SEPTEMBER 26, 2020
PERSONAL TRAJECTORIES AND unoriginal literary criticism are some of the common tropes my Northeastern, college-educated friends often turn to for conversation between a deluge of alcohol and nicotine. We often ask each other what our motivations are — what’s the point? — and have suggested someone ought to write something about just that question. But it seems that Andrew Martin has already done just that.
Filled with cocaine-laced debauchery, nauseating mediocrity, and a torpid reading of Tolstoy, Andrew Martin’s most recent collection of short stories, Cool for America, captures some of the comical pointlessness and unique struggles of millennials. The collection is a brilliant, honest read that will have you laughing out of both appreciation and discomfort — not from the awkwardness of the prose but from the hope that you don’t find yourself relating too much to the stories’ often unattractive characters.
Some characters from his previous debut hit, Early Work, reappear; namely, Leslie, the New-York-urbanite-turned-Midwesterner who aims to find herself through craft beer. She, like nearly all the other characters we meet throughout Martin’s pages, is ruthlessly overeducated. Martin’s people include PhDs from Princeton, a New Haven dropout, an Amherst legacy. But the stories ultimately highlight how tawdry and aimless this education has made everyone. If knowing more makes you certain of less, then the characters should be understood as perfectly unresolved.
In the opening story “No Cops” — one that perhaps best showcases Martin’s written genius — Leslie is in a perpetual flux, “without well-established and verifiable thoughts or opinions about things.” We learn she has been “thoroughly and expensively” educated. Yet at nearly 30, she separates herself apart from those who are “moving through the world and analyzing what they saw with some kind of consistency, a set of values.”
There’s also a fair bit of irony and internal judgment of the many characters’ taste in literature that the reader has to dig through to unearth the potency of a depression from lingering personal expectations. These young people are immensely well read, more than sufficiently exposed to higher culture, and doubtlessly intelligent — but none have any real professional achievement to show for it.
But what makes Martin’s characters so wretchedly apathetic is their ferocious self-awareness — therapy sessions would only be an expensive redundancy. Moreover, it’s characters like Cal, a man that has absolutely zero “anxiety about his literary status,” who seem to get along in life best (and even perform better in bed for what that’s worth).
So, blatant — and at times blissful — mediocrity is a constant theme throughout the collection.
Still, the underachievement of the characters can’t help but feel a bit disappointing, at least insofar as the academic exposure that afforded them the opportunity to manifest various artistic hopes are left wanting. A copyeditor for an “alternative” review, a bookstore clerk, self-published authors, and various types of editorial assistants: These are some of the occupations we become familiar with while reading about the characters’ meager lifestyles despite their shiny degrees.
And alternating from Missoula’s “half-assed” Western shtick to New York’s “pointless ambition” and Princeton’s “liberal old-money complacency” that seems to only produce children “zapped awful by divorce and private school,” Martin’s stories don’t provide much room for the worthwhile.
Yet somehow the collection doesn’t feel like a drag. Instead, there’s a visceral feeling of sympathy for all the characters’ positions in life; you don’t find yourself blaming them for their underachievements. Martin’s attempt at physiological sketches in a series of coming-of-age stories succeeds.
After reading even the first handful of short stories, I was left with the thought that sure, there are lethargic tenured chairs at grand universities, miserable corporate positions, and glib attorneys. But nobody gets those jobs anyway — and who would want to when there are Buster Keaton movies to appreciate, unavailable women to chase, and the next great romantic revolutionary war novel to write? “The stuff that matters,” as the narrator of Martin’s title story deftly puts it.
It’s possible that this work makes a generational point — one that hits almost unbearably close to home for someone in their late 20s or early 30s but might be indiscernible to anyone over 50. Nonetheless, it’s all part of a conversation I feel I’ve been having for years.
If there were a flaw in Martin’s work, it would be repetitiveness. It’s not that the stories or plots themselves are at all similar — far from it. But the tone and cultural idiosyncrasies are a bit overdone and at times feel cliched by their overuse. This is maybe why one never feels anything nearing attachment to any of the characters. They all blend into one amorphous cloud of superficial irony.
But Martin’s collection should still be unequivocally praised. If not for its individual characters, then for the extensive and various ways in which he is able to capture a particular modern milieu. This isn’t the era of an uneducated and unpropertied member of the middle class striving toward a place to call her own. Instead, it’s the age of the hyper-educated, solipsistic dissident who is flatly aware she is unable to produce anything genuine or worthwhile. Few have portrayed this with such brutal honesty.
And it must be said that the work in its entirety is unquestionably fun to read. Drugs on Christmas Eve, punk rock scenes, and a kinky encounter with a recently divorced mother of two, the stories neither shy away from the unsavory nor relish in them. Often, these deviances serve as a means for Martin to criticize contemporary cultural trends — and these riffs are cathartic.
In my favorite story of the collection, “Bad Feelings,” the nameless narrator attends a movie, largely in an effort to distract himself from his mother’s surgery. But the serialized superhero movie with the “blandly beautiful” boyfriend only exasperates his frustrations. “Don’t you think it’s a little easy?” the narrator recalls asking his friends who enjoyed those types of movies, “That this thing that you love is also the thing that everybody else loves?”
This scene is an exhale against all the dominant culture we come to despise. If this superhero tripe can make a splash in the vast commercial hemispheres of the world, as Martin seems to suggest, then so should all these malcontent, would-be artists.
Martin’s work might be best summarized as a collection of sharp-witted glances at the commonly shared stumble of today’s academic upper class. This is an evolving caste, with the arc of their story just beginning to ascend. There’s an unknown ending waiting to be written, but in the meantime, they’re probably reading D. H. Lawrence. Likewise, most of Martin’s stories have no gentle wrap up, only a final thought in a stream of eclectic consciousness.
Surely Martin’s finger remains as close to the pulse of millennials as any other contemporary writer could claim to have. And whether his next work is yet another collection of youthful, ironic vignettes, or a more structured novel portraying an older generation, Martin will, I think, deliver greater cultural insight.