The Sad Sex Lives of Overeducated Millennial Malcontents

The Sad Sex Lives of Overeducated Millennial Malcontents

Ridiculous, Corny, Dead

Andrew Martin’s Cool for America.


Like many writers of my socioeconomic, educational, and psychochemical background, I often find myself bound up in mental contortions over problems that, under sober scrutiny, are not problems at all, but that—left to foxtrot about in the recesses of one’s mind—present themselves as urgent questions. Questions like: What is the role of realist fiction in an age of political upheaval? How should a critic’s identity bear on her reading, and how should a writer’s identity bear on how he is read? And what should we do, now, with all the well-heeled, hetereosexualish, white-man writers who, up until quite recently, might have strolled chest first onto the literary scene, but who now find themselves met with a healthy dose of corrective skepticism?

Mercifully, these questions tend to recede in the face of good fiction, which proves its purpose in its pleasures. While reading Andrew Martin’s new story collection Cool for America, the follow-up to his excellent 2018 debut novel, Early Work, I didn’t have space for neurotic third-person self-examinations. For the length of each of the collection’s 11 stories, there was just pleasure to be had. Yes, at a glance, Martin’s work belongs to an established tradition whose moment has largely passed—comfortable white male writers broadly concerned with the life and times of comfortable white male writers. But Martin strikes me as less of a kind with Roth or Foster Wallace or Franzen and more decisively a descendent of the great Ann Beattie.

Like Beattie, Martin compassionately chronicles the sorrows and sex lives of drifting overeducated malcontents who, in another era, may have resigned themselves to more overtly conventional lifestyles but who, in Beattie’s 1970s and Martin’s 2010s, commit themselves to gently bohemian (though never truly subversive) projects, like graduate school and self-aware promiscuity and drinking too much. Both Beattie and Martin wrote during periods of heightened political awareness oscillating with burned-out ambivalence. Yet, thrust into their respective moments in history, their protagonists rarely attempt to affect their surroundings. Rather than make productive use of the limited but real power they wield as educated adult citizens, Martin’s characters are desperate to assume a posture of powerlessness—in sex, in politics, in their careers. In Martin’s vision, there is something borderline spiritual in the millennial’s desire to consider themselves beholden to forces outside their control.

The stories in Cool for America are realist in content and conventional in form. Men and women are thrown together in a variety of familiar situations (a brother and sister home for Christmas, a pair of unhappily married couples sharing a vacation home, the ever-fertile landscape of the haphazard dinner party) that play out just long enough to hit the high notes of resentment and the low notes of desire before ending with an offhand remark or sudden shift in attention. Martin’s characters are professionally ambivalent and ambiguously employed, distinguished by their semisecret artistic ambitions, which are tucked and often buried beneath menial day jobs. (At the same time, they never really struggle for cash. Financially, they exist in a zero-gravity state, staring morosely at downward mobility but never actually falling.) Safe from the darkest woes of a hellish economy, if not from its knock-on effects, Martin’s characters spend much of their days absorbed in self-made problems. Then, in a form of high-millennial penance, they devote nearly as much time to aimless guilt over just how self-made their problems are.

Yet this guilt never alters their behavior, as though moral and ethical thought exist purely to generate feelings (mostly bad feelings), not actions. In “The Changed Party,” as the narrator watches his friend Mike get progressively, belligerently drunk over the course of a day while they’re both on parenting duty, his attempts to control the situation don’t extend further than cute literary quips (“I don’t want to go through the Eugene O’Neill routine with you and Vic”) and consciously pathetic attempts to intervene. After Mike throws a beer-fueled tantrum in front of the children at an arcade, the narrator attempts to position himself as the good guy, apologizing to the teenage arcade staffer, who responds, “You should know better than to let people like that into a place full of kids.” The narrator reflects, “I mean, he was right.”

