The narrator of Chelsea Martin’s debut novel Tell Me I’m an Artist is a main character with a minor-character complex. An art student in San Francisco in the early aughts, Joey is smart but self-doubting, resourceful but broke, living on student loans and Cup O’ Noodles while her classmates have mid-century shoe racks and family homes in Tahoe.
She’s also grimly funny — an astute observer of her scene, which she documents in handwritten notes, Craigslist ads, search histories, Venn diagrams, to-do lists. The book is an addictive coming-of-age story and a shrewd novel of manners. As Martin brings into focus the contemporary relationship between cultural production and social mobility, her deadpan satire gives way to a big-hearted, boom-box-thrust-in-the-air defense of making art.
When she’s assigned to make a self-portrait in her Experimental Film course, Joey decides to remake Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, a film she’s never seen. The idea, she explains to the class, is to draw on collective cultural memory: “I knew that Jason Schwartzman wore a red beret, for example. I knew that Bill Murray went to a pool.”
The novel follows the course of the project through stages of ambivalence, anxiety, self-sabotage. “The act of not working on Rushmore was an artistic gesture,” Joey decides, flailing. The project’s doomed concept is an apt analogy for any young person trying to fashion an identity or creative vision by picking up social cues.
For Joey, raised in a trailer in California’s Central Valley in a pre-Instagram era, decoding the vibe among her peers and positioning herself in it is especially hard. She doesn’t have the right references or social connections or clothes. She has a mom who struggles to hold down a job and an older sister who’s addicted to hard drugs and chaos. When her sister skips town, leaving an infant son with their mom, Joey’s plagued by guilt for having gotten out and by the fear that her goals are self-indulgent.
At school, she has her friend Suz, who’s talented, privileged, and art-world savvy, and who brings Joey easily into her orbit. Their pairing — the cool kid and the try-hard — often makes Joey feel like shit, in part because Suz is generous and good. She seems to like Joey as she is — or what little Joey shares about herself.
For her part, Joey approaches people with a kind of needy hostility, which comes through even in the book’s title. She has a poor kid’s chip on her shoulder; a watchful, anxious craving for acceptance; resentment born of scorn and desire for what other people have. In her social interactions, she often miscalculates her angle of approach, then turns on herself or judges others. Martin is canny about how self-loathing can fuel disdain for other people — usually one’s peers or family — or how social and economic precarity can cause someone to turn on herself.
Joey’s refuge is art. It seems to offer a way to opt out of daily life, with its crushing social requirements. But to see art as an escape from a hard life presumes a rigid distinction between life and art. This line is tough to maintain when you’re deep in debt for a BFA; when your friends are artists; when your creative drive makes you the family scapegoat; when the way you feel about yourself and your life relies on your ability to make art. That is, pursuing art with intention is bound up with just about every other practical life choice and its consequences. Perhaps for this reason, Joey’s art school project forces her to confront her own agency and her relationship to it.
In a recent piece for the New York Times’s T magazine, Adam Bradley points to “a new wave of campus satires, many of which are written by women, that aren’t really satires at all. By exposing their characters’ human motives, their frailties and failings, deflated aspirations and unarticulated hopes, they offer something more radical than righteous critique: avenues for empathy and, perhaps, pathways back to community for those who have strayed far away.”
Bradley cites Elaine Chou’s 2022 novel Disorientation and Netflix’s 2021 series The Chair, among other works that enlist the campus as a setting for individual renewal. We could add the spiky Tell Me I’m an Artist to this list. While the book sends up the conventions of art school and creative ambition, it also clings to what these things offer. Art school, Joey makes clear, has saved her from a do-nothing family in a go-nowhere town. It’s the only thing she wants.
But when you grow up poor, the author suggests, you learn pretty quickly that it’s shameful to want something; you’d be a fool to want what you can’t have. Joey’s path of self-discovery requires reckoning with her wants and with the role that other people play in supplying them. And what role does art-making play? “Making art is my way of tricking myself into believing that the past is something I can continue shaping,” Joey reflects late in the book. She’s figured out something about being the main character and, in the end, it’s a big rush.
Tell Me I’m an Artist by Chelsea Martin (2022) is published by Soft Skull Books and is available online and in bookstores.