The Flatness and Other Landscapes

The Flatness and Other Landscapes



The Pequod Review:

Michael Martone's The Flatness and Other Landscapes is a collection of fourteen essays focused on the people and culture of the American Midwest (which he broadly defines to include the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa). Martone -- who was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana -- brings a deep love and appreciation for an area that is much more than Flyover Country:

It is flat. The geometry of the fields suggests a map as large as the thing it represents. The squared township roads score the axes of coordinates. The cup of trees on the horizon, the water tower, the elevator are tokens slid there representing ground taken and held. The only dimension marked by z is the state of dreaming as they drive on the interstates meandering in tangents that seek what the builders of railroads, who were here with rulers first, called a water-level route.

There are places in the Midwest that are not like this the limestone hills, the loess bluffs, the forest lakes and sand dunes, the rills and knobs and kettles. But the people who know the place only by driving through it know the flatness. They skim along a grade of least resistance. The interstate defeats their best intentions. I see them starting out, big-hearted and romantic, from the density and the variety of the East to see just how big this country is. They are well read, and they see an expanse as they come out of the green hills and the vista opens up, a true vision now so vast that at night as they drive the vastness can be merely suggested by the farmyard lights that demonstrate plane geometry by their rearranging patterns. And, in the dawn around Sandusky, they have had enough, and they hunker down and drive, looking for the mountains that they know are out there somewhere. They cannot see what is all around them now. A kind of blindness afflicts them, a pathology of the path. The flatness.


The truth is that such an ambiguous feeling about the Midwest seems to me to be very midwestern. Simultaneously, a midwesterner can imagine himself mired at the end of the earth and ensconced at its very heart. The conflict between the ideals of community and mobility has long been a central drama of America itself, but only in the Midwest, it seems to me, is this drama expressed so subtly and engrossingly. If the rest of Americans knows anything about this region they know it as the place where something or someone is from. Midwesterners themselves have a harder time simply saying where this place is.

Recommended, although the book would have benefitted from greater substance, rather than just style.