Andrew Martin's Early Work is a rich, morally complex novel about infidelity among millenials. As Martin describes in our interview, each generation has its own mores and standards for cheating—as explored in various books by men named Jonathan, such as Couples and Freedom, not to mention maybe the original novel of infidelity, the great Elective Affinities, which sees in couple-swapping a mirror for a certain logic of the life process. Early Work uses cheating—what Philip Larkin called the white man's "swivel eye"—as a way to draw out some of the contradictions in Martin’s characters, specifically his male narrator: between harsh irony and sadness, anomie and ambition, a love for literature and a refusal or inability to learn its lessons. What develops is a powerful novel of manners that shows how a subset of smart millenials think, how they love and betray each other.
I spoke to Andrew Martin on the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): I wanted to start by asking about the voice of the book. That was what nabbed me—I don’t know whether that’s… the right word—at first. I really liked how you have a narrator who is able to judge himself, look at himself critically, and at the same time is engaging in all these bad forms of psychological and social behavior. You have a narrator doing both those things at the same time, judging his past self, the twentysomething he was, while also still being that character in the present tense of the book. How did you come to this voice? How did you discover it?
Andrew Martin: The voice developed the way most of my writing does, through a process of riffing on the page. The opening of the book is kind of a catalogue of generational types—food truck operator-novelists, etc—conveyed in the least generous way possible. When someone tells you in their first sentence, as this narrator does, that he doesn’t act like an asshole to most people, you can be pretty sure that he’s going to behave terribly. So I was interested in that gulf between the way people think of themselves and the way they actually are.
People have pointed out that the voice bears more than a passing resemblance, at the homage or parody level, to the beginning of The Great Gatsby, which wasn’t intentional at first. But I’m a huge Fitzgerald fan, so I kind of leaned into it. I’ve read that book maybe the most times of any book I’ve read, so it makes sense that it would leak in. A lot of Fitzgerald’s stories and novels have this very retrospective quality to them, where a lot of the psychological tension has to do with the time that has passed before the story began, or between when the events of the story happened and when it’s being told. So that was an influence on the book, but as far as what I was thinking about… I wanted to write about a privileged character who’s intellectual but also deeply aware of his own flaws. I was listening to an audiobook of David Foster Wallace’s stories around the time I started writing the book, and I don’t consider him one of my “guys” for whatever reason—I find him a bit moralizing, and also kind of unnecessarily aggressive towards the reader sometimes. He loses my patience. But I think I got that voice in my head a little bit, that self-reflexive doubling back on itself voice, so there’s that in there as well. The Wallace thing gives the character a bit of a nastier edge, maybe, and lets me be meaner to him. Even if I’m writing a character who is like “me”—as far as I know I’m a nice guy, but creating this character who is far crueler than one imagines oneself had a nice effect, I found. It gave me some distance.
Rail: Although at a certain point in the book, you, in a good way, lose the capacity to even judge who is good and who is not. You get the sense that with maybe one exception, that your moral compass isn’t necessarily the moral compass of the characters in this book, and you don’t share the same palette of values.
Martin: I hope so. What’s interesting is I feel like there has been a robust conversation, among people who’ve read the book, about the extent to which one should or could judge the characters. I’m open to people coming to the conclusion that these people are wrong or bad. Someone asked me the other night, “these characters are all ugly and unforgivable, right?” As if that were obvious. I guess maybe it is for some people.
Rail: It’s an interesting idea that the book is asking fundamental questions about how we should feel when characters are not likable in the normal, regular ways.
Martin: Right. I think it’s pretty hard for me to know what’s normal at this point. How many of my friends would pass the test of being a very likable fictional character?
Rail: And it’s clear on the other hand, that the other characters do view Peter as morally abject in a certain way that they are not. If that makes sense. He seems to have this lesser moral grounding than the others and they seem pretty aware of that.
Martin: That rings true, I think. I set him up to be the fall guy. And especially the women in the book have a lot more urgency in their character, a willingness to strive for happiness. When I spoke with Christine Smallwood at one of the events for the book, she said that the problem with Peter was that he lacked courage. I thought that was an interesting way of framing it. It’s less that he’s a bad person, but what makes him a less capable person is that he can’t quite commit to what he is or what he wants.
Rail: In your mind, does he change through the arc of the book?
Martin: He makes decisions, he does things eventually that he wouldn’t necessarily have done earlier in the book. I don’t know that he changes on a fundamental level. I think the normal course of a traditional book like this is for the character to come to understand something about himself. Fitzgerald again, in This Side of Paradise: I know myself but that is all. I don’t think Peter gets there. He has flashes of insight; he changes at various moments in the book, especially when he’s on drugs, or when he’s stumbling down the road, drunk, and understands that he should not be doing what he’s doing. But I wanted the book to include real change, at least a little bit, by having Leslie be the one who grows.
Rail: Peter seems to pass her the baton as the protagonist at the end. Maybe she becomes the one we care about. For much of the book, I wanted Peter to extricate himself from the malaise he’s stuck in. At a certain point I gave up on him and started caring about Leslie and her artistic growth. How do you think she changes in the last third of the book?
Martin: I think she makes the turn that I hope that I’ve made, to some small extent, and that I have seen other writers make, where she has enough distance from herself, from her situation and her life, to see it as something that is dark, and sort of regrettable in many aspects, but also something that has a comprehensible narrative. I think it’s a matter of coming to terms with her life and the kind of person she is, and that’s what I think Peter can’t do. He thinks about his life in terms of gathering material, as if all you have to do is keep doing stuff, and eventually you’ll have a book. Whereas Leslie eventually walks away from the bar to go home and write. She realizes at a certain point there’s not just some point when you’ve had so many drunken nights that you’re like: there’s a book here.
Rail: It’s interesting because I was tempted to think of the book as his material. He’s narrating it after the fact and this is his book. But then I realized based on where it concludes, that isn’t the case. Did you have any idea of where he was writing from? What perspective he was going to have on the story he was telling?
Martin: I thought about this a lot while I drafted various iterations of the book, though I don’t think there is a definitive answer. The original draft was much longer, two to three times as long, depending on where one is measuring from, and there’s much more of a retroactive quality to those earlier drafts. It originally started with him talking to his sister after the whole thing has blown up in his face, but that’s not in the book anymore. It’s possible that he and Leslie somehow find a way to make it work in the current universe of the book. But it originally started with his sister getting aggravated at him as he mopes around after the relationship has fallen apart: just write the damn thing! Write down everything that happened! At some point I just didn’t find that interesting. So now I think there’s a precarious sense of where it’s being written from and who is telling the different parts of it.
In one conception of the book, the Leslie sections were more explicitly Peter retelling the stories that she had him about her life, and kind of putting his own emphasis on them. I was trying to do it in a knockoff Sebald way: “Leslie began to speak, and sitting across from her in the dimly lit café, I listened as she told me about the first man she dated in New York…” That ended up feeling overly mannered. Turns out I’m not Sebald, thank god. But I also didn’t really want the implication there that it was Peter’s version of her story. Now when I look at the book, I want to give some space for the possibility that Leslie has written her sections. And that that’s her fictionalizing her life.
Rail: But I felt this kind of—at the end you have Leslie’s perspective and Peter is presented as this holy fool, this dumb intelligent child who’s the center of this new friend group in Montana. And she’s dismissing him in this way. It reminds me of Doctor Faustus, where the narrator Zeitblum is reminiscing about a conversation he wasn’t present for where his best friend, Adrian Leverkühn, is talking shit about him. The narrator doesn’t comment on that. He just narrates it. But you’re thinking, he’s the one narrating this still—he must have some feeling about that, which he’s hiding. That moment is really heartbreaking to me, and I got that sense at the end, reading Leslie’s section, that even if it wasn’t literally Peter writing this stuff, that maybe these sections are a way of… a way of him looking back at himself.
Martin: That makes sense. Peter’s character is inevitably going to be seen as an avatar of the author of the book. I mean, for me, the actual author, but also the author of the text you’re reading within the book, since he’s a writer. Madame Bovary is one of my favorite books, and I love that it opens with this “we”—“we” were at school with Charles Bovary, and he was such an idiot, etc. You never know exactly who that is. It never returns to that plural narrator. Then you have something like Demons by Dostoesvky, where the narrator slides in and out—every now and then there’s an “I,” but he seems to know everything about everyone. Obviously my book is way more rudimentary than those books in every way, but I like that way of unsettling the idea of who’s speaking, creating the question of where it’s being narrated from. As long as it isn’t confusing while you’re reading it, it seems like a productive ambiguity.
Rail: It’s a risky thing to have sections that are unattributed in an otherwise strongly first-person novel. There’s a risk of the reader asking, “Well, what the hell?” Instead it becomes a kind of mystery, the way those other first-person narrators you mentioned are mysterious, are almost mystical.
Martin: I had an interesting email from a writer friend who said that he wished Leslie’s sections were more distanced from Peter’s first-person voice. I thought that was a smart observation. And one that was mostly a technical problem. I can only write so many kinds of sentences. But also it’s fairly intentional throughout the book, or at least it seems that way now—these characters are all performing the same kind of script. They get each other’s jokes in a way that’s almost superhuman. They’re always ready with a reference whenever one is needed. The inner monologues of all these characters are based on a shared script. I also think the book is invested in this idea that people who are very interested in each other might have a similar interiority.
