Baker’s characters may inhabit a future world in which it is established custom for people to contrive their own deaths once they reach 70, or where not only is universal child care available, it is mandatory, but every one of them is insecure, or lonely, or feels different, or longs for absolution.
Every one of them is us.
In “The Transition,” a young man who has long known he does not fit the body into which he was born makes a courageous decision, in the face of his father’s disapproval (“ ‘I reject the notion that somebody can be born that way’ ”) and his mother’s grief (she turns to her pillow and weeps “so violently that the bed shook”). The operation he will undergo is not to adjust his gender. Rather, it will transfer the contents of his brain to a computer server.
In one stroke, the author consolidates a parable about individual agency with an astute commentary on the ways computers have fundamentally changed how we live. In effect the young man’s life had already been transferred to the Internet — he never showed emotion, never cried except once when the power went out, and then he became inconsolable.
Online, he says, he experiences “everything.” But in what we have come to call “the real world,” nothing. Not even food, which he doesn’t much care for. His shocked brother remonstrates, “What about sex?” “More trouble than it’s worth,” he responds. It’s one example of these stories’ restrained but always trenchant humor.
The sardonic “A Bad Day in Utopia” posits the casual retribution available to a woman in a post-patriarchal society. After attaining carnal satisfaction in a transaction not unlike the way a slice of pie was once obtained at an automat, as her male bedmate professes undying love she experiences “a sudden craving for nachos. She glanced at her watch. She wanted to watch a couple episodes of a new show before she went to sleep.”
These stories are not overly comedic — they are too deeply, complicatedly human for that — but there are plenty of snort-provoking moments. Baker employs a similarly light touch with the absurdism that comes preloaded on speculative fiction. He sidles up to the form with delicate circumspection: It is hardly beyond possibility that one day every aspect of life is so corporatized (Energizer® Tufts University, the Best Buy® Grand Canyon, and, of course, the Goldman Sachs® White House) that even the most intimate rituals will demand sponsorship.
It is equally not difficult, sadly, to imagine a time when vigilantes take it upon themselves to deport undocumented immigrants, even if they have arrived naked, Night of the Living Dead-style, from a state where they are illegal — Rhode Island! — to one where they are not. Say, Massachusetts.
Meticulously working the genre to devise his examination of individual versus collective good, Baker (author of a previous collection, “Hybrid Creatures”) never takes the easy way out. He doesn’t brandish sharp swords at American capitalism or consumer excess or fears that masquerade as politics. Neither does he construct straw men, then ask the reader to applaud when he lights them on fire. Instead, he demonstrates charity toward his characters, who as Americans stand in for the prismatic nature of the country itself. All of which he seems to love, even the unlovable parts.
It is striking in how many of these 13 stories crying (fearing to cry, hiding tears or sobbing outright) features prominently. It is a response at once expressive, inevitable, powerful and shameful. Used here like a major weather event — the hurricane that reshapes a coastline or a wildfire that alters an ecosystem — crying is a formative as well as revelatory act. It is, Baker cautions us, the complexities of human emotion that direct statecraft. His America is largely made of tears.
And they are dried only by hope, that primary ingredient of the American experiment. It enables citizens to continually correct course away from the rocks of their own deficiency. Thus the optimism that also suffuses these stories. Together they remind us it is only in perennially renewing a flow of multitudinous ideas, cultural influences and diverse experience that we remain truly American. The dedication of “Why Visit America” is perhaps its most succinct but poignant story: “For my country.”
The title story is a fairy tale about patriotism. Baker imagines a town where citizens are both brave and foolish enough to attempt a more perfect union. Abhorring what the United States has become, “legal forms of graft being flaunted across the country like never before,” the townspeople vote to secede. But they liked what they were leaving so much they also name their new nation America. In it they live happily ever after. Maybe.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is a critic and the author of “The Place You Love Is Gone,” among other books.
WHY VISIT AMERICA
By Matthew Baker
Henry Holt. 368 pp. $27.99