Expose What Is Rotten
Deirdre Coyle reviews Chelsea Martin’s hilarious new essay collection and finds that the promise of escape isn’t always as glamorous as it seems.
Years ago, I followed my usual literature selection method of picking books based on the title and bought Chelsea Martin’s first book, Everything Was Fine Until Whatever. EWFUW (which I pronounce “oofoo”) collects stories, poems, visual art, and lists. It was great, although its range made me feel creatively limited by comparison. Apparently this was how Martin wanted me to feel; in the author’s note, she writes, “I want you to think I’m a part of you somehow, or that we share something no one else could possibly understand. I want this to make you a little nervous... I want your heart to break from seeing so much of yourself in me, and to break again when you realize I know more about you than you do.” I’d forgotten that note in the intervening years, but after reading Martin’s new essay collection Caca Dolce, published in September this year, I wonder if it isn’t true.
Chelsea Martin’s new essay collection, Caca Dolce, covers a lot of territory I’ve dragged myself over: unrequited obsession, gothiness, the gravitational suck of a hometown you nominally hate, that feeling when your cool mom teaches at your high school, that feeling when your friends definitely like her more than you. At different points, this book made me want to move back to Richmond, find my Rooney CDs, wear plaid pants, and become a sculptor (none of which are good ideas for me).
As someone who grew up in a small city I hated, though by no means as small as Martin’s hometown, I know the feeling of chance encounters that tease at the glamor of places and lives larger than your own. My hometown of Richmond, which holds about 200,000 people, would by no means be considered a small town such as Martin’s Clearlake, home to only 15,000 people and while I realize Richmond and Clearlake aren’t equivalent in population or coast, both hold their denizens fast. They’re cities that people escape from rather than to.
If EWFUW is a funhouse mirror, Caca Dolce is more like a ballet studio. The prose is direct and deadpan, artful in its apparent artlessness. Martin’s straightforwardness makes even deeply uncomfortable subject matter hilariously self-aware. In describing her “first sexual experience” at age six – a tingling sensation while watching a horror movie – she simply says, “I attributed it to Chucky, the evil sentient doll.” By laughing alongside her, the grotesqueness of the idea is mitigated.
Martin’s combination of soft narcissism and self-deprecation also spoke to me. Like many creative people, I work best in the purgatory between unearned confidence and deep self-loathing. The two find a charming balance in Martin’s inner monologue: “When someone suggested I was cool, I couldn’t help thinking, What the fuck is your problem?” Simultaneously, “When I was depressed, or felt like a complete piece of shit, or doubted my ability to do anything, there has always been a small but persistent voice saying, You’re actually kind of great.” As a teenager, I leaned into this limbo by externalizing my gothiness. Self-assurance came with my dramatic aesthetic; I thought I was great. I was great.I mean, I still hated myself, but I loved my clothes.
In the essay “Goth Ryan,” Martin is impressed by goth culture’s “black strappy clothes, black fingernails, and heavy eye makeup... but also the directness and openness about feelings of sadness and inner rottenness.” This rottenness, too, hangs heavy in my memory: when I became friends with other outcasts, I found I was allowed to talk about feeling like shit. Acknowledging depression, formless anger, or tendencies to self-harm wouldn’t freak out these friends, or isolate me further.