Reviewed by Sarah Salway
"Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana …" or at least that’s how nearly every one of the forty-two "contributors notes" that make up this unusual book starts. But then, according to the description on the back page, Michael Martone likes to explore "the parts of books nobody ever reads". In this collection, Michael Martone by Michael Martone, he takes the biographical details writers are always asked to supply, and, from my experience at least, universally hate. Like small ads, we struggle over how we want to be seen, not just at that moment but in the future too. Some writers go for the full-on personal confessional, some offer a quirky detail – Joe Bloggs once kept ducks - while others list their achievements and publications as if they don’t exist outside their work.
And of course, it’s this tension between a writer and his or her work that Michael Martone so cleverly exploits – the obsession (for both the reader, and let’s be honest, the writer themselves) with WHO has written the book or story we’re reading. Each Contributors Note tells a wildly different story but there are always connections to be made. In one, his mother is actually responsible for the writing, "Today Martone receives microcassette recordings his mother has made of his future work with the hard copy arriving by fax or courier and little or no interaction between the collaborators prior to the work’s appearance". While in another Note he is an orphan, adopted by the Martone family after he had been raised for his first year by five home econcomics students as part of a university project.
After reading several Notes, our smiles become more than just surface level and as readers, we are coerced into looking a bit harder at what the book is trying to achieve. Above all, Martone has written an in-joke here as he encourages us to explore the book in its entirety. One Contributors Note about the influence of his teacher, the post-modernist writer John Barth, contains a blurb Barth wrote for Martone, and sure enough, turn to the back cover and there it is, word for word – "Among our wealth of excellent new American short-story writers, Michael Martone is one particularly worth reading." The irony is that this increases the power of the blurb rather than lessening it.
A Note about Michael Martone’s wife discusses how she has "several pet names that she calls Martone but refuses to let him share or use in public", so when I read again the acknowledgments at the front, I feel as if I am "in" on the secret when I spot the line I’d previously skim read: "Michael Martone thanks Theresa Pappas, who calls Michael Martone by Michael Martone’s real name." Even the dedication is "For Mother and Father, co-contributors".
Michael Martone both celebrates the idea of a book and is strangely cannibalistic too. But it does ask the question, why do writers only use the middle bit for our words? By the end, I felt as if Martone had used every bit of himself to explore questions of identity and authority. (And if it will help us to understand more, then of course he’ll just make something up (as his mother suggests when he asks, in one Contributors Note, about his conception).
Fittingly then, that the last word on the very back of the book goes to a blurb by Michael Martone, or one version of him at least: "Michael Martone’s Michael Martone squares the facts about his life with the stories about his life. I found I couldn’t put the book down, and I never wanted it to end". Neither did I.
Publication Date: 2005
First collection?: No
Author bio: Michael Martone is the author of several fiction and nonfiction collections, including The Blue Guide to Indiana, Seeing Eye, Pensees: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle, Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List and The Flatness of Other Landscapes, a collection of essays about the Midwest which received the 1998 AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction. He teaches writing at the University of Alabama.
Read an interview with Michael Martone
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