Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Teitman on Martone

Michael Martone. Racing in Place. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2008. $17.95 paper (ISBN 978-0-8203-3039-6), 184 pages.

Reviewed by Ryan Teitman

“This book is a mess,” writes Michael Martone in the first sentence of his latest essay collection, Racing in Place. Of course, it isn’t really a mess, which Martone readily admits, but his essay doesn’t know that yet. The book’s first piece “In the Middle of Things: An Introduction or an Afterword” gently reminds the reader that this particular book has been out of Martone’s hands for a while now. “So the now of this book,” Martone writes, “the book that is (as I write this right now) a mess, is not the book of the now now, the moment now that you are reading this this. / But that’s the way it always is.”
This meta-introduction could easily seem gimmicky in the hands of a lesser writer. But Martone’s easy wink and nod to the process of writing isn’t smug—it’s a gentle way for him to pull us into his world: his wandering, lyrical collection of essays. Martone’s got a bit of the trickster in him, but he’s the trickster that you love—the one who’s on your side.
The essays in Racing in Place span an array of topics, from the Indianapolis 500 to a historical motel sign to William H. Gass’s legendary story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Yet whether Martone is describing his pair of glasses or relating his grandfather’s days at City Light and Power, almost every essay comes back to the idea of place. Indiana dominates these essays and Martone conjures his boyhood home state with impeccable detail. In the opening to the title essay (subtitled “33 Hoosier Haiku”) he describes the minute details of Memorial Day weekend listening to the Indianapolis 500:

The first thing you did was tune in the radios. Everyone had the new transistor radios, most the size of cigarette packs, in pastel hard-shell plastic. Some were upholstered with protective leatherlike vinyl with flaps and snaps and die-cut openings for the gold-embossed tuning dials, a slit for the coin-edged volume wheel, an aperture for the ear jack, out of which an always too-short and easily kinked wire attached to a single waxy plug you screwed into your head. But today, race day, no one listens to the 500 on the earphone.

The precision of imagery throughout the essay creates moments—artful, vivid moments—that make the places in Martone’s essays alive. In his hands, Indiana becomes something more than a state, more than a myth. It’s both nostalgic and faded at the same time. What Martone focuses on are those moments when the clarity of image and clarity of idea come together: the new radios on Memorial Day don’t just say something about place—they are place.
The subtitle of the collection is “Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins” and Martone uses the tools of fragment and collage in nearly all of his essays. He trusts the reader enough to leave them without a map; he points out the landmarks but doesn’t worry about how to get from destination to destination. The truly essayistic quality about Martone’s collections is that he doesn’t delineate the route the reader takes. The reader bounces from moment to moment: the essay “Racing in Place” consists of thirty-three separate vignettes; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Moon Winx” is really thirteen smaller essays with titles like “An Essay on Astronomy” and “An Essay on Attractive Nuisance.” By relying on the fragment, the section break, and the collage, Martone builds essays that function like a long journey through the essayist’s memory. Every paragraph break is a fresh turn of the mind; every new title is a strange aspect discovered. They’re essays about the nagging nostalgia for place, and how to get back there.
In the collection’s final essay, “On Being,” Martone lays out exactly what he is interested in:

All maps are distortions….I am more interested in the trash left over, the stuff that doesn’t fit, like all the junk genetic sequencing discovered in the genome. The thrown away. The empty place that must be filled. The space that holds open a place. The nothing that does not fit.

We get to see that paradox in all of Martone’s essays. While he fills up every essay with all the intricate markings of place—the transistor radios, the pairs of black glasses, the glowing neon signs—the emptiness never quite goes away. That tension is why Racing in Place is so compelling: each essay is a place that’s both luminously empty and painfully, elegantly full.