Andrew Martin’s recent short story collection, Cool for America, is a complex, challenging work interrogating the spiritual and material deficit confronting so much of today’s overeducated white bourgeoisie. It’s also a hilarious and entertaining collection of stories about young people getting drunk and saying and doing terrible, and terribly self-destructive, things. Here is a series of probing, Jamesian portraits of people damaged by their pasts, the aftermath of trauma and the crushing weight of dead dreams—but also a deeply funny gift of a book from a deeply imaginative writer.
All of which should be no surprise. His 2018 novel Early Work (for which I interviewed him then) showcases much of the same talent at taking a social class we might roll our eyes at—the middle-class and well-to-do artist-aspirant children of Baby Boomers—and rendering them uncanny: familiar enough to enchant us but mysterious enough to make us wonder whether we have even started unwrapping the riddle of The (White) Millennial. Because he or she is between two worlds: irony and earnestness, narcissism and social justice politics, wealth and poverty, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Martin’s two books are also profound contributions to the recent debate over self-awareness in fiction and, to my mind, should be read alongside the work of Sally Rooney and Halle Butler. As the narrator of Early Work puts it: “It had occurred to me lately that it was much more possible than I’d previously conceived to be both ‘self-aware’ and fundamentally wrong about the nature of the self.”
THE BELIEVER: It’s interesting how often in these stories, the motor force of conflict lies outside of the main character’s actions. The characters are sort of drawn along. I was rereading “Childhood, Boyhood, Youth,” where this character is drawn along from one event to another. It’s jarring how there’s an inner conflict, in his head, and then an external conflict sort of pulling him along.
In a lot of ways, this keeps happening. In “Short Swoop, Long Line,” the conflict which pulls the story to its conclusion is the character’s father coming to town. Many of these stories end up where they end up for reasons outside of the protagonist’s control. At what level were you aware of that, when you were writing these stories—the characters being not action-oriented, stuck in the mud?
ANDREW MARTIN: I didn’t set out to do that, but I became aware of the pattern as I wrote the stories—that these are often passive characters, who need to be shocked into action. Occasionally the characters comment on it. In Early Work—the two books are very intertwined, being written more or less simultaneously—the character says something about how he’s “pulled along by the riptides of life,” as if that’s his goal. The characters are aware of wanting to be more acted-upon than acting. They want to give away their agency, which they can’t really do. It’s this illusory thing, and in some ways an even more privileged position than exercising more obvious influence on events. In “Short Swoop,” the main character says he might have more power when he’s waiting for things to happen to him than in doing them himself.
When I talked to the writer Christine Smallwood about Early Work for an event, she said that the protagonist’s great flaw is that he “lacks courage.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, and I thought it was really insightful. With a lot of these characters, they lack the courage of their convictions, the courage to fully engage. They aren’t so jaded that they can’t engage. It’s not a deadening irony. It’s something deeper, a fear, an inability to get on the right track. Or to even feel that you can make that choice responsibly, that you can make it without being afraid of the consequences. So whenever they do do something it’s because they’re drunk or high or something. It requires an extra push.
BLVR: What draws you to characters like that?
AM: As someone who is “a think twice, think three times” before doing anything type of person, it comes to me naturally. But I find joy when I write characters who are more active than I am. Leslie across both books is that kind of “id” character—she makes choices, and she actually does things.
BLVR: Kind of arbitrarily. It’s like the opposite pole.
AM: I find that dichotomy in my life, where people overthink and then when they do something it’s like, “You thought about this for a week and then you chose to do that?” It’s often the most arbitrary decision. It’s rarely “think for a moderately good time and make a moderately good choice.” It’s either dither until it’s too late; or act impulsively and destructively. Even though I know plenty of responsible, successful people, I’m drawn to writing about the other ones. I have kind of a punk impulse, I think, to rebel against good manners and reasonableness. I rarely have characters who are nice, reasonable people.
BLVR: It’s interesting to look at which characters are having their ambitions realized in a certain way, and which ones are—well, I love this quote, from “Childhood,” “He could wait. In the meantime, he could read and write more, buy better clothes…” What is your characters’ relationship with ego? How do you think their ability or lack of ability to realize their ambitions drives or motivates them?
AM: Whether or not it’s generational, it feels true that this sense of higher ambition is what drives most people I know. Whether you’re fulfilling your potential, doing what you’re supposed to do with your life rather than just hoping to get by and be able to afford your stuff and good enough life. The people I’m closest with are pretty torn up in this sense of how to fulfill whatever this ambition is. Cassandra in the story “Attention” is a good example of a character who has got this melancholy that comes in large part from trying to stay sober. The story equates settling down with loss. There’s this sense that—she’s doing her writing, working a steady job, has this boyfriend. Is this all there is? Is this all life is? Running the clock out?
For a lot of the characters there’s this sense if you’re not fucking up your life and creating experience, you’re missing something. There’s this need for hits, for adrenaline. A lot of that comes from sex, bad romantic decisions, alcohol, some combination of those things. And I think some of it substitutes for the difficulty of sitting down and fulfilling your ambition. You’re putting obstacles in your own way so you don’t have to reckon with how hard it is to write the book and achieve what you want to achieve. Once those things are removed and you’re not drinking or having crazy affairs, then you have to face the reality of what your talent is or isn’t.
BLVR: You have these lines that crystallize something for a character—where you gently mock these people while also making them vulnerable, thus bringing us closer to them. You get the sense this is how they see themselves in a deep sense. How have you developed this voice? How have you found it useful in portraying your characters?
AM: It’s been about trying to figure out a balance between a fidelity to reality and a heightened sense of the way people talk, a heightened version of one’s interior monologue. As I was working my way through my MFA program and then working on the first drafts of these stories, I was influenced by writers like Sheila Heti and Knausgaard, who move more toward a transcript style, trying to capture the exact way people talk, with all of their “ums” and “likes” and “you-knows.” I wanted to keep a taste of that, but many of the writers I’m drawn to have a more epigrammatic style and tend to distill these things a bit more.
With “Childhood, Boyhood, Youth,” I was thinking about Whit Stillman, his film Metropolitan, where you have these characters throwing darts at each other in this very Wildean way. But Whitman is conservative, basically, in his approach—he’s placing his characters in a kind of chivalric tradition– whereas the characters in my conversations reference Nicki Minaj, and are, you know, feminists, etc. At the end of the day, I’m striving for realism, but a heightened realism and maybe somewhere between realism and a kind of utopianism where you give everyone good lines. I let every character speak as they wish they could speak, as one would hope one would have, give them the staircase wit they deserve. That puts the discourse at a level that can verge on elitist, I guess, requiring you to spot the references, but I hope what they say and do makes sense even if you don’t know the Elvis Costello song or whatever they’re quoting.
David Gates is a huge influence on how I think about these things. He does that all the time, referencing a movie or a song that I don’t know, and I’ll just, you know, put it on my list. It doesn’t feel like a barrier to me. It’s exciting to have more to learn about and figure out. I’ve heard from a few people that it can feel like a barrier, sometimes, though.
BLVR: I appreciate that everything is in a singular voice.
AM: The tone is pretty sustained, certainly.
BLVR: It’s always compelling to watch you, on the page, get to these emotionally heightened places, with existentially raised stakes—to be able to do that, and to have the characters basically still speaking at this iceberg level, where they’re batting away what they feel with language, playing these language games with each other: it’s a pretty stunning thing to see. How do you get around that problem, at once having them reach this emotional fever pitch while they’re still always deflecting?
AM: As a reader, you have access to their feelings, so you know they’re not unkind people. It’s a fundamental question, and one that I struggle with. Chris Bachelder, a writer I really admire, is constantly ironizing his characters, showing you the way they’re deflecting feeling, and also draws you close to their emotional life. To me the stories I’m proudest of in the collection are ones that do get closer to emotional vulnerability. “Short Swoop, Long Line” is a story that isn’t as funny as some of the other ones. It’s an attempt to be more sincere and ask hard questions: how do you deal with your parents? How do you deal with feeling like you don’t belong in your family? That character puts his heart on his sleeve and is pushed back on it a bit by the older people in his life. The characters throughout the book, even though they deflect or are quippy or whatever, there usually is a moment when they lay themselves bare. They find themselves in crisis and say, “You know, I have feelings too—I feel very sad.” It’s some verisimilitude, or an attempt at it, on my part, because a lot of life is coping, trying to deflect, trying not to feel. Anxiety does that, alcohol, substances. For me, reading is like that. You can block the world out by consuming more content. There’s always more to read, more films to watch. There are so many ways to deflect the world. How do you go from that a sincere engagement? I think they have to coexist. I’ve lived my life with a value system that prioritizes intellectualism, that prioritizes those skills and qualities, and it’s a process as you get older to unlearn some of that bias, some of the sense that these are the most important things in the world.
BLVR: What makes these stories so readable is the level of intelligence and wit that these characters have about themselves, the world, each other. That’s one of the reasons we like these characters. They’re smart. Which goes to your point: ambition. These characters value themselves insofar as they’re able to realize their ambition. And that is of primal importance to them, in a way it wasn’t for a prior generation. Or: maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t but it has a special meaning for this class and age group. They’re using irony and intelligence to cope—and that makes the stories so readable, partly—but this is what causes them so much grief, or facilitates their grief.
AM: I think for a previous generation of writers, the Gen X sort of line on this is that you need to overcome your killing irony and engage in sincere feeling. David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, George Saunders—you need to move through intellect to a sense of empathy and decency for mankind. I feel icky about that. About didacticism of any kind. I don’t know that I believe that, and I haven’t experienced that kind of transformation. I’m not convinced that those things can’t exist simultaneously, the irony, the intellect and the sense of decency. I don’t think you move into the light. It’s much more of a constant struggle. I’m not convinced that throwing irony and judgment out the window is the answer.
BLVR: And it’s not your irony, it’s the characters’ irony. You wrote this piece in LitHub about socialism and fiction writing, political engagement and writing—it seems like for our generation of writing, political engagement has replaced this idea of sincerity. You’re not saying your characters have to escape into X and Y, but realistically they are on the cusp of becoming class-conscious, as we would say. In many ways. If Leslie were alive in 2020, she would be a DSA member or a Bernie person. In 2011, say, for these characters, that wasn’t conceivable. It wasn’t something you would easily embrace at that time.
AM: I feel like I’m hopelessly trying to write about contemporary life right now, and the stuff I’ve been writing the past few years—it’s nightmarish to depict political consciousness. I find it very difficult to the point where I wonder whether it’s worth doing. People do it—my friend Caleb Crain’s book Overthrow is about Occupy, and he applies a sort of Jamesian approach to the contemporary political novel. And those characters each struggle with their own level of sincerity, which seems extremely important. Even though I consider myself very politically engaged, I find myself constantly doubting myself, my own sincerity, the efficacy of my actions and of the causes that I support—there’s never any end to it. That’s what’s hard to write. To admit to that doubt. To admit to that complicatedness. Effective political discourse is so much about picking a side and sticking with it—but for fiction, the juice is in the ambivalence. Being able to admit and sort through that ambivalence is separate from one’s political position, which has to be more forceful outwardly because you’ve got to get things done. Fiction requires ambivalence and valence and shades. I increasingly believe these things are just on different tracks. Not that they shouldn’t be combined, but that they need to be judged by very different standards.
BLVR: What strategies as a writer have you found effective in writing more in shades of grey, shades of ambivalence? I mean, you said that Early Work featured Trump and then you cut him out.
AM: Right. I closed edits of Early Work on the day of the Charlottesville—I don’t know what we call it now—massacre. And it was so painful, because I lived there for years. It felt almost immoral, working on a book while events were blowing up in a way that felt life changing and history changing. But it didn’t pass. We still live in that moment. The problem with writing is that it captures a moment in amber. But I think the goal of a good piece of fiction is to make you to feel like you’re living in an ongoing moment, that the moment of fiction you’re experiencing is still happening. Not something where you know how it ends, or what conclusion the characters come to. You should feel like you’re living in the complicatedness of the moment.
What I’m writing now—one of the stories I’m working on—is about a woman who gets caught up in the political protest movement of the moment. And the point is that she’s not going off and joining an underground cell. She’s a young professional, and after work she protests, and maybe on the weekends, eventually, she leads marches. Maybe at some point she’s going to throw a molotov cocktail, or maybe she’ll bail before she gets to that point. But the old version of the story, American Pastoral, say, is that she blows up a post office and goes on the run. Goes off the grid. But now, maybe because we’re all under so much surveillance, that doesn’t seem possible. So you might as well try to keep your job while you engage in acts of political radicalism. It’s interesting that part of the goal of the moment is to convince people that what we want is not radical, but to claim that this is the center. Radicalism is a dirty word used by the right to describe the left; the left is very keen to describe itself as mainstream, in line with European socialism. That’s a deliberate change in rhetoric—and it’s interesting to write about.
BLVR: It would be interesting to have that character engage with an earlier situation. Even in “Attention,” there’s a quote like, The revolution would be led by people like them. Most of the signs were still jokes.
AM: That’s a very 2017 moment. To me, the George Floyd protests, and what has followed, have felt very different in tone. I’m hopeful that paragraph has been proven wrong, or will be proven wrong. Obviously, the jury is still out on what the long-term effect of this moment will be. (As we talk, the right-wing violence in the streets is rising again and I’m very worried about what will follow.)
BLVR: How has your relationship with your material changed? How has the scope changed?
AM: I struggle with that—even having that feeling that I have “material.” It’s something I wish writers talked about more, the way having work out in the world changes your relationship to it. ‘Now it turns out I was writing about somewhat apolitical millennial artists,’ you think, ‘and now I should write about something else to change the scope.’ You feel like you have to do your third album, be more expansive. But you don’t want to make the bad third Strokes album where you’re trying to “show your range.”