It’s a refrain for the whole collection. Martin’s characters are quick to admit that they are “thoroughly and expensively educated.” They always know better; it’s just that knowing doesn’t count for much. Wisdom is masturbatory, a way of making yourself feel good without having to risk anything. Knowledge is a liability. It doesn’t protect you from your instincts; it just makes you more neurotic about them. Considering why he’s spending so much energy seducing a good friend’s flirtatious wife, the narrator of the collection’s title story thinks, “I’d spent years of my life getting educated…and now I was a teacher myself, but I still didn’t really believe in it, at least not in the visceral way that some people believe in Jesus or supply-side economics. The pursuit of unavailable women was the closest I could get to a life’s passion.” It’s convenient, for Martin’s characters, to want people and things they are structurally unlikely to get. Any action they take is, de facto, surprising: more a performance than an admission of real desire. At the same time, they can frame their inaction as sane and mature—noble, even.

These characters typically view the consequences they experience as somehow detached from the actions they take. “I was waiting, I guess, for the unforeseen motivating force that would launch me screaming into my thirties. Please stop me if you’ve heard any of this before,” says the narrator of “The Boy Vet,” Peter, who is also the narrator of Early Work. While sharing a joint with a younger coworker, Cassie, the main character of “Attention,” thinks, “How long would it be before the first major rupture in her life, the event that pulled her out of her youth and into whatever her life would become?” Passivity is, of course, the chosen posture of the privileged. Still, whatever advantages they have, Martin’s characters aren’t having much fun. Instead, they are restless and self-defeating, childishly irritated by the lack of worthwhile distraction from their first-order needs: companionship, validation, meaning.

Fiction characterized by its characters’ commitment to ironic detachment is frequently hailed as millennial in affect, as though critics are eager to believe that today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings are actually as cool and disaffected and politically consistent as a Rooney protagonist, as blasé and self-obsessed as a Moshfegh antihero. In contrast, Martin recognizes the exhausting conflict of feelings at the heart of the millennial generation, born during the last gasp of an empire’s dominance, raised on its diet of laugh tracks and oil wars, and brought kicking and screaming into adulthood at the moment of its decline. Over and over again, the stories in Cool for America sit with the discomfort of holding on to a romantic ideal that you intellectually recognize as ridiculous, corny, dead—like waiting to be discovered as an unsung genius, or feeling a sense of control over your life, or believing in the goodness of America.

Early Work tells the story of Peter, a half-heartedly struggling writer whose work and personality and narrative are all deservedly eclipsed by those of his successful doctor-poet partner, Julia, and his self-possessed unstable-genius crush, Leslie. Like Cool for America, Early Work explored the emotional lives of would-be writers and academics who, in their dilettante brand of bourgeois precarity, lean heavily on sex, substances, and literary allusion. Sexual tension and clever literary banter operate as currency, almost always performing a more important social function than actual sex and actual reading. Missoula, Montana, where Martin completed his MFA, features prominently, though it could be any college town in any landlocked state, anywhere one person’s daily existence is another’s romanticized escape from somewhere more serious, more “real.”

Cool for America is subtly but insistently concerned with the ways in which the ostensibly liberal class squanders its energy in gestures rather than actions, letting tensions ebb and flow rather than meaningfully build. In “Attention,” Cassie grapples abstractly with the 2016 election, but her immediate emotional reality is dominated by her own minor concerns, like whether she’s going to get fired from her job, whether her boyfriend provides sufficient stimulation, whether she’ll be able to replace the electric kettle she inadvertently destroyed over an open flame. Martin writes:

There was danger in projecting her own emotional vacillations on the country at large, but, unfortunately for her sense of herself as a unique and independent human, her varying acceptance of the unending political crisis seemed to map quite neatly onto that of her compatriots, or at least—and crucially—those of her age and social position. Re: Leonard’s question, if there was going to be a revolution, it would likely come from roughly their quarter. And the signs at the protests were still mostly jokes.

It would be a reasonable criticism of Martin’s work to suggest that, in applying his focus to this particular sliver of the population, he risks missing the broader picture. But Cool for America offers a portrait of precisely those who, as Cassie notes, could be the ones best positioned to raise hell if and when the time came for hell to be raised. If Martin’s depiction of millennial inaction and squandered political energy is a critique of his peers, it’s also a critique of his readers.

As in Early Work, the women of Cool for America appear substantially more interesting, more driven, and more complex than its fumbling men. Martin’s men are rarely mean—there is only one overt bad guy in the collection, a wicked baby-faced veterinarian—but they cause plenty of harm anyway. In “Cool for America,” the narrator, bound to a sofa because of a severely broken leg, pursues a married woman, only to realize after she sets her marriage ablaze that he “did not know or understand” her at all. (Convenient timing!) It’s a neat image for the way man-woman dynamics play out in many of these stories: A man convinced he is powerless suddenly realizes he has exerted real power, done real damage, with willful women either caught in the mess or, more often, watching, bemused, nearby.

