Reviewed by Kathryn Houghton
Michael Martone's most recent book, Four for a Quarter, doesn't fit easily into the mold of short story collections. As one might guess from the title, the idea around which all of these pieces are centered is the number four. Organized into four parts, each entry in Martone's collection contains four smaller fictions. Some might be tempted to write these pieces off as vignettes, or perhaps even exercises, but each unit of four in the book fits together in a way that gets at some larger idea, be it death, philosophy, love, etc—and does so in a way that, if story as we understand it doesn't fit Four for a Quarter, then perhaps we should reexamine our use of the term.
For there is story to be found. Things happen. Martone's characters go to war and come home again. They grow old or die young. In "Diagnostic Drift," a man deals with his wife's four miscarriages. Martone's characters love, too, but without any trace of sentimentality. While having sex with her lover, Martone's rendition of Invisible Girl describes herself as being "down to the broken dashes of the central nervous system, suggesting, still outlining, the outer neural net of my skin, feeding me the synaptic code of dots and dits from the dissipating periphery."
What makes Martone's writing truly remarkable, however, is his use of and attention to language, especially when it becomes complex and seems on the verge of spinning out of control. In a section with a colorblind narrator, for instance, the narrator says, "Knowing grass is green, I see the gray of the gray I see as grass, a grass green when I think about it." This is a book that is best enjoyed slowly, and often aloud, for Martone's use of repetition and sound is as important to the book as the ideas the language communicates.
One of those ideas that Martone returns to again and again is the appearance or image of things. Like René Margitte's famous drawing of a pipe ("Ceci n'est pas une pipe"), Martone is interested in the gap between what appears and what is, between what we experience and what the person next to us does. It's all relative, and Martone doesn't waste time trying to define an absolute truth. He instead leaves the possibility that many things can be true, that every component of a thing is as valuable as the whole. In "Dutch Boy" he writes:
She pictures a picture of a brushstroke made up of brushstrokes. The swipes of water shatter back into quivering beads. The shower steams. She is made of salt or she is made of the color of salt and she dissolves and is dissolving in the rain, drains down the drain.
This understanding of things being only what they seem is taken to the extreme at many points during the book, such as when Martone centers his quartet of fictions around the same experience and uses the four subsections to tell one story in four different ways, returning to the same moment again and again. Each representation of the moment differs, yet no one is set as being real while the others are not—each is simply a different shading of the truth. Nowhere is this technique more evident than in the section "To Hell and Back: Four Takes," during which Martone explores the events of the movie To Hell and Back by looking at the movie, the creative process of making the movie, the ghostwritten book it was created from, and, finally, the event on which the entire thing was based. Each of these sections is told from the same point of view—that of Martone's fictionalized version of Lt. Audie Murphy. "I had to act because I don't remember how I acted," Murphy says while watching himself on film. "So this is what I did. The shells falling from the blue sky. No, the shells falling from the sky. No the shells falling. No the shells…It looks like a battle in a movie because the battle I was in looked like a battle in a movie staged and choreographed the same way."
This scene "seems real" to Martone's Murphy because it is. The whole book might be fiction, but it is real, or at least some form of reality. Martone writes, "The Real World approaches harmony with the Fiction of the World," but his book itself seems to take it one step further: that the fiction of the world is just as real as the reality.