By Krystal Languell
Jesse Baer’s Midwestern Infinity Doctrine is a novel undoing the genre by unstitching time in both its form and content. Structurally, the book begins with “Final New Jersey Transcript” and “The Cosmic Dirge: Finale,” which sound more like titles for endings, and ends with “*Addendum: Subducted Time” and “Epilogue: Reversing Time,” seemingly flipping conventional order around. The reader enters the text as a detective embarks on a case, starting from sparse and ex post facto evidence and culminating in a fuller, though still incomplete, backstory. Suggesting a narrative reluctance to accept an(y) ending as conclusive due to time’s actual slippery dimensions, the chapter titles buck linearity. Within these nonlinear units, dominant concepts emerge around time, violence, and definition of the self. Baer’s approach to form ruffles those concepts, pets their fur backward, and recreates the experience of losing time, which can be one manifestation of trauma.
The Midwest gets a bad reputation sometimes, and I am from a part of it in between recognizable places. I can attest to the landscape’s potential for an outside-of-timeness, to how driving its highways feels a bit apocalyptic, particularly in the winter, particularly when it seems you’re the only one who sees anything out of the ordinary. Walk into a rest area and observe the families eating fast food or whatever and squabbling as if the landscape outside isn’t devoid of even rudimentary signs of life, lacking a color palette beyond shades of gray. The twilight zone. It is alien and alienating, a plausible setting for a novel imbued with UFO sightings and abduction reports.
On the road, Baer invokes the seasonally omnipresent deer in the woods and alongside highways, which brings with it a sense of unease. Baer writes, “A deer skins itself, because you were the math, inside velocity.” Hitting a deer, or any animal, with a car is unpleasant and dangerous. Deer are large and innocent. We empathize with them when we see them killed, perhaps because as roadkill they can look a little bit human. If a deer skins itself, that suggests you’re not at fault. Outside of hunting you really can’t control deer, which is itself a humbling reminder of individual frailty.
In the chapter “The Cesarean Scar,” time seems to run backward through two threads alternating in short sections. First, in a dreamlike scene a cesarean scar is untaped and the wound opened up. The last line: “Then, I break into my car.” And in between, a variety of quick scenes of confrontation take place, some with the narrator speaking from inside their car, contributing to the sense of reversed time. Amid the same chapter, the deer reappears in a new form. Baer writes: “My mother is weeping on the floor, a deer collapsed into its soft hind legs, an accordion cataracting within its mythological song, it won’t play, now.” Like the first scene of the chapter, this follows dream-like logic in which disparate common elements mash together. But it’s also true that trauma can cause fracturing of narrative, as we see frequently in film storytelling. When the accordion of your mother’s body no longer plays, breaking into your own car might be the most reasonable decision you can make.
The narrator tries on many different roles, often signaled by formal changes from one chapter to another, as they attempt to break time with language to access hidden truths from their own experience. Formal variations include radio transmission, abduction report, transcript. Most chapters bear titles or subtitles with familiar language that belies complex unexplained phenomena; just now, entering “time halos” into an online search engine, I find some video game instructions that tell me to “jump through the wall.” Irrelevant but apt. Like light halos that people with low vision see when driving at night, time halos would be experienced as pinches or radials of time. Variations in speed of time are impossible to prove since felt time is relative anyway.
These attempts succeed in breaking time. Baer writes: “this gesture expulsed what we were, waves attenuated. Slower than that. Carve back to the core, if you can find it.” Here we are, subject to time fluctuations. “In the spaceship, we just kinda float around.” No one knows how long it’s been and we are powerless. Further, in the chapter “Interlude: Time Mirages,” the narrator shapeshifts and “become[s] a paranormal investigator to save you from the human parameters.” In this role they perform competence amidst chaos and disrupt otherwise-inevitable harmful events. Human parameters might be self-destructive instincts, like the horror film lead who runs to the basement to hide. Suggesting that time manipulation is not uncommon, Baer writes: “Beneath the surface of the midwestern plains, thousands of women are burrowing wormholes in time. Their bodies crush through geological history.”
There’s a laundromat in my neighborhood with floodlights as bright as the World Trade Center memorial. I imagine mischief took place in this parking lot and the owners increased the wattage until it was no longer a fun place to be. How would you explain the vibe of a laundromat to an alien? “After solemnity enmeshed you within the liminal space of empty laundromats,” Baer writes: “you pursue yr precision in its opposite.” The laundromat is a difficult, even vulnerable, place, a place to get caught up in grim emotions. The scene quietly depicts a breakthrough: to “pursue yr precision” is a liberatory venture, and if one can turn toward it from a rock-bottom moment, then perhaps the laundromat is a site of great potential.
Midwestern Infinity Doctrine requires deep engagement as an intellectual exercise; it is a challenging read and an interdimensional adventure. To read a book like this one, the reader must slow down, stop reading for information and read instead for mood, atmosphere. Baer has crafted an homage to science fiction literature and media through this novel’s amalgamation of forms. The X-Files mantra “the truth is out there” is not just a TV catchphrase, but a resonant touchstone for the narrator, for abductees, and for anyone estranged from their own past. The same can be said of this novel.