I’ve written a bunch of stuff that’s in the desk for now because it feels too much like the work in the two books. It’s not because of outside reaction, or at least I hope not, but maybe because I feel a bit bored by the characters following the same psychological ruts and loops as the characters in the books I’ve already written. Whatever I write next will probably look a lot more like my previous work than I would like it to be, but it has to feel fresh, to feel like a broadening, moving in a different way, moving deeper into the psychology of the previous books, or moving adjacent to the way time works in the previous books. Something aesthetically different. The answer of course is just to keep working, to get deeper inside yourself. Stop thinking about the outer world, the narrative of your career, or how anyone will react. Figure out what dark, weird things you want to get into. It’s not like I’m Otessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney with, you know, a following, but there is a world that sees the work now, and you inevitably think about it.
BLVR: It’s also a boredom, as you said. I’ve done this: I know what happens. There has to be a level of surprise for yourself to raise the stakes.
AM: Right. I think I got there with some of the stories I wrote last in the collection—”Childhood, Boyhood, Youth” is the last story I wrote that made it into the book, and it felt the most exciting aesthetically, even if the subject matter isn’t revolutionary.
BLVR: It’s got a different tone. It feels less bitter. I feel like he’s less death driven.
AM: Yeah, that protagonist isn’t drinking himself to death, he’s anxious but not neurotic. It felt interesting to me to surf a more normal character’s consciousness.
BLVR: Someone who’s trying to be good. It was also a very clear snapshot of the Obama years. The funny stuff about the guy who worked for the Obama campaign, bragging about the ACA, and Derek is like: how did that work out? That stuff is funny and different. It feels like for the writer writing, that time has distinctly passed. It’s a little bit history.
AM: There’s no way I could’ve written that story in 2011. It had to be retrospective. To me that was an interesting aesthetic challenge. I need to find the “in.” To me it’s always aesthetic. So much book criticism is about subject matter, whereas the books I love the most are aesthetically interesting. The books that last find new ways to look at time or character. Whatever they’re about is secondary usually. I need to remind myself of that.
BLVR: As I get older, I think more and more that the way people grow up influences the way they write. The things they write about. The things you see in your house, in your family. Is that true for you?
AM: Oh, definitely. I keep sort of realizing that I’m writing about trauma of different kinds. I certainly wasn’t ever trying to.
BLVR: What do you do with that? When you realize that something is your trigger—something you keep coming back to? Do you dig deeper into it?
AM: I’ve written about some dark things that I’ve been around—substance abuse, mental health stuff, divorce —in, I think, a fairly surface way so far. The question is, how do you go deeper? How you do you peel back layers?
BLVR: In Early Work, there’s not much alcoholism explicitly, for instance But in these stories there is. I don’t feel it was scratching the surface, but it does feel like in these stories, it’s to the side, something the characters can’t address directly.
AM: I don’t talk about it much too much directly, because I’m a bit afraid of it. It becomes a question of how do you look at this more head on. How do you move forward?
BLVR: You also don’t want to exploit your past, use it in this direct way. I had this experience a couple months ago when I was going to go for broke and write this novel that was semi-autobiographical. “It’s Covid-19, whatever,” I thought, “just write what’s closest to you”—and I didn’t have any ideas at the time. Probably reading your stories got me to that point: I should write something that’s more grounded in my life. But it felt like, cheap, or too hot to touch. You have to approach it from the side in a way. Otherwise, it’s like, I already know all this. I don’t have any questions to answer. I’m just telling you what happened.
AM: I have that problem too. I have notebooks full of stuff I want to write about. But you have to figure out the aesthetic language, that sideways view. I always end up writing autobiographically in some way, but almost by accident. I think, “Oh, here’s a cool idea. What if this guy did X?” And it’s basically stuff that I know about—things that more or less happened to me, or that I’ve heard about—but I have to trick myself into it. If I write memoir, it’s never funny, never alive. Some of it is time, too, the time between when you think something is interesting and actually know how to do something with it could be years.
BLVR: And you’re saying the stories you end up writing will be grounded in personal experience, often.
AM: Definitely—but it becomes this thing where I think, “What if you told a story about this group of friends through a book club?” It could be like a Deborah Eisenberg story. You follow a larger group of people through this thing they do together. And so to me, that’s an interesting premise for a story, that also happened to be something I had direct experience of. I didn’t even change the book we were reading in real life! The romance and the plot are made up, but the basic contours of a group meeting around Brooklyn, reading War and Peace—that is true. But it’s only interesting to me when I make it into an aesthetic idea.
BLVR: It’s like you have to go digging to reclaim your personal experience.
AM: And if you change people’s feelings, it’s interesting again. But then it’s harder to explain to people later. They’ll say, “Why did you make me sound like an asshole?” And you’re like—that’s what made it interesting. What if I hated you? What if you were an asshole? You have to have some angle on it. The one story in the collection that’s the closest to autofiction, “Bad Feelings,” is one of the least successful stories. I like it because it’s trying to do something different, but I don’t think it’s as quite as complex as some of the others. It’s more head-on. Here’s a guy a lot like me, worrying about stuff! It’s a little less aesthetically nuanced, but I felt it was worth bleeding out on the page for at least one story.