Anne Fernald and I thought that since Michael Martone went to all the trouble to write things that nobody ever reads, we should not only read what was written, but talk about it as well. This is not to suggest that our attempts at Contributor's Notes were less fascinating than the ones posted to date, but, you know, we like to maintain some mystery among our peers.
We got together as only two people separated by a good 46 states can and discussed our thoughts on Michael Martone by, coincidentally, Michael Martone.
k2: Though structured as a series of Contributor's Notes (or, as the back cover indicates, an exploration of the parts of books that nobody reads), Michael Martone tells the story of one man's (presumably the author's) life. Since I know nothing else about him outside of this book, I chose to give the details that were repeated more frequently added weight -- for example, the repeated references to his mother's teaching career over the rather unusual foray into an Iowa Home Ec experiment, where the infant Martone was fostered by a series of students.
Then again, he often had his mother expiring from horrific diseases. While part of me was thinking "man, I hope his parents have a really great sense of humor," another part was fascinated by the ambiguous relationship he appears to have with his mother. You?
AF: I totally took the repeated information as true, coming to fashion a "real" biography for myself out of the notes. I was, to my shame, genuinely disappointed to have to relegate the whole story of Ob/Gyn Frank Burns & M*A*S*H having been the doctor who delivered him to the category of "likely a fib." It's funny, though, until you mentioned it, I hadn't thought about how silly and lazy of me my assumptions about what "really" happened are.
What's here about his mom made me, like you, hope and expect that she has a great sense of humor. I preferred the stories about his mom, the teacher, helping him with his homework--in at least one version, helping so much as to actually write it--and all his books.
What I liked less is how those reverent pieces juxtaposed with the ones in which his mom dies horrible deaths or suffers from unnamed degenerative diseases (although the one about his hosting a telethon for his mom's mom-woes was pretty hilarious, I must admit). The ambivalence toward her seems extreme here: a genuine reverence and gratitude mixed with a guilty wish to be out of her orbit, I think. At times, this seemed hostile to me. At other times, I could see the comedy. The funny thing about Martone's choosing this type of novel, of course, is its narcissism: it begs us to think about him, doesn't it? But at times I found myself liking him less than I liked the book.
I would guess that some of the material about his mother--and some of what's going on in the book in general--emerges from a nice person's half-wish, guilty-wish to have had a more interesting life out of which to make fiction.
k2: I agree that there's an element of hostility toward Martone's mother (though Michael Martone the author might have a perfectly fine relationship with his mother). I was taken aback at the first note of violence -- it seemed jarring in the context of the lighthearted contributor's notes. I recall thinking, "Wow, she's dead?" Of course, I don't know if this is true or not. In a way, I don't think I want to know. It is nice to be completely surprised by a contributor's note, by the way.
One thing that particularly struck me -- and it might speak to the tendencies of the LBC as a whole -- is that this is a book for writers. In a way, haven't we all imagined our contributor's notes (and, as evidenced by this week's posts, done a little more than imagine), and carefully considered the details we'll include and omit? It seems a natural stretch to find points to embellish...and not much more difficult to chuck the whole reality thing and head straight into the realm of Making Stuff Up.
Do you think this book would work as well for non-writer readers?
AF: No. even though it is really, really funny. This is a book for writers and fans of writers (like, say, people who adore reading Paris Review interviews). One of my very favorite bits was the note on the weird etiquette of hosting a reading on a college campus. His meditation on the merits and demerits of the introducer bringing (and taking away) his own bottle (or cup) of water--how does it affect the post-intro handshake (or kiss)? does leaving the water behind break the writer's concentration? etc--was one of the most brilliant pieces in the book, but I suspect I found it especially so because I could fill in so much from my own thankless stint as chair of a Speakers and Events committee in an English Department. I'll stop there by tossing it back to you: is this an insider-writer's book in your view? And, do you really think it's true, as the publisher's puff says, that the contributor's notes are what no one reads?
k2: Yes, I do think this is an insider-writer's book -- and that's not a bad thing. Lots and lots of people write; we deserve books targeted toward us as much as the next demographic! I think a writer is better positioned to appreciate the evolutionary aspects of the Notes. For me, it's almost as if I'm enjoying an exercise in craft -- you've done those where everyone is given the same three or five elements and told to create a story from them. Every story is different, yet contains those common items. In the same way, Martone takes those common elements of his (apparent) life and steers the story in a unique direction each time.
(Yes, the story where the mother just took over his homework made me laugh -- it reminded me of my sister's fourth grade mission building project...and how she stood back and watched my parents built a to-scale, historically accurate model, complete with little cowhides on the fence railing; if I recall correctly, she went to bed while they argued over realistic sagebrush).
I did an unscientific poll and have discovered that normal people read these things "at times" (though one man claims his wife always does). For me, my eyes to glaze over when I encounter a long list of publishing credits and academic accomplishments. I realize these are born of a sense of pride, but, man, they tend to read like blah, blah, blah after a while. Of course, if I know the author, I read more closely -- if only to make sure my name is spelled right!
I know you were intrigued by the Indiana aspects of this book -- I found that the tidbits about Indiana University (who knew there was an Indiana University of Pennsylvania) and the little items, such as the truck factory (I'm away from my book right now -- and the name escapes me) were fascinating. These painted a picture of a place I've never seen, much less considered outside an episode of Letterman. What struck you you about the Indiana/Mid-West angle of this book?
AF: Before I moved to Indiana, I just grouped it with the rest of the midwest. But, a Hoosier boyfriend in college and then six years there as an adult taught me different. Indiana is a really special place: one thing that makes it odd is that it is so very, very normal. Indiana as a whole is deeply proud to be a red state, declaring victory for the Republican moments after the polls close every year. Lots of Hoosiers take pride in this--without irony---and then, of course, lots more Hoosiers take pride in ironizing that normality, in pushing against it. So, it makes sense to me that stray facts about state birds figure in Martone's work: I would bet that most kindergarten teachers in Indiana take the state bird very seriously and design lesson plans around it. This means that the wags in the bunch--like my uncle or Martone--figure out ways to just tug a little at the veneer of self-satisfaction. My uncle, for his part, used to confuse and amuse me with dry stories about the giant ten-foot catfish they found swimming around the reservoir in Logansport, Indiana. Having driven through Logansport, the winter home of a now-defunct circus, I am still not sure how to take the story. It just might be true. Being a Hoosier, I'm guessing, is kind of like liking your mom: it's really good for life, but it may not provide enough grit to make a writer.
In the end, I found the book to be really, really funny and very easy to imagine recommending. But does the fact that so many members of the LBC found it so easy to chime in with their own version of a contributor's note count as a strike against the book?
k2: I don't think it's a strike against the book. The format invites self-indulgence -- and this is nothing if not a self-indulgent book (as you noted). I find I am far more forgiving of self-indulgence when it is unabashedly so. And this book was very, very funny. Any final thoughts?
AF: That's a good way to put it: this book is hilarious and doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is. I got a big kick out of reading it and have a lot of admiration for it's doing such a good job sustaining the joke. I'm eager to hear what others think of what we've been talking about...