To judge by its plot summary, Early Work is about the age-old drama of ethics getting steamrollered by desire. But it’s more than a tale of adultery ... Like a long line of fictional characters before him, Peter dignifies his misdeeds by casting them as potential literary scenarios. A petty deception can be construed as a personal plot twist; a catastrophic drunken evening might make for good material one day. He’s Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland, if she’d vaped a lot and dropped out of a Ph.D. program...And like Catherine Morland’s creator, Martin too balances Peter’s (considerable) annoying qualities with sensitivity, yearning and comic blunders. He doesn’t condemn his character, but he doesn’t justify the guy, either ... It’s not a book that will inspire hot takes or incendiary tweets; the author is unfashionably male and the concerns unfashionably universal. It’s an accomplished and delightful book, but there’s no hashtag for that.
Andrew Martin’s new novel of would-be writers sleeping with each other, understands the power of the first impression. Martin introduces characters in sharp, funny flash-portraits that declare the book’s intention to perch, vape in hand, on the border of earnestness and satire ... Early Work is a gift for those readers who like being flirted with by thoughtful and interesting people, and who like observing such people as they flirt with each other ... Early Work’s fetish is bibliophilia; it’s at least as romantic about literature as it is about romance ... This erotic literariness sometimes helps prop up the satire ... It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what it wants to say about sex and books, because it appears to care less for arguments or judgments than for watching itself wander among characters who are themselves watching themselves wander.
Early Work isn’t interested in rendering moral judgment on Peter and Leslie’s affair, but it doesn’t shrink from portraying the bleak consequences of the mutual self-absorption that seems to be the driving force in their liaison. Even with that quality of reserve, there’s a lesson to be learned from this quiet novel: Sometimes we’re better off not getting what we want.
I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying a novel about a white literary man committing adultery and mooning over Norman Mailer in 2018, but the characters are irresistibly charming, intelligent, and wry. And while Early Work never verges completely into satire, Martin’s self-awareness and humor are frequently on display. Reading the first scene—a dinner at an acquaintance’s family estate, where the food and wine are plentiful—is like finding yourself at a party full of fascinating strangers; you can’t believe your good luck. But after a while, this world of vape pens, whiskey, and constant witty banter starts to feel increasingly claustrophobic. That which initially makes the book feel carefree comes to seem gluttonous and empty ... But [Early Work] also provokes a larger contemplation about the relationship between our inner lives and the lives we lead—in the way that a novel uniquely can. Early Work is like an ouroboros—a snake eating its tail. By cannibalizing itself, it is redeemed.
[The book] makes you wince at times, but it is never boring or banal or predictable. It is stuffed with well-turned phrases and fresh observation ... At one level, this is an unremarkable story. Guy meets girl, cheats on other girl, excitement, guilt, and dishonesty follow. But it’s not the tale, it’s the teller ... Early Work is wall-to-wall with erudite repartee, from bar chatter to pillow talk; it is filled with the subtleties of flirtation, the details of dissatisfaction, the ironies of miscommunication ... The deception at the center of the novel is ultimately unsustainable, and things unravel accordingly. What keeps the reader engrossed is not the cheating but the writing, the author’s sharp insights into his characters.
In his debut novel, Martin’s writing is clever and funny, but Peter can be a trying narrator whose waywardness and terrible choices elicit more derision than empathy. Still, this is a solid choice for those who enjoy novels of lost twentysomethings’ introspection.
...whip-smart and rather disturbing ... Amazingly, Martin manages to convince us not to entirely condemn Peter, even as he does some rather despicable things ... The real hallmark of Early Work is the language. Martin has a remarkable ear for natural dialogue and pitch-perfect, witty banter, giving the novel a polished feel and a confident tone that herald more great fiction to come from this author.
Martin evokes the cliché-ridden speech of Peter’s group without surrendering to it ... Peter’s contradictory disposition makes him a shrewd narrator — he inhabits the precarious Venn diagram between wit and earnestness, skulking back and forth between pseudo-passion and total indifference ... The plot of the novel itself is neither remarkable nor particularly inventive ... Early Work is at least loosely entangled in the tradition of autofiction ... while Peter may occasionally be at least desultorily solipsistic, Martin is keenly aware of the pitfalls of Peter’s self-awareness ... It’s this possibility of words unlocking the world that Peter chases, and that Martin deftly captures.
Andrew Martin’s Early Work functions simultaneously as a celebratory autofiction about literary life in the United States and an indictment of the generation that populates it ... Early Work is also a love story, or a story of infidelity and throwing over someone you love for someone you just met and find more exciting. Which means that it’s, on the sly, a novel about the ways we judge character and substance, the codes we live by or fail to live by. Many of the observations are close to the bone: the embarrassingly slight attempts at self-improvement...the social observations ... Andrew Martin isn’t Bret Easton Ellis taking eight hundred pages to demonstrate that the world of high fashion is a bit shallow. Early Work is humane, and the characters are lovable even as they get blitzed in dive bars on a Wednesday afternoon, sleep with one another’s partners and otherwise sabotage themselves. Every generation has a fatal flaw, and ours is narcissism ... At one point an ex-boyfriend of Leslie’s is described as being so cynical that he’s circled back to sincerity, and this is the shape, or the trajectory, of the novel too.
The structure is a bit creaky, though it gives Leslie some pointed limelight as a character apart from Peter—and it gives readers a break from Peter’s voice, which can be tiresome ... There are nearly as many references to drinking as there are to great writers. Meanwhile, his depiction of the warm, brainy, intriguing Julia makes his treatment of her all the worse. And Leslie: Is she Peter’s muse or foil or female counterpart? Or none of the above? But that would be telling. A well-written and often amusing debut about what it takes to succeed or fail in love or art.