Fiction Collective 2. 2011. 310 pages.
Reviewed by Erin Stalcup
Four is not normally a holy number, not miraculous or charmed, not usually held in the collective consciousness as worthy of praise or blame. It’s after three, on our way to seven, not the number of fingers per hand or even a prime. Except that in Michael Martone’s art, four becomes sacrosanct, a number of the body and of the mind and of the spirit, a number to be enamored of and troubled by, a number beyond duality or dialectic. Nothing like Four for a Quarter is being written right now, and while Martone lives in the same world as Kevin McIlvoy, Amy Hempel, and Donald Barthelme, I’m not sure he’s from the same world. I’m also not certain anyone else can so astonishingly balance repetition and variation, obsession, meditation, and revelation—a juggling not of four balls, but of a spinning top, a sparkler, a phial of tears, and a pair of worn, sexy underwear.
Each story in this three-hundred-page collection is told in four linked parts. The first, the title tale, recounts four stories of four booths, and begins the book-long investigation of watching, seeing the self, and seeing others. From the first booth—a photo booth—the speaker delightedly watches four clothed, swimming Amish people; the speaker enters the second booth, a see-through, educational photo booth at the Children’s Museum, and says, “I imagine that they have replaced the camera too with one that takes X-rays, and my souvenir will record a transparent me. My heart will be an opaque dollop in the airy cage of my ribs”; the third booth is a confessional, with a priest hearing cardinal and venial sins, which will be “hauled into the air by fluttering cardinals […] leaving me white and clean as new paper”; and the narrator emerges from the fourth photo booth, one at Woolworth’s, thinking, “I am the same person now as when I went into the booth. I am the same in each of the four black-and-white pictures of me,” while escaped parakeets and canaries perch and flit throughout the store. This blend of internal investigation surrounded by and enmeshed with images of fancy and fantasy occurs throughout the book, creating a texture not surreal but playful, not insincere, but not quite so serious. The stories feel weighted, like they have mass and matter, but they are also full of space. This mix of the marvelous, the mundane, and the momentous allows for an investigation of a wider range of ideas than most story collections hold. Other things that come in fours in this book include, but are not limited to:
Four lost pregnancies.
Four fifth Beatles, described through haibun written by Yoko Ono.
Four descriptions of a teenaged farmer whose hands are cut off, titled “4H”: subtitled “Hands,” “Head,” “Heart,” “Health.”
Four tales of days and seconds lost in the historical changes between calendars, in the shift of daylight savings, and in the delay of leap days—lost time two lovers want to preserve.
Four postcards from four towns in Indiana: Story, Santa Claus, French Lick, and Muncie.
Four states that start with the letter I.
Four monologues describing the sex lives of the Fantastic Four.
Four ways to tie a tie: Windsor, Bow, Half Windsor, Four-in-Hand.
“The First Four Deaths in My High School Class.”
Four foursquare houses.
Four speeds of vinyl records.
Four sexy stories of four Susans: Lazy, Black-eyed, Sue Bee, and Susie Q, involving sex in the parents’ house, sex wearing glasses while naked to better see the sex, sex with honey as a prop, and sex on a passenger train, respectively—three told from the points of view of the men, the last told from the last Susan’s perspective.
Four faces of Mount Rushmore.
Four Fourth of Julys.
Four Calling Birds.
But this book does not list—it coils around its subjects, and it magnifies, making the micro macro. This book explores the purpose and possibilities of narrative, and these fragments of people’s lives often compactly capture a moment that feels more resonant than what is contained in an entire novel. Cleverness abounds, but these stories are not slight or sly—or, if they are sly, they are always devastating, as well.
I’ve had the privilege of listening to Michael Martone talk about the art of fiction, at lectures at Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, and in bars at AWP. This book enacts his philosophy of writing, though he’d probably consider “philosophy” too strong a word. In my paraphrases, Michael Martone says and asks things like this:
Fiction is an ingredient in a form.
Where do we culturally put things when we don’t want or need them anymore? In the university. But institutions need not only be storehouses for knowledge, places we call when we need to know something—they can also be generative, places that create new things.
Apollo can play the lyre. But Hermes is the patron demi-god of innovative writers, because he made the lyre out of a tortoise shell, cat gut, and horns, after he stole Apollo’s cattle and made them walk backwards, so Apollo would follow them the wrong way.
Learning the rules then breaking them is bullshit.
Conventional fiction can be taught. Innovative fiction cannot.
There are four kinds of stories: narrative realism; nonnarrative realism; narrative irrealism; nonnarrative irrealism.
I’ve never studied with Michael Martone, but he’s taught me, and others, through his stories: form can be invented, and it is still possible to feel you’re in the presence of something that exists nowhere else. In a time when more people are studying the art of writing fiction than ever before, many people fear that short stories will be codified, normalized, made tame. With Michael Martone teaching and writing, there’s at least one force of resistance. His stories make the question “Can anyone really write anything new anymore?” feel like a stupid question, one with four answers: “Of course”; “Who cares?”; “Why not?”; and “Watch this.”