It’s never a good time to publish a book in which all or almost all the characters are white, now would seem to be an especially bad time to do so. If you were to do such a thing, the book in question would in all possibility be a work of autofiction, which has worked as something of an escape hatch for particular authors to prevent engaging with challenging concerns about cultural appropriation and credibility. If authors stick directly to what they know, and if a pinhole aperture is thought about the best methods of honestly predicting a person’s immediate experience, then what you will frequently wind up with is literature that reflects the truth of trying to be a writer in this nation– the truth of MFA programs, the publishing industry, and numerous literary magazines. There will, simply put, be a great deal of white people.
Many of the stories in Andrew Martin’s brand-new collection Cool For America inhabit this milieu. The book follows the publication in 2018 of his debut book Early Work, an apparently modest tale about two twenty-something writers in Virginia who fall in love, which is likewise set in incredibly white areas. Early Work generated the sort of buzz that will be familiar to those who keep in mind the arrival of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station in 2011: an undeniable hum that promised to get louder. While Early Work is not autofiction precisely, it is similarly taken in with the mundane drama of daily presence, like a hand passing tenderly across the rough grain of life. Like Atocha‘s narrator Adam Gordon, the characters in Early Work are overeducated children of advantage who find themselves at a quarter-life crossroads. They struggle to write, to find meaning in their desultory lives, and to make the terrific choices of young adulthood: who to love, what to do, who to be.
They are likewise completely cognizant of the truth that these are not especially alarming issues. “If you had to be abundant,” Martin writes in Early Work, “it was best to be self-aware.” Self-awareness is the hallmark of both Early Work and Cool for America, in addition to the more comprehensive genre of American autofiction led by Lerner. In the latter’s case, self-awareness takes the forms of paradox, droll humor, and a fidgety, wide-eyed alertness to the methods which our dependable consciousness can deceive. (I like to consider Lerner’s prominently arched eyebrows as the physical personification of his watchfulness.) This awareness is an action to the gentle mockery that benefit– and especially white benefit– can make of what need to be existential stakes for the characters in these books. In this dreadful summer of unrest, a question we might ask is this: You think you’ve got problems?
A self-aware viewpoint, then, is all to the excellent, vital even, but it includes an expense: deeply felt emotion, unobstructed by the agitated voice in one’s head. In Adam Gordon’s now-famous formula, which could stand as a motto for the American autofictional hero, he stresses that he might never ever have “a profound experience of art.” Martin is not as torn as Lerner. He is looser, less earnest, and typically very funny. If his fiction is wrapped in self-awareness, the swaddling is soft. It is still there, resulting not only in imaginary animals who are emotionally stunted, however in fiction that is mentally stunted, too. And it is this, not benefit per se, that would appear to be the big issue for literature about being white.
The 2 enthusiasts at the center of Early Work are Peter and Leslie. Peter is a refugee from Columbia’s Ph.D. literature program who has actually gotten away to Charlottesville to “write my book,” as he puts it (his scare quotes, not mine). His girlfriend Julia is going to medical school there while writing poetry on the side. Leslie, likewise an author, has fled a crumbling relationship with Brian, and is hanging out at her aunt’s location in Charlottesville for the summertime. When Peter and Leslie fulfill, the connection is instantaneous and electrical, setting into movement an affair that will upend all their lives.
If these names are virtually interchangeable, then so are the characters themselves. Julia and Leslie are all however identical: appealing, “laid back” (my scare quotes), skilled at clever banter. Ditto the men: appealing enough (though tending toward chubbiness), “chill,” skilled at smart flirtation. All the characters, even the minor ones, are like this. They have hardly any cash in their savings account, and a number of them are just ambiguously employed, but it’s never a cause for genuine issue. They hang out in dive bars, where they drink inexpensive beers and take shots. Weed is vaped, cigarettes are guiltily smoked. (” Man, smoking,” Peter sighs.) They have omnivorous tastes in books and indifferent taste in clothes. They listen to John Prine, however also Drake. They are steeped in the stupidity of pop culture, but likewise stand in front of paintings by On Kawara and question whether they are any good or not. They end normal sentences in question marks, punctuate their text messages with mock all-caps exclamations (” DRINKS?”), and pepper their speech with “uh” and “like” and “naw.” They are advanced however they’re not, you understand, snobs.
