“Most of my friends were superficial and unpleasant.”
I’m a sucker for certain literary themes: and the flailing writer/academic is a great favourite, so Andrew Martin’s debut novel, Early Work, drew me in. Protagonist Peter Cunningham is supposedly working on a novel, but … it’s not working out well.
The novel opens with Peter attending a party at the home of a “New Age-leaning woman named Anna whose family, through what specific brand of plunder I don’t know, owned a gigantic house out in horse country.”
Anna was magnificently curly-haired and just shy of troublingly thin, with a squished cherubic face that seemed to promise PG-13 secrets. She’s grown up in the area and had recently moved back for somewhat mysterious reasons, possibly involving a now ex-boyfriend’s arrest for dealing prescription drugs. She radiated the kind of positivity that suggested barely suppressed rage.
Anna’s “family compound” has the look of a “nouveau hunting lodge,” and Peter, who arrives solo as his long-term girlfriend, medical student Julia, is working, gets a good look at one of the guests through a kitchen window. The woman, Peter soon learns, is Leslie, and once they meet, an immediate banter flows:
Leslie grinned at me, the full-toothed thing, which, maybe, was the first tentative step into the abyss of the rest of my life, or whatever you want to call, it. Love.
Leslie is also a writer, and so the connections between Peter and Leslie are solidified. Peter disregards his current relationship and finds himself competing for Leslie’s attention over the dinner table. Quite soon, it’s clear that Peter’s relationship with Julia is problematic. He doesn’t care if she’s “thinking about someone else,” during sex, and while Peter considers that he’s “intellectually compatible” with Julia, he admits that “neither of us quite expected not to” have sex with “anyone else for the rest of our lives.”
Dig a little deeper and there are failed ambitions on all sides here. Julia writes poetry, but has plunged into a medical career. Peter met Julia in college, but then he later moved onto Yale and discovered that the PhD program was, for him, a horrible mistake. Deciding “novelists don’t need PhDs. They don’t need shit,” he dropped out and moved to Virginia to join Julia who was attending med school. The plan was that Peter would write the Great Novel, so as a couple, they’ve become each other’s complex excuses: his drop-out school war chest money supported Julia, and he will have the literary career Julia has turned away from. But as we all know, it’s just not that easy to write a novel let alone sell it:
the book was really a handy metaphor for tinkering with hundreds of word documents that bore a vague thematic resemblance to each other, but would never cohere into the, what, saga of fire and ice that were they imagining.
So this is why we find Peter teaching at a women’s correctional facility and chafing at his relationship with Julia.
I enjoyed parts of this novel and its take on career failures and failures in love. Peter’s voice was sharp and witty but occasionally grating. The main problem was that I really disliked the foul-mouthed Leslie and failed to see her charm. She’s a walking disaster (one of Woody Allen’s Kamikaze Women), but then when was love ever logical? Beyond that, the ending was wobbly, and it was difficult to connect with the characters who are a fairly privileged, vacuous spoiled lot.