In his first letter to Franz Kappus, Rainer Marie Rilke advises the young poet to decide, first and foremost, “Must I write?” Necessity is one of the simplest and most overlooked requirements for the writer; it is often taken for granted when the activity, writing, precedes its necessity. Megan Martin’s second collection, Nevers, a slim series of inter- and unrelated “fictions,” presents a sly variation on Rilke’s dictum. It seems to ask, “I am writing, but why?” and “Should I keep going?” These questions feel especially pertinent now. They tend to lay dormant in active young writers for two to three years (depending on where you got in), waiting to attack in the days, weeks, and months that follow the completion of graduate programs. Nevers, then, offers an insight into what it means to be a writer today, exploring the messy, inextricable bond between life and writing, and the purpose of writing or being a writer.
This exploration, like most, requires self-consciousness. And throughout Nevers we find both a book and author conscious of their own being. Martin reappears as both narrator and character. The book itself is aware of itself. Its stories are aware of their page numbers. In “Atrocities No One Has Ever Heard of,” the book not only knows that is a collection, but a collection published by Caketrain:
Clorox is evil on the water supply and poisons cats and babies worldwide … And somebody from Clorox who bathes in money for a living will probably garnish my whole bank account and Caketrain’s whole bank account for printing this tiny little story in this tiny little book that like ten people will buy and two will actually read.
Here we find Martin’s tightly-weaved, and relentlessly anxious prose wrapping itself around the unsettling question of readership and creation. Martin’s disparaging sales estimates challenge our notions of readership. As readers, we are grouped in as one of the two readers—small crowd compared to readership most books aspire for—and reminded of the relative insignificance of a small press book. Additionally, the repetition of “little” expresses the anxiety and self-doubt of the writer: Have I spent years of my life creating something insignificant? Martin has split us in two. We are both reader, asking why we’re reading this book, and Martin, wondering if anyone will ever read this book. Though it appears defeatist, this section acts more like a smart, exasperated, “Why?”
With a wide readership out of question the goal of the book has become somewhat skewed. It’s more likely to inspire lawsuits than readers; it has become a litigational commodity. It won’t make Caketrain or Martin much money, but her derisive comments might earn Clorox some cash—and it is with great tact, in this section, that Martin presents Clorox as self-obsessed and neurotic as a writer, Clorox Googling Clorox to see what others have said about Clorox. In this story, abstractions like purpose, reception, awareness, being, have blurred together.
Everything in Martin’s world—Clorox, Nevers, Martin—is self-obsessed, and the effects of this play a major role throughout the collection. “Writer-Narrator Plummets, Dies” is a playful take on a Waldenesque attempt to free oneself from society. The narrator heads into the woods to build a tree house in which she will write. This fails immediately: “birdracket, perfection of sunlight, etc.” prevent her from concentrating. Birds are shot, windows are boarded, and right as the narrative continues, Martin interrupts: “Shit, I hate when the narrator is a writer.” Which gives way to the admission, “I only write because I want to talk about myself all the time.” The use of ‘shit,’ in this passage, suggests that the story’s direction was accidental. We see the writer freeing herself, hoping to interact with the nature, the exterior world, quickly tugged back to the self. It’s inescapable. The ostensibly perfect conditions to write—solitude, nature’s lyrics and light—distract Martin from her true subject: herself.
This leads, once again, to intention. How can one reach others when is only able to write about oneself—and is only interested in oneself. By hating books in which the narrator is a writer, the narrator admits to hating the only type of work that she seems able to truthfully produce. For whom is this book created? And will it ever reach that person? Is it even supposed to?
Though these questions lie at the heart of Nevers, Martin successfully, and wittily, engages these issues without heavy-handedness. She often achieves this by ironizing the assumed importance of the writer. In “A Bride Outdoes Me” Martin pats herself “on the ass for remaining ‘real’ and ‘unchanging’ all these years, for continuing to believe so goddamned ferociously in art. ‘I will keep on believing so goddamned ferociously in art,’ I say, especially on days when I cannot think of a single reason why anyone would wish this on herself.” In later stories, she equates writing to “simultaneously stabbing and being stabbed.” And in a yawp of humiliating self-hatred, Martin writes, “A poet is not a seer—do you romanticize yourself so fancily, Megan fucking Martin? You’re as destitute as the rest of us!” These, and many other moments, challenge the idea that writers are somehow above the rest of the world. Ontological literary trend words, like “Real” and “Unchanging,” are absurd, and practically meaningless, empty abstractions that writers use as a buffer between themselves and the question that Martin asks: Why would anyone wish this on herself? Writing brings no joy. It does away with the “privacy,” “secrets, mysteries, and wonderings” of one’s life, and what does it offer? An IOU for a royalty check and a cease and desist letter from Clorox?
Perhaps writing has nothing to offer the writer. But if that were true, Martin would not have written this book. And in that paradox—that writing is essentially meaningless but loaded with meaning, that it is done for oneself but cannot be stomached by oneself, that its bromides about truth and realness and commitment are false and fleeting, that writing does not make one any better than anyone else despite the comfort believing so gives us—Nevers finds its greatest strength. The book, in a sense, is autophagic. It reaps sustenance by consuming itself. Martin’s wit, neurotic confidence, and the glossy, impatient sentences stuffed neatly between frequent section breaks—the prevailing qualities of contemporary experimental literature—make Nevers a compelling, imaginative, and frantic rumination on and challenge to the role of the writer in a world overrun with self-obsession, instant gratification, and writers.
Nevers, by Megan Martin. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Caketrain [a journal and press]. 114 pages. $9.00, paper.
Alex McElroy’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Diagram, Tin House, Gigantic Sequins, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Arizona, where he serves as the International Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.