BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Jess Martin
Filed Under: Memoir, Nonfiction, Short-run
A self-published memoir by a twenty-something detailing that horrible, floaty time between college graduation and embarking on some sort of path into adulthood? You can’t get much lower on the list of books I’d expect to like. Despite that, when Jess Martin released her book through the Harvard Bookstore (where we run the paperback versions of our own literary ventures), I supported a local artist* and read it all the same. I’m really glad that I did. It is, by any measure, a very good read.
The plot, much like the point in her life Martin relates, appears pretty directionless at first. She writes about finishing college and returning home to her parents, where she intended to collect herself before stepping out into the real world. But she finds herself stymied and winds up napping on the couch and emailing the occasional resume.
As the book goes on, Open-Eyed Sneeze reveals a lot of gears turning: it’s at once wacky family drama, a coming of age from a second childhood, and a microcosmic metaphor, all speaking to a generation of talented young adults for whom college degrees are inflated and the job market is deflated.
It’s also funny. This is risky business, as there’s nothing more annoying than a book that continually tosses up taters for jokes and expects the reader to laugh as they continually fall flat. Luckily, Martin’s wit, while sometimes dry and acerbic, has a gentleness and graciousness that softens the edges. It works well:
It’s no longer enough to have a job, now it should be the job of my dreams.Which is what, exactly? I have no idea. I’m never working in my dreams. In my dreams I’m made of Fluff and can eat my own face. I’ll just take a regular job, thanks.
Humor alone can rarely carry a book, of course. Here it works as a reinforcement to a strong narratorial voice, one that somehow manages to be authorial in its timidity:
The difficulty in saying what I want lies in the fear of never having it, or fear of having it but not liking it. I bet that’s true for a lot of people…We’re a society obsessed with success and the first to ridicule those who find it. Thus, we try not to shout out what we really want so as to avoid anyone hearing it and holding us to it.
So she muses, and she plays, and she naps. She spends time with her grandmother who continually force-feeds her, and with her parents who think she still has a shot at being an astronaut. She’s back at home, afraid of being thought a failure. But for once she’s not doing what she’s supposed to do, and thus a sense of individuality seems to blossom. (Though given the idiosyncrasies she relates, I very much doubt uniqueness was ever a problem for Martin.)
Most importantly for a young memoirist, she’s quite insightful–see her tongue-in-cheek comparison of “Modern Artist vs. Realist”–and has an uncanny knack for drawing connections between her occasionally tangential musings and the bigger thought arc at work.
Trying to expound upon the arrested development, or failure to launch, or any other cliched term for the oft-delayed transition from child to adult, without coming across as whiny or, worse, arrogant, is no easy task. Always offered trophies and promised the world, many of us left college still sporting training wheels and expected to place in a bike race. But of course there is no on-switch for being an adult. For Jess Martin, like many others, all she could do was wander and wonder. As many have discovered, that’s an important step in the process. I’m glad Jess had the bright idea to document it.
Similar Reads: The Voting Booth After Dark (Garcia)
*[Disclaimer: I know Jess Martin. Our acquaintance is not of the variety where it would have an influence on my opinion of this book.]