Book Review: Why Visit America, by Matthew Baker

For this week’s review, I explored the landscape of a vividly imagined and subtly altered United States, in Matthew Baker’s short story collection Why Visit America. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received.

This review contains an affiliate link to, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.

I don’t tend to read a lot of short stories for some reason, and I really don’t know why. I’ve enjoyed the few short story collections that I’ve read, and as a format it really appeals to me – in fact, it would seem to be a format that would be perfect for me. My approach to television series is often to lose interest in them when they have too many overarching storylines or plot threads; “Too many” being a nicely flexible term which, in some cases, can mean as few as one or two. This means I tend to favour those which have standalone episodes or can be picked up after time away (Black Mirror and Love, Death and Robots being recent personal highlights). Short stories, it would seem, should be just the ticket for me.

In an attempt to remedy my bizarre dismissal of the format, I decided to give this collection a go. Having never read any of Baker’s writing before, I dove into Why Visit America with no idea of what I might find. I was rewarded with thirteen unique visions of an America that’s often slightly skewed (and on more than one occasion, skewered), with stories frequently based around either a single concept or hot button topic. These are versions of a US which has diverged, where perhaps one particular idea has taken root and flourished – for good or ill. There’s a chilling plausibility to many of the tales here, with religion, politics, economics and the various frequently absurd or flawed systems they prop up given a cunning, futurist twist. Some of these stories are more tongue-in-cheek than others – the title story in particular is a must-read for any Vonnegut fans out there, for example. Others are somewhat darker, harrowing even, but always rewarding, tightly focused and very sharply observed.

The satire on display is of the best, most subtle variety. Throughout this collection, Baker picks and worries at the crumbling American Dream, teasing apart its withered threads before warping and distorting them into something disarming and occasionally even monstrous. Taken at face value, these stories would often be unsettling in themselves, but it’s the effect they have on the reader that really elevates them. One story in particular not only ends with the kind of ambiguity that prompts discussion, but also uses this ambiguity to challenge our own morals and ideals. We’re forced to confront our perception of what we’ve just read, not only asking ourselves if it matters whether or not we have all the answers but also forcing us to question why we want them at all. Would having them change our perception of what we’ve just read? And what would it say about us if it did? More than once, I felt that delightfully unsettling feeling; that feeling that whilst I was reading, I myself was being read.

The high quality of the work on offer here, as well as the deeply personal effect particular stories might have, makes it difficult to pick out a favourite piece. It’s testament to the craftsmanship on display that even now, days after finishing the collection, I can still remember so many individual scenes, not to mention distinctly remembering every story. There’s the chilling Lost Souls, for example, where babies around the world are being born soulless, or the Donnie Darko-esque To be Read Backward, then there’s Life Sentence, with its novel approach to justice, and of course there’s Why Visit America, by turns amusing, sad and optimistic. Because these stories are not wholly without hope, that should be stated – if not for the US, then for its people and their potential for love, acceptance and forgiveness. Whilst this collection is hardly likely to leave you with a song in your heart, it will certainly leave you with a knowing smile. There’ll perhaps even be a tear in your eye.

Why Visit America is out now, and is published by Bloomsbury. You can order a copy through this affiliate link.

Currently reading: Girlfriend in a Coma, Douglas Coupland
Currently listening: Embodiment of the Divine, Buried Realm

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Why Visit America, by Matthew Baker

  1. Wow, that’s one hell of a powerful review, Ollie. You stat a very compelling argument as to why we should all be reading this one and, to be honest, I can’t disagree. You make it sound like these stories will make us ask questions of not only ourselves, but reality, and how we perceive it, given the chance of how life moves in mysterious ways, sometimes.

    All that to say, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review, and have added this one to my wish list.

    Liked by 1 person

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