Why visit America? It’s a good question—not that you’re able to, right now. As I’m writing this (on July 4th, coincidentally), non-essential travel is banned from China, Iran, Brazil, Ireland, the UK, and most of Europe. Even as an American, a patchwork of restrictions and mandatory quarantines makes it harder than ever to explore the country. In light of this, Matthew Baker’s short story collection, Why Visit America, is an extraordinarily punctual travelogue. The thirteen stories—one for each stripe in the American flag—sweep from sea to shining sea, from “between trucks with rusted motorboats on hitched trailers” on the shore of the Great Lakes to a compound in the New Mexico desert where wealthy pregnant women come to term amid yoga studios and “glass water bottles embedded with colorful hunks of quartz meant to dispel negative energy.” Baker has a sharp eye for Americana, both faded and glossy.
Of course, this America is not, strictly speaking, the America we have lately been trapped in. The stories take place in a parallel United States, where a crease in the fabric of reality allows Baker to approach his subject obliquely. Quickly moving from the naturalist to the surreal, the erotic, and the experimental, the diversity of styles, locales, and characters in this collection is a testament to Baker’s range: A father arrives home, only to realize his memory has been wiped in punishment for some heinous crime he can’t even remember. In a world where asceticism is the norm, a girl grapples with her consumerist urges. When a child is kidnapped from the state-run nursery system, a detective tracks down the culprit. A small town secedes from the United States and names itself America. In form and concept, these stories recall those by the great fabulists Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Shirley Jackson.
The stories can also be dystopian, portraying evil societies in ways that are challenging and even revolting. In one passage, Baker lists dozens of cruel and unusual ways that people end their lives, having reached an age where it is customary to do so. In another, townsfolk slaughter all life to prevent babies from being born without souls, the bodies “heaped in piles as high as haystacks.” This through-line of callousness, of disdain for human and animal life, reflects back on its subject matter as a critique of the country’s senseless inhumanity. The critique of American violence, at home and abroad, is nowhere more apparent than in the collection’s final story, “To Be Read Backward.” Concluding this particular book presents a challenge: How do you end a collection of stories about America, when the subject matter is dispiriting and the work of reforming it so deeply unfinished? Is it possible to end a book about American decline on a hopeful note?
Baker, in an inspired turn, writes his final story in reverse. Instead of a story about a man who loses his children in 9/11, only to make derivative art, fall into a depression, get divorced, and return to live with his parents, it becomes a story of resurgence, of finding children, family, art and love—but only through a shift in our perception of time. From this perspective, the world, too, is healed of American imperialism. The American people collect garbage, spit up animals, and bring civilians around the world back to life. As a reader, this impossible catharsis only highlights the damage the country has done and the impossibility of undoing it.
Two stories have less distance between the real world and this fictional one. In “Transition,” a character’s desire to become pure data is a less-than-subtle comment on gender dysphoria. We follow an unnamed male character who has always felt uncomfortable in his body, and wishes to undergo an invasive surgery to be free of it—a step that his family sees as unnatural. In “Appearance,” a series of pale figures appear in the fields of Rhode Island, taking low skill jobs and integrating into hostile communities under laws that makes their existence illegal. These stories are heartbreaking, and they mirror the emotion of real-life accounts of gender transition and illegal immigration to a tee. Yet the alternate-reality twists do little to deepen our understanding of the world outside of fiction. There is no prejudice (yet) against pale apparitions or people who wish to become digital. That prejudice, if it existed, would be just as senseless as the bigotry real trans people and undocumented immigrants face. Robbed of truth’s urgent veracity, the stories are unsatisfying.
In some ways, the collection inherits its subject matter’s blind spots. One surprising omission is America’s most defining dystopia: the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of black and brown people. Although the book largely reflects the makeup and geography of America, the use of state force to enslave and tear down communities of color is largely and conspicuously absent. The collection also sets aside alternatives to laissez-faire capitalism. Even in a world where thrift and asceticism are the defining virtues, there is still market-based homelessness and hunger. Even in a matriarchal utopia, the narrator faces economic pressures and complains of her high tax burden. Even in a story about a town that secedes from America, the new nation keeps the same currency, the same inequality, and the same banks. Baker seems aware of this; throughout the collection, several characters refer to communism, invoking it as a pipe dream and a slur. One character, a truck driver transporting glow-in-the-dark cheese graters and cigar-scented air fresheners notes, “Because he was a patriot, and because patriotism in his country meant an unquestioning faith in the greatness of capitalism, he treated these products with the reverence with which a humble monk would treat the mysteries of god.” It is impossible, even in Baker’s realities, to imagine an America that doesn’t worship kitsch.
Why Visit America is a travelogue, but it stays close to home. This is still the America that so many of us live in, with all its familiar vibrancy and violence, its patriotism and paternalism, its wishful thinking and willful blindness.