Review: Michael Martone

Michael MartoneMichael Martone by Michael Martone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The narrator Michael Martone is talking on the subject of Michael Martone in the book Michael Martone by writer Michael Martone of Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is, strangely enough, the birthplace of the author Michael Martone. The voice is matter of fact, copying the third-person style of contributors’ notes over and over. Martone breathes new life into these typically comatose creations that he believes “have settled into a conventional form.”

Because he’s playing on the traditional contributor’s note, the voice is not loud and not very personal, though nostalgic at points. The reader is aware of the author because of the form, which reminds people that there is an author and the narrative of each note is an appendage to his supposed stories. Martone approaches the pseudobiographical material with a whimsy that originates from playing with the line between fiction and reality, breaking conventions under the guise of obeying them.

Martone is discussing that enigmatic character Martone, yes—but more specifically he’s discussing identity. He’s asking how much leeway we have to play with our memories and change our own stories, to present different selves. In the story where his parents leave him at the orphanage, Martone says a friend points out how he continually tells the story. The friend “said often that we all have these stories we come back to. We worry them. We tell them over and over without knowing we are doing it, trying to make sense out of our lives.” Throughout the collection, it seems like Martone is taking real stories, or simple facts, of his life and trying to mold them into something more in an effort not just to keep them alive but to give them a new life.

He’s also playing with memory. For example, the contributor’s note in which he has a colonoscopy and tells his son a dozen times the details contains this important section:

[Martone] had been there, had felt what it felt like, but that part of his memory had been scrubbed clean by the chemicals. And then there he was, trying to start up that machine again. It was like yanking on the ignition cord of a recalcitrant lawn-mower. At last it took, sending the spool spinning centripetally in his mind, the gathering in of the things that would stick again. Martone told himself not to forget how it felt to forget. Remember, Martone remembers saying to himself. Remember how the past started up again, how it reattached to the ceaseless parade of present moments, moments you can’t remember because you forgot how to remember them.

I think this is even more important than the last section in which he discusses his fascination with contributors’ notes. If the entire book hinges on Martone’s novel obsession with contributors’ notes, then the collection is mostly a joke—not a bad joke necessarily, but one that’s too long to be only that. What this section gives us is the importance of memory, how we know who we are and what we’ve done, just as the first sentence (“Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was educated in the public schools there”) tells us who Martone, the writer and the character, is at the most irreducible level.

The work points out how we make up fictions about our lives to make them more interesting or because we simply can’t remember. When Martone asks his mother—who presumably took part in Alfred Kinsey’s famous studies at IU—about his own origins, “his mother simply said she couldn’t recall much more about that night but that she could make something up if that would help.” I think the mother’s response gets at something important: Sometimes it’s more comforting to believe something, whether fact or narrative, that you know isn’t true rather than not know what to believe. Michael Martone makes up the story of who Michael Martone is, then make it up again and again, because that’s better than not having a story.

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