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The Shallowness of the Self-Aware Novelist

Andrew Martin’s characters spend a lot of time gently mocking their own privilege.

Courtesy of Caroline Martin/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

It’s never a great time to publish a book in which all or nearly all the characters are white, but now would seem to be a particularly bad time to do so. If you were to do such a thing, the book in question would in all likelihood be a work of autofiction, which has functioned as something of an escape hatch for certain writers to avoid engaging with tricky questions about cultural appropriation and authenticity. If writers stick narrowly to what they know, and if a pinhole aperture is considered the surest means of truthfully projecting a person’s immediate experience, then what you will often end up with is literature that reflects the reality of trying to be a writer in this country—the reality of MFA programs, the publishing industry, and many literary magazines. There will, in other words, be a lot of white people.

Early Work: A Novel
by Andrew Martin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $26.00
Cool for America: Stories
by Andrew Martin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., $27.00

Many of the stories in Andrew Martin’s new collection Cool For America inhabit this milieu. The book follows the publication in 2018 of his debut novel Early Work, a seemingly modest tale about two twenty-something writers in Virginia who fall in love, which is also set in extremely white spaces. Early Work generated the kind of buzz that will be familiar to those who remember the arrival of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station in 2011: an undeniable hum that promised to get louder. While Early Work is not autofiction exactly, it is similarly absorbed with the mundane drama of day-to-day existence, like a hand passing tenderly across the rough grain of life. Like Atocha’s narrator Adam Gordon, the characters in Early Work are overeducated children of privilege who find themselves at a quarter-life crossroads. They struggle to write, to find meaning in their desultory lives, and to make the great decisions of young adulthood: who to love, what to do, who to be.

They are also fully cognizant of the fact that these are not particularly dire problems. “If you had to be rich,” Martin writes in Early Work, “it was best to be self-aware.” Self-awareness is the hallmark of both Early Work and Cool for America, as well as the broader genre of American autofiction led by Lerner. In the latter’s case, self-awareness takes the forms of irony, droll humor, and a fidgety, wide-eyed alertness to the ways in which our trusty consciousness can deceive. (I like to think of Lerner’s prominently arched eyebrows as the physical embodiment of his vigilance.) This awareness is a response to the gentle mockery that privilege—and especially white privilege—can make of what should be existential stakes for the characters in these novels. In this awful summer of unrest, a question we might ask them is this: You think you’ve got problems?

A self-aware perspective, then, is all to the good, essential even, but it comes with a cost: deeply felt emotion, unobstructed by the restless voice in one’s head. In Adam Gordon’s now-famous formulation, which could stand as a motto for the American autofictional hero, he worries that he might never have “a profound experience of art.” Martin is not as torn as Lerner. He is looser, less earnest, and often very funny. If his fiction is wrapped in self-awareness, the swaddling is soft. But it is still there, resulting not only in fictional creatures who are emotionally stunted, but in fiction that is emotionally stunted, too. And it is this, not privilege per se, that would seem to be the big problem for literature about being white.

The two lovers at the center of Early Work are Peter and Leslie. Peter is a refugee from Columbia’s Ph.D. literature program who has fled to Charlottesville to “write my book,” as he puts it (his scare quotes, not mine). His girlfriend Julia is going to medical school there while writing poetry on the side. Leslie, also a writer, has fled a crumbling relationship with Brian, and is hanging out at her aunt’s place in Charlottesville for the summer. When Peter and Leslie meet, the connection is instant and electric, setting into motion an affair that will upend all their lives.

