While there have always been books of short stories, at the moment there seems to be a resurgence of anthology TV series, particularly in genres such as science fiction (Black Mirror) or horror (American Horror Story) with self-contained episodes that explore a range of different ideas or scenarios. Matthew Baker’s Why Visit America seems to fit more into this mould than just a random collection of short stories. These tales do not exist in the same universe as each other. All are set in a different, alternate version of America and all take a single idea, which Baker then follows both to draw out analogies with current reality and to see where it will take him.
In ‘Rites’, Baker presents a world in which the elderly deliberately make way for the young, acknowledging their environmental and social impact. This story is particularly poignant given the current impact of Covid on the elderly. But the story asks what happens when one old relative refuses to leave and the effect that decision has on his younger descendants.
Stalling wasn’t uncommon – hadn’t great grandmother-in-law, great-aunt Winnie delayed her rites for over a year, cancelling them, rescheduling them, cancelling them, until she had found the courage? – but stalling was nevertheless uncomfortable for all involved… And, pointed out bearded Morgan, was socially, and environmentally, and fiscally irresponsible and borderline criminal.Rites
In ‘The Transition’, Mason announces to his family that he will be transitioning into a purely digital form. While this story starts with a Black Mirror-style premise, Baker’s focus is not so much on the technology but the social pressure on people to be happy with the body that they have. The story focuses on Mason’s mother’s slow realisation that maybe Mason knows himself well enough to understand what he wants. But this story is also about our relationship with technology, and how some people now only feel connected when they are connecting over the internet.
A few stories concern themselves with very American/capitalist concerns of consumerism and advertising. In ‘The Testament of Her Majesty’, the narrator is a pariah at school because of her family’s need to own objects:
Our appetite was visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and indiscriminate especially. Weekends driving home from brunch, I would feel tension mounting in the sedan, our unspoken struggle to suppress a swelling craving to shop, almost a burning desire.The Testament of Her Majesty
This story presents a society that is like Marie Kondo on steroids but also demonstrates how even austerity can be weaponised.
‘The Sponsor’ is a more straightforward satirising of the advertising industry, including a character literally being asked to sell his soul to the devil. Similarly, ‘The Appearance’ is a very obvious take on the American response to migration, imagining a world in which refugees start to appear across America and how far people will go to remove them.
There are some common themes that emerge from these stories. There is a focus on the young, particularly schoolchildren (‘Testimony of Her Majesty’, ‘Fighting Words’, ‘The Appearance’), and babies and childbirth (‘Lost Souls’, ‘One Big Happy Family’). There is also a very strong recurring theme of bullying – the stories often involve a main character who is bullied or excluded by others at some point.
The thread that connects all of these stories is their humanity. Baker sets up these worlds as thought experiments to explore the reactions of ordinary people. In ‘Life Sentence’, a man who has had his memory wiped rather than being sent to prison has to decide between the life he does not remember and the life he has built since. In ‘A Bad Day in Utopia’, a character has to decide between her own desires and the benefits of the matriarchal society in which she lives.
After 11 pieces of speculative fiction, the final story, ‘To Be Read Backwards’, is possibly the weirdest, the most experimental and one of the most affecting. A play on a well-known tragedy, using a Time’s Arrow-style conceit, the story posits its characters living in reverse. The story allows for commentary on how America is ‘helping’ the world (when exploitation is put in reverse):
‘If you had any idea how many trillions of pounds of plastic that we’ve removed from the ocean…. How many trillions of gallons of gasoline that we convert to crude oil to be pumped into the ground,’ my mother said.To be Read Backwards
But commentary aside, the tale itself and the way it is told lead to a devastating reveal that, if it does not make the reader actually read the story backwards, much like the movie Memento, then at least to construct the narrative in reverse.
Possibly the most pointed of the stories is the title tale ‘Why Visit America’, which comes towards the end of the collection. The story is written as a tourist guide to a town in Texas that has decided to secede from the United States and form its own micro-nation called ‘America’.
The town is a microcosm of the modern United States:
Our town had everything: pro-lifers who supported gay marriage, pro-choicers who opposed gay marriage, climate change deniers who owned solar panels, universal healthcare campaigners who preferred private health insurance, creationists with degrees in biology and geology… loyal conservatives, staunch liberals, moderates, radicals, and ornery retirees whose only issue is with guns.Why Visit America
Again, Baker takes aim at the malaise and stupidity that his characters see overtaking their country and their longing to return to the values and ideals upon which it was founded. As one character challenges the other to refute her critiques:
‘All that anybody in this country can accomplish is the occasional filibuster,’ Belle shouted.
She waited for him to respond to her, but he was silent.
‘Reps and senators are bought and sold by the highest bidder,’ Belle shouted.
She gave him another chance to dispute her, but he kept quiet.
‘It’s literally legal now for the one percent to buy elections,’ Belle shouted.Why Visit America
As he ranges across the United States, Baker uses speculative fiction to cast a critical eye on the things that his country stands for and the way it is heading. Treatment of the elderly, consumerism, inequity, racism, sexism and politics all get a look in. But these issues are wrapped in a series of engagingly written and generally hopeful short stories. So that in the end Why Visit America becomes a space that allows readers to consider what is around them, and to imagine that it is possible to create a better world than the one Baker is riffing on.