Matthew Baker’s 2020 collection of short stories, Why Visit America, is a work of speculative literary fiction that explores an alternate reality United States. The 13 tales wind through the people, places and cultural problems of contemporary America. They are stories that are easy to get lost in and hard to forget, portraying an absurd world that seems all too real. After a year like 2020, characterised by increasingly attention-grabbing and life-consuming news headlines, getting lost in Baker’s speculation is, perhaps, the therapy we need. But where does this cultural appetite for speculative narratives come from, what does it say about us?
The title story, ‘Why Visit America,’ is about a town in Texas that has seceded from the United States. Ironically, the new nation is named America, reflecting its citizens’ nostalgia for their old country. The story is written as a manifesto, guidebook and cautionary tale that follows the struggles of the newly seceded nation and ends with a shootout that Sergio Leone would have been proud to direct. Like the title story, Baker’s entire collection serves as a guidebook to contemporary America despite never actually setting foot in the country as we know it. Why Visit America is panoramic, both in the physical setting – every U.S. state is mentioned at least once – and in its themes. Baker covers ageing, over-consumption, illegal immigration, nationalism and consumerism. He creates in one story a female-only society that has dispensed with men and, in another, a world where children are born soulless as nature mysteriously balances the earth’s population at 13 billion. Baker’s imagination pours forth onto the books pages, but we’re always reminded how close we are to home.
The story ‘Rites’ centres on a senior citizen, Orson, who lives in an America where the elderly are considered a burden and the cultural norm is for them to commit suicide in elaborate and spectacular ceremonies. Orson refuses to take his “rites” to the dismay of his family who question his wasteful use of the earth’s finite resources. He is shunned by his embarrassed relatives but carries on unashamed of his wrinkling skin. The story reminds us of the stubbornness and moral solidity of the aged against a changing world we should not be too fast to embrace. Perhaps, we should all be a bit more like Orson.
‘Rites’ and ‘Why Visit America’ are simple in their speculative premise. Many nations have a secessionist movement of one flavour or another. I write this as Boris Johnson travels to Scotland to patch up the United Kingdom and Wikipedia tells me that as recently as 2017, 32% of Californians supported state secession. Baker’s stories are thematically anchored in the world we know. And that’s what gives them a lingering presence as the themes – such as ageing populations or fractured nations – play out in our own world. ‘The Transition,’ for example, is a story about a young man’s decision to “have his mind converted to digital data and transferred from his body to a computer server.” We follow his final corporeal days spent with his family and their conversations which parallel archetypal reactions to someone coming out. “It’s unnatural,” a neighbour says. “If you’re born in a body, then you belong in a body,” his father argues. Baker has disarmed and re-assembled a conflicted issue by presenting it as a speculative story in his parallel universe.
Why Visit America peaks with the final and most speculative story of the collection, ‘To Be Read Backward.’ The story isn’t literally read backward, but instead traces a man’s life who is born on the day of his death and experiences life in reverse. How does that work? It’s best to read the story, or wait until Noah Hawley’s film adaptation comes out. But as an indication of how it works: characters in cafés spit coffee back into their cups until full and steaming. The protagonist’s cigarette jumps from the ground to his fingers, lit and growing larger as he blows smoke into it from his lungs. Mind-bending is a phrase too frequently applied, but ‘To Be Read Backward’ is worthy of the description. The story reminds me of the second film in The Matrix Trilogy where you start to converge on what you think will be a neat and cinematic Hollywood ending – like the first film – but end up with the philosophically-heavy and mind-bending (appropriate use) scene where Neo meets the architect-cum-God of the Matrix. Like The Matrix Reloaded, Baker’s collection ends by taking you further down the rabbit hole, away from any sense of closure. The experience is all the better for it.
What explains our cultural appetite for philosophically-challenging stories set in alternate realities? In recent years we’ve seen the success of the T.V. series Black Mirror, films like Ex Machina and now nine of the stories in Why Visit Americahave been sold to media companies such as Amazon and Netflix. The popularity of speculative narratives is ongoing, helped in part by Amazon and Netflix latching on to previously successful content and regurgitating it in a newish format. But there’s nothing new about this genre, only the format it is being presented in. Thinking back over some of the books I’ve read in the last year, William S. Burroughs’ The Wild Boys, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale show many of the 20th century literary heavyweights dabbling in the speculative in one way or another. Unsurprisingly, three out of four of those books have appeared on our screens. Although, also unsurprisingly, Infinite Jest has not. Even the most adroit screenwriter would struggle to turn the books 100 pages of footnotes and errata into something lucid, let alone worthy of a media executives rubber stamp of approval. Like David Foster Wallace, I digress.
