“Brooding: Arias, Choruses, Lullabies, Dirges, and a Duet”
Author: Michael Martone
Publisher: The University of Georgia Press
Price: $24.95 (Paper)
Michael Martone, just finishing a career teaching at the U of A, is the author of a shelf of books, nonfiction, generally speaking, essays on every imaginable subject.
Maya Angelou turned every experience, every day, into memoir.
Martone doesn’t exactly do that. He commemorates his experiences and his memories and comments upon them, shrewdly, mischievously, brilliantly. And everything reminds Martone of something else, serves as a launching pad for the essay.
Besides, he would never write memoir as such. Martone is a literary iconoclast, especially of labels and especially genre labels.
In “WW/MM,” Martone is interacting with the poet Wendy S. Walters and reminds the reader that prose writers worry a lot about the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, fact and truth, while poets do not. No one, he says ever speaks of a “nonfiction” or “fiction poem.”
This is not exactly true: there is actually some discussion today as to whether a poem which presents itself to the reader as a first person, not a “persona” poem, can include material which is in fact, not true.
“Let me tell you about my brother who died…” is not okay to some people if the poet had no brother.
I think those in Martone’s camp would have us believe the distinction between fiction and nonfiction does not exist, because no nonfiction account can ever be perfect. We do not have perfectly accurate and complete recall, even when we try. Yes, but when a memoirist like James Frey says in his book, “A Million Little Pieces,” that he spent considerable time in jail when he didn’t, I call that misleading if not an outright lie. The memoir genre is a kind of implicit contract for telling the truth, or nearly. That story belongs in a novel, labelled fiction.
An excellent example of his genre deconstruction project may be perhaps the best book of his career: his “Blue Guide to Indiana,” a book which purports to be a guide to destinations, sites of interest in Indiana but is in fact, fiction. If one read the Guide and never went to Indiana at all, it would be nicely satisfying. The form is perfectly familiar. It’s the content that’s all made up.
It is a kind of literary hoax, very funny, and Martone can be very funny. Among his many awards is a Mark Twain Prize for humor.
But a good deal of “Brooding” is not made up; it is remembered, or at least presented as remembered. Martone, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, writes at length about the Bypass of Fort Wayne. He remembers what businesses and restaurants, car dealerships, motels used to be there, when he was a boy. He reminiscences about his first communion at Queen of Angels Church and when, one week later, his mouth hurting from new braces and after fasting, he fainted at the altar rail at morning mass.
It’s evocative and if he is making it up, I don’t want to know it.
Martone is a super-keen observer of his environment, and is proud of being perfectly current in technology.
These traits combine especially in “Old Pond,” told in a series of 129 tweets.
He has realized that young people, on their phones, thumbs twitching, sometimes do not notice the world around them, so he takes his students on a walk around campus, down to Marr’s Pond, and has them look around and text. They are after all, a generation of multi-taskers. Then he reminds them of something it is easy to forget: how miraculous it is that their little messages will instantly be received by phones all over America—in Oregon, even.
Martone also tells us that at his readings, after the host has directed the audience to turn off their phones, he directs them to be turned on again, gives his number and invites texts, which he promises to answer later.
Martone, for artistic purposes, had written of the death of his mother more than once while she was alive, but here, in a pair of pieces, he writes in real time of the real deaths of his parents, and does it as Facebook posts, July 9-November 19 for his mother, March 25-April 16 for his father. These entries, part journal, part nostalgia, have a powerful immediacy, a simple undecorated emotion.
Martone delights in his verbal wordplay—like his description of cows: “their cowed cow eyes, eying us.” And, also in “Bypass,” describing time in the car on a summer’s day: “the all-day-long-cooped-up coupe of car capsule.”
For me, a little of that goes a long way.
As I mentioned earlier, Martone is skilled at making everyday objects evoke character, vocation, time and place.
In “Time in a Vacuum Bottle” we have an array of thermos bottles, presumably used by Martone’s male family—father, uncles and so on. He tells us what each man put into the bottle—coffee black, hot tea, and how each man earned his blue collar living—night janitor/repairman at the hotel, cleaning vats at a meatpacking plant, projectionist at the local movie theater, meter reader. These are evocative little biographical sketches of the middle-class life in middle America in the middle of the last century.
Martone does not hesitate to write about himself in ways that are not nostalgic or vain.
In “Asymmetry” he writes and includes photos of his bout with Bell’s palsy, an ailment which partly paralyzes the muscles of the face.
I like it best when he brings something to our attention that we had never thought of. In his piece on Daylight Saving Time he tells how a train, running from New York to Chicago, has to stop on a siding for an hour: “All over the country trains waited, panting, stopped in their tracks.” Otherwise, they would have arrived early, messing up the schedule everyone counts on.
Is this a fact?
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.