Jan Elizabeth Watson Reviews PAX AMERICANA for Electric Literature

Kurt Baumeister Envisions an Even More Bizarre America

The satirical novel, Pax Americana, waxes dystopian, and hilarity ensues

Reviewed by Jan Elizabeth Watson for Electric Literature

June 8, 2017

© Adam Watson

The society we find ourselves in today — a culture comprising equal parts absurdity and corruption — begs to be satirized, if not so much for comic purposes than for greater moral ones. Here in 2017, we have at least as much to lampoon as the ancient Romans (we’re only a couple more excesses and a few more reality TV shows away from the return of vomitoriums and gladiatorial blood sports, it seems), yet fewer and fewer people seem to be writing satire — or, more pointedly, fewer and fewer people seem to be writing satire well. Thus Kurt Baumeister’s zestful, remorseless, clear-eyed debut novel Pax Americana bounds on to the scene at a time when its humor is not only welcome, but necessary.

The plot and premise of Pax Americana reads a bit like a the sly wink of James Bond novel as directed by Tarantino at his most manic. The story begins in the year 2034, a time when America’s large-scale conservatism and religious fundamentalism has a stranglehold on the national consciousness. In the novel’s first chapter we are introduced to Tuck Squires, an agent for the Interenal Defense Bureau, whose internal narrative sets the book’s tone as he is driving along in his Epiphany listening to Christian music:

“He cut the music and thought of America, of all it had meant and would mean to the world. He thought of another song, one that soared in a very different way than Jehovah’s Wishlist. He thought of ‘America the Beautiful,’ how it was a conundrum, so right and so wrong all at once.Or, not so much wrong exactly, more like inadequate, unable to see far enough forward to take in not just America’s yesterdays, but its todays and tomorrows.”

Tuck, as we can infer from this passage, is as earnest a Traditionalist as they come…. and it is usually the earnest and self-serious who most desperately need to be satirized. As we meet his Traditionaist cronies — a cast of characters ranging from the once-suave special agent Ken Clarion to the charismatic Rev. Dr. Ravelton Parlay, owner of the Righteous Burger restaurant chain and occupant of an estate modeled after the Whie House (the hilariously named Bayousalem) — we see Baumeister’s ability to produce characters of nearly Dickensian grotesquerie yet present them in such a congenial way that we can’t help almost liking them, or at least feeling sorry for them, even as we acknowledge how corrupt and wrongheaded they are. It takes a skillful satirist to elevate the buffoons to a level of humanity without losing his comic edge, and Pax Americana manages to strike this balance in an appealing way, with delightfully acrobatic shifts between the highbrow and the lowbrow, the quotidian and the fantastic, the modest and the grandiose.

At the book’s progressive moral center is Diana Scorsi, an intelligent, attractive, and idealistic woman who soon finds herself in “a black Wonderland… a dimension where things can go wrong in a great hurry.” Scorsi is the inventor and developer of groundbreaking computer software that could change the sociopolitical landscape, essentially returning us to a more autonomous, free-thinking, pacifistic ways of being: “Everyone could have their own god, and that god would be Symmetra, and if everyone had it there would never be need for war again.”

Naturally, the Traditionalists have other ideas for how this software should be used. The resulting conflict includes kidnapping by men in superhero masks, fiery deaths and near-deaths, scenic locales, double agents and double crossers, and a surprise ending that most readers should find oddly satisfying. Pax Americana itself is a mad romp, utterly pleasurable and fun on one level while trenchant and recognizable on another. The complacent idicoracy in Baumeister’s vision of 2034 is not so distant from the increasingly divided country we are seeing today, which adds relevance and gravitas to a novel that already stands on its own as being a hell of a lot of fun.

But the greatest pleasure in Baumeister’s writing lies not just his comic gifts and political prescience; it comes also from his nimble versatility and depth, exhibited in many passages throughout Pax Americana. Note this bit of omniscient reflection of Ken Clarion’s: “Whether it was love for the country, the job, or a woman, love lingered. Even when everyone around you believed it had become something else — jealousy, pain, friendship, hate — even then, you carried a memory of its time as love. Like faded tracks in fallen snow, footprints only you could see, love survived whether you wanted it to or not.” This is terrific writing with an unpretentiously literate sensibility, suggesting the work of an author with far more plays of light and shadow to show us.


