Books

Matthew Baker
Why Visit America

Matthew Baker seems to have a tireless capacity for invention. His new collection of stories gives us 12 alternative versions of the United States, or projections for its future. Among them are worlds where citizens over 70 are expected to voluntarily suicide; where criminals are punished by having their memories removed; where the few remaining men in a now-peaceful world are kept locked up in “menageries”; where babies start to be born without souls; where every human possession and experience is sponsored by a brand; and where everyone is born in their grave and dies in the womb.

At times, Baker seems to be a little giddy with the power of his imagination. Within the stories there’s a level of detailing, listing, describing that sometimes feels as though Baker is making things up for the hell of it. The lists, which can go for pages, are particularly hard work for little reward. But there’s a sweet, boisterous energy to his writing too; there’s an interest in and love for the world that pervades everything, along with his warm and absurdist sense of humour. The belaboured atomisation of some speculative fiction is refreshingly absent here. Baker’s characters are unique, ordinary people with lives and loves, fears and ambitions, families and friends, and familiar everyday preoccupations. Through these characters’ eyes, even the most disturbing ideas are treated with disarming even-handedness. We’re led to wonder, is it such a bad idea? Could it solve our problems with overpopulation, incarceration, war?

Many of the central conceits are extrapolations of the bizarre reality that is modern America. But despite the energy in the stories, and the effort that has gone into making them come alive, they more often than not only circle the philosophical or existential implications at their heart. Baker seems to be more interested in opening up possibilities and questions than attempting to answer them. This could be considered a mercy, but sometimes feels undercooked. The stories often return to the capacity for love to provide people with meaning, whatever their circumstances, but they are not persuasive either way about whether that is inherently good, or whether it is more of a delusion that keeps people in denial about the world around them. While this means that the collection works well as a set of entertaining “provocations” and sometimes more, Why Visit America occasionally feels overwhelming in its novelty and underwhelming in its substance.

Anna Thwaites

Bloomsbury, 368pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2020 as "Matthew Baker, Why Visit America".

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Reviewer: Anna Thwaites