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. Read More