Michael Martone’s Michael Martone

I use Grammarly for online proofreading now that my 11th-grade English teacher, Ms. Hines, unfriended me on Facebook.

michaelmartoneLast night I taught this book, which is a collection of Contributor’s Notes that Martone published in various journals. All begin the same way: Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. From there, anything can happen. Sometimes he goes to enroll at Indiana University, which is true. Martone did go there. Sometimes he gets work as a ditchdigger, or turns into a giant insect. As far as I know Martone didn’t do these things. I taught the book in my Narrating Nonfiction course. Students initially found the book annoying. One student’s library copy has “rambling, annoying” marked in the margins. My students were also confused by what the book was doing in a nonfiction class. FC2, the publisher, event labels the book “fiction” on its back cover.

This post is going to try to explain how, even in the thick of wildest fabrication, Martone’s book is a work of nonfiction.

Start with the title. “Michael Martone” is our grand subject. It’s also the name of our protagonist, this guy who in every note keeps getting born in Fort Wayne. It’s also the name of our author, who is a person I used to work with at the University of Alabama. Whether “Michael Martone” is the name of our narrator, the persona put in charge of forming the character and shaping the narrative, is unclear. MM (the book) uses the third person throughout. Here’s the book’s shortest note, to give you a sense of the form:

Michael Martone, born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, published his first book, Big Words, in graduate school. The children’s book could use only thirty age-appropriate words taken from the Dolch Word List.

It’s untrue that Martone published his first book in graduate school, and it’s untrue that his first book was titled Big Words. It’s true that there’s something called the Dolch Word List and that it looks at youth literacy and word choices. Such mixing of true and false is at the center of most of Martone’s notes. One could argue it’s at the center of most of his work overall.

“It’s a memoir,” I told my students last night.

“But it’s made up,” they said.

“But Martone’s making it up,” I said.

I was talking about his putting himself so incessantly at the center of the book. His name is our title. He refers to himself in the third person. Because our central character (and our subject) shares his name with our author, anything that happens to him reflects back on the author. So when Michael Martone, in a note, turns into a giant insect, this tells us something about Michael Martone, the author who came up with the idea to do this. (Or, well, technically to plagiarize Kafka at an appropriate time, which Martone does verbatim.)

In other words, Martone’s use of the self opens the memoir up to be a space for encountering the author himself, without mediation through some young character or even a narrator. Another way of saying this is that the repeated reset-button effect of the notes, read together (every time we’re told Martone is born in Fort Wayne; every time we start that life over), moves the memoir away from the record of an experience and toward the record of a mindset.

The question I haven’t yet answered: does this apply to all uses of the author’s name in novel characters? Jonathan Safran Foer, Kathy Acker, David Foster Wallace, and Martone’s mentor: John Barth? I think not. I think what MM has going for it is its form. A contributor’s note is a biography. Yes we write them ourselves about ourselves, but in the public insistence on that careful third-person use they escape autobiography. Still, it’s a nonfictive form. “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana,” is the beginning of a history. No matter what happens to that Michael Martone, we’re still with the same authorial Michael Martone, and it’s in that continual intimate communion that this book becomes a memoir. One of my recent faves.

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