Nevers by Megan Martin
Caketrain, 2014; 108 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
Meta-irony is a hard thing to do right, especially in fiction writing. When the frat doofus says “no homo” after hugging his friend, it’s not up to him to show his audience that he’s being ironic about his being ironic, that right underneath that supposedly sarcastic statement is the very real fear of being perceived as gay and therefore weak to his frat brothers. A writer, though, has to reckon with her audience, and is already wearing the mask of authorial persona, dealing with the heteroglossia inherent in fiction writing, and wrestling with the imprecision and endless interpretability of language, all of which is to say that employing meta-irony is dangerous, a high-wire performance for an audience that is ready to misunderstand. Even worse, meta-irony, employed wrong, looks like empty snark, the kind of Chuck-Palahniuk-meets-the-internet writing that is suffocating empathy and connection in literature in favor of being unassailably cool.
Which brings me to Megan Martin’s Nevers, a collection of linked flash fictions that mostly does a good job in that balancing act. The book is dark, humorously skewed apocalyptic writing in the vein of Lindsay Hunter, Amelia Gray, Eliza Gabbert, Chelsea Martin, and any other oddball (meant as high compliment) who leans on the sarcasm precisely because of how much she means it. Nevers proves that Martin deserves a place in such good company. This is, to quote the book, “serious fucking art,” a thing her authorial persona says more than once in these self-aware stories, each time meaning it and not meaning it and meaning not meaning it.
The writing throughout crackles, as in the opening of “How You Get Love”: “Love is a gruesome school of bass smoking cigars and dying. And also the bass have jacked-up teeth and breasts like soggy mountains.” There’s not a word that clunks, there’s no sentence without a certain breathless energy in these fictions. Each piece is only a few hundred words, which can be disorienting at first, but characters and ideas recur in ways that keep the reader anchored. There’s B., the narrator’s lover, and Suzanne, the narrator’s doppleganger/enemy/award-winning poetess, and also the narrator’s struggle with being a writer (“Shit, I hate when the narrator is a writer.”) and her art’s place in the world. The book is so self-aware that it at one point calls out what page the words you’re reading is on, but Martin still finds ways to keep the emotional throughline grounded.
When the fictions are really singing, I was having way too much fun with Martin’s witty writing to worry about my problems with meta-irony. In some of the weaker fictions, though, the question comes up: is the sarcasm that roils under the surface of these stories—that they are “serious fucking art,” emphasis fucking, emphasis I am going to take this so seriously at the same time as I dismiss it—a preemptive defense against criticism, or is it an admission that that defense against criticism is there? Meaning, is this self-aware book that makes fun of people for thinking too hard about writing as performativity condemning the reader for asking the same questions the book asks? I’m left without an answer. And that’s strength and weakness, I suppose, since part of the goal of “serious fucking art” is to destabilize us and itself. Still, it’s something that kept me at arms’ length at times.
Perhaps I’m over-thinking it, which leads me to sound more critical than I intend. I enjoyed the hell out of this book, and it made me think about who I am as both a reader and a writer. And it’s not as if Martin comes across as someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing; on the contrary, she knows exactly what she’s doing, and she does it well. But by getting up on that high-wire of meta-irony, she’s inviting me to overthink it, to consider how and why she might fall, which puts me in the position of audience, of seeing what the book can do instead of coming along. I’d rather be up there with her.