Cover image: Macmillan.

Nearly every review of Andrew Martin’s Early Work describes the novel’s love of literature. In the New York Times, Molly Young calls it a “book crammed with books,” in which “Renata Adler, William James, Anthony Powell, Philip Roth, Thomas Mann, J. M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Stephen King and Margaret Atwood make cameos.” Similarly, in The New Yorker, Katy Waldman argues that “Early Work’s fetish is bibliophilia; it’s at least as romantic about literature as it is about romance.”

But Early Work’s love affair with literature is—true to form—messy and morally complex. Even as the novel reads as a paean to the literary life, narrated by a character who wants to be a writer above all else, it surreptitiously raises the question of what it means to care about literature—or whether it means anything at all.

At the center of Early Work is Peter, a youngish writer who smokes weed and lolls about more often than he writes. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his longtime girlfriend, Julia, who is a medical student and poet. But when a writer named Leslie moves to town, on a break from her fiancé, his attraction to her throws things into disarray.

Peter and Leslie’s romance stems from their shared literary sensibility: Peter is initially drawn to Leslie at a friend’s dinner party, but his interest in her intensifies when he reads one of her short stories and discovers its “deliberately wonky sense of morality.” It was “exactly what I would have written if I had any idea how,” he thinks. When their affair begins, they spend afternoons reading aloud to each other. In one scene, Peter watches Leslie write in her journal, “hoping talent was, contrary to available medical evidence, sexually transmittable.”

But it’s not only literary aspiration that draws Peter and Leslie together; the pair are united in their mutual rebellion against the expectation that they be good. On their first night out drinking alone, Leslie brings up her fiancé, Brian:

“He’s a really great guy, and I don’t mean that in the dismissive, somewhat pejorative way that some people use it. I mean I really love his goodness. He’s, like, the least obnoxious good person I know. He cares about shit, and he gets it done.”

“But does that put pressure on you somehow?” I said.

“I thought about that,” she said. She swallowed the rest of her drink, along with a couple of pieces of ice, and coughed. “I think the answer is basically no? He makes me more aware of the possibility of decency than I might be otherwise, so I guess that’s something. That has to be a good thing, right?”

“As long as it doesn’t overwhelm you,” I said. “And being kind of fucked-up and amoral is an interesting possibility, too.” I finished my drink.

“Brian would say, and maybe me too, that it’s more interesting to resist being amoral and fucked up. Because for me, at least, it’s very easy to be those things.”

Brian, who works for a nonprofit that provides underserved communities with sustainably grown food, reads less like a character than an avatar for liberal do-gooderism. He is an idea for Peter to define himself against: where Brian strives to be good, Peter strives to be interesting. Because only the latter, Peter believes, makes writing possible.

For Peter, and to some extent Leslie, literature is the justification for amoral behavior. “I’m not going to be stupid and reckless forever,” says Peter. “Just until it stops being good material.” Throughout the book, his sense of irony is strong and his humor self-deprecating, but his delivery here rings honest. He and Leslie are, more or less, tethered to the world only through books: at one point, they can only figure out the day of the week by remembering when they last got the Times Book Review newsletter.

Then again, Martin does not wholly commit to the idea that a literary life necessitates amorality. Peter’s girlfriend, Julia, is also a writer—working on an “ecstatic, despairing, bawdy” epic poem about medical school—but, with her busy schedule and ability to save lives, she embodies the kind of goodness he feels stifled by, highlighting his uselessness and lack of direction. Even Peter and Julia’s dog, Kiki, so pure of heart and full of love, seems to rebuke Peter for his casual disregard for others. Only Leslie is Peter’s “fucked-up and amoral” equal. The novel seems to ask: Are the things that bind and attract them to one another—literary sensibility and willful misbehavior—inextricably linked?

Just as Martin’s characters refuse what’s expected of them, so does the author, it seems to me.

In this moment of political crisis, many writers are experiencing a corollary crisis of purpose. Work is frequently judged for its political value, its contribution to the progressive cause. In the midst of a moral emergency, writers are meant to serve some small purpose by refracting politics, channeling the experiences of the marginalized, or embodying inclusion and representation. In the New York Times, Lauren Oyler identified this phenomenon in the overuse of the word “necessary” to praise works of art for their social consciousness: it’s a “camouflaging maneuver that saddles an aesthetic pursuit with moral weight.”

Early Work sets that weight down and just floats along. In an interview with The Millions, Martin describes the book as arising from a desire to “write something irresponsible.” This impulse—and the freedom to execute it—is, of course, inseparable from the fact that Martin, a well-educated white man, is writing from a position of privilege. 

At first, though, Martin’s “irresponsibility” is exhilarating. I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying a novel about a white literary man committing adultery and mooning over Norman Mailer in 2018, but the characters are irresistibly charming, intelligent, and wry. And while Early Work never verges completely into satire, Martin’s self-awareness and humor are frequently on display. Reading the first scene—a dinner at an acquaintance’s family estate, where the food and wine are plentiful—is like finding yourself at a party full of fascinating strangers; you can’t believe your good luck.

But after a while, this world of vape pens, whiskey, and constant witty banter starts to feel increasingly claustrophobic. That which initially makes the book feel carefree comes to seem gluttonous and empty.

In fact, watching Peter justify his hedonism and hurtful actions with literature made me question the literary endeavor entirely. Literature is often said to promote empathy by allowing the reader to enter into the experience of another, but Peter’s literary imagination only seems to provides him with the delusions he needs to indulge his self-pity. He upends his life to be with Leslie, hoping that he will become talented by osmosis, but he is so consumed by his writerly aspirations that he can barely register the consequences of his actions. Early in their relationship, Leslie asks Peter, “What do you actually care about?” “People,” he answers. But so often Peter uses this notion—that caring about literature is a proxy for caring about people—to permit his own selfishness.

As things with Julia are beginning to fracture, she and Peter take a trip to Maine with their friend Colin. Julia and Colin swim out to a sandbar and Peter, trailing behind, watches them, crafting a literary fantasy of betrayal: “It would be something out of a contemporary magic realist story: A man sits with his dog and watches as his partner and his best friend take up a new life together on a desolate island a few hundred yards from shore.”

The book’s bibliophilia begins by inspiring a sense of kindredness that, as the characters’ noxious sides are revealed, morphs into a feeling of complicity. What does it mean to worship at the same altar as these people? How much carelessness do we—do I!—justify in the name of personal creative freedom? What does it mean to really care about people as individuals rather than ideas? Without punishing his characters or becoming didactic, Martin has created an amoral universe that raises these moral questions by omission.

It is this this bait-and-switch that strikes me as the real triumph of Early Work. By initially appearing to idolize literature, the novel ultimately casts doubt on the worthiness of the literary project. And by casting doubt on the value and purpose of literature, Early Work undermines its own existence as a novel. But it also provokes a larger contemplation about the relationship between our inner lives and the lives we lead—in the way that a novel uniquely can. Early Work is like an ouroboros—a snake eating its tail. By cannibalizing itself, it is redeemed.

Michele Moses

Michele is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Hazlitt, and elsewhere.

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