All eras considered, the first half of the 2010s was a carefree time to be a young writer living off the bourgeoisie grid. To become an underemployed artist was a brave life choice largely because paying rent in Brooklyn required resources mostly available only in a large trust fund; but unlike the Beat Generation or the children of Woodstock, to be a young hipster was not in itself an act of defiance against the establishment, the political system or the consumer economy.
Nor was such defiance either a meaningful topic of conversation or art, and so your main outlets were existential irony with a steady chaser of booze and weed. The political mainstream itself seemed to be moving closer to the values of the young, multicultural, and gifted—right up until November 8, 2016.
That cutoff date is on Andrew Martin’s mind when we sit down to talk about his first novel, Early Work, which carries the insinuation of autobiography in its title and casts a rancorously comic eye on the lives of hip young writers in those relatively complacent years before Trump’s rise to power proved there is a war of ideals raging within our borders and sounded a call to join the Resistance.
So, I am prepared to ask Martin about the state of being a young hip writer writing about young hip writers in an era that suddenly qualifies as bygone.
“Someone described my novel as apolitical,” he says. There is a touch of outrage in his voice, though he quickly acknowledges “the characters are sort of complacent, for sure.” He wrote the book during the Obama years, and he reminisces that “The politics were very complicated and there was the rise of the tea party, but it felt, at least from where we were sitting, like the dam was going to hold.”
He set out to write about a young protagonist named Peter Cunningham, slightly like himself except that Peter is too busy drinking at dive bars and falling in love with one woman while another supports him to get a novel finished. The story begins with Peter contemplating his own self-mocking arrogance: “... I do tend to like people in practice, even though I’ve built an airtight case against them in principle. It’s a natural response, I guess, to being raised by relatively kind parents who taught me to be polite and decent and rely on the company and help of others but to also consider myself smarter and, on some fundamental level, more deserving of complete fulfillment than anyone in the world besides maybe my sisters.”
Peter lives in Charlottesville, VA, where his girlfriend, Julia, is a medical student at the University of Virginia as well as a poet. They met at Columbia University, but they’ve left New York and acquired a dog; it looks like a semblance of a settled-down relationship until Peter embarks on a lustful and misguided pursuit of Leslie, a more motivated writer than he is with a history of treating her lovers like literary fodder.
Martin sees Leslie from a different perspective, though. “She’s almost like a scientist,” he says, “entering into experiments with different kinds of people to see what happens when she’s brought into contact.”
Peter meets Leslie at a dinner party, where the conversation is a kind of a burlesque on late 20s life in hipster pockets of the U.S., full of pronouncements from self-appointed arbiters and critics of the world they inhabit. Here’s an ultra-hip guest named Molly passing judgement on the lack of an independent movie theatre in town: “In a way it’s almost a good thing. .... I’d rather watch, you know, Nicholas Cage do a big-screen reboot of Nash Bridges than sit through some happy-sad grown white siblings coming to terms with their gay white parents’ death.” (In another era there would have been no need to console oneself; they’d all live in a neighborhood full of indie houses.)
There is talk of New York, where everyone has been, passing references to its real estate prices, and someone who vows in a protest-too-much kind of way that she’ll never go back. The hipster world that Martin captures is full of clusters—in Charlottesville, in Missoula, MT, in Austin, TX. Which means the characters drive and listen to music in their cars, perhaps missing the poetry of the streets that once defined certain pockets of New York and San Francisco.
Still, the ability to spend your 20s searching for a life narrative instead of a livelihood is a luxury—though also a necessity to leading a self-examined life, and, if you happen to become the voice of your generation, leading society itself down a more ennobling path.
I should also say that at 32, Martin is still leading more or less the life he describes, except that he now has a highly-acclaimed novel out and continues to publish short stories and articles. He grew up with supportive parents, mostly in Princeton, NJ. He now lives in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, a place where the restaurants are hip and bearded men stroll about with babies strapped to their chests.
His longtime partner, Laura Kolbe, is, as it happens, a medical resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital as well as a poet and fiction writer. They’ve also lived in Charlottesville. After graduating from Columbia and working as an editorial assistant at the New York Review of Books, Martin earned his MFA at the University of Montana in Missoula, where Peter finds himself going in his pursuit of Leslie. Nevertheless, the novel isn’t strictly autobiographical; he’s just scrambled in elements of life.
