The characters in Early Work, Andrew Martin’s debut novel, are poets, playwrights, film buffs, grad students, adjunct college instructors, thirtyish, liberal, well-read. They like drinking, screwing, smoking cigarettes, Michael Jackson, Kanye West, tapas. But the simple act of liking anything isn’t simple for them; most of their pleasures are guilty ones. “Yeah, I’m pretty into monotonous drug rap right now,” says one of the characters.
“I mean, like everybody. I guess it’s the usual racist thing, where white people like it because it takes their worst suspicions about minorities and confirms them in lurid and entertaining ways?”
“Yeah, that’s why I like it,” I said. “Racist reasons mostly. I’m not thrilled about the misogyny, though. In my experience, you don’t really want to be the guy bringing up the genius of Yeezus in a room full of women. Even if someone loves it she’ll probably wonder what your problem with women is.”
There’s a sort of cultural calorie counting at work, as if Martin’s characters were compulsively glancing at the side of the box to see what sociocultural contaminants might be hiding in their media—before indulging anyway.
The story follows Peter Cunningham, an affable slacker who’s dropped out of Yale’s Ph.D program in English (“Were we supposed to read these books? Were my fellow students genuine in their stupid ideas about literature?”) to go live in Virginia with his longtime girlfriend, a medical student named Julia, and work on a collection of stories that he doesn’t work on much. “I knew, because I’d been told, that passivity was not a quality to aspire to,” he says at one point. “But I thought it was possible that there was some secret nobility, a logic, in letting the tides of life just knock one around, in keeping the psychic ledger balanced.”
His windsurfing is disrupted by the presence of Leslie, a would-be screenwriter who’s visiting Charlottesville to write a screenplay. Their attraction to each other is irrepressible, and Peter must decide whether or not to exchange the comforts of his life for something more volatile and uncertain.
That is, it’s a story of a love triangle, pure and familiar. Martin reinvigorates the form, transposing its chords and riffing on its most familiar melodies. While Peter plays the lead, it quickly becomes clear that Julia and Leslie have more control over his destiny than he does. It’s the women, in this book, who have gravity. What’s perhaps most striking, aside from the book’s humor, is the psychological acuity of its characters. Maybe because they’ve all done time in New York, or maybe just because they’ve come of age alongside social media, there’s a general self-awareness, and an awareness of this self-awareness, that enlivens the prose and feels at once recognizable and original.
I recently spoke with Martin about his book via FaceTime. We discussed, among other things, the literary archetypes he was working from, the authors that influenced him, and the intersection of self-awareness and guilt. He was in his apartment in Boston. His dog, Bonnie, most likely a Collie-Retriever mix, occasionally entered the shot to offer input and affection.
The set-up of the novel—its plot and, if you don’t squint too hard, the characters—will be fairly familiar to readers. But this feels like a deliberate decision on your part.
Oh, yeah. The basic premise of the book is borrowed from any number of older, better novels. It’s about youngish people who want to be writers, and all of the friendships and sex and conflicts they have with each other. The characters fit into certain archetypes, at least superficially. There’s a tortured male artist, his long-suffering partner, and the wild, brilliant woman who shows up and makes everyone lose their minds.
It wasn’t shocking to me, or to anyone who knows me, that this was what I’d come up with. Many of my favorite books are about writers and their romantic entanglements. At the same time, I was very conscious of wanting to subvert the templates I was working from. It was crucial to me that this not be a novel about a young man who finds his “true self” by screwing over his girlfriend and running off with another woman. I didn’t want it to be moralistic one way or the other, but it was really important that it not be about Peter’s, I don’t know, coming-of-age, even though it’s very much set up to look like it might be.
To that end, there was a very deliberate effort—maybe overly deliberate, in that I’ve tipped the scales so strongly in their favor—to have a set of really dynamic intellectual women at the center of the novel. There’s obviously this trope in literature of the male writer who succeeds by being awful to everyone around him. Both the men and women in the book are reading these post-war writers who define that attitude—Mailer and Roth and Updike, all of whom I admire to varying degrees despite their huge blind spots—and there’s an ongoing tradition of sexist bullshit in literature, which I’m trying to engage with and push back against. I did want to capture the fact that most of the successful professional writers I’m close with in real life are women, and many of the lousy-acting male writers are less productive, or at least less interesting, than their female counterparts. I think it’s a reflection of reality rather than ideology, though there’s no way to take one’s politics out of it, probably.
The book also feels fresh in the way the characters talk to each other. They sometimes speak with an ironic detachment, while also being aware of and a little ashamed of that ironic detachment.
The people I know—and I’m talking here, in a broad sense, about people who go to art house movies, and participate in marches, and maybe have spent some portion of their lives working in or around the literary industry—we have this way of couching everything we say or do with, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but … ” You always feel someone over your shoulder—or, really, you feel yourself over your shoulder. The characters in the book have some roundabout debates about the ethics of enjoying certain rap artists and songs, and two years after first drafting them, those kinds of debates have only gotten more intense. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t lead to people dismissing complicated work out of hand, which it sometimes does.
On the subject of self-awareness, and the guilt that comes with it, besides being uselessly overeducated, I’m Armenian, and I was raised Catholic, so I’ve always found it natural to feel guilty about taking pleasure in anything. We really should feel terrible, given what’s happening in the world—in the book there’s a comment to that effect about the civil war in Syria, and now it would most likely be a line about the evil treatment of migrant families at the US border, or the crisis in Yemen. But of course that starts to sound self-defeating and fatalistic, and that’s no good.
