Why go to America? It’s an excellent query—not that you just’re in a position to, proper now. As I’m scripting this (on July 4th, coincidentally), non-essential journey is banned from China, Iran, Brazil, Eire, the UK, and most of Europe. Whilst an American, a patchwork of restrictions and necessary quarantines makes it more durable than ever to discover the nation. In mild of this, Matthew Baker’s quick story assortment, Why Go to America, is a very punctual travelogue. The 13 tales—one for every stripe within the American flag—sweep from sea to shining sea, from “between vehicles with rusted motorboats on hitched trailers” on the shore of the Nice Lakes to a compound within the New Mexico desert the place rich pregnant girls come to time period amid yoga studios and “glass water bottles embedded with colourful hunks of quartz meant to dispel adverse power.” Baker has a pointy eye for Americana, each light and shiny.

In fact, this America isn't, strictly talking, the America we've got recently been trapped in. The tales happen in a parallel United States, the place a crease within the cloth of actuality permits Baker to strategy his topic obliquely. Shortly shifting from the naturalist to the surreal, the erotic, and the experimental, the variety of kinds, locales, and characters on this assortment is a testomony to Baker’s vary: A father arrives residence, solely to comprehend his reminiscence has been wiped in punishment for some heinous crime he can’t even keep in mind. In a world the place asceticism is the norm, a lady grapples along with her consumerist urges. When a toddler is kidnapped from the state-run nursery system, a detective tracks down the perpetrator. A small city secedes from the US and names itself America. In type and idea, these tales recall these by the nice fabulists Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Shirley Jackson.

The tales can be dystopian, portraying evil societies in methods which can be difficult and even revolting. In a single passage, Baker lists dozens of merciless and weird ways in which folks finish their lives, having reached an age the place it's customary to take action. In one other, townsfolk slaughter all life to forestall infants from being born with out souls, the our bodies “heaped in piles as excessive as haystacks.” This through-line of callousness, of disdain for human and animal life, displays again on its subject material as a critique of the nation’s mindless inhumanity. The critique of American violence, at residence and overseas, is nowhere extra obvious than within the assortment’s remaining story, “To Be Learn Backward.” Concluding this specific guide presents a problem: How do you finish a set of tales about America, when the subject material is dispiriting and the work of reforming it so deeply unfinished? Is it doable to finish a guide about American decline on a hopeful notice?

Baker, in an impressed flip, writes his remaining story in reverse. As a substitute of a narrative a few man who loses his kids in 9/11, solely to make spinoff artwork, fall right into a melancholy, get divorced, and return to dwell along with his mother and father, it turns into a narrative of resurgence, of discovering kids, household, artwork and love—however solely by means of a shift in our notion of time. From this attitude, the world, too, is healed of American imperialism. The American folks acquire rubbish, spit up animals, and produce civilians world wide again to life. As a reader, this inconceivable catharsis solely highlights the injury the nation has finished and the impossibility of undoing it.

Two tales have much less distance between the true world and this fictional one. In “Transition,” a personality’s want to develop into pure information is a less-than-subtle touch upon gender dysphoria. We observe an unnamed male character who has at all times felt uncomfortable in his physique, and desires to bear an invasive surgical procedure to be freed from it—a step that his household sees as unnatural. In “Look,” a sequence of pale figures seem within the fields of Rhode Island, taking low ability jobs and integrating into hostile communities underneath legal guidelines that makes their existence unlawful. These tales are heartbreaking, and so they mirror the emotion of real-life accounts of gender transition and unlawful immigration to a tee. But the alternate-reality twists do little to deepen our understanding of the world outdoors of fiction. There isn't any prejudice (but) towards pale apparitions or individuals who want to develop into digital. That prejudice, if it existed, could be simply as mindless because the bigotry actual trans folks and undocumented immigrants face. Robbed of reality’s pressing veracity, the tales are unsatisfying.

In some methods, the gathering inherits its subject material’s blind spots. One stunning omission is America’s most defining dystopia: the kidnapping and enslavement of tens of millions of black and brown folks. Though the guide largely displays the make-up and geography of America, the usage of state pressure to enslave and tear down communities of colour is essentially and conspicuously absent. The gathering additionally units apart alternate options to laissez-faire capitalism. Even in a world the place thrift and asceticism are the defining virtues, there may be nonetheless market-based homelessness and starvation. Even in a matriarchal utopia, the narrator faces financial pressures and complains of her excessive tax burden. Even in a narrative a few city that secedes from America, the brand new nation retains the identical forex, the identical inequality, and the identical banks. Baker appears conscious of this; all through the gathering, a number of characters consult with communism, invoking it as a pipe dream and a slur. One character, a truck driver transporting glow-in-the-dark cheese graters and cigar-scented air fresheners notes, “As a result of he was a patriot, and since patriotism in his nation meant an unquestioning religion within the greatness of capitalism, he handled these merchandise with the reverence with which a humble monk would deal with the mysteries of god.” It's inconceivable, even in Baker’s realities, to think about an America that doesn’t worship kitsch.

Why Go to America is a travelogue, however it stays near residence. That is nonetheless the America that so many people dwell in, with all its acquainted vibrancy and violence, its patriotism and paternalism, its wishful considering and willful blindness.