Why we have a cultural appetite for speculative narratives is a question of why we like speculating. I recently read Baker’s Why Visit America, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and watched The Matrix Trilogy in a too-close-to-be-mentally-healthy period of time. But in doing so, particularly in the case of The Matrix, I was reminded of something very simple. The root of this speculative inquiry – be it in fiction or film – isn’t some Hollywood boardroom, but rather the long line of philosophers who have been scratching their beards and ruining their eyesight in the late hours of the day while pondering the eternal questions of life. Taking an even further step back, philosophers undertook and formalised this sort of inquiry because it’s what humans do. The same way speculative narratives on T.V. did not come from the Hollywood boardroom, speculation did not come from the philosophers. It came from humans who like speculating and philosophizing be it in 1,000-page works of 20th century fiction, in sticky and dimly-lit bars or in the academies of the ancient world. Sorry Baker, Burroughs, Wallace, Atwood, McCarthy, Amazon and Netflix. Descartes was there first and before him there were many others and after us there will be many more thinkers and speculators. It’s what we do.
Perhaps this view is reductive. We will call it the Everything Is Philosophy argument or EIP for short. It is the view that all art (in the big sense: films, visual art, literature etc.) is derived from philosophy, with philosophy defined itself reductively as the love of wisdom and therefore as the act of questioning and thinking about the fundamental nature of the things that make up our world: knowledge, reality, existence. The risk with this viewpoint is it doesn’t clarify anything about the nature of art or what we have mostly discussed so-far, speculative narratives. It says more about the all-encompassing nature of philosophy as a discipline. You can potentially trace everything back to philosophy not necessarily because everything derives from philosophy and therefore is derivative of it, but because philosophy has – like Baker’s collection of short stories – such a panoramic view. That all art can be reduced to philosophy is similar to saying everything mechanical (cars, washing machines, basketball, brushing your teeth) can be reduced to physics. True, perhaps, but the relation of a subset to a greater, all-encompassing field does not negate the standalone merit of the subset.
Let’s reign this in a bit.
Why worry about this? At one level, do worry, because that’s part of our fundamental nature: to question things. At another level, it’s about influence and where something fits in the history of its art form. A book review, other than clarifying the merits and failings of a particular work, provides a snapshot of how said work fits into the genre or art form, how it relates to its predecessors or a developing trend. The EIP view is an extension of that desire to trace influences back from one work to another and bracket art in cogent Venn-diagrams. We can spend hours theorising about this and asking the following types of question: can Baker’s work be characterised as speculative fiction? Can fiction be both literary and speculative when the literary seems to favour character and speculative plot? Is all literature somewhat speculative – by nature of it not being real – and therefore calling any work speculative is as reductive as the EIP view of the world? See what I mean, there’s always a rabbit hole to go down.
The EIP view of art is a secondary worry. I’m more concerned about whether it’s reductive to bracket Baker’s collection of stories as speculative fiction pandering to our ever-changing and worryingly dominating television habits even if the genre – to be all philosophical about it – has an a priori root in academic philosophy. We don’t want speculation and conjecture to be the defining feature of a work. We want to ascribe more importance and meaning to these books and films than simply as thought experiments, be they accepted greats such as Infinite Jest or less-appreciated greats such as The Matrix (88% on Rotten Tomatoes, however, is not too shabby). I think the easiest way to reconcile works of speculative fiction or film as being more than speculative is to show they hit the same notes as top-calibre, non-speculative literary fiction or cinema. If I was being rigorous, top-calibre would need a definition. But you know what I mean. The kinds of books that feature heavily on must-read-before-you-die lists (yes, we should discuss how we feel about the literary canon) and films in the upper-echelons of the IMDb rankings that turtleneck-clad North Londoners flock to the BFI Southbank to watch in critical silence (yes, these are one of the worst subsets of arts people).
I think good speculative works (yes, good is subjective) can strike the same notes as top-calibre literature or cinema when they excel at developing interesting characters through which underlying moral issues can be explored. Characters support that experience we have in reading fiction of inhabiting a made-up world that teaches us about and clarifies our own lived lives. Perhaps this is a rudimentary view of the role of fiction. We might call it an A-level-student-bound-for-Oxbridge kind of understanding. It may not be a line of argument to fill a whole academic work of literary criticism with, but it’s the understanding of books that I think many people have. I’m reminded of an aphorism I heard twice in school. The first time was from a rather bohemian substitute teacher covering a year nine sexual education class. The second time was from my A-level philosophy teacher who held Socratic dialogues from his lectern or, in the summer, from the garden he tended behind the tennis courts. “Whatever it is you’re thinking about,” they both said, “someone will have done it before.” And that’s re-assuring, once you get over the fact that you’re highly unlikely to ever have an original thought. To engage with a history of art and culture that has expressed and discussed your ideas for centuries is of more personal and intellectual value than whatever you could come up with on your own.
