Tell Me I’m an Artist by Chelsea Martin

Restrained yet acutely realistic, Tell Me I’m An Artist presents its readers with the unfinished portrait of an artist as a young woman. Throughout the course of this novel, we read of the trials and tribulations of an art school student Joey, who attempts to reconcile herself with a new existence in San Francisco. She struggles to navigate her new surroundings and often feels alienated by the wealth and stability her peers seem to enjoy. Joey enrols in a film elective and is given an assignment that despite its seeming simplicity sees her moored in procrastination. As she struggles with her initial conceit, that of remaking Wes Anderson’s ‘Rushmore’ despite having never seen it and relying only on other people’s recollections of it, she adopts a self-doubting mindset, and not only does she begin to doubt her portrait idea but her identity as an artist. Amidst her internal confusion Joey also has external worries pressing on her: her sister, an addict with a long history of erratic behavior, has gone MIA and left her toddler with their mother who in turn blames Joey for not helping more. Joey oscillates between feeling guilty and resentful of her mother and sister, and as she glimpses the lifestyles of her peers, well, she becomes all the more aware of how different her situation is. Her loneliness sees her seeking solace in her friendship with Suz, who seems much more sophisticated and put-together than her. Yet Suz soon reveals herself to be far less enthusiastic about their friendship. Joey’s finances also preoccupy her, especially when her family asks her for bailouts.
Tell Me I’m an Artist interrogates the meaning of art, artistry, creativity and authenticity as well as questions the ways in which we attribute meaning or value to our and other people’s art. In doing so the novel offers a lot of food for thought.
I appreciate Joey’s narration, which was full of acts of introspection, navel-gazing, and self-doubting, and permeated by longing and disorientation. Joey’s morphing anxieties and desires are articulated in razor-sharp prose that captures with clarity her various moods and states of mind. She may not be likeable but her likability is certainly not the point of this novel. Chelsea Martin allows her to be thorny yet occasionally pathetic, solipsistic yet perspective. Her observations of the people and world around her as well as her reflections on art, academia, and privilege all resonated with me. In rendering Joey’s unease, ennui, and disenchantment Martin demonstrates a keen eye for these difficult-to-pin-down feelings and emotions. We see how Joey’s sense of self-worth affects her art and her self-belief, leading her to procrastinate. The more she worries and agonizes over this portrait, the less she wants to do it. Personally, I found her idea somewhat interesting but as she oscillates between various methods or ways of going about it, I found myself kind of bored by it (which was probably intentional).
I would have liked more from the secondary characters, as they seemed kind of hazy around the edges in terms of characterisation. In reading about Suz (whom i disliked given that she disses radiohead fairly early on in the book) I found myself wishing for Selin and Svetlana’s friendship in The Idiot and Either/Or. Speaking of Batuman, Tell Me I’m an Artist will definitely appeal to fans of hers. While Martin’s novel lacks Batuman’s deadpan humor it definitely has a similar vibe, especially if we consider the way both these authors have a penchant for describing and detailing the minutiae of their narrator’s day-to-day lives. The settings too are also similar as we follow young women trying to navigate the world of academia and questioning the functions of art, language, etc.
All in all, I found this novel to make for a really immersive reading experience. I liked the atmosphere, the unadorned writing (we even get pages with joey’s google searches), and the themes that are at play in it and I look forward to whatever Martin publishes next.
If you are a fan of character studies and/or books focused on young women searching for something, even themselves, and attempting to understand themselves and their role in the world, such as Lucy & Wish Me Something, definitely add this to your tbr pile. I could also see this debut to readers who look for books exploring female creativity, such as Writers & Lovers by Lily King, We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman, and Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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