I do think we’re all far too self-conscious, or at least I am, about the “right” way to think about various cultural products. I don’t mean that at all in the Trumpian, anti-PC way—I’m all for interrogating the shit out of everything. But I’d like to be able to experience art in an open, unmediated way, to be really moved by something even if it’s out of fashion or challenging to some of my own values for whatever reason. I wanted to use that tension, and amplify it a bit.
At the same time, there’s an innocence to the characters that is, I think, a major part of their appeal. There’s something naïve, and maybe sweet, about presuming to take on all this guilt.
I hope that’s right. I’d talked myself into thinking this was a cynical book, maybe because I thought other people would see it that way. It’s certainly satirical in places. But since finishing it and getting some distance from it I’ve seen it as gentler than what’d I’d originally imagined, because, I think, there’s some essential decency to the characters, something that borders on earnestness, even sweetness. I really love all of the characters, and I hope that comes through.
They’re also romantic about their lives, which I didn’t quite see while I was writing it. They read books out loud to each other. And watch Andy Warhol movies together. And talk with passion about music and painting and politics. So there are these moments when they break out of themselves. I’m apparently, and secretly—even to myself—a romantic about literature. The characters in the book know they’re living some sort of archetype, an oddly old-fashioned one, just as I know that I’m living one. I worked for The New York Review of Books. I got an MFA in Montana, though at least it wasn’t Iowa! I taught writing for very little money while publishing my first stories. This makes me a certain type, and on bad days it drives me crazy. But I still love it. And I wanted my characters to love it.
I do wonder if they’re only likable to a specific subset of readers who know people like this, and know that deep down these people are seriously engaged and love books and life. There’s this nastiness on the surface, and a self-involvement that comes with the territory. It’s forgivable stuff—the character traits, if not all of the behavior in the book—but maybe by the standards of humanity they’re actually just lousy people.
What got you started on this novel?
I spent too much time early in my writing life trying to figure out what I was supposed to write and the proper, important thing to write. So it was a revelation, when I started this, that I might just work with what I was most immediately and desperately wanting to think about. Which is basically book chat, sex, and—well, that’s basically all it is. People talking about books and having sex. But, in the course of those things, they’re exploring all kinds of important questions about relationships and literary self-fashioning and such.
For whatever reason, I seem to need frequent reminders—at least once a year, usually more—that one can write whatever one wants. Usually that comes in the form of a stretch of good reading. In Virginia, where I wrote most of the book’s first draft, I was listening to a lot of audiobooks, because I was a relatively new dog-owner with a lack of steady employment. And a few of the things I listened to seemed to knock something loose. Nell Zink’s Mislaid was one of those books. I just thought it was so funny, and it so completely didn’t give a fuck in a way I admired. She was willing to be as funny and strange and tangential as she wanted to be. Somehow it’s hard for me to remember that the books I love tend to be funny, and that, on a good day, I can also do that. I also listened to David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion around that time, and kind of got the nattering, endlessly recursive voice of those stories’ narrators in my head. It mostly made me want to scream, but I think it had a hand in my deciding to write about a moderately hideous man and some slightly less hideous women.
You’ve mentioned that a few of the characters were based on people you know. And what I thought was amusing was that the characters themselves all seem to work on writing projects that incorporate the people they know.
Yeah, the book is definitely feinting at, or conversing with, auto-fiction. Like a lot of people, I’ve been pretty hooked into the work of Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk, this chain of novelists who are very actively using, or playing with, their documented lives. In an early version of the book, Peter has a Knausgaard Times Magazine cover on the refrigerator to, I don’t know, remind him of his mission. I decided that was a bridge too far.
There are characters in the book who are based on people I know, and it’s set in places where I’ve lived and eaten and slept. The early drafts of the book were written a bit more under the sign of Heti and Cusk—looser, less polished dialogue, more episodes of visiting friends who didn’t have a direct role in the plot. As I edited, it became tighter, and also more heightened, more dramatic. A little more Edward St. Aubyn.
There’s an assumption when reading a certain kind of novel—novels where it seems the author and protagonist are the same—that the way the writer is presenting his or her characters has a basis in reality. And, as a reader, I find myself deeply engaged with books where I’m wondering what’s real, and wanting to believe the events in the book are taken from the author’s life, or trying to figure out where I’m being deliberately played with. Philip Roth was one of the best at working with this dynamic. He so clearly gets off on the idea of people suspecting that what he’s written is the truth, to the degree that he names characters after himself. But then he adds elements that are so clearly not true that you’re left not having any idea of what, if any of it, is autobiographical. In my novel, the fact that all of the characters are writing poems and novels based on their lives is, I hope, a sufficient warning that nothing in the novel should literally be understood to be true.
I wanted to write about characters who are themselves struggling with the line between their lives and literature, and, at least in Peter’s case, failing to understand how or when that transformation occurs. In reality, I answered those questions pretty prosaically—by, you know, writing all the time, and drinking slightly less than I had been, and generally trying not to blow up my life. Peter takes the opposite approach, which was a lot more fun to write. But, as a person, I think I made the right call.
Max Ross is a writer based in San Francisco.