The subtext of this second section has been that the distinction between high-art and low-art doesn’t exist if you look at art as being highly functional: a vehicle to explore the lives of others and reflect back on how we live, exist, look, think, cry, sweat, talk, act and react. Baker’s no better than The Matrix and speculative shouldn’t be a pejorative term giving serious literary folks the heebie-jeebies that they might be reading something nearing sci-fi or fantasy. Serious literary folks probably wouldn’t use a word like heebie-jeebies either, favouring anxiety or ennui. If anyone reads, watches and listens long enough they will experience high-quality fantasy novels and mind-numbingly dull and overrated member of the literary canon. They will discover underappreciated masterpieces and question why some of the so-called cinematic greats are highly-rated (The Godfather, for me). Some pop songs are better than the opera and I’ve bought paintings from a street seller in Morocco more beautiful than those I’ve seen in the Saatchi. We’ve come a long way from Baker, but his eclectic and thought-provoking collection got us here. I think this is what he set out to do as a writer, but what does he conclude?
One moment in Why Visit America stands out and explains what we are getting from Baker’s collection of stories above and beyond entertainment. In ‘Fighting Words,’ one of the characters is a lexicographer (someone who compiles dictionaries). He explains that when we “write a definition for an existent word, we are not creating – we are articulating some abstract idea that already exists in the collective consciousness of English speakers.” This is precisely what Baker, as a writer, is doing. By exploring alternate realities, he articulates abstract problems that we face in the real world, such as identity in ‘The Transition’ or ageing in ‘Rites.’ The stories are philosophical thought experiments. You take a premise – such as a young person’s decision to become digital or a man experiencing his life in reverse – and draw out the implications in a short story to better understand the abstract idea. This is not a unique skill to Baker and from a literary criticism perspective it’s unlikely I’m writing anything ground-breaking here. Nonetheless, when you read Why Visit America you experience this philosophical jump from well-rounded characters and well-created worlds to an abstract concept. We ascend the literal to get that juicy piece of meaning that great literature provides us.
Baker’s book shows us that speculative conversations are useful. They are a tool by which we can engage with topics that are too fraught and polarised to be dealt with directly. The stories give us more than non-fiction writing can on the same topic. They do this because there is an object for our empathy, the characters, who are caught up personally in the issues in the same way we become caught up as a reader. In ‘The Tour,’ Baker describes the America that the truck-driving main character has seen: “He had contemplated the glory of Old Faithful, inspected the candle-smoke signatures in the depths of Mammoth Cave, and regarded the majesty of Niagara Falls.” But he had also seen “a sunburned man in tattered clothing perched on a milk crate on a sidewalk in Boise, shouting doomsday prophecies in a shrill voice.” Baker anchors his stories in a familiar reality from vast geographical features to the minutiae of one troubled citizen. We recognise the people in these stories and the experiences they have. Seeing these characters interpret and react to the world around them reminds us how we interpret and react to our own world. The more we understand how a character in a work of fiction sees something, the more we can emphasize with them. We are with them as they look out onto Baker’s panoramic alternate realities that are not all serious and poetic as in ‘The Tour,’ but can take on a wry and satirical sense of humour as in ‘The Sponsor,’ where everything in America has been branded by corporations. The characters pass “the Goldman Sachs® White House. Flags billow majestically at the base of the Washington Monument, presented by ViagraTM.”
Baker’s characters are not simply pawns in a speculative thought experiment. They are characters of their own right, with complex emotions and feelings that endear us to them and we conclude that they are almost as alive as we are. No character captures this better than the soon-to-be-digital young man in ‘The Transition’ who recounts all the things he won’t miss about the world, things we all associate with being alive: “being drowsy, collapsing into a mound of blankets and pillows, naps so intense you woke up drooling, the sound of rain, the smell of rain, or wind chimes.” There is a deep moral in this story that the pull of the digital world can be so strong as to blind people from the simple pleasures of the real world around them. But also that there are people who don’t feel at home in the real world and find comforts not offered to them in society, instead, in their computer. If we’re all looking for that feeling of “collapsing into a mound of blankets and pillows,” who is to judge whether it is best found in your bedroom or your iPhone?
Why Visit America is a rich ride on the roller coaster of Baker’s conjectures. We leave with a guidebook to both contemporary America and ourselves. We close the book after the final jaw-dropping paragraphs of ‘To Be Read Backward’ in awe at Baker’s literary powers. We also remember the strongest moral of the book expressed by one character in the titular story, ‘Why Visit America.’ That ‘a nation isn’t land. A nation is people.” Despite the conflicts and division, opinions and stubbornness throughout Why Visit America and our own lives, “there is no love as pure and as beautiful as the love between bitter enemies, united at last.” Getting lost in Baker’s speculation reminds us of the simple commonalities that underlie a divided country. It also reminds us to speculate, take time to ask what if and remember that my mound of pillows and blankets may look different to yours. I may like The Matrix, you may prefer The Godfather. Whatever country you end up reading Baker’s book in, take the trip. And, because I can’t miss the chance to squeeze in one last reference. Take the red pill.
All textual references are to Baker, M 2020, Why Visit America, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.