The first "chapter" of Michael Martone is headed "Contributor's Note" and informs us that
Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was educated in the public schools there. His first published work, a poem titled "Recharging Time," and a character sketch, "Tim, the Experience," about his brother, appeared in the Forum, an annual literary magazine produced by the school system featuring contributions from its students. His mother, a high school freshman English teacher at the time, in fact, wrote the poem and the character sketch, signing her son's name to the work and sending it to the editor, another English teacher at a south side junior high school who had been a sorority sister, Kappa Alpha Theta, in college. Indeed, most of his papers written for school were written by his mother. . . .
The second chapter, also a Contributor's Note (as are all but three of the book's forty-five brief chapters), tells us that
Michael Martone was born at St. Joseph's Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1955. It is interesting to note that the attending physician was a Doctor Frank Burns, Major, United States Army, retired, and recently returned to Fort Wayne following service in the police action in Korea. . . .
Obviously, readers of this book will quickly enough conclude they have come upon a resolutely unconventional, mischievous work of fiction. Is it a collection of stories in which the stories have been replaced by (or hidden in) these parodic notes, or, given its consistent focus on "Michael Martone," the book's mock-autobiographical protagonist, is it a novel, albeit one without the kinds of narrative/structural markers we customarily use to identify the form? Perhaps we should take it as one of those boundary-crossing fictions that deliberately provokes us into reconsidering our assumptions about form, even suggests that we should be less vigilant in patrolling those boundaries?
Even if we regard Michael Martone as a kind of novel, unified by its portrayal of the life of its title character, what do we make of the reference to Frank Burns, a pre-established fictional character we are asked to believe literally brought "Michael Martone" into the world, or, indeed, of this passage from another Contributor's Note a few pages later?:
Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and grew up there, leaving, at age seventeen, to work as a roustabout in the last traveling circus to winter in the state. He has held many jobs since then, including night auditor in a resort hotel, stenographer for the National Labor Relations Board, and clerk for a regional bookstore chain run by associates of the Gambino crime family. For the last twenty years Martone has been digging ditches. . . .
Beyond conflicting with a previous note informing us that "MM" currently "lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he teaches at the university" (and beyond its status as a send-up of certain kind of "school of hard knocks" contributor's note), this note makes it clear we can't accept the book's autobiographical elements at face value. Major Burns exists only on film, and Michael Martone (the corporeal author) is not a professional ditch digger. "Michael Martone" is a fictional character created by Michael Martone, and once introduced into the text, this character is bound only by the possibilities it might be made to serve within the work--in this case, possibilities revealed through variation and metamorphosis. This playfulness makes it necessary that readers relax their expectations of continuity in both character development and plot, but it is also ultimately the source of Michael Martone's considerable appeal.
But Michael Martone certainly does not fail to provide more conventional and accessible ways of engaging the reader's interest as well. For all its prankish blurring of the lines between author/character and reality/invention, the book finally does present a compelling and complete account of the life of "Michael Martone," an account that really coheres around the other character introduced in that first Contributor's Note, MM's mother, and the city of Fort Wayne. However much we should hesitate before identifying the mother as the mother of Michael Martone, the portrayal of her that emerges from this book is surely a tribute of sorts to Martone's own mother, who, if she didn't write all of his papers for him, must surely through her example have been the inspiration for his career choice. And the city of Fort Wayne, as ordinary and quintessentially Midwestern as it must be, clearly retains Martone's affection. (As does the state of Indiana, in which most of Martone's fiction continues to be set.)
Surely, too, Michael Martone explores serious enough themes: the role of representation, the permeability of fact and fiction, the effects of contingency and chance. Perhaps the most explicitly stated theme is expressed in the book's final lines:
Martone marvels at the intersection of lines, colliding and flying apart in the condensation of a cloud chamber window. Every word Martone sets down, finally, a choice that limits the universe, their trail across the page a fossil record of some life's life-story.
Or as that first composition published by "Michael Martone" might imply: The novelist's job frequently comes down to "recharging time."
But it must also be said that, finally, this is a very entertaining book. In my opinion, it does what the very best "experimental" fiction always manages to do. Having abandoned the tried and the true, the formulaic and the merely conventional, it substitutes an approach and uncovers devices that nevertheless capture the reader's attention, afford the reader soemthing that could be called aesthetic delight. For this reason I am especially happy that the members of the Litblog Co-op have chosen this book and thus say to everyone: Read This!
Read an excerpt of Michael Martone here.