As a writer, Martin exhibits these qualities. His prose is smooth and unfussy; as his stoner-intellectual characters may state, it pulls actually well. To estimate him would be deceptive, given that it’s not actually on the sentence level where Martin excels, however in the book’s easygoing flow. (To wit: “When I got back at three o’clock, I got very stoned and drank bourbon and ice from a jumbo plastic cup.”) It is all voice, no lyricism. Martin, like numerous other American writers of his generation, is not one to strain for anything so gauche as poetry.
Rather there is a great deal of authentic-ish discussion, and the unhurried meanderings of Peter’s mind, and straightforward descriptions of excellent sex, and little asides of cultural criticism. In this respect, Early Work is similar to Paris Hypnotic Trance by Geoff Dyer, except the characters are American and therefore less intriguing. Its tone of studied casualness is also reminiscent of the man on Twitter with a devouring appetite for all things culture, who can speak fluently about both the avant-garde appeal of Andy Warhol’s quiet films and “James Harden and the unsightly splendor of the Rockets’ method to basketball,” as Peter states. Absolutely nothing is underneath him, but absolutely nothing is above him either.
Peter and Leslie resurface in Cool for America, joined by similar characters of similar backgrounds. Numerous stories are set in Missoula, Montana, another college town with a distinguished composing program, though both Charlottesville and Missoula really work as satellites of the ur-writing town Brooklyn. (There are stories embeded in Brooklyn, too.) The old MFA vs. New York City difference collapses in these books, revealing the overload in which editorial assistants and unpublished novelists and innovative composing adjuncts all swim– an indicator, possibly, of the creeping Brooklynization of America’s literary hot spots. It is representative, too, of the significantly circumscribed world of autofiction, which, out of fear of wandering off too far from the straight and narrow of the author’s own experience, keeps things regional, so to speak, shrinking its vistas to the dive bar, the studio apartment, the classroom.
There are, fortunately, different type of stories in this collection than Martin’s go-to story of the scruffy writerly type who may or may not remain in the midst of messing up his life. There is a tale about a pair of sibling druggie that is by turns terrible and entertaining. There is another about an intoxicated father ruining a household holiday, and one about 2 teens going to a hardcore punk show. The alcohol and drug abuse is less cheerfully innocent in this book than the previous one, which features an amusing Animal Home– like scene in which among Peter’s good friends is “drinking directly from a bottle of Old Grand-Dad, gratuitously swishing the bourbon around in his mouth and gargling prior to swallowing it.” However lest you ought to see Cool for America as a gritty reboot of Early Work, there is the same thoroughly cultivated nonchalance, a sense that even the emptiness of these individuals’s lives is a bit shallow. “The pursuit of unavailable females was the closest I might get to a life’s enthusiasm,” a Peter-like character says.
There is a passage in Early Work in which Peter elucidates something like a theory for how a short story ought to go: ” I like it finest when things simply stop.” Sure enough, nothing really happens in the stories in Cool for America, and then they simply stop. There is no Joycean epiphany, no god coming down from the proverbial rafters. There is just life in medias res, and the outcome is an effective translation of autofiction, which we generally associate with multi-volume quasi-autobiography, into a narrative kind. Within Martin’s preferred context of the quarter-life crisis, the effect is to suggest that your twenties might be a complicated time, when you need to make all these life-altering decisions without the knowledge yet to make them well, however there is no future stage when that wisdom shows up.
