On Meeting Mickey at a Party
Chelsea Martin’s latest paints a striking portrait of someone swimming in loss
In Mickey, a novella from Chelsea Martin, a portrait of a narrator is painted as someone lost, swimming in the midst of a curiously unfulfilling life. As in her other book, Even Though I Don’t Miss You, there is a backdrop of modern convenience and an exploration of its ironically negative effect on our interpersonal relationships. The beginning of the book depicts the narrator dumping the titular Mickey at a party, where we will come to realize that in our heroine’s thought process, marks the natural beginning of the relationship. Throughout the book, Mickey is brought up again and again as examples of an ideal, both as a person and a period of time. It seems strange that the narrator should initiate the break-up, but it is only the first example of the incredible lengths that she will go to in order to keep emotional control over her life.
“Mickey is brought up again and again as examples of an ideal, both as a person and a period of time.”
By her own account, we follow her through a series of sexual flings, stripped of any possibility for emotional attachment. This habit of alienation, a desperate attempt at sterile emotional control, is repeated for friends, co-workers, and her mother. All the while, she narrates the story with sound-bite musings evoking the nihilistic depth of Fernando Pessoa, specifically their ironic leanings to a personality deeply entrenched in both self-loathing and narcissism. Martin’s approach to narration on this subject, where the young woman simultaneously realizes both the logic and ill-logic of her behaviors, is where the novella finds its purpose. The narrator recognizes that she is a sort of emotional Schrodinger’s Cat, constantly trapped in a state of death and un-death, knowing and not-knowing, being okay while being absolutely not okay.
She lives a quasi-artistic life, in that she often talks about possibilities for art projects, attending art school and having friends who work as artists, but the reader isn’t shown any concrete evidence of her work. Martin uses this as a platform for some brilliant commentary on the sometimes-hypocritical, often-incestuous ‘art scene’ which could just as easily be ascribed to the world of literary politics with few minor changes. The predictable nature of ‘creatives’ is lampooned in her series of ‘Untitled’ one-liners:
“Untitled #2: I’M TERRIFIED THAT DEEP DOWN INSIDE I’M NOT THAT INTERESTING AND I’M TERRIFIED THAT EVERYONE ALREADY KNOWS.”
“Untitled #7: I AM SURE THAT ONE DAY I WILL BE A GREAT ARTIST. I’LL BE SO SUCCESSFUL THAT YOU’LL BE AFRAID TO TALK TO ME. AND I’LL STILL BE AFRAID TO TALK TO YOU, TOO.”
But even these satirical phrases hide a much deeper hurt, a history of self-sabotage and lack of inspiration she all but admits to later in the book. She struggles in a life where artistic merit can’t provide the needed existential purpose it seems to be giving everyone else, or can’t fake it as well as they can. Instead, it cruelly dangles (what she considers to be) the illusion of fulfillment and success before her. “Anything can be humiliating,” she writes, “but sometimes I think making art is a uniquely humiliating experience. For your work to be successful, it has to possess or imply original thought (which is impossible), intelligence (which is dependent on the intelligence of other people and therefore, uncontrollable), or visual appeal (which is pointless and stupid and demeaning).” The terrible truth behind lines like this is that they speak to an unspoken pain: a realization that any sort of success or even catharsis that the narrator could experience is so unreal that she has abandoned it to the realm of fantasy.
The underlying story may be the loss of the narrator’s job and subsequent slow dive into poverty, but she only observes this process with a Lispector-like detachment, saving emotional outbursts for existential matters. She seems to be present only in the moment and leaves thoughts of the future to odd daydreams that function as metaphors for her actions and the sometimes-convoluted reasons behind them. There are many moments in which her logic isn’t convoluted, but the process of arriving at it is. “But it was in Courtney’s best interest to believe that I was not a truly selfish asshole,” she writes after deliberately missing her friend’s gallery opening. “Because the implications that such a belief would have about Courtney’s self-worth (seeing as how she spent so much time with me, chose to live with me, etc.) were too terrible for someone like her to face.”
“The underlying story may be the loss of the narrator’s job and subsequent slow dive into poverty, but she only observes this process with a Lispector-like detachment.”
In the course of the story, the narrator desperately tries to reconnect with her estranged Mother. Her Mother is only described few a few phrases as absent, domineering, nurturing or vapid, depending on the narrator’s mood. Scenes from the past are usually set in the context of which boyfriend her Mother was seeing at the time, where it is implied that that particular status determined her mood and personality. “The cashier could blame my Mom for that one. My Mom had tried to instill in me an overeager politeness to strangers and her gross boyfriends. I rebelled against it, having nothing much else to rebel against.” If that is the case, the narrator’s relationship with Mickey can be viewed as a learned echo of behavior from years of observations of her single parent.
Much of the ink spilled about her Mother leads the reader to believe that they are more similar than they think. If that’s true, the clash of similar egos is simply too much for either of them to bear. In fact, it seems like the effort to reconnect is made on her part out of spite rather than seeking an emotional reunion. The Mother initiating the communication cut-off creates a vacuum of control in the narrator’s life, one she must fill by finding a way to have the last word. It is in the search for her Mother and the scenarios she posits to understand her life that channel the intellectual absurdity of Vonnegut, like this comparison of an adult child to a detached arm. “I can imagine wanting to disown the arm, overconfident and argumentative about its decisions, constantly making you feel old and foolish when you ask simple questions about its life.”
Like the narrator, Mickey can be described in a myriad of contradictory terms. It’s funny, tragic, relatable, fantastic, dark but also, in its own unique way, weirdly hopeful. It is a reflection of its time, where social media boils emotional output down to the bare nerve and can fray our ‘IRL’ connection with our fellow humans. It gives us exactly what appeals to our id in shows like Girls and media like Twitter: our thoughts ultra-brief but devastating, our narrators as amorphous stand-ins for the author, the reader, or someone else in between. Chelsea Martin is the kind of author that has her finger on the pulse of this style of writing. She does so with a precision that shows real, learned technique, an ability to satirize with deeper meaning. As the latest brave bard to document a particular moment in time, it is not her job to make you like it or hate it — only to report, to the best of her abilities.