In the collection’s particularly dark second story, “With the Christopher Kids,” the alcoholic narrator, Stevie, returns home for Christmas, where he grows listless and tempts his younger sister Patricia, a recovering addict, into doing a few lines of cocaine and driving to a local dive bar. (Stevie’s life is falling apart, while Patricia’s seems on the upswing. The impression given is that their respective sobrieties operate like a seesaw.) Stevie considers himself at the whim of his selfish impulses, and his actions are never framed as malicious. All the same, the result is a near-death experience for Patricia, the evisceration of the progress she’s made since recovery, and a crappy Christmas for their long-suffering mom.

The book’s approach to modern masculinity is summed up by Violet, the narrator’s intimidating crush in “Childhood, Boyhood, Youth,” as a War and Peace reading group looks to name its least valuable participant: “Only a man can be least valuable.” Martin addressed the gender dynamics at play in his work in a 2018 interview with The Paris Review, ascribing them not to overt politics but to the mediocrity of many men. “Many of the lousy-acting male writers are less productive, or at least less interesting, than their female counterparts,” he said. “I think it’s a reflection of reality rather than ideology, though there’s no way to take one’s politics out of it, probably.”

Cool for America further interrogates this dynamic with a winking self-reflectiveness. In “Short Swoop, Long Line,” a narrator in his early 20s considers his role as a sexual submissive in his dynamic with a confident divorcée. (He’s falling for her, but the feeling isn’t reciprocated. Even if it were, it would be a nonstarter. When the narrator runs into her pubescent sons, she introduces him as “my friend’s son”—a minor, possibly erotic humiliation.) Toward the story’s artful, memorable ending, the narrator tries to sort out his thoughts about being dominated:

Maybe, if looked at from a certain angle, he was the one who had the power. Because he was the one being acted upon, which made him the necessary medium for power, something like that. He was overthinking it. He didn’t have to make a decision about how he felt about any of this right now. That was something he’d only just figured out. It helped with sex, keeping an open mind. It was better to be led. Acted upon.

Martin’s men find it hard to grasp that power isn’t a zero-sum game. For better or worse, the empowerment of those around them doesn’t mean they’ve been rendered impotent. (And in any case, impotence is never an excuse to be an asshole.) But male or female, all of Martin’s characters share in this exhaustion, this desire to relinquish power and thought and responsibility, if just for a while; to not have to process; to, in an age of senselessness, be freed from the need to make sense.

Martin bookends Cool for America with two exceptional stories about Early Work’s Leslie: “No Cops” and “A Dog Named Jesus.” It’s left unclear whether the Leslie of “No Cops” predates the Leslie of “A Dog Named Jesus” or vice versa. Both unfold in Montana, and while we know Leslie is 27 in the first story, there is no indication of her age in the last one. This inability to track whether she is progressing or regressing feels like sleight of hand; it leaves us hoping that the stories are told in reverse order. “No Cops” ends with a spark of optimism. “A Dog Named Jesus” takes all such sparks and determinedly stamps them out. In the latter, Leslie goes along with Jake, a man she has just met, to some strangers’ rural, hot springs wedding. Again, there’s a stubborn, embarrassing desire to commit to a romantic narrative. Leslie is caustic up front but quietly believes there’s a connection growing between her and Jake. But as the wedding progresses, he effectively abandons her at an event where she knows no one. The story fixates on Leslie’s growing loneliness and boredom, her increasingly desperate use of charm and intellect and shamelessness to fend off that loneliness and boredom, and the ways in which her efforts run up against other people’s limits. Like the rest of us, she can’t protect herself from embarrassment or from occasionally being used as a pawn in someone else’s psychosexual game.

The final three words of Cool for America are delivered by an intoxicated, well-intentioned hippie lying beside Leslie in a stranger’s tent at the end of the night, summing up the problem Martin’s characters can’t stop crashing into. The breathy remark, like much of millennial doublespeak, is at once earnest and ironic, ridiculous and profound: “So many options.”

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