If Martin presents life as it is, then what sort of life is it? It frequently appears to be a ghostly replica of presence. There is a paradoxical distance between these characters and their so-called enthusiasms, since nobody actually permits themselves to take anything too seriously. Early Work is at its finest when it simply lets the relationship in between Peter and Leslie flower. “Leslie grinned at me,” Peter states, “the full-toothed thing, which, possibly, was the first tentative enter the void of the rest of my life, or whatever you want to call it. Love.” However when the issues that come from cheating on one’s girlfriend inevitably set in, Peter avoids describing them in the old, ardent language of prevented love: “I wanted my unhappiness to be an outcome of defying convention– like a Hardy novel where I ‘d exceeded my society’s allowance for free thinking and was now being punished. I wasn’t really that stupid.”
The story of Early Work is thus less a catastrophe or a love than a sad joke. Martin is making a comment about these characters, and about the white middle and upper classes to which they belong, that is indicated to be important. (In an interview with the Paris Evaluation, Martin explained the book as having to do with “a moderately horrible male and some somewhat less ugly ladies.”) And certainly, there is enormous worth in stories about white people having quotidian crises. If I’m completely truthful about my reading tastes, I in fact choose these type of stories. War and Peace, Pride and Bias, In Search of Lost Time— all books premised on severe white privilege. A few of the best books of recent vintage, such as the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, can be checked out as unapologetic narratives of white opportunity. To St. Aubyn’s credit, he appears to hate the occupants of his own milieu; Andrew Martin, for better or for even worse, can’t help but like the ones in his.
However it is difficult not to feel that Martin himself is a casualty of this paradoxical range, that the author experiences the very same devastating condition as his characters. This is nowhere clearer than when he fleetingly broaches the topics of race and ethnicity. In Early Work, only one significant character is identified by race, and she is, fittingly, “the only Asian lady on the regional arts scene.” Leslie mean some ethnic distinction by describing herself as an “emotionally unstable Catholic Armenian,” however thinks about herself as a white person, such as in this joking exchange with Peter about “boring drug rap”:
” I imply, like everybody. I think it’s the usual racist thing, where white people like it because it takes their worst suspicions about minorities and validates them in lurid and entertaining methods?”
” Yeah, that’s why I like it,” [Peter] said. “Racist reasons primarily.”
Meanwhile, Peter works part-time as an instructor at a females’s jail. His trainees there are mainly minorities. (In Ben Lerner’s 10: 04, the Lernerian narrator tutors a kid named Roberto; it would appear that education is one of the few locations in American life where the white expert class and the brown and Black underclass satisfy.) This task of noblesse oblige raises a host of uncomfortable ethical quandaries, but Peter, in typical fashion, squares them away by revealing his self-awareness. “Teaching at the prison was a desired gig due to the fact that you got double-time pay to teach just as soon as a week, plus enormous ethical credit,” he says. Later: “I want I might state the experience made me value the blessings in my life. Instead, I ‘d lie facedown on the couch when I got home, tired and upset and more than a bit happy with myself for caring so much.”
Who is patting themselves on the back here? The character or the novelist? There are too many levels of paradox to sort it out cleanly, but the result is that the book’s approach to life is so packed with layers that it is extremely challenging for both Peter and his developer to feel or communicate anything truly. Nearly every experience is moderated by a filter of some sort, generally intellectual in nature. Even the kid at the hardcore program in Cool for America processes the visceral impact of the music from a critic’s get rid of: “For about 5 seconds, I felt the pure exhilaration promised by a thousand Greil Marcus columns.”
How to be sincere? How to break through the protective shell of irony and just communicate one’s experience of the world? These concerns dogged David Foster Wallace, a veritable panopticon of self-awareness. They likewise stimulate the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose nakedly psychological writing originates from keeping self-awareness and all its demons– shame, pity– at bay. The response, naturally, is to simply be sincere. But for American literature set in white worlds, that option may not be offered. It would mean accepting that white individuals do not need to examine their opportunity so assiduously. It would imply, basically, confessing that it’s OK to be white– an expression that, as it takes place, has actually been happily embraced by trolls on the alt-right. Life would be less difficult if one were white, obviously. That doesn’t imply it’s simple.