Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
Social media, that ubiquity of not-quite-communication, the babble in the background, scrolling across every wall, exhibits a kind of spitball effect. Postings are followed, always belatedly, by reception, strings of stuttered so-called comments replicating the process. Cross-talk dominates, ambiguity, exacerbated by abbreviated and breezy form, prevails. Trolls feel intimately close, while silence is construed rather than really present, the lack of an emoji or a like being read as an affront. To talk about social media is to delve into a mode of paranoid interpretation, of hanging on the digital ellipse, just as it is to enter a flipped world, wherein self-indulgence expresses fear and self-loathing, the well-crafted meme simultaneously exemplifying and placating nihilistic angst. A dark world of bright, curated selfies: this is what Chelsea Martin both speaks to and co-opts as a style. Blending the cringe and the manifesto, playing always with the tension inherent in the ever-public nature of our social media voices, Martin uses this contemporary genre of memoir-in-fragment to make a funny, moving, and deeply affecting piece of literature.
Performance as the default for existence, for instance, consumes and constructs the narrator of this book. She imagines her breakup and post-breakup as a spectacle. At the movies with her ex, she tells him not to hold her hand, “loud enough for several people to look over at us angrily. I looked back angrily at the people, knowing I would remember their faces in the future whenever I needed someone to blame for the downward spiral that was my life.” On her own by the lake, when, after a phone call, her music starts up out of a phone’s speakers instead of her headphones, she is “mortified at the fact that . . . [those around her] would not understand the context of my music choice.” Even when she is entirely alone, she lives for an implied audience: “I have preemptively left tabs open in my browser showing web results for ‘Henry Darger’ and ‘are octopuses smart’ in case I die today and someone wants to know how interesting I was.”
Emerging from this sense of being always under critical surveillance comes both a deflection of direct communication—the social media dynamic as a refuge, voyeurism and delayed correspondence as preferable to the awkwardness of encounters in-the-moment—and a codependence of insecurity with self-advertisement—statements need to serve as manifestos, as they last forever on the glowing screen; thoughts about meals or America’s Next Top Model need to function as art because so much is invested in their phrasing—which spirals into a neurotic state of investing the insignificant with fraught emotions—such that dessert becomes a small tragedy, conflicting views about sandcastles can be crippling. Our narrator longs for her calls to go to voicemail, designs a Facebook page “exclusively to look at my mom’s profile because she blocked me from viewing it on my regular account.” She videotapes herself crying, as practice and as art; she focuses on the embarrassing, even the humiliating, as a source of art, while simultaneously terrified that she’s ultimately not that interesting. Danceable pop songs are simultaneously regrettable, even a source of shame; while everyday activities like favoriting items on Etsy slide swiftly into contemplation of death and the utter insignificance of life.
But this book—which reminded me, in all the good ways, of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?—is ultimately, like that text, about process, about the relation of life to art. While Heti is specifically interested in friendship, Martin uses this book to go after loneliness, to delineate and replicate it in prose while, as with social media, turning to it for a new way to conceptualize and do art. This then is a literature of loneliness, with that feeling hinging, foremost, on estrangement, on distance from that which was once close. Our narrator’s relationship with her mother, here, parallels that with her exes—only magnified, always more important. The ex after whom the book is named becomes, for our narrator, a model of the dynamic she strives for with art: that which you think about even when you are looking away from it. And to talk about him is to talk about the myriad seemingly urgent but inconsequential things she thinks about when she’s not thinking about him, the scrolling babble that nonetheless does not drown out that sense of loss. Loneliness is an absence that cannot be filled with breakfast tacos, as distracting as the internal debate regarding whether to cut over an avocado can, in the moment, be. Loneliness, rather, is delineated by all the little tasks and thoughts and flitting feelings we use to skirt around it, to keep it at bay—it is a gap, to use one of Martin’s images, that we nurture. The relation of loneliness to these things—to rosemary chive crackers, to voicemails, to coins for Candy Crush, to discarded titles for artworks never made—is the relation of these same things to art, a matter of chronology, of the long form woven from the detritus of the moment. This is the genius of what Martin does in this book: to arrange the everyday, to curate ubiquity, such that the fragments transcend themselves, building somethings. Shored against her ruins, the narrator here might say, followed by some back-and-forth thoughts on the significance and value of adding a digital wink.
Official Chelsea Martin Web Site
Official Curbside Splendor Publishing Web Site