Success and Its Trappings, a review of Matt Bell’s latest

A comprehensive look and establishment of Matt Bell’s dynamic, literary range

By Kurt Baumeister (for Electric Literature, October 10, 2016)

Weighing in at a hefty four hundred pages, Matt Bell’s latest story collection, A Tree or a Person or a Wall (Soho), comes in the wake of his critically-acclaimed novels (also from Soho), In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2013) and Scrapper (2015). An early-career retrospective of sorts, much of the material contained in A Tree or a Person or a Wall originated in Bell’s Indie-published volumes, 2010’s How They Were Found and 2012’s Cataclysm Baby. There’s new work here, seven stories worth of it — the title piece, “Doll Parts,” “The Migration,” “The Stations,” “Inheritance,” “For You We Are Holding,” and “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way” — but, to a great extent, this volume revisits Bell’s earliest material. In the process, A Tree or a Person or a Wall can’t help but provoke questions about artistic development and the interplay between commerce and creativity. The basic issue: Does Bell’s early work stand comparison to what he’s producing now; or, does this collection represent an attempt to leverage old material in light of recent success?

“Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect.”

We deal with related concerns all the time in the literary world, and by “we” I don’t just mean book critics. Readers, writers, and critics, no one in America is immune to the impact of literature’s commercialization, a necessary consequence if writers are to make any sort of living from their work. Still, the profit motive can, and often does, go too far. Whether we’re talking about the Lee family’s cash grab, Go Set a Watchman (a supposed sequel that wound up being an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird), or any number of other examples (John Kennedy Toole comes to mind with his posthumous masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces followed some years later by his only other book, a truly terrible novella he’d written as a teenager, The Neon Bible), attempts to fleece consumers are common in America, certainly not just in literature.

But I think most writers with literary ambitions would like to believe they’re offering the best work they can, that they’re providing fair artistic value to their readers, not simply trying to cash in. (And here, in fairness to the authors mentioned above, they didn’t have much say in the suspect publications, owing to advanced age for Lee, suicide for Toole). Beyond that, successful writers like Bell must wonder whether their early work was the equal of whatever garnered them their “break,” if all they were missing was a little timing or luck to have had that break years before.

Even if we set aside thoughts of success and its trappings — considerations such as units sold, prize nominations, and general notoriety — the author’s hope has to be that he really was good enough once upon a time, even as he toiled in what might have been relative (or even true) obscurity. For that author, there’s got to be some vindication in seeing work he believed in finally reach a broader audience. If we’re honest with ourselves as writers, readers, and critics, though, the question we come back to, the only question that really matters, is whether this newfound attention is justified, whether it is deserved. When it comes to A Tree or a Person or a Wall, the only answer I can give is a resounding, “Yes.”

A talented, at times even daring, stylist Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect, that necessary quality of making the reader want to read. This is something many literary writers forget or even disdain: the fact that it’s their responsibility to attract readers and keep them interested, not the other way around. And it’s a lesson Bell seems to have learned from an early age. Fearless in terms of the subject matter he’s willing to write about and perhaps ever more so in the unexpected, sometimes extremely dark angles he takes in fleshing out his stories, Bell has the goods, no question.

Whether we’re considering the earlier work like “The Cartographer,” “The Collectors,” and the epic cli-fi novella “Cataclysm Baby” (vast in scope; beautiful and haunting, disturbing and thought provoking in execution) or the more recent standouts like “The Stations,” “The Migration,” and the collection’s final piece, the heartbreaking ode to the victims death leaves among the living, “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way,” overall, A Tree or a Person or a Wall more than lives up to the hype generated by Bell’s successful novels.

“A Tree or a Person or a Wall is, as a whole, a substantial piece of art.”

More than a basic chronology designed to consume space at the expense of quality, A Tree or a Person or a Wall is, as a whole, a substantial piece of art. Bell has taken the time to really piece this material together, to develop an overall seven-part structure that feels at once like an early-career retrospective and a unified piece of work. These are not linked stories per se (or, not overtly so), but in their overwhelming attention to humanity’s self-destructive love affairs with itself and its world and a human experience that is a constant quest for understanding, a quest that seems to succeed and fail simultaneously, again and again, this is a text that asks to be reread.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall is one of the best books I’ve read this year. From prose that is simultaneously elegant and muscular to its hybrid of mystery, wisdom, and earned emotion, from its notes of slipstream and fabulism to those of outright fable, this volume does indeed answer the literary question I posed earlier. This is a justified, even necessary collection, one we should be grateful to Soho for bringing out. Only in his mid-thirties, Matt Bell is a great short story writer, and has been now for many years. The lingering question is just how good Bell can become, whether we will look back on this volume and see it as a prelude to greater things still. Only time will tell.