FUBAR Nation

Reviewed By

Chelsea Martin’s strange collection of miscellany evokes the loneliness of life lived through technology.

Chelsea Martin is a mood swinger. Sometimes she’s an inveterate self-doubter, a vindictive bitch, a woman who needs to be kept safe from herself. She goes to sleep before the sun sets—she can’t take a happy ending. Bending to whatever winds blow, she lets the hours slip.

At other times, Chelsea Martin has unwavering eyes, wide-open ears, and a pitch-perfect voice. She doesn’t have much time so she cuts through the bullshit. She sees through people whose lives are lived through electronic devices, and in chat rooms where conversations are crammed with FAs (Frequent Acronyms).

But she’s also bored and tells bullshit stories, and her sternum must have a welt from all the times she’s poked it.

Chelsea Martin is a happening waiting to accident.

Some, all, and none of this is true. That’s the trouble with conflating fiction with what happened IRL (In Real Life)—it doesn’t necessarily get you any closer to understanding Martin, her obsessions, her successes, her failures, or her book, Everything Was Fine Until Whatever.

EWFUW begins with “Baby’s First Words,” a log detailing a newborn’s extraordinary growth spurts and “inventive manipulation tendencies,” while also cataloguing the signs of a deteriorating marriage, a marriage in which “time to think” means “practicing infidelity.” And it ends with “What the Tabloids Are Saying about Me,” an unfunny ending to what is often ostensibly the mad memoirs of a meandering mope tromping through her uncertain life. Squeezed between these two pieces is a provocative smