Andrew Martin’s debut novel, “Early Work”, show us a very young writer of amazing talent. The novel’s about a group of young/would-be writers, all of whom seem to have been made precious by various writing/MFA in creative writing programs, which are growing enormously around America these days, seeming to subsidize English departments everywhere. A group of these writers (who seem to have financial resources other folks don’t have) meet at a manse in Virginia to discuss their options, discuss writing, and the like. Peter, the narrator/protagonist, has a wonderful, self-effacing sense of humor, which this novel needs. He’s living with his college girlfriend, now in medical school, when he meets Leslie, at the powwow in Virginia, whom he perceives to be a “real” writer, mainly because she says so, and lives a somewhat anarchic life (the novel leans to the “writers must suffer, must live” category of how writers evolve). Martin really has a terrific handle on how these young (spoiled) writers perceive themselves, and think of themselves in the Romantic tradition of, say, Lord Byron and Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde and Louise Brooks, to name a few writers in this strain.
So when Peter sort of falls in love with Leslie, the bohemian living in extremis, his girlfriend mostly pretends that this affair is either not happening or that it’ll pass. The reader will note the change in genders; in the heyday of the Hemingway, or, in painting, the Jackson Pollocks and Picassos, the male creatives felt entitled to sexual activity with any passing female; in “Early Work”, Martin posits that the creative women, best represented by Leslie, use their sexuality the same way; sexual congress with the males of the moment appears essential to their creative processes, their supposedly non-bourgeois lives. Martin is pitch perfect in examining such lives; I found much of “Early Work” hilarious, as Peter, the narrator, sometimes does, too. And Martin’s got a great way with words, with language; he’s a superb writer, and the intensity he creates around this hothouse literary scene is mitigated throughout with humor. (We note with both irony and pleasure that the only one of this group of would-be writers to actually publish something is the medical school enrolled girlfriend, she with the least time and the best ability to structure her time: kudos to Martin on that one).
When Peter and the supposedly engaged-to-be-married Leslie run off together, to a house up the Hudson River conveniently owned by a friend of Peter’s (money and housing, as mentioned above, seem always to be in evidence), the novel becomes increasingly hilarious; creatives have sex in front of each other while Leslie, having run riot through everyone else’s lives, actually begins to write something, as the novel’s focus shifts from Peter increasingly to Leslie and her burgeoning creativity. Martin’s not unpersuasive in suggesting that some writers may need some controlled chaos in their lives in order to write; Peter himself will end up writing press releases rather than fiction (though if Peter is in any way a stand-in for Martin himself, then Martin wins the literary prize, of sorts, in the end).
One of the main problems with “Early Work” is the unlikeability of the characters. I found Leslie to be revolting, trashy, indifferent to the chaos she creates in others’ lives. The flipping of frequent sexual activities from male characters to women characters, which I find increasingly true in novels by younger women novelists in particular, has a kind of “two wrongs don’t make a right” feeling to them, rather than a sense of personal liberation and/or empowerment, which is often implied (though Jamie Attenberg’s the most persuasive young American novelist to write about the sexual freedom of young American women to date). But if you’re looking for a really fine literary novel, where language itself is one of the key “characters”, if you will, “Early Work” is a fine example of same, and it’s heartening to encounter a talent as large and as promising as Andrew Martin’s is. (I found it sad that a reviewer in The New York Times Book Review found Martin to be “courageous” to write about a heterosexual man falling in love with a heterosexual woman, tho I take her point in an era where so much fiction falls into the politically correct column). I suspect that the literary world, such as it is, has a big stake in Andrew Martin’s career, and I will join them in hoping for great work from this hugely talented young new writer.