Rail: I like how you made Leslie a writer of the inner life. Someone keeping the modernist tradition alive. That’s her craft, her style. So it seems appropriate that the question of her inner life looms so largely here. And it gets to the problem of empathy—not “feeling bad for someone,” but rather: could Peter conceptualize what’s happening in Leslie’s head? I want to ask also about the other male characters, who seem significantly more at home with themselves than Peter. At least on my reading.
Martin: That was one of those things I saw and then underlined upon revision. In the first draft, I created these characters who were foils for Peter and Leslie. And the foils are less neurotic than they are, more able to live in the moment and be more curious, better able to enjoy their friendships and lives—not that they’re models for clean living or anything, but they are more comfortable with themselves. It’s funny because Kenny and Colin, pretty much the only other male characters besides the narrator, are the two characters in the book who are most directly modeled off real people. The others are slightly more original compositions. Those two are based on two of my closest male friends. And Peter is forgiving of them sometimes, because there’s comfort in their normalcy. That’s partly because he’s not as interested in getting in their heads as he is the women in the book, maybe. So he’ll say, okay, this character thinks one thing, rather than the multiplicity of things the other characters think. Of course, they actually have a full range of thoughts and feelings, he’s just not as interested in understanding them.
Rail: They’re not as much objects of desire for Peter—they keep him balanced. I like that.
Martin: Molly is the friend who is like that too—she externalizes all of her problems in a way that the other characters don’t. She’s a little bit stagier as a person, so she can kind of provide a running commentary.
Rail: I was interested in why this is a novel of infidelity, and why that seemed like the vehicle to explore these characters in. As opposed to like, Peter wants to write a book and that’s the main plot vehicle. Or trying to do X or Y other thing. Why for this novel of manners did infidelity seem like the plot engine that would serve it best?
Martin: It might be because it’s a model I’ve read and internalized to such a degree that, when I asked, you know, what are the stories that have existed, as most fiction writers ask themselves in desperation, “someone has an affair” was pretty high on the list. It felt like the problem was really: how can I explore this generation and these characters from different angles? What are the ways people that I know think about relationships? I didn’t mean to make it a generational statement, but it’s inevitable to think about that. And I think one of the tried and true windows into how people behave socially is infidelity. Every generational cohort does it a different way. For us, people will stay together forever while thinking about seeing other people, or be broken up but still live together and have sex sometimes, or will get married but sleep with other people—I feel like this has all been written about but not as much as I’d like it to be. Sally Rooney is staking out great territory on this right now. When I started this book, I was very much asking: what do I want to read? What’s the book I would love to have that hasn’t been written yet? And in many ways, obviously, versions of this book have been written. It’s a book about writers, about infidelity, about groups of friends. I hadn’t really seen these subjects treated in this particular way, though.
There’s this secret level of the book, or not so secret given that there are a couple of explicit references to him, that is influenced by Rohmer’s Moral Tales films like Claire’s Knee and Love in the Afternoon, films about the intellectual and sexual relationships between men and women. I love these movies despite the fact that the morality in them is pretty suspect. I mean, they’re extremely Catholic—everyone tends to realize that resisting temptation is the path of righteousness—but they’re great anyway. They found their way into the foundation of the book in the sense that Rohmer takes these characters and their relationships seriously, even as he recognizes and comments on their foolishness.
Rail: It’s interesting that you make Julia into kind of a sacrificial lamb, and the book engages the reader’s sympathies quite well—but so much of her happens offstage. How did you conceive of her character? How did you balance it so that she wasn’t portrayed as a victim but more complexly?
Martin: I thought a lot about it, and I hope I did that. For better or worse a lot of people told me that they take Julia’s side. But I really didn’t want to make the book about the choice between Julia and Leslie, between this long-suffering relationship and this new, cool, hip, liberated kind of relationship. It seemed important that Julia be really smart and interesting—not someone who should be thought of lightly. I don’t know whether that makes the stakes of the book weird or off in some ways, since it’s not the classic American marriage tragedy. The most important character for me to get right was Julia. I wanted the arc of their whole relationship—what they used to be—to be on the page, and for to be a fully realized character, even though most of the book is narrated by a man with a limited sense of other people. The challenge is trying to get that across when you’re stuck with that very narrow perspective.
The danger with that perspective is that if one of the love interests come across as overly idealized, you know, you can just claim it’s because this is coming from the man’s perspective, and that’s sort of an easy out.. You could argue that one of the characters is obviously a male idealization, and as the author, I can’t be the one to say whether or not that’s the case. For the book to work, for it to make sense that Peter throws his whole life over for her, Leslie has to seem intellectually and romantically attractive, but she’s also a very particular person, so she can’t be attractive to everyone. In the end I was trying to create three-dimensional humans, so that the differences between all of the characters wouldn’t seem magnified or exaggerated. I didn’t want them to be types, to have one woman be obviously cooler and better than the other, or for Peter to be too obviously unworthy of Julia, and so on.
Rail: It becomes a true decision then that the reader has to make.
