The Flamethrowers: A Novel

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Tangled Muses: On Chelsea Martin’s ‘Tell Me I’m an Artist’

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Early on in Chris Kraus’s cult feminist classic I Love Dick, the book’s heroine is shown a video made by the object of her infatuation, Dick, and concedes:

As an artist she finds Dick’s work hopelessly naive, yet she is a lover of certain kinds of bad art, art which offers a transparency into the hopes and desires of the person who made it. Bad art makes the viewer much more active. (Years later Chris would realize that her fondness for bad art is exactly like Jane Eyre’s attraction to Rochester, a mean horse-faced junky: bad characters invite invention.)

For better or worse, I can understand and have shared Chris’s soft spot for so-called “bad art.” So has any critic who’s been seduced by Jean Dubuffet or a 1970s Super 8 film. A hearty dose of bad art’s charm can be found in indie author Chelsea Martin’s new novel Tell Me I’m an Artist, a coming-of-age story about an art student in her late teens who is producing what is decidedly a bad remake of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, without having seen the film before.
“The world needs bad art,” says Martin’s narrator Joelle Berry (“Joey” for short). She imagines her Rushmore remake might look something like this:

Jason Schwartzman meets an older woman in line at Jimmy John’s. They spend an intense three-day weekend together, including one long breakfast montage. On Monday as he is getting ready to leave to go to class (Astronomy) she reveals that she is from the future, and wants him to drive her to the suburbs (they’re in Sacramento) later that day and break into her old house so she can visit her deceased cat (deceased in the future she’s time traveling from; the cat is alive in the present time in which the movie takes place) whom she desperately misses.

Deploying her signature sarcasm and wit, Martin utilizes what author Sharma Shields calls the “portrait of the artist as a work in progress” to frame a host of interpersonal dilemmas that extend beyond the frame of Joey’s affluent San Francisco art school. To be sure, the Rushmore plot line is not the only example of bad art in the book. The circumstances preventing Joey from completing her class project—family troubles, lack of budget, self-doubt—are described with the kind of bemused irony one might express toward an uninspired work of art. When Joey’s sister Jenny, who struggles with addiction, goes missing from their home in Lodi, California, and later harasses Joey on social media, our disillusioned protagonist thinks, “Maybe this was art.” When their mother asks Joey to pay Jenny’s bail, Joey thinks, “Intro graphics of MTV’s hit new show Everyone Has Taken Care of Me My Entire Life Because I’m a Selfish Asshole Who Doesn’t Give Them a Choice! Starring Jenny!”
But despite her air of detachment, Joey’s growing pains manage to worm their way through her nonchalant facade. Through a succession of fast-paced, interlaced plot threads, we watch our narrator outgrow—in fits and starts—her family’s codependency and her peers’ superficial artspeak. This growth is nonlinear; it oscillates, just as time in each modular section of the book shuttles between past and present. The effect is one of vertigo and fragmentation.
I’ve observed variations of this modular form in numerous contemporary novels, in which the plot threads—one about a love interest, one about family, one about the line between life and art, one that provides a critique of history, one that satirizes the present, and so on—are doled out evenhandedly and ushered swiftly to a point of cohesion at the end of the book. Danzy Senna’s New People is one such novel that performs this weaving technique in a deft and remarkable way. There, the protagonist’s cyclical return to a library cubby, where she is writing a doctoral dissertation on the Jonestown massacre, is a rhetorical gesture that enfolds the reader in an analysis of madness and coercion. Tell Me I’m an Artist shares formal affinities with Senna’s novel but diverges in its aims. Joey’s school project does not function as a lens onto a cultural phenomenon. Instead, it telescopes us into Joey’s mind, revealing the depths and limits of her imagination, as well as the glaring discrepancy between her public and private personas.
Erratic gestures toward broader critical discourse are made throughout the book, but ultimately, due to Joey’s narrow point of view, the novel focuses more on individual works of art in the context of Joey’s art school than it does on contemporary art in any larger context. Even the city of San Francisco is depicted in broad strokes, owing to the narrator’s tendency to live inside her head.
Discussions of contemporary art—that is, discussions with a foot in reality—are largely stilted and superficial. For example:

Do you know the artist laura owens, I texted Benji.
Yeah! She is awesome, he wrote back.
Just discovering rn, I texted.
Oh man, lucky, he wrote.

The conversation ends immediately after, with Joey throwing her phone across the room, angry at Benji for outpacing her in his knowledge of art history. Elsewhere, the names of real artists—Kara Walker, Henry Darger—are sprinkled into conversations between Joey and her peers, often without elaboration, which is certainly true to the way people speak. It seems, however, a lost opportunity to have such a sharp and opinionated narrator withhold, elide, or halfheartedly allude to her thoughts on art, rather than state them frankly on the page.
There are plenty of opportunities, too, for larger art-world stakes to enter the picture. For instance, when Joey attends a gathering on her wealthy friend’s roof and a well-connected but aloof acquaintance offers to introduce everyone except Joey to a local gallerist, Joey’s simmering rage reminded me of a scene in Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, in which Kushner’s narrator and her boyfriend Sandro (an older, more established artist) run into a gallerist in Manhattan:

Helen Hellenberger, in her tight dress and leather flats, holding her large black pocketbook as if it were a toolbox, had said she wanted so badly to come to Sandro’s studio. Would she have to beg? […] He tried to redirect her by introducing me, not as his girlfriend but as “a young artist, just out of school,” as if to say, you can’t have me, but here’s something you might consider picking up. An offer she had to maneuver around…

In Kushner’s book, the disparities in economic status, gender, and age are formalized and explicit. The characters occupy different positions in the art world, and each knows his or her place. Martin takes a different approach: in her book, the disparities are subterranean, evident only in Joey’s mind. Her peers are cloaked in privilege and unaware of the carelessness with which they wield their power. Conflict does not come to a head, nor does Joey experience a moment of revelation. Instead, anger fizzles out, and dissatisfying social interactions repeat themselves.
As a result, the narrator’s interiority does little to drive the plot, and the novel’s first 200 pages or so read as exposition. The narrative stakes become apparent only when Jenny reappears in the present action, in need of bail, which Joey pays using what would have been her rent. Facing eviction, Joey panics until her friend offers her a place to stay. The crisis is resolved anticlimactically, within a handful of pages, with her obliviously wealthy friend saying, “Oh my god. Easy. Problem solved.” And unlike the overworked academic in New People, who, in the end, breaks into the home of the poet with whom she’s been obsessed and hides under his bed, Joey never does anything untoward in the world of her privileged peers. She never calls them out, smashes their handmade porcelain dishware, or kicks over an easel in her insipid art class. She even submits her Rushmore remake on time.
In a way, Joey presents the same frustrating enigma that bad art does. Art, for instance, is criticized for being too opaque as much as it is for being too transparent. Likewise, Joey gives the reader at once very little introspection and a barrage of unfiltered confessions. Art is often criticized when it fails to please the eye, and again when it fails to revolt against aesthetics. Joey antagonizes every other character in the book and meanwhile does too little to offend their absentminded upper-class sensibilities. Art is also “bad” when it’s poorly thought out and rough around the edges, but such a liminal state interests me. In it lie the tangled muses and unconsumed potential of the artist, whose work in progress is her life.

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