what he was writing were not, in fact, stories. Barth, who was one of Martone's teachers at the Writing Seminars of Johns Hopkins University, hardly meant this as a criticism—Martone's writing was, he thought, "up to something else." His stories demanded another term of art to distinguish them. The two settled finally on "fictions," just as Borges had, but Martone suggests a few others that might have worked: "a collage of thematic incidents . . . a series of interesting events, a rich tapestry of details."
As a writer and now as a teacher, Martone is still finding new ways to tell stories and continues to search for more incisive ways to talk about fiction. His methods in the classroom are intelligent and challenging, and they are everywhere realized in the essay collection Unconventions: Attempting the Art of Craft and the Craft of Art. Martone instructs by analogy and the carefully chosen example. He was my professor at Syracuse University, leading a fiction workshop and teaching a class on the history of authorship and literary production and another about the short-short story, which surveyed literary lands from Russell Edson's mixed-up prose poems to J. G. Ballard's exhibitions of atrocities. In class, Martone, who is smart about more than books alone, often guided us away from literature and spoke instead of agricultural practices, computer design, or species recognition. Our discussions grew animated when the subjects became more pressing, more of the world, than just some rough draft hastily banged out. Unconventions records in book form just what a class with Martone can be like, what is at once so engaging and so demanding. "The History of Corn," his essay about Depression-era post office murals, finds in its subject the perfect occasion to explore the roles played by the narrative foreground and background. "How to Hide a Tank: Camouflage, Realism, and Believing Our Eyes" describes the development of camouflage—the concealment of butterflies from birds and armies from enemies—then applies it to literary realism, the concealment of literary artifice from readers. In "Appliances: Domestic Detail and Describing Rituals of the Ordinary," Martone wonders how ordinary changes in the designs of homes—everything from new devices like the baby monitor to not-so-new architectural developments like separate bedrooms with doors—affect fiction. And "Be Seated: Attempting the Art of Craft and the Craft of Art" manages, through a carefully argued analogy to furniture making, the seemingly impossible: It reinvigorates the tired debate between writers who makes stories in the traditional manner, from the usual materials, and writers who create stories that assume new shapes.
Martone once proposed in class that writing is like sailing. What followed seemed, initially, like a bit of a tangent. Aspiring writers are impatient by nature, wanting nothing from their teachers, these more experienced writers, except short answers, unequivocal praise, and the golden keys with which to unlock the gates to the fabled city where all the great writers reside in their palaces of books. As Martone developed his analogy, teasing out the particulars, it illuminated the matter at hand, and what was abstract became clear, real even. Writing is like sailing. A writer, like a sailor, often has to employ indirection—a slightly turned sail, an offhand description, and a tack several degrees to the left or right of
a fierce headwind—in order to travel anywhere at all.
Paul Maliszewski's writing has appeared in Granta, Harper's, and the Paris Review. His last article for Bookforum, "Lie, Memory: Michael Chabon's Own Private Holocaust," appeared in the Apr/May 2005 issue.