If these names are virtually interchangeable, then so are the characters themselves. Julia and Leslie are all but identical: attractive, “laid back” (my scare quotes), adept at clever banter. Ditto the men: attractive enough (though tending toward chubbiness), “chill,” adept at clever flirtation. All the characters, even the minor ones, are like this. They have barely any money in their bank accounts, and many of them are only ambiguously employed, but it’s never a cause for genuine concern. They hang out in dive bars, where they drink cheap beers and take shots. Weed is vaped, cigarettes are guiltily smoked. (“Man, smoking,” Peter sighs.) They have omnivorous tastes in books and indifferent taste in clothing. They listen to John Prine, but also Drake. They are steeped in the stupidity of pop culture, but also stand in front of paintings by On Kawara and wonder whether they are any good or not. They end normal sentences in question marks, punctuate their text messages with mock all-caps exclamations (“DRINKS?”), and pepper their speech with “uh” and “like” and “naw.” They are sophisticated but they’re not, you know, snobs.

As a writer, Martin exemplifies these traits. His prose is smooth and unfussy; as his stoner-intellectual characters might say, it pulls really well. To quote him would be misleading, since it’s not really on the sentence level where Martin excels, but in the book’s easygoing flow. (To wit: “When I arrived home at three o’clock, I got very stoned and drank whiskey and ice from a jumbo plastic cup.”) It is all voice, no lyricism. Martin, like many other American writers of his generation, is not one to strain for anything so gauche as poetry.

Instead there is a lot of authentic-ish dialogue, and the unhurried meanderings of Peter’s mind, and straightforward descriptions of very good sex, and little asides of cultural criticism. In this respect, Early Work is reminiscent of Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer, except the characters are American and therefore less interesting. Its tone of studied casualness is also reminiscent of the guy on Twitter with a devouring hunger for all things culture, who can speak fluently about both the avant-garde appeal of Andy Warhol’s silent films and “James Harden and the ugly splendor of the Rockets’ approach to basketball,” as Peter says. Nothing is beneath him, but nothing is above him either.

Peter and Leslie resurface in Cool for America, joined by similar characters of similar backgrounds. Several stories are set in Missoula, Montana, another college town with a prestigious writing program, though both Charlottesville and Missoula really function as satellites of the ur-writing town Brooklyn. (There are stories set in Brooklyn, too.) The old MFA vs. NYC distinction collapses in these books, revealing the swamp in which editorial assistants and unpublished novelists and creative writing adjuncts all swim—an indication, perhaps, of the creeping Brooklynization of America’s literary hot spots. It is representative, too, of the increasingly circumscribed world of autofiction, which, out of fear of straying too far from the straight and narrow of the writer’s own experience, keeps things local, so to speak, shrinking its vistas to the dive bar, the studio apartment, the classroom.

There are, thankfully, different kinds of stories in this collection than Martin’s go-to story of the scruffy writerly type who may or may not be in the midst of screwing up his life. There is a tale about a pair of sibling drug addicts that is by turns horrifying and amusing. There is another about a drunk father ruining a family vacation, and one about two teens going to a hardcore punk concert. The alcohol and drug abuse is less cheerfully innocent in this book than the previous one, which features a funny Animal House-like scene in which one of Peter’s friends is “drinking directly from a bottle of Old Grand-Dad, gratuitously swishing the whiskey around in his mouth and gargling before swallowing it.” But lest you should see Cool for America as a gritty reboot of Early Work, there is the same carefully cultivated nonchalance, a sense that even the emptiness of these people’s lives is a bit shallow. “The pursuit of unavailable women was the closest I could get to a life’s passion,” a Peter-like character says.

There is a passage in Early Work in which Peter elucidates something like a theory for how a short story should go: “I like it best when things just stop.” Sure enough, nothing really happens in the stories in Cool for America, and then they just stop. There is no Joycean epiphany, no god descending from the proverbial rafters. There is only life in medias res, and the result is a successful translation of autofiction, which we normally associate with multi-volume quasi-autobiography, into a short story form. Within Martin’s preferred context of the quarter-life crisis, the effect is to suggest that your twenties may be a confusing time, when you have to make all these life-altering decisions without the wisdom yet to make them well, but there is no future stage when that wisdom arrives.

If Martin presents life as it is, then what sort of life is it? It often seems to be a ghostly imitation of existence. There is an ironic distance between these characters and their so-called passions, because no one really allows themselves to take anything too seriously. Early Work is at its best when it simply lets the relationship between Peter and Leslie bloom. “Leslie grinned at me,” Peter recounts, “the full-toothed thing, which, maybe, was the first tentative step into the abyss of the rest of my life, or whatever you want to call it. Love.” But when the complications that come from cheating on one’s girlfriend inevitably set in, Peter shrinks from describing them in the old, ardent language of thwarted love: “I wanted my unhappiness to be a result of defying convention—like a Hardy novel where I’d exceeded my society’s allowance for free thinking and was now being punished. But I wasn’t actually that stupid.”

The story of Early Work is thus less a tragedy or a romance than a sad joke. Certainly, Martin is making a comment about these characters, and about the white middle and upper classes to which they belong, that is meant to be critical. (In an interview with the Paris Review, Martin described the book as being about “a moderately hideous man and some slightly less hideous women.”) And certainly, there is immense value in stories about white people having quotidian crises. If I’m perfectly honest about my reading tastes, I actually prefer these kinds of stories. War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, In Search of Lost Time—all books premised on extreme white privilege. Some of the best books of recent vintage, such as the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, can be read as unapologetic narratives of white privilege. To St. Aubyn’s credit, he seems to loathe the inhabitants of his own milieu; Andrew Martin, for better or for worse, can’t help but like the ones in his.

But it is hard not to feel that Martin himself is a casualty of this ironic distance, that the author suffers from the same debilitating affliction as his characters. This is nowhere clearer than when he fleetingly broaches the topics of race and ethnicity. In Early Work, only one significant character is characterized by race, and she is, fittingly, “the only Asian woman on the local arts scene.” Leslie hints at some ethnic difference by describing herself as an “emotionally volatile Catholic Armenian,” but thinks of herself as a white person, such as in this joking exchange with Peter about “monotonous drug rap”:

“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,” [Peter] said. “Racist reasons mostly.”

Meanwhile, Peter works part-time as an instructor at a women’s jail. His students there are mostly minorities. (In Ben Lerner’s 10:04, the Lernerian narrator tutors a boy named Roberto; it would appear that education is one of the few places in American life where the white professional class and the brown and Black underclass meet.) This job of noblesse oblige raises a host of uncomfortable ethical conundrums, but Peter, in typical fashion, squares them away by showing his self-awareness. “Teaching at the prison was a coveted gig because you got double-time pay to teach only once a week, plus incalculable moral credit,” he says. Later: “I wish I could say the experience made me appreciate the blessings in my life. Instead, I’d lie facedown on the couch when I got home, exhausted and angry and more than a little bit proud of myself for caring so much.”

Who is patting themselves on the back here? The character or the novelist? There are too many levels of irony to sort it out cleanly, but the upshot is that the novel’s approach to life is so stuffed with layers that it is extremely difficult for both Peter and his creator to feel or convey anything sincerely. Nearly every experience is mediated by a filter of some sort, usually intellectual in nature. Even the kid at the hardcore show in Cool for America processes the visceral impact of the music from a critic’s remove: “For about five seconds, I felt the pure exhilaration promised by a thousand Greil Marcus columns.”

How to be sincere? How to break through the protective shell of irony and simply communicate one’s experience of the world? These questions dogged David Foster Wallace, a veritable panopticon of self-awareness. They also animate the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose nakedly emotional writing comes from keeping self-awareness and all its demons—embarrassment, shame—at bay. The answer, of course, is to just be sincere. But for American literature set in white worlds, that recourse may not be available. It would mean accepting that white people do not have to check their privilege so assiduously. It would mean, essentially, admitting that it’s OK to be white—a phrase that, as it happens, has been gleefully adopted by trolls on the alt-right. Life would be less difficult if one were white, obviously. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.