Review: Chelsea Martin’s first novel “Tell Me I’m an Artist”

On the shelf

Tell me I’m an artist

By Chelsea Martin
Soft Skull: 368 years, $27

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Joey has a problem. She has decided to make a film about Wes Anderson’s “rushmore‘ for her ‘Self-Portrait’ class at art school. But she never saw the film. It could be a way of “possessing unknowable things,” Joey thinks. The real problem is that Joey isn’t sure what art is. And if she’s not sure what art is, how can she be an artist?

In addition to the author of the collection of essays “Caca Dolce‘ and the novella ‘Mickey’ is Chelsea Martin Illustrator and comic artist. Tell Me I’m an Artist, published this month, is her first novel. It might be easy to draw parallels between Joey and Martin. One could describe the book as “a portrait of the artist as a young woman,” but life is short and that’s terribly reductive. Martin’s book is too complicated, too chaotic, too specifically entangled in the sheer impossibility of art for art’s sake under capitalism for this sort of catalog copy to count.

Tell me I’m an artist‘ is crammed with dialogue, female friendships, family drama and internet search results. (“Lee Krasner‘ next to ‘Nutritional Value of Pop-Tart.’) Readers might find something even more youthful Sally Rooney in these things. But their patience will be tested. As Joey struggles for more than 350 pages to complete (or even begin) her “Self-Portrait” because she hasn’t seen “Rushmore,” the possibilities are piling up, and not in a positive way. It’s a feather in Martin’s cap that her humor and nuance keep the reader engaged.

Fortunately, there is more to this “portrait of the artist” than meets the eye. The struggle to complete a project based on the unknown is replaced by the struggle to survive. Joey’s time at art school is complicated by the knowledge that her life could fall apart at any moment. She takes out student loans to pay her rent, and her mother and sister are constantly chasing her for money. On one occasion, Joey gives her mother $800 of her loan payment to bail out her sister, a drug addict with a young son, from prison.

"Tell me I'm an artist" by Chelsea Martin

Last June, Naomi Kanakia wrote a fascinating article for Literary Hub with the headline “Writers must not be honest with money if they want to be published.” Kanakia quotes Rooney as “a Marxist writer whose characters propel themselves through life from success to success and never worry about money because they… grounded in insecurity about manners rather than concrete problems with basic human needs (food, shelter, health, autonomy)”. Although Martin’s novel shows the influence of Rooney’s brilliant ear for dialogue, both online and on the web, Tell Me I’m an Artist is a direct refutation of the notion that novelists must ignore precariousness if they are to be marketable.

Tell Me I’m an Artist is a novel that was written for Gen Z, a cohort who have also never seen Rushmore but are very knowledgeable about marketing. Joey’s story unfolds in short vignettes. Some pages are only a few lines long. Others include lists and Venn diagrams. There are no chapters. There is no “traditional” plot structure. But what does “traditional” even mean? It’s a meaningless word. Martin’s approach mimics Joey’s, and that’s by design. As a Tick ​​tockit says too much and too little at the same time.

At least thematically, Martin shares a lot Lynn Steger Strong, whose novel Want explores the same shameful stresses of late capitalism. While trying to stay in art school in San Francisco, a city with astronomical rents, Joey also struggles against expectations of being a daughter and sister. Her situation is in stark contrast to her friend Suz, who has supportive (and more importantly, wealthy) parents. While Suz agonizes over whether or not she’s a token acceptance for an artist residency because she’s female, Joey worries quietly about whether or not her sister might be dead.

Joey’s relationship (or lack thereof) with her sister Jenny is one of the most sensitive parts of the book. Jenny’s performances act as guides on the well-worn cow-path of Joey’s doubts and hand-wringing about her identity as an artist. Joey recalls a moment from her childhood when Jenny drew a picture of Joey and her boyfriend Landon. “It was the first piece of art that made me feel something,” she says. Joey is the artist of this story, not Jenny. But it’s brutally obvious that Joey believes her sister’s life of teenage motherhood, drug addiction and incarceration could just as easily have been hers.

Book reviews are a sobering endeavor because we are often tempted to judge books by how we would like them to be rather than by what they are. If Martin set out to create a “self-portrait” of what it means to be a young person in graduate school with artistic aspirations today, she has done it. Could “tell me i’m an artist” be shorter? It does not matter. Do we need our novels to uncover these outright lies we’ve been fed about making art? Only your readers can say that.

Ferris’ latest book is Silent Cities: New York. Review: Chelsea Martin’s first novel “Tell Me I’m an Artist”

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