[Soft Skull Press; 2022]

While attempting to start this review of Chelsea Martin’s stellar debut novel Tell Me I’m an Artist, my reviewing process (or lack thereof) began to mimic the novel itself. When I received an ARC of the novel after reading Martin’s thoughtful 2017 essay collection Caca Dolce: Essays From a Lowbrow Life, I started the novel and read a hundred pages in one sitting. The next day, while talking to people who asked what I do, I responded that I was a bookseller who does multiple unpaid internships on the side and, uh, writes “the occasional book review.” I mentioned how I was “working on a review of Chelsea Martin’s forthcoming novel Tell Me I’m an Artist.” This was, of course, a review that hadn’t been started yet. The book was something I carried with me like a safety blanket; I knew I wanted to review it because I had a lot to say, though the review that I had in my head resembled less a work of criticism and more an excited blog post about a friend I adore. My experience reading Tell Me I’m an Artist was so intense, so resonant, that I put off reviewing it not because the book didn’t excite me, but because I wanted the book to remain mine.

The book, however, is out now and available for anyone to read. It is not, and was never, only mine, but sometimes reading a book this personal can feel that way. At the beginning of Tell Me I’m an Artist, we meet Martin’s curious protagonist Joey, an art student in San Francisco. In the book’s first few pages, Joey is tasked with creating a simple self-portrait. For reasons unknown to the reader and to herself, she decides to remake Wes Anderson’s Rushmore without having seen it. This Rushmore project hangs over her head throughout much of the novel. It acts as a motif that represents the art she isn’t making, the ideas she hasn’t fully fleshed out. At the beginning of the book, she tries to start the project multiple times and stops. Her inspiration dissipates in reaction to the confused feedback she receives from her peers. The Rushmore project, however, represents her identity as an artist that she so deeply wants. When I look at the book’s cover, bright pink and bold, I can practically hear Joey begging me to tell her she’s an artist.

Many established artists and writers encourage students that they shouldn’t create art in a vacuum, that it’s important to be surrounded by other young artists and writers that you can joyfully bounce ideas off. Tell Me I’m an Artist asks: What happens when that community, supposedly imperative to the creation of great art, is difficult to find? While hearing Joey attempt to convey her Rushmore idea to her classmates, I thought of the fiction writing seminars I attended in college, amongst my peers who were obsessed with fantasy and world-building while I wanted to write autofiction that no one understood. In Tell Me I’m an Artist, we rarely get much insight into Joey’s artistic process. But we do know that her “community” is simply made up of her friend Suz, a wealthy art student who flits about San Francisco, going to various openings and applying for “residencies.” Joey spends much of Tell Me I’m an Artist in awe of Suz. But the silent divide that exists between them, which grows more and more uncomfortable throughout the novel, is largely financial.

What deters Joey from forging an artistic community with her classmates isn’t just her confused ambitions, but what she left behind before going to art school. She grew up in Lodi, California, a town where the residents spend their whole lives trying to leave, a place where someone gets stuck and just decides to stay. Joey, one of the few who was able to save up enough money and leave, grew up with a mother who always found the life of an artist to be frivolous and snobby, and a sister who ran away and had a kid before returning home, begging Joey and her mother for money. Tell Me I’m an Artist gains emotional heft through the underlying plot line involving Joey’s sister, who runs away yet again while Joey is at school. Near the beginning of the novel, Joey’s mother calls and explains that her sister is missing, though Joey, several miles away in San Francisco, has to attend lectures and seminars, hiding her family background from her classmates who she believes will judge her. Without this secondary conflict, Tell Me I’m an Artist would still be interesting, but the reader may have begun to wonder about Joey’s origin story and how it paints her entire experience at school. There were moments when I started feeling stress while reading the novel, thinking about the fact that Joey is expected to care for and financially support both her mother and sister, all while attempting to create art and sustain friendships.

Many narratives tracking the lives of the artistically inclined revolve around the Suzes of the world, people too pretty and too tasteful for their own good. Books by authors like Stephanie LaCava and Marlowe Granados come to mind; the women in those novels may be floundering, though their bohemian cool and effortless charm almost make it hard to connect with or sympathize with them. Joey, on the other hand, has neither. As she continues to quietly beg everyone around her to tell her that she’s an artist, the reader not-so-quietly starts to beg Joey to just come clean and explain her situation to her so-called friends so that she can close the divide between her and her peers. Isn’t poverty-chic in these days?

Martin never directly states which year Tell Me I’m an Artist is set, though the dead giveaway that the novel occurs in 2010 is the reference to the Cee-Lo song “Fuck You,” mentioned during a particularly funny scene early in the novel, when Martin draws attention to the disparities between Joey’s mother and the parents of her peers. Right after applying for a job and lying that she’s CPR-certified, one of Joey’s friends shows her a video that her parents sent: “‘My mom just sent me this video of her and my dad singing that ‘Fuck You’ song,’ she said. She turned her phone screen to me, and I could see two well-dressed old people dancing stupidly.” This small, humorous scene is timed deftly after the initial phone call alerting Joey that her sister has gone missing, one of the many meticulously crafted moments of social commentary that Martin drops gracefully throughout the novel. While the contemporary narrative of the young and distressed artist is typically glamorized or exaggerated, an overpriced cup of coffee is enough to send both Joey and her bank account over the edge. Two loving, encouraging parents sending their child a message unrelated to money or familial strife is difficult for her to wrap her head around. 

In the middle of the novel, Joey puzzles over her Rushmore project before dropping it completely for a little while, focusing instead on going to “shows” and having bad sex with guys she feels ambivalent towards. There are multiple things that Martin does masterfully throughout the novel, though a dinner with Suz’s parents where Joey and Suz’s class divide is pried further apart is one of the best scenes, one that serves as the book’s climax. At the dinner, Joey watches as Suz’s parents joyfully support her artistic endeavors, something that seems completely foreign to her. Just before, Joey’s mother begs her for $800 to bail her sister out of prison. By having sections of the book occupy both Lodi and San Francisco, Martin ingeniously juxtaposes Joey’s college milieu with her family back home. Though I wanted so desperately for Joey to get out of her own head, I kept reminding myself that there were numerous external factors keeping her there.

Since finishing Tell Me I’m an Artist, Joey’s character has stuck with me at every art opening and every reading, while meeting people in my current post-undergrad era who constantly talk about MFAs, residencies, and theses. By the end of the novel, I realized that Martin clearly understands one of the most painful truths about living a creative life: Talking about making something, whether it be a Rushmore remake or a book review, is a lot easier than creating the thing itself. 

Peter Dyer is a writer based in New York. Peter’s essays and reviews have appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review, and Jeopardy Literary Magazine. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @peters___online.

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