Four for a Quarter by Michael Martone. FC2/University of Alabama Press, 300 pp. $16.50.
Consider the billboard. Michael Martone does, contemplating four American roadside promos toward the end of his new Four for a Quarter. These signs would hardly draw a second look from most passers-by—think Muncie, not Manhattan—yet Martone favors each with a page or so of loose, not to say wild, association; he barely touches on the advert’s actual nature and purpose before somersaulting off. The first, for instance, is the hand-lettered notice of a farmstand. The poster features a harvest cornucopia, to be sure, but under Martone’s gaze this crude signifier spirals off to the helixes of plant DNA, the glut of a supermarket, and finally to the farm worms, which “twine, untwine,” prompting future fertility.
What Quarter has to say about that sign and the next three (a bread billboard, a GENERAL ELECTRIC in lights, and the ad for drive-through “Shoppe” getting a touch-up) amounts to “gigantic graphic synesthesia” in which human design comes together with nature’s. You could call it a quartet on the theme of teleology. A title like that, though, suggests a formal music, whereas Martone’s score modulates playfully, and impressively. It drops a pun here (the farmstand’s “big horn screws itself into the clouds”), assonance and consonance there (“Fireflies sparked upward off the tips of the lush leaves”), and canny reflections on the artifact in hand (about the bread: “Each slice a slice closer to the end of this story and even beyond to the last blank pages, whiter without printing, at the end of the book.”)
Now, that word “story” must be seen—to use the sign language of metaphor—as a red herring. Story as Aristotle conceived it has never interested Martone, and Quarter, like Blue Guide to Indiana (2001) and Michael Martone (2005),is a novel-in-quotes. One or two of the longer “quartets” hint at narrative, they sketch a crisis, but these foursomes too take their materials to metamorphosis, rather than catharsis.
“4H,” for instance, runs seven pages, through “Hands,” “Head,” “Heart,” and “Health,” and addresses an unnamed narrator’s survival and recovery from a terrible farm accident. Yet each H, like each billboard, raises wild hairs (“Heart” gets into carpet cleaning, for instance), none makes mention of family travails or resolution in the face of tragedy, and the set concludes with turn to the philosophical: “leftover parts put back together to make us clean and new.” Such changes themselves are what unifies this text. Again and again, the leftovers of Martone’s trademark anti-exotica (think Terre Haute, not Cinque Terre) wind up reconstituted, if not hyperlinked. Even the briefest of the meditations, such as the two pages titled both “Thought Balloons” and “Postcard Captions,” put what they describe around a semiotic corner. This foursome, in one of the text’s wilder premises, presents an Indiana dirigible race: Heartland machinery, drifting through the skies.
To put it another way, Four never comes out even; it disorders mundane surfaces. The farmer’s sign takes us to both life (the DNA) and death (the worms), and the balloon race has no winner except the onlooker, his head carried into the clouds. Every foursome bounces well outside Freytag’s Triangle, and at the same time makes its context go sproing. Every set allows room for poker-faced joshing, another trademark, so that the dirigible race recalls Blue Guide (a fake travel guide that took us to sites like The Tomb of Orville Redenbacher) and other pieces recall the comic costume changes of Martone (on one page the author is a ditch-digger, on the next a Casanova). Every set, too, allows the author to exercise his remarkable verbal felicity. Now his style seems right for an Indiana county fair (“Those ties were wrecked with wrinkles, and when I tied them, I could never tie them in such a way that the creases fell and crimped where they had before.”), and now toys with polyphony of high science (“The notion that a particular concoction of electromagnetic forces monkeys with one’s subatomic genetic grouting in order to predestine the randomness of one’s life intrigues Martone.”)
Yet for all the familiar pleasures of the text, this Four—the author’s longest book and his first in six years—reveals a new seriousness. Its format proves rigorous, and its emotionality, at times, rich. Throughout, often, Martone provokes the chill inherent in the discovery of alternative lives, lives that themselves exfoliate into others. What’s foursquare evaporates, again and again, into mirage.
Yet the mirages appear according to a strict math. The individual quartets are collated into four larger groupings, each with its own epigraph (one from Eliot’s Four Quartets, naturally), and each holding a similar number. The first two groups collect 11 foursomes each, the last two 10 and 12, which makes 144, a gross. That figure suggests a crate of eggs, and the egg, like the billboard or the postcard, presents a quotidian object rich in potential significance. To be sure, the total and the balance suggest several interpretations, like all Martone’s subjects. Whatever its meaning, though, the composition alone stands as an accomplishment, recalling what Calvino did with the Fibonacci series in Invisible Cities.
As for the book’s emotional consistency, that tends to the somber. “4H” is far from the only piece to entail bruising, bleeding, and loss, and much of the wordplay reaches for sensual affect, rather than cerebral. “Riding the Blinds: A Blues” warns of four dangers, often fatal, for a train-hopping hobo: “He said, and then where will you be? He said, you’ll be lighting on the ground; you’ll be lighting on the ground between the wheels.” “Four Calling Birds” evokes the painful disjunction of fantasy and reality during phone sex. Throughout, in fact, Martone speaks of sex with a frankness hasn’t risked before. This frankness can make us laugh, for instance with the very title “The Sex Lives of the Fantastic Four.” But even in that case, with the opening confession of the Invisible Girl—“When he touches me, I vanish.”—the joke goes strange. The sex turns flesh to ephemera:
I close my eyes and watch as my eyelids dissolve. My vision passes through skin first, turning then to scrim. And I see, now, through another unoccluded lens. I see through my lids, through myself, see his cock, clearly, moving inside of the vast and now empty empty space which must be me and must be not me.
Early on, Four for a Quarter briefly abandons its American milieu to consider “Four Fifth Beatles.” Of course, the musicians involved are well-known here in States, and they turn out to be three-quarters ghosts: Stuart Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein, Billy Preston. Finally this quartet comes to the still-living George Martin, yet for him too, a knell tolls: “George is the not dead one of all the ones who are dead now.” Martone’s latest balancing act may, like his others, go on “oscillating at random and without end,” but its bright movements illuminate our end, and that makes Quarter his most powerful accomplishment.
John Domini’s Quarterly Conversation essay “Against the ‘Impossible to Explain:’ the Postmodern Novel & Society,” was widely discussed, on HTMLGiant and elsewhere. His most recent novel is A Tomb on the Periphery.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael Martone As a member of the LBC, I was greatly impressed by Michael Martone, our Summer 2006 Reah This! selection. For those who haven’t read about the book on the LBC website, it’s a “novel” (or “fiction” as the author (also named Michael Martone) calls it) that is comprised entirely of...
- The Michael Martone Interview Michael Martone’s most recent books include Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins; Unconventions: Attempting the Art of Craft And the Craft of Art; Michael Martone, a collection of fake contributor’s notes; and The Blue Guide to Indiana (read The Quarterly Conversation’s review). Quarry Press has also recently published Double-Wide:...
- The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon I. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon doesn’t waste time getting into the plot. The first paragraph reads Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the...
- Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje I. “There’s a laser scope . . . that can measure the vibrations in the glass of a window across the street, and then translate them into sounds. From there it’s one stop to hearing the conversation going on in that room,” says a character in Michael Ondaatje’s new novel...
- From Beyond the Grave: Speak, Nabokov by Michael Maar The problem with Nabokov's novels is that they are all so carefully wrought as Pale Fire, with little (sometimes ridiculously tiny) hints and tip-offs pointing a reader toward a "solution," that they seduce critics into trying to solve them rather than creatively read them. Obviously the cataloging of Nabokov's clues...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by John Domini