This is what Martin says about Peter and his friends: “I do have hope for them but I was very much trying to capture that moment in one’s life that I certainly know people who’ve gone through and I admit I’ve gone through, where you are trying to find purchase on what it is that you have to say and how you might say it. I think for people like the characters in the book who’ve grown up relatively comfortably, there’s this sense that you have to do something to create a narrative for your life.”
Peter, though, “doesn’t seem to be processing his mistakes into something more interesting,” says his creator.
Peter is never going to create a legend out of America’s byways or hallucinate his way through Las Vegas, and he redeems himself as a memorable character in just two ways. One is by innately understanding the artistic value of self-destructive behavior. The other quality is what makes him quasi-likeable; he overturns the Mailer/Roth/Updike/Bellow (and I could keep going) canon of presumptions that women actually think of themselves through the eyes of lustful and contemptuous men.
Peter reads one of Leslie’s published short stories and pronounces it: “scary in its intensity, transcending the familiarity of the premise with a deliberately wonky sense of morality.”
He likes, in her writing, “the sense of continuation, of unbrokenness, even unfinished-ness, a rejection, it seemed, of the conservative narrative conventions currently prevailing.... It was, I thought, exactly what I would have written if I’d had any idea how.”
I’m considering that in comparison to, say Norman Mailer’s depiction of Cova, the wife of Captain Bowen Hilliard in the story “A Calculus at Heaven,” which is about the internal forces that shape men as they die in the Pacific War but has flashbacks to life before, when Cova told Bowen why she must have other lovers. “’I can’t paint,’ she had said, ‘and I can’t write music, and I don’t write nearly so well as I should like to. You must see it; when I take a man, and I may take him for a lot of reasons, in of it all is the feeling that that is when I’m making something, and that that is something I can do better than any other woman. I don’t envy you your paintings; Bowen, you can’t envy mine. Some women are born to have a lot of men.’” At least in the minds of old-school misogynists.
I tell Martin I appreciate his millennial generation take on women, and he says that although he grew up reading Mailer, et. al.—and there’s a literary soundtrack running through Early Work that includes The Executioner’s Song “their sexual politics are so out of line with… They might need some time on the shelf before people pick them up again.”
He has more to say about Leslie. I mention that maybe she seduces people because they never know where she’s going to take then. Martin kind of agrees and says, “I was trying to think of some of the origins of the book and one of them was that my girlfriend and I were talking about ideas for stories or poems, and one of the ideas she came up with was a female Huckleberry Finn. I came across it in a notebook one day, and I thought maybe this is what I’m writing about.”
Which leads us to the books that pervade his characters’ lives—Peter does a lot of reading with time he could be spending writing. “I was thinking about books I love—Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace—where part of the story is that people are trying to live the lives they read about in books and find life incompatible with their romantic notions,” Martin contemplates.
“My friend Alice Bolin wrote about that in Dead Girls, which begins by saying the book is ‘about my fatal flaw: that I insist on learning everything from books.’
“A lot of my experience comes through books,” he continues, “and that can be pretty dangerous. It’s not a good way to sustain oneself. I sort of realized how much fun it is to create an alternative life for yourself in a book, but out in the world there’s another model.”
“Aren’t you supposed to read novels because they help you understand people who are different from yourself?” I ask.
“I’m skeptical,” says Martin. “Though of course I’d like to see people read more. In Laura’s medical humanities studies, med students read books and go to art museums because it’s going to make them more in touch with the way people feel. I’d very much like it to be true. But there’s a part of me that pushes back on the only purpose of literature being utility. It does a disservice to all of the wonderful complicated subversive things that literature or visual art can do.”
“At best,” I say, “literature fills your head with complexities and questions you’ll never be able to answer.”
He nods to that. “I love that literature fills you with humility.”
That’s when it occurs to me, and I mention to Martin, that maybe there’s a bit of Emma Bovary in Peter’s longings for some grand experience. Nice, a man who is either frivolous or too ambitious for his milieu, depending on your point of view.
“I think that’s on target,” he says. “Because I think Peter really, really wants to be taken up by something outside of himself, he wants to be swept away. I’d like to undermine some of these gender assumptions in my writing.”
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