Andrew Martin ’s Early Work functions simultaneously as a celebratory autofiction about literary life in the United States and an indictment of the generation that populates it. ‘Most of the people I associated with considered themselves exceptional,’ says Pete, the protagonist, and we may take this to mean above average or, simply, those to whom normal rules don’t apply:
‘So you work from, uh, home?’
‘Yeah, I’m a bum,’ she said. ‘Like you, I heard.’
I figured she meant writer.
Pete and his friends, all in their late twenties with MFAs in creative writing, rent cheaply in rural Virginia, where bars are plentiful, everyone is smart and funny, and the drugs are strong and readily available. The novel opens: ‘Like most people trying to get by in something like the regular current of American life, I don’t act like a total asshole to most people I meet, and am generally regarded as pretty nice, mainly because I leave myself vulnerable to hearing out other people’s crises and complaints for longer, on average, than would be merely polite.’ Self-aware to the point of self-loathing, Pete attributes his personality to being ‘raised by relatively kind parents who taught me to be polite and decent and to rely on the company and the help of others, but to also consider myself smarter and, on some fundamental level, more deserving of complete fulfilment than anyone in the world besides maybe my sisters.’
It’s not clear that Early Work is concerned with the ‘regular current’ of American life, or that this is really what Pete is trying to get by in. Excepting one roundly mocked character who announces he’s going to be the next Stephen King, Pete’s contemporaries dream of artistic fulfilment – and perhaps an adjunct teaching position at a state college – rather than financial success. But perhaps the point is that the bohemian lifestyle has been absorbed into the regular current. Julia, Pete’s girlfriend since college, is training as a doctor but is also a published and potentially successful poet: ‘Julia’s defining quality, maybe, was her combination of outer normality, even placidity, and a roiling, crazily volatile inner life that expressed itself mainly in her writing.’ (Pete says ‘maybe’ a lot.) For the others, ‘aspiring writer’ is a legitimate career choice, at least until the money runs out.
Pete meets Leslie, another aspiring writer, at a party. He falls for her straight away, meets her for drinks while Julia is at work, and subsequently has sex with her at his friend Kenny’s farm, ‘rented cheaply in exchange for basic upkeep on the lawn and house’. (Kenny, when he isn’t adopting three-legged kittens and growing cucumbers, is a jazz musician.) Leslie is taking a break from her engagement (‘My fiancé and I are having a regular-ass shitty time figuring out what to do. And I’m basically being a huge baby and hiding’) and working on a putative screenplay. She has published several short stories that Pete reads online and is relieved to find brilliant.
So Early Work is also a love story, or a story of infidelity and throwing over someone you love for someone you just met and find more exciting. Which means that it’s, on the sly, a novel about the ways we judge character and substance, the codes we live by or fail to live by. Many of the observations are close to the bone: the embarrassingly slight attempts at self-improvement (‘Like a lot of people, I’d lately been in the habit of trying to go for stretches of time without looking at my phone every ten seconds’); the social observations – when the board games come out at a party, ‘Julia and I were united in our bewilderment at our generation’s return to structured activities.’ Pete and Julia are an established, moderately happy, ‘intellectually compatible’ couple – he isn’t looking for a way out or experiencing some childish fear of commitment, he’s aware that he’s becoming a liar and a cheat, but he’s so drawn to Leslie that it’s a thrill (for the reader as much as for Pete) to fall under her influence and to transgress what remain monogamous norms. What makes Pete an ‘asshole’ is his prevarication. As always, he’s aware of this:
I fully admitted to myself that I badly wanted to have sex with Leslie, and started working through whether or not I was going to commit myself to actually trying to do that. My hope, as always, was that someone else would make the decision for me, absolve me of the little responsibility I had. One thing I’ve learned: you can always – always – have less responsibility.
A good short-cut out of responsibility is to spend most of the time half-cut and a little stoned, with the attendant heightening and distorting effects on social perception: ‘Leslie seemed a little bit drunk already, a little bit frayed around the edges. But I thought that I might be overperceiving because I was pretty high, and this made me feel as if I had the ability to detect even the smallest deviation in a person’s customary self-presentation, or, maybe, the ability to see people as they actually were.’ That ‘maybe’ again. Even if this superpower is an illusion, Pete has enough insight to skewer a character in a sentence – ‘She radiated the kind of positivity that suggested barely repressed rage’ – even if he almost never writes anything himself, or, if he does, never finishes it (he doesn’t like endings). The reader comes to feel that he possesses the kind of self-awareness that suggests near total delusion, and so, towards the end of the novel, does he: ‘It had occurred to me lately that it was much more possible than I’d previously considered to be both “self-aware” and fundamentally wrong about the nature of the self.’
When Julia finally confronts Pete about his relationship with Leslie, he finds himself unable to admit it: the resulting scene provides some of the most deliciously excruciating dialogue in the book. The tension comes from how reasonable they’re both trying to be, even while Pete is lying through his teeth:
‘I’m not, you know, taking this lightly,’ Julia said. ‘If something happened, I think we can talk about it. But if you won’t talk about it, I don’t know. It’s hard to know what to do with that.’
‘Would you countenance the possibility that there’s nothing to talk about?’
‘There’s always something to talk about. That’s basically your catchphrase. You’ve berated me for not having something to talk about.’
‘I meant, obviously, on this particular subject. I should have owned up to the, I don’t know, intensity of our friendship …’
Having failed to confess, Pete breaks up with Julia and goes to recuperate at Kenny’s farm, where Leslie is already staying and, it is implied, having a fling with her host. Or maybe they’ve just been sleeping in the same bed because all of us are lonely and incomplete etc. Leslie has now started writing in earnest: ‘She’d angled an old metal floor fan to blow directly into her face, sending her hair into a constant storm around her and, not coincidentally, rendering her deaf to the world.’ This recalls Julia’s poetic fugue states and Pete again finds himself shut out by someone whose creative process seems ultimately more committed and interesting than his own. He tries to work on a short story he gave up on years ago and fails. Leslie is offered a teaching job in Montana that falls through, but they decide to move there anyway. The Montana scene, as we see it briefly, seems nearly identical to the one in Virginia, maybe slightly druggier. But by this point the first flush of attraction has worn off. At the end of the book Leslie is hit by an egg on her way to a bar where Pete is holding forth. She decides not to go in.
Andrew Martin isn’t Bret Easton Ellis taking eight hundred pages to demonstrate that the world of high fashion is a bit shallow. Early Work is humane, and the characters are lovable even as they get blitzed in dive bars on a Wednesday afternoon, sleep with one another’s partners and otherwise sabotage themselves. Every generation has a fatal flaw, and ours is narcissism. ‘I knew a lot of people who thought that everything they said and did was of value, worthy of broadcast on the local or national level,’ Pete says. ‘I was coming to understand that it was this belief itself that sustained those people’s desire for communication, rather than the actual content of what was being said. Content, now more than ever, was irrelevant.’ On their first date, Leslie, unsatisfied with one of Pete’s answers, turns on him:
‘Are you kind of fucked up?’ she said.
‘Naw,’ I said, though I was.
‘I’m the littlest bit,’ she said.
At one point an ex-boyfriend of Leslie’s is described as being so cynical that he’s circled back to sincerity, and this is the shape, or the trajectory, of the novel too. Leslie’s writing career begins to take off: ‘It did seem possible lately … 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.’