NOT NORMAL, ILLINOIS: Peculiar Fictions from the Flyover

edited by Michael Martone
Indiana University Press ($22.95)

by Stephanie Hlywak

Is writing regional? Flannery O’Connor, whose prose was often categorized by the part of the United States in which she wrote, certainly thought so. But while we’re comfortable identifying, say, Southern gothic, is there a voice typical of the vast Midwest?

This anthology aims to answer that question. Comprising thirty-two short stories (and one nonfiction piece) from a diverse cast of authors whose styles, subjects, and geographies are as far ranging as the Midwest itself, Not Normal, Illinois doesn’t quite succeed in convincing us there is a cohesive, or at least recognizable, Midwestern style. It does, however, accomplish something perhaps greater: it draws attention to the great diversity of talent at work in a region known more for its homogeneity and flat topography. After all, only in a place this big could you have Louise Erdrich, whose narratives of reservation life speak to the Native American experience of the Upper Midwest, alongside Stuart Dybek, whose urban youth on the near south side informs his gritty fictions of Chicago. And indeed, both Dybek and Erdrich appear here, as if to challenge the notion of uniformity or conformity. That’s ultimately the idea that’s being exploded here: that the Midwest, with its pancake breakfasts and church-going folk and voting patterns that represent the tenor of the country as a whole, is normal. It’s about, as editor Michael Martone writes in his introduction, “turning all those middles inside-out.”

Martone’s collection takes its title from a small college town near the geographic center of Illinois—a place so normal, it’s called Normal. But is it really? Two hours south of Chicago, Normal is home to fertile farmland, acres upon acres of cornfields, and Illinois State University, on whose campus sits one of the tallest dorm buildings in the world (and likely the highest structure for a hundred miles in any direction). ISU also hosted one of the tallest talents in the Midwest (or any region): from 1992 till he decamped for California ten years later, David Foster Wallace taught English in Normal, during which time he completed and published Infinite Jest. It’s jarring to think of Wallace as simply a Midwestern writer because his reach was so broad. But is his the voice that typifies the Midwest? Is ours a prose of ambitious vocabulary, copious footnoting, and wild imagination? Though he isn’t represented on the table of contents, Wallace and his legacy haunt this collection. It is also to him that the book is dedicated.

To survey what’s being written in the flyover, Martone brings together both established names and new talents and arranges them, in the collection’s one nod to order, alphabetically, so that the reader encounters unexpected pleasures on her travels through the book. Aside from their shared geography, these stories all together celebrate the extraordinary, the ugly, the peculiar, and the unpredictable in the mundane moments of life. In one of the collection’s standouts, Robin Henley’s “All You Can Eat,” a church pancake social turns surreal when Aunt Jemima appears, shills for syrup, leads a sing-along, and dies. Deb Olin Unferth writes about loneliness, separation, and otherness in her story about squatters in a basement apartment. Steve Tomasula uses the absurdity—and ubiquity—of roadside, big-box-style Medieval-themed dinner theaters to riff on modern warfare and combat deaths, the Bush years, and torture. And though these stories have a Midwesternness about them (you can picture the dirty linoleum titles in Henley’s church basement or the off-ramp that leads to Tomasula’s “Medieval Land” just about anywhere in the Central Time Zone), some are spectacularly placeless. Kellie Wells’s haunting story of conjoined twins is everywhere and nowhere, but it’s not the location that gives the piece its relevance, it’s the technique: Wells gives both twins voice literally side-by-side, as columns that interrupt and respond to one another. This bifurcated text mimics the separate yet competing identities of her characters, and the disorientation of the narrative evokes their confusion.

But it’s Erdrich’s previously unpublished “Fuck With Kayla and You Die” that could function as the collection’s thesis, as it is most definitely Midwestern but far from normal. Erdrich’s tight control of the narrative—which threatens to veer in one direction then quickly turns another—is extraordinary; she explores assumptions and yet defies expectations. In the story, Roman, an Indian man standing outside an Indian Casino, is handed car keys by a white man who mistakes him for a valet. With that tacit permission, Roman drive the man’s car to his home, ruffles through his drawers, and imagines his life. The suspense that builds here only crescendos when Roman’s adventure is interrupted by guests arriving for the man’s surprise birthday party. Just as the man assumed Roman was a valet, the guests assume Roman is the man’s friend, a fellow-party guest, who belongs among them. These multiple levels of assumption, deception, and identity converge in the story’s haunting denouement.

The Midwest can be derided as being the middle of nowhere, but Not Normal, Illinois makes a strong case that it’s actually in the middle of everywhere. The ordered grids of farm land you see as you gaze out the window of a plane flying over this vast, unpopulated region are a deception—look closer and you’ll see immense literary talent sprouting from and feeding off this fertile loam. Martone’s collection may not convince us there is one voice that typifies the Midwest, but that’s not the point. Like any good road trip with pit stops at roadside attractions and detours on unfamiliar routes, it’s not so much the destination as the journey.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010