Fiction About Fiction

But Martin evokes the cliché-ridden speech of Peter’s group without surrendering to it, even as they say things like “[s]omeone could fucking cure cancer with the time I’ve spent stoned and thinking about, like, the ideal character-defining gesture” (or better: “Mason drank a lot. Julia enters a fugue-like state and works on her epic poem after days of bloodied hands at the hospital. There were hours — single hours, sometimes just minutes — when her thoughts moved down into her hands and transformed into something different on the screen in front of her, an eloquent translation of what had been in her head into something smarter, more substantial. That he was capturing anything at all?” Like Peter, she frets about whether she might suffer from some sort of deep-rooted “inability to understand and process the world in all its richness and complexity.”
The women fare better. They talk about Dickens and Díaz and Cusk. In Early Work, Peter — a late 20s Yale English PhD dropout and aspiring fiction writer — languishes in a web of vacillation over the act of writing. His response: “But wasn’t I already too self-involved? The plot of the novel itself is neither remarkable nor particularly inventive. ¤
Antonia Hitchens has worked for The New Yorker magazine, where her work has previously appeared. His book exists mainly as an idea in between air-quotes: “[A]s anyone who’s ever pretended to be a writer knows, ‘the book’ was really a handy metaphor for tinkering with hundreds of Word documents that bore a vague thematic resemblance to each other”; it would never turn into a “saga of ice and fire.”
Self-indulgence is part of the fabric of ideas that both intrigues and bedevils Peter. He imagines “cranking out an ambitious but messy first novel about a heroically indecisive teenage alcoholic” (or at least the occasional ponderous piece of literary criticism) but mostly gets stoned and does neither, crippled by the introspection that would, theoretically, help his writing. Peter likes a story of Leslie’s for its “sense of continuation, of unbrokenness, even unfinishedness, a rejection, it seemed, of the conservative narrative conventions currently prevailing. Martin presents lucid counterpoints to Peter’s indirection via Julia and Leslie. Her final act is deciding to walk away from the local bar — Peter’s inside, talking — to attempt a few hours of work on a story. SEPTEMBER 21, 2018
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE referred to a novel-in-progress as a “kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around.” A partially existent work of fiction trails you everywhere, utterly defective, a ludicrous “betrayal of all your hopes for it,” he said. “It’s an irrational way of life that has a powerful inner logic,” he says. In a breakup letter, Julia tells him to “be better” — not for a future partner, but for himself. “[M]aybe you had to kill a certain amount of time before your brain was ready for the real stuff,” Leslie considers. Peter lives in Charlottesville, where he dithers around, usually under the influence of more than ennui. Andrew Martin’s first book is about youngish would-be writers in varying stages of these tormented relationships, with one another and with their drafts. Leaving her for Leslie doesn’t transform Peter’s lassitude into sudden creative fervor. Peter leaves his college girlfriend, Julia — a med-school student writing an epic poem — for Leslie, an “unconventionally beautiful” screenwriter who has sporadically written transgressive fiction but never a script. We wonder if he will ever make the same surrender. They make gallant attempts at getting through an entire issue of the London Review of Books, and exchange emails containing remarks on Don DeLillo. As Martin points out, sleeping with someone new doesn’t make you new. It’s about little redescriptions of the world that we exist in.” But Martin — who got his MFA in Montana and lived with his girlfriend in Charlottesville — cleverly plays with the form of redescribing a life. Peter’s contradictory disposition makes him a shrewd narrator — he inhabits the precarious Venn diagram between wit and earnestness, skulking back and forth between pseudo-passion and total indifference. This amorphous “buzzing” — the “usable static coming through” — is the slippery project of Martin’s characters. Listening to this group converse, one might think of Talk, Linda Rosenkrantz’s recently reissued 1968 “reality novel,” where she carved a summer of dialogue — 1,500 pages of transcribed conversation, distilled — into a pithy document. There’s a force that’s totally independent of my conscious choices.” Peter and his cohort haven’t yet attained this messianic trance. “The way religion takes over a life. Early Work is at least loosely entangled in the tradition of autofiction, a genre that merges the forms of autobiography and novel. It often takes the view that, in Ben Lerner’s description, “[f]iction isn’t an escape into an imaginary world. What was the point of writing if all you ended up with was this, the textual equivalent of a speakerphone voicemail overheard on a bus?”
Leslie, looking at an On Kawara exhibit in a gallery, also wonders if the artist could “really think that he was capturing his story in full? He not only loves them but also covets their powers of focus. “[A] charming blend of catatonia and sentiment,” as he describes himself at one point. But Peter remains daringly optimistic: “I stared at the sky, hoping talent was, contrary to available medical evidence, sexually transmittable.”
At the end of the novel, Leslie finds that “the world was starting to vibrate lightly at her frequency.” She feels the flighty throb of creative productivity that so often dodges Peter — it seems possible to her that
there was a chance she was what she’d long imagined herself to be: one of the chosen few to whom the task of chronicling the inner life had been given. Wasn’t that the foremost of my myriad problems?” He’s perceptive about the awkward contradiction inherent in this: “It had occurred to me lately that it was much more possible than I’d previously imagined to be both ‘self-aware’ and fundamentally wrong about the nature of the self.” When Julia finally banishes him for good, he responds: “What better time to finally crack A Dance to the Music of Time?” Ambitious, but possibly misdirected. In Don DeLillo’s Mao II, a writer retreats into ritual isolation to work on his novel. Peter’s cohort lives and speaks desultorily, an adverb Martin uses with — one assumes — intentional frequency. It’s this possibility of words unlocking the world that Peter chases, and that Martin deftly captures. They relish the particular pleasure of resurfacing from a catastrophic hangover to toil away on a poem, of marshaling the fogginess — or sharpness, depending on your preference — of drugs in order to turn a corner in a short story. With its sustained self-consciousness, Early Work uses the characters themselves to get at an impatience and curiosity about form and style. After vacant days of “work” spent squinting at a dirty screen, he makes “desultory conversation about books and the people who wrote them” — and this is the essence of Martin’s book, a relentlessly eloquent version of a circular bar conversation. Peter ends up ensconced with Leslie in a decrepit farmhouse. Leslie also narrates sections of the novel (“Back to intricately imagined fantasies of persecution in the company of no one,” she reports of her former life in New York). There were no realizations of any consequence […] It was all thought and sensation.”
And while Peter may occasionally be at least desultorily solipsistic, Martin is keenly aware of the pitfalls of Peter’s self-awareness. ‘It’s the principle!’ he would say, often without a clear referent.”). Imagining that he might finally get some work done, Peter isolates himself in the humid upstairs, in the hopes that “masochistic hypnotism” and “intense physical discomfort might somehow lead to an aesthetic breakthrough” — but instead he becomes “increasingly distressed by the reverberating yammer that sounded nothing like the voice in my head. As Peter says at one point: “I wanted my unhappiness to be a result of defying convention — like a Hardy novel where I’d exceeded my society’s allowance for freethinking and was now being punished.” A lot swirls around in his mind, but little makes its way to his pages. He ardently picks up books and puts them down, then sometimes teaches at the local prison. “It’s all … somewhere,” Peter responds. Peter and Leslie eventually move together to a university town — welcome to Missoula — with a “minutely rotating variation on the people who would be with her until this phase of her life came to an end, forcibly or otherwise: teaching poets, singing bank tellers, drug addicts.”
It’s not as though we haven’t met these types before — characters with the “self-deluding capacity to dignify the helpless drift of their lives by thinking of themselves as purposeful and free,” as James Wood appraised the protagonists of Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience and Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. “Sure, baby […] Just make sure you’re writing it down in your brain,” says Leslie. The way disease takes over a life.