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 Contributor’s Notes (like those found at the end of a literary journal) about a person (or more likely, various people) named Michael Martone.
This isn’t just a cute little game Martone is playing with us. Near the beginning Martone introduces the idea of duplication, citing the multiple Michael Martones that one Michael Martone finds in the phone book. Throughout the book, this idea of duplication or replication of images is found in other ways.
Recently I read another book by Martone. It’s called The Blue Guide to Indiana, and this title is actually derived from a series of travel guidebooks called “The Blue Guide to . . .” Quite hysterically, when Martone published his Blue Guide, the publisher of the other Blue guides sued–the eventual settlement was that Martone’s book would receive a sticker on its cover warning people that this Blue Guide was not a “real” Blue Guide. The warning label, complete with its reminder that “The Blue Guide to Indiana in no way factually depicts or accurately represents the State of Indiana, its destinations and attractions, its instituions or businesses, or any of its residents or former residents,” is reminiscent of postmodern works that have so skillfully captured legalese and that walk the line between seeming real and seeming like a great big put-on. (Two sidenotes: 1. When I first saw the book, I thought the warning label was an ingenious device dreampt up by Martone. It fits the purpose of his book perfectly. Part of me wonders if Martone had any hand in suggesting the settlement. 2. How stupid would you have to be to buy Martone’s book and think it is a real travel guide? The most cursory
examination of the book (reading the back copy is sufficient) makes it completely obvious that this is not a real travel guide.)
After reading The Blue Guide, I think it’s an even better work than Michael Martone. In this book, Martone again works with his theme of simulacra, but I think it’s more artfully done here. For instance, readers of The Blue Guide can learn about the Historic Colonial Virginia Sandidge Homestead (again, that fine legalese, or maybe bureaucratese) in which “enthusiastic volunteers reenact the life and times of Virginia Sandidge and her family of five . . . circe 1985.” Visitors can watch the making of coffee via a drip machine (“a still novel appliance” in 1985), the feeding of cats, even the listening to a record from “period band” “The Talking Heads.”
In descriptions like this, Martone sums up, in two ways, something perfectly American. There’s the postmodern America, epitomized by merchandising history by producing copies of it, but there’s also the very traditional America, eptomized by the slightly lame roadside attraction and the folksy, “oh gosh!” way in which the said attractions are described. These two Americas come together in books like The Blue Guide to Indiana, making Martone’s fictions same of the best ways to get at this country as it enters the 21st century.
The Blue Guide is also a work of some comic genius; what else to call a book that includes an entry for “The Musee de Bob Ross,” an art museum that holds the entire collection of paintings (made on-air) from the man who taught painting to TV viewers via hour-long shows on PBS. The only thing that can beat a title like that is the laudatory prose of the museum’s description. It calls Ross a “late master,” states that “over eight thousand paintings [of his] are in inventory,” and tells us that they are displayed “chronologically to give the visitor a sense of Ross’s progression of technique and his many chromatic periods.” This is all, of course, a snide commentary on many guidebooks (and other types of books), which strive to sound lerned by lavishing praise atop of praise on anything with a sight to see and and an entry fee. It’s also a jab at locations that will throw together any kind of muesum in order to attract tourism and (perhaps) at the people who pay to visit them.
Perhaps formost of importance for The Blue Guide, however, is that its a guidebook to the backwaters of Indiana. Nothing against Hoosiers, but Indiana isn’t the most exciting place to visit in the world. The idea of writing a guidebook for it speaks to the tourism and guidebook industries, which in their race to wring cash out of tourists have done an admirable job of cataloging much of the world (some of which isn’t worth seeing). In being a guide to a subpar destination, The Blue Guide shows how guidebooks can take on aspects of history and politics. The book discusses various “rebellions” (past and present) and the history of many of the sights, making it a quasi-biography of Indiana. Of course, all of it is fake, but even this reflects back on many real tourist destinations–are these replications of things that once existed (or may have only been said to have once existed) any more real than the destinations Martone concocts for his book?
That last question is similar to one Martone probes in Michael Martone–what is in this name that we attach to a person, and in what ways does “Michael Martone” reflect back upon the man who wrote the book Michael Martone? As Martone has demonstrated by publishing his many, conflicting contributor notes in various literary journals, it’s possible for him to create numerous replications of himself that have gained the authority of the printed word. (And don’t doubt that authority–a reporter for The Washington Post once tried to write an article about one of the destinations in The Blue Guide that had been previously published in a newspaper.) Given that we get so much information about things that we will never actually see in the flesh, the many Michael Martones that the actual Michael Martone has created are probably very real for people who will never find out that the contributor note they read in a journal wasn’t wholly real.
One last great thing about Martone’s works is that all of these ideas are implicit in what he writes. Martone simply gets on with the job of providing us with an entertaining read; he doesn’t need to bother outlining these ideas for us. I find this to be highly unusual, as even the most skilful novelists usually find it necessary to drop at least few hints for the reader about their book’s subtext. Perhaps Martone doesn’t need to do this because he engages with something that’s so familiar to anyone who lives in the modern Western world. The simulacra he writes about are thoroughly integrated into our lives, so it’s difficult not to see some of our world in Martone’s books.
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