The Sad Sex Lives of Overeducated Millennial Malcontents


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 The stories in Andrew Martin’s Cool For America look at the sorrows and sex lives of drifting overeducated millennial malcontents.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. 


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