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 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 lives in Charlottesville, where he dithers around, usually under the influence of more than ennui. He ardently picks up books and puts them down, then sometimes teaches at the local prison. 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. 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.
Peter’s cohort lives and speaks desultorily, an adverb Martin uses with — one assumes — intentional frequency. They talk about Dickens and Díaz and Cusk. They make gallant attempts at getting through an entire issue of the London Review of Books, and exchange emails containing remarks on Don DeLillo. 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.
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. ‘It’s the principle!’ he would say, often without a clear referent.”).
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. “[A] charming blend of catatonia and sentiment,” as he describes himself at one point.
The plot of the novel itself is neither remarkable nor particularly inventive. 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. 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). 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. 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. “Sure, baby […] Just make sure you’re writing it down in your brain,” says Leslie. “It’s all … somewhere,” Peter responds.
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. 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. With its sustained self-consciousness, Early Work uses the characters themselves to get at an impatience and curiosity about form and style. 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. 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. In a breakup letter, Julia tells him to “be better” — not for a future partner, but for himself. His response: “But wasn’t I already too self-involved? 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.
Peter ends up ensconced with Leslie in a decrepit farmhouse. 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. 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? 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. Martin presents lucid counterpoints to Peter’s indirection via Julia and Leslie. He not only loves them but also covets their powers of focus. Julia enters a fugue-like state and works on her epic poem after days of bloodied hands at the hospital. Leaving her for Leslie doesn’t transform Peter’s lassitude into sudden creative fervor. As Martin points out, sleeping with someone new doesn’t make you new. 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. 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.
This amorphous “buzzing” — the “usable static coming through” — is the slippery project of Martin’s characters. It’s this possibility of words unlocking the world that Peter chases, and that Martin deftly captures.
In Don DeLillo’s Mao II, a writer retreats into ritual isolation to work on his novel. “It’s an irrational way of life that has a powerful inner logic,” he says. “The way religion takes over a life. The way disease takes over a life. There’s a force that’s totally independent of my conscious choices.” Peter and his cohort haven’t yet attained this messianic trance. “[M]aybe you had to kill a certain amount of time before your brain was ready for the real stuff,” Leslie considers. 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. We wonder if he will ever make the same surrender.
Antonia Hitchens has worked for The New Yorker magazine, where her work has previously appeared.