Martin: Right. And one of the narrative questions that the book asks is: is the choice he’s making arbitrary in nature? Is he not capable of seeing these people for everything they are? Is it possible he’s just attracted to novelty?
Rail: It’s pretty telling that he’s so ambitious as a writer but on the other hand so focused on love and on loving the right person. It’s almost like he’s using these romantic misadventures to distract himself.
Martin: Which many of us perhaps have done.
Rail: How many drafts did you go through?
Martin: I wrote this very long messy draft from summer 2015 to fall 2016. So about a year of just writing. Then there was another draft that involved shifting things around until everything felt sharp enough to be in the book—and then making that stuff even sharper. Most of what’s in there, content-wise, was in there from the beginning. I added a few scenes to the final draft, especially in the last quarter of the book.. But a lot of the first two-thirds of the book is made up of scenes that were there from the start. And then I edited and fine-tuned that material.
Rail: Were there any sections that were particularly difficult?
Martin: The Leslie sections I worked very hard on. They were much longer originally, and went off on all kinds of tangents about her life. There were also some third person tangents about Julia’s life, but at a certain point they seemed to be distorting the shape of the book and I had to lose them. But I tried to retain some of the rambling nature of the Leslie sections, this sense that you’re getting kind of a shaggy-dog story.
A lot of the last quarter of the book was difficult. Once the plot was in motion, I found it very had to figure out how to resolve it, or even to decide whether I wanted to resolve it at all. I’m maybe a little too stuck on the Grace Paley thing about how every character deserves the open destiny of life. I got bogged down and wrote lots of scenes that went past the current ending of the book, before realizing that I’d essentially started a new story. But working on the first two-thirds of the book I’d count among the best writing experiences of my life. The scene where they’re stoned and watching the Michael Jackson movie, the long day out in the country house-sitting. Moving slowly through Peter’s thoughts—that was such a fun thing to do. It was cool to be in the pocket with a voice, trying to see where it would go. But I did struggle with the ending. At a certain point you have to decide where to end and be done with it.
Rail: I loved that Michael Jackson sequence. There are a lot of very interesting longeurs in the book, which seem like digressions but really are not. Moments that brought to mind the kind of book Leslie is said to be writing—a novel of the inner life. A book that isn’t concerned with convention but is just someone thinking on the page. That was really nice.
Martin: I love books like that. I don’t know that I have the wherewithal to write one. I’d like to have the courage to write things that are more unconventional later on—to open up completely to the inner life. I’d like to be Claire-Louise Bennett, basically.
Rail: At the same time, it’s the conventions that make those sections so effective. You know who Leslie is because you’ve used the conventional techniques of fiction writing to get to that point with her as a character. The Michael Jackson moment is such an emotionally urgent moment that is nonetheless muted by a lot of weed edibles. It’s something Peter feels and doesn’t feel—this girl he really likes who has her leg against him and his girlfriend falling asleep. That’s something that is so relatable and such a strong moment, and then he just escapes into Michael Jackson. And has these interesting thoughts about Michael Jackson. But it’s because you’ve set up that scene so well that it’s so effective for me as a reader.
Martin: I hope so. I love books that do that and get away with it. And then sometimes you read a book you think you’ll love which is like that, and there’s either not enough narrative, or the slides into history or cultural criticism feel willy-nilly. I do really like the books that I hope my book is in conversation with, Sheila Heti’s, and Ben Lerner’s and Teju Cole’s. I think this book is shouting down the hallway to that recent autofiction—I wanted to call out to those books, the tradition of the essayistic novel or essayistic fiction. I mean, that’s always been part of the novel: Philip Roth did it all the time too, twenty pages here and there about something he’s interested in, and Melville, obviously, and Doris Lessing, and on and on. Thinking something over through a fictional lens.
Rail: But when that’s not dramatically justified it can feel: what the fuck? Why am I reading this? There are plenty of moments in recent works of autofiction where I feel—that’s pretty interesting what you’re saying, but why are you saying it right now? But you’re combining that essayistic quality with the dramatic conventions of a propelled narrative. You let them mix in a nice way.
Martin: I mean, I love a good walking around and thinking about stuff book, too. There was a version of the book that was more like that, but it ended up not being that kind of book at all. I’ve been reading Deborah Eisenberg, her collected works, for a piece, and I’ve realized how deep her influence has been on me—how she writes social scenes. She’s the greatest at that. I want to do something like what she does—write about these narcissistic, self-lacerating people without, I hope, enacting their tendencies in the work itself. She often writes about characters sort of in the middle of their narrative arcs, and doesn’t feel the need to justify it. Maybe part of my resistance to narrative closure has to do with my love for a certain short story tradition that insists on never really being definitive about where the characters will land. It’s sort of presumptuous to assume you know how things will work out for people, even fictional ones. They tend to surprise you.