There’s a maxim in the teaching of creative writing: like death, a story’s ending should be unexpected, yet inevitable. Across an impressive half-century career full of books, accolades, classroom hours, and awards (including a Guggenheim Fellowship, multiple Pushcart Prizes, and the Rea Award for the Short Story), Charles Baxter has mastered this maxim. He’s lectured about it and written about it in his seminal book on craft, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, and the many short stories of his six collections—from 1984’s Harmony of the World to 2015’s There’s Something I Want You to Do—put the maxim into clear practice.
Encountering the unexpected is one of the joys of reading Baxter’s stories. He’s the rare expert craftsman who’s also an alchemist. And he’s published as many novels as collections, including The Feast of Love, nominated for the National Book Award in 2000 and featuring a nocturnal wanderer named Charles Baxter.
The Sun Collective is Baxter’s sixth novel, and his first in 12 years. For perspective, his previous novel, The Soul Thief, was published back when George W. Bush was president. Summarizing the plot of a novel by the writer of The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot is at best reductive and at worst like bringing a knife to a gun fight. But here goes: retired engineer Harold Brettigan and his wife, Alma, have heavy hearts. Their children have disappeared—their daughter into the dull comforts of middle-class life, their son into the mean streets of Minneapolis. Once a promising actor, their son has been seen with the anti-consumerism radicals of the Sun Collective and may be living on the street, a dangerous proposition with the violent homeless-hating “Sandmen” on the prowl. Age has been rough on Brettigan. “In contrast to several of his contemporaries who had been hardened by life,” the novel explains, he “had been softened.”
From the bright study of his home in downtown Minneapolis, Baxter, 73, says over Skype that there’s a fair amount of himself in Brettigan. “I have those days, and I don’t think I’m unique in this, when I think, I don’t know if there’s a book I want to read today, I don’t know if there’s a movie I want to see, I don’t know if there’s any music I want to listen to.” As you get older, he says, the art you once loved “loses its shine.” After a pause of two breaths, he smiles and assures me, “It comes back.”
The Sun Collective begins with Brettigan on a train bound for the Utopia Mall, a totem to consumerism that produces “a disorienting spatio-temporal rupture” in visitors. Ironically, 20-something Christina Lubdell, also on the train, is tripping on a designer drug called blue telephone that does the same thing, making users feel that they are in “two places at once,” like Schrödinger’s cat. Her life is similarly quantum: by day, she works in a bank; after hours, she serves the Sun Collective in a “semi-ironic” capacity as its minister for propaganda, urging Minnesotans to “de-consume.”
Christina is a mess. “Blessed and afflicted with the scourge of empathy,” according to the novel, she’s also a magnet for unstable men. One, a self-proclaimed revolutionary named Ludlow, is hatching “little plans of revenge and ruination.” The other is the Brettigans’ missing son.
While Brettigan goes on nocturnal wanderings in search of him, Alma takes a different approach: she befriends the radicals. The inevitable collision of these disparate seekers creates fissures and bonds of unexpected depth and consequence.
Baxter says that the first ideas for the book began to appear five or six years ago. There were three, like a Venn diagram. The first: Reading about the flu pandemic of 1918, Baxter came across folklore cures of the era. One directed the ill to hold mirrors underwater and wash their reflected faces. He recalls that when he told Louise Erdrich about this over dinner, “she looked at me with that predatory look novelists have, and said, ‘If you don’t use that, I will.’ ”
The second: Baxter says that riding Minneapolis light rail to work, he was plagued by the moral dilemma of homelessness. “You ask yourself, What should I be doing? Is there anything I should be doing? That feeling was sort of a narrative generator.”
The third: Baxter heard that the number one al-Qaeda target in North America was Minnesota’s infamous shopping mecca, the Mall of America. “Instead of being horrified,” he says, “I thought it was funny.” Light pours through his windows as he laughs. The wall behind him is a bright puzzle of books. “That’s such a ridiculous place. Who would want to take it down?”
In some writers’ hands, the ridiculous is simply ridiculous. In Baxter’s hands, the ridiculous is strangely menacing and oddly disorienting. From the start, he knew he needed a different approach with this novel. “The sort of realism that I’ve practiced in the past isn’t adequate to the times we’re in,” he says. “I needed something more like Joseph Heller, or somebody whose work is running a fever.”
The result is a novel in which characters can be grounded in the quotidian and communicate with house pets; a novel in which a heartless American president can have a hair-trigger Twitter finger and stoke the flames of the economic divide with poetry. His name is Amos Alonzo Thorkelson, and a sample stanza from his poem, “No Free Lunch,” reads, “At the cash register she paid/ For junk food with a wad/ Of food stamps, and this made/ Me very very very sad.”
Baxter, who is among a handful of contemporary writers known almost as much for their teaching as for their literary output, has been a fixture at the esteemed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference since 1995. He’s turned many of his craft talks—which are more philosophical ruminations on lesser-explored aspects of writing fiction—into essays published in literary journals, as well as in Burning Down the House. His full-time academic career began in the 1970s at Wayne State in Detroit and included positions at Warren Wilson College’s low-residency MFA program, the University of Michigan’s MFA program, and, for the past 18 years, the University of Minnesota. His final course there, “Reading Like Writers,” was forced online by the coronavirus outbreak, and he had to make his retirement celebrations virtual.
It was a muted coda to a vital career, but Baxter says he didn’t miss being celebrated in “those ego fests.” He’ll remain involved with Bread Loaf and other literary conferences as long as he can, and a third volume on craft, tentatively titled Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Fiction, is due in 2022. “I think it’ll be my last book of essays,” he says, which will make a lot of writers very, very, very sad.
When asked what he’s most looking forward to about retirement, Baxter pauses for several seconds. “Like a lot of people, I’ve almost stopped looking forward,” he says. Still, he is eager for the time “when people can sit around and talk and not be scared to death that their conversation is going to lead to a lethal illness.” And as soon as it’s safe, he’ll volunteer again with food pantry or literacy efforts.
Until then, Baxter will be writing, always writing. “This is one of those things I probably shouldn’t say,” he offers. “But I started a new novel, a sort of thriller.” His mouth twists into a broad grin and he spreads his arms in front of the laptop. “I’ve always wanted to write a thriller, and who’s going to stop me?”
—A Year in Reading: Charles Baxter
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.