Why Visit America: Dark tales of warning

Matthew Baker thrillingly explores bleak patriotism with pulse of capitalism

Why Visit America
Why Visit America
Author: Matthew Baker
ISBN-13: 978-1526618382
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £16.99

In the title pages of his thrillingly strange short story collection Why Visit America, Matthew Baker includes a terse dedication “for my country”.

It would perhaps be a contradiction to describe Baker’s dystopian stories as patriotic, and yet the disturbing sense of plausible reality in the near futures he imagines creates a cumulative sense of warning. If you think the cultural crisis in America is bad now, Baker’s gentle push against the truth suggests, just wait until you see what’s coming.

Why Visit America can be read as a prophecy, with Baker urging his fellow Americans to pay attention before it is too late. The lexicographer narrator of Fighting Words would describe the effect of the book as “othery: suffering experienced through empathy for another’s suffering”.

Fighting Words is the opening story in the collection, and the sense of hope that accrues around its protagonists is exceptional. It follows a gentle, sensitive lexicographer and his brother on a vigilante mission to right a wrong done to their niece by a psychopathic local teenager, Nate.


“We will hurt the boy in a way that he will feel and keep feeling and never stop feeling, mutilate his psyche in a way that will make him fear us and what we are capable of even after we are dead.”

In their quest for revenge, however, the brothers realise that Nate has also been hurt, transformed, by his own trauma. However, their compassion represents an act of what the lexicographer calls “diffiction”: it is “inconsistent with the shared reality of others . . . nonfictional to an individual but fictional to the individual’s society”. Nate, inevitably, will go on terrorising the community.

Procreational needs

In Baker’s other stories, however, the threat posed is a broader social one. In Transition, a young man decides to embrace a post-corporeal existence when he undergoes an irreversible procedure that converts his mind to digital data. In Bad Day in Utopia men live in menageries, “living sperm banks”, which women visit for procreational needs. In One Big Happy Family, a system of universal childcare ensures children cannot be mistreated by their parents; they are separated at birth. Lost Souls, meanwhile, gives birth to the idea of empty-bodied babies: living infants without sentient minds. In Life Sentence, a criminal has had his memory wiped; a cheaper and more efficient way of dealing with recidivism in the justice system. As his parole officer explains to him, “wiping your memory was costly but nowhere near as expensive as paying to feed and shelter you for half a century would have been. That’s the problem with prisons. They’re overpriced, they underperform.”

The standout story Rites follows in a similar vein. It describes a world where the elderly are forced to celebrate their lives by taking them. When Uncle Orson refuses to participate, he is confronted by a family member who crystallises the significance of his duty: “You can’t keep on, just, consuming resources, creating waste, without contributing anything to society . . . By stalling, you’re hurting everybody, you’re hurting my generation, you’re hurting the kids’ generation, you’re hurting their kids’ generation, you’re living like a primitive.”

Typographical play

Capitalism is a particular preoccupation of Baker’s throughout. In Sponsor, a couple’s wedding plans are thrown into disarray when their title sponsor goes bust. Brock and Jenna aren’t even influencers, but their lives are one long performance in the capitalist marketplace. Everything is owned by big business, from the universities the characters study at to the cars they drive. Baker has fun playing with copyright logos and choosing which brands his characters will follow, while the typographical play echoes the use of HTML in his earlier interlinked story collection Hybrid Creatures. Testimony of Her Majesty, meanwhile, celebrates an anti-capitalist ideal. People like the protagonist are punished for owning too much stuff, and a competitive thriftiness reigns.

Despite a thread of dark humour to leaven the psychological load, the America that Baker foresees is a bleak place full of “buildings tattooed with graffiti” and “blinking signage” and “gutters weeping steam” and “barren unplowed fields”. It is a place full of immigrants and “the grandchildren of immigrants . . . who abandoned any pretence of participating in the cultures of their ancestors’ homelands. They had only the culture of their own homeland. Which felt very much like a nonculture. Like no culture at all.” Why Visit America indeed.

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer