“Early Work,” Andrew Martin’s new novel of would-be writers sleeping with each other, understands the power of the first impression. Martin introduces characters in sharp, funny flash-portraits that declare the book’s intention to perch, vape in hand, on the border of earnestness and satire. (The effect is that of a lucky Instagram shot, with a virtuoso caption.) Anna, for one, is “magnificently curly headed and just shy of troublingly thin, with a squished cherubic face that seemed to promise PG-13 secrets . . . . She radiated the kind of positivity that suggested barely repressed rage.” Leslie, for another, has “bright red lipstick smeared gooily across her mouth,” and looks “like a wild creature that had been hastily and not entirely consensually bundled into something approximating midsummer southern chic.” The narrator, Peter, says he is “generally regarded as pretty nice” and that he possesses “a gift for ingratiation,” a quality that the novel shares. The book’s likability has a self-conscious glimmer, as if it were flirting with you at the bar, watching you notice that it is thoughtful and interesting. “Early Work” is a gift for those readers who like being flirted with by thoughtful and interesting people, and who like observing such people as they flirt with each other.
Peter, a thirty-ish dropout from Yale’s English Ph.D. program, teaches part-time at a women’s correctional facility and is “working,” in a desultory manner and backed up by family money, on a book of stories. Peter lives with his girlfriend of five years, Julia, a brilliant medical student who is also composing an epic poem about medical school: “It was to be Whitman by way of Frank Stanford—ecstatic, despairing, bawdy, democratic, bearded . . . .” The rest of Peter’s social circle consists of film nerds, doctoral candidates in art history, and proprietors of Cuban-American food trucks; they play Celebrity and Cards Against Humanity, watch Andy Warhol films, go to museums, feel guilty about listening to “Yeezus” (“white people like it because it takes their worst suspicions about minorities and confirms them in lurid and entertaining ways”), and are into the Hold Steady, Erykah Badu, and Titus Andronicus. Peter, who spends much of his time getting drunk or stoned and then catching up on the London Review of Books, is jolted from his amiable haze by the aforementioned Leslie, an intense and similarly hedonistic writer who moves to Charlottesville to work on a screenplay and figure out whether or not she wants to marry her fiancé back in Texas. The attraction between Peter and Leslie escalates into an affair. “Early Work” becomes a love triangle involving two characters trying very hard to blow up their lives and one character trying medium hard not to. Peter’s self-lacerating narration alternates with third-person glimpses into Leslie’s past; she burns on the page, and Julia glows, and Peter sort of gurgles, smelling of cannabis.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Martin summarized his novel as “people talking about books and having sex.” This is not (only) disarming self-deprecation. “Early Work” ’s fetish is bibliophilia; it’s at least as romantic about literature as it is about romance. Books become the measure of time: a burgeoning relationship requires “round-trip A train rides so long that one could read an entire late-period Roth novel”; Peter, postcoitus, only remembers it is Saturday because “I got the email from the Times Book Review yesterday, and it always comes on Friday.” Julia and Peter share an apartment overflowing with novels stacked over magazines stacked over a permalayer of novels. They read out loud to each other, especially “Modern Love” and the wedding announcements. This erotic literariness sometimes helps prop up the satire. (“Of course,” Peter confides, “I’d slept with maybe one woman who wasn’t a writer, and even she’d probably tossed off a couple of Briefly Noteds at some point.”) Yet it just as often works in the other direction, as a rejoinder to characters’ aimlessness, their jaded declarations that they don’t care about anyone or anything.
If Martin’s elderly millennials are afflicted with self-awareness, it is a very selective strain of the bug. At times, it’s as if these characters imagine themselves inside an Ottessa Moshfegh novel, surrounded by edge cases too numbed by late-capitalist irony to do much more than opt out and self-soothe. (Sally Rooney’s “Conversations with Friends” also cycles back: cascades of smart-sounding words insulating lonely and damaged creatives.) Peter and his friends gesture at a real-life cohort of overeducated liberal-arts types seeking money and glory in less-than-hospitable markets. For them, the crisis of thirty or so may be related to selective self-awareness: to not knowing how you ended up where you are, and feeling compelled to pay lip service, at least, to your own role in the matter.
“Early Work” reminded me of a piece of music I heard once in which someone recites the phrase “I am sitting in a room” into a tape recorder. The speaker then plays that clip into a second tape recorder. The second tape recorder then plays the clip back into the first tape recorder, and the two machines keep alternating until overtones cluster around the words like metallic grapes and you can no longer discern the original sentence. The piece makes self-reflexiveness audible as a distorting force, something that jumps in the path of communication, and yet the voice that emerges from the mechanical duet is beautiful and full of texture. Martin’s book likewise thinks out loud about reflexivity. It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what it wants to say about sex and books, because it appears to care less for arguments or judgments than for watching itself wander among characters who are themselves watching themselves wander. In the end, those are the poles mapped by “Early Work”: the nice and smart guy wasting time at the bar and the artist making music out of sitting in a room.