by Matthew Baker
Issue #203 • March 6, 2015•Sold Out!
Edited by Will Allison
Months before Pearl’s rites, the family began arguing about who would bring great-uncle, cousin-in-law, brother Orson.
They argued on the blanketed stands of football stadiums, on sun-bleached driftwood along the lakeshore, over grills of smoking meat. While they argued, they fiddled with nearby objects. Shifting umbrellas, swiping at handfuls of sand, nudging the lids of ketchup bottles. Moving things from here to there. The impulse of the animate to manipulate the inanimate. To reposition, to rearrange.
They were a big family.
Among them there were those who affected the rigid silence of their Polish ancestors, those who affected the wine-drunk gestures of their Sicilian ancestors, those who affected the dour sneer of their French ancestors, those who affected the wind-beaten posture of their Manx ancestors. They bore Portuguese lips under Belgian noses, beneath Ukrainian foreheads. They wrinkled like Luxembourgers. They wrinkled like Turks. They were the product of eleven generations of immigrants intermarrying. They were everything, which felt very much like being nothing.
They lived in Minnesota.
Some dwelt in gated manors on leafy estates. Some dwelt in cluttered bungalows among suburban sidewalks. Some dwelt in apartments above restaurants in the city. Pearl lived in a farmhouse, on untilled farmland in the countryside, which was where the rites were to be held.
Matthew Baker’s children’s novel, If You Find This (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), will be published this month. His stories have appeared in publications such as New England Review, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, and Best of the Net. He has an MFA from Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review, and he has been awarded writing fellowships from a variety of organizations including the Fulbright Commission and the MacDowell Colony.
Will Allison on Rites
Not long after my grandfather died from Alzheimer’s disease, I wrote a short story about a man who decides to kill himself after learning that he’s in the early stages of dementia. At the time, euthanasia activist Dr. Jack Kevorkian was in the news, and though I don’t know if my grandfather ever considered suicide (assisted or otherwise), I wanted to imagine a death for him in which he at least had a say.
That same notion—getting to choose how you’ll die—is what first drew me to the surprising, consequential story in our latest issue, Matthew Baker’s “Rites.” (Spoiler alert: I’m about to reveal the story’s premise, but I promise not to give away the ending.) “Rites” takes place at an unspecified time in the future when all responsible American citizens, upon reaching the age of 70, customarily kill themselves in the manner of their choosing. It’s not a requirement but rather a right—and a rite.
Enter Uncle Orson, a lethargic, retired history teacher who scandalizes his overlarge family by refusing to do “the rites.” As Uncle Orson’s nephew Zack tells him, “You can’t keep on, just, consuming resources, creating waste, without contributing anything to society. There are nineteen billion of us on this planet. A family planning policy helps prevent drought, prevent famine, wars over energy. 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.”
That the story finds so much humor in death is but one of its many charms. Yes, “Rites” raises big issues—the right to life, the right to death, the rights of the individual versus the rights of society—but above all it is an affectionate story of a family in crisis. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story about death that’s so full of life, and maybe that’s the point.
If you want to know how things turn out for Uncle Orson and his family, read our latest issue. And don’t forget to take a look at our interview with the author to learn about the story behind the story and why Matthew Baker has decided against a sky burial.
Q&A by Will Allison
WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
MB: There are a lot of things about our society that confuse me. But here’s something that especially confuses me: We’ve developed technology that makes it possible for anyone who wants a quick and painless death to have it—to die at a chosen time without any suffering whatsoever—and nobody uses it. Instead, even if they would prefer a quick and painless death, our elderly sweat out their final days (or final weeks or even years) in physical agony, subsisting on cocktails of meds with an array of bizarre side effects, out of some belief that we’re supposed to die “naturally.” That really fascinates me. I don’t understand why people keep doing it. I can understand why pharmaceutical companies like the tradition, but I’ve never been interested in participating, personally. If I ever get to be too old to take care of myself on my own, I’m going to drive to some very liberal, probably coastal state and have myself euthanized (or maybe hold a sallekhana). I’ll donate my body to science afterward—that’s another thing that baffles me, is that in an era when we have both the technology to perform organ transplants and a critical shortage of organ donors, we’re still dumping bodies with perfectly healthy organs into the ground—and although I’m not against my friends and family holding some type of ceremony afterward, I definitely don’t want a funeral. I don’t want a service in some gloomy funeral home with terrible carpeting where everybody has to sit there listening to a preacher who never even met me expound on the meaning of life. If there’s going to be a ceremony, make it a celebration. Gather everybody together around dusk, somewhere in the woods or out on the beach, and just share your favorite memories about me. That’s what I want for my memorial. There should be sparklers. There should be feasting. There should be bonfires, there should be dancing, and the ratio of laughter to tears should be 100:1.
Anyway, that was what prompted me to write a story about a society where auto-euthanasia was the norm. A lot of my stories are basically thought experiments: I’ll set the story in a world where the vast majority of people agree with me on a certain issue (instead of the vast minority) and then see what life would be like. That’s actually really useful for me—the process of building that alternate society always helps to remind me that if I were in charge, the world wouldn’t be a utopia, just a different type of dystopia.
(I always used to want a sky burial, by the way—I really, really, really wanted a sky burial—but then my friends convinced me that humans need organs more than birds need meat.)
WA: The family in “Rites” is a big one, with more characters than one normally encounters in a short story. Why not a smaller family with fewer characters?
MB: Early on I realized that the story was going to involve a lot of gossip. And when there’s something to gossip about, I like to have a lot of people to gossip with.
WA: Are any aspects of the story autobiographical?
MB: Yes, but I’m afraid to tell you which.
WA: Your first novel, If You Find This (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2015), is a children’s book. What’s the difference between writing for children and writing for adults?
MB: I don’t think there’s any difference, honestly, aside from that in books for children, your characters aren’t allowed to say things like “fuck.” Otherwise, you can still express yourself as an artist in all of the same ways you can in books for adults. You can experiment with language, use innovative forms, sweep the full range of human emotion, grapple with social issues and ethical dilemmas and scientific theories and historical atrocities, everything. Two of the most artistically groundbreaking comics of the last century were strips marketed toward children: Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Those comics were visionary. I’ve learned more about art from those two strips than I learned from seven years of college-level lit courses.
I understand that age brackets are useful for marketing purposes, but at this point categories like “children’s book” and “young-adult novel” seem more likely to tell you something about the age of the protagonist than the age of the reader. I know as many grown-ups who read young-adult novels as actual young adults who do. As a child, I read books like Moby Dick alongside things like A Wrinkle in Time; as an adult, I read books like The Tale of Despereaux alongside things like To the Lighthouse.
WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
MB: On November 18, 2011, I wrote three pages. The next day, I realized there was something very wrong with the story. I didn’t know what the problem was; I could just sense that something wasn’t right. I set the story aside and didn’t touch it again for over a year. On November 24, 2012, I went back to the story—I’d been thinking about the story a lot over the past year and had figured out how to tell it—and finished a full draft on December 13, 2012. After finishing the draft, I remember feeling miserable, thinking it was probably the worst story I’d ever written and possibly the worst that anyone had written ever. I set the story aside and didn’t touch it again for almost a year. On October 14, 2013, I went back to the story, read it, didn’t hate it, decided to revise it, and finished a final draft on October 18, 2013. And that was that. So, grand total, the story took me exactly seven hundred days to complete, although only twenty-six of those days involved actually writing it, while the other 674 days were just thinking about it, or doing other things. That’s my process with most stories: I work on one while I’m figuring out how to fix the others.
Whenever I get depressed about how long a story has been stalled out in development, I console myself with the fact that it took half a decade for Phil Fish to finish Fez.
WA: I love the gentle humor that this story brings to the subject of death. Can you talk about the role of humor in “Rites”?
MB: That’s actually why I originally had to set the story aside. The original three-page draft was pure bleak. Over the course of that next year, as I was thinking about the story, I had an epiphany: I needed to find some way to tell the story with a sense of humor. I realized that the characters needed to be caring and kind and make each other laugh a lot if I were ever going to balance that bleakness out.
I really admire that about Terrence Malick—that any despair in his films is always offset by these moments of just raw joy—I think about his films a lot while writing.
WA: Are there any authors that have particularly influenced or inspired your work?
MB: “Rites” is probably equal parts Ursula K. Le Guin and Anna Karenina.
WA: What are you working on now?
MB: Finishing a collection of stories (for adults), finishing a novel about hacking (for children), drafting a script for a video game that my programmer friend is making, and working on a project for my filmmaker friend. I’m on the lookout for an artist who’d like to collaborate on some comics.
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MB: “Once you decide on your occupation . . . you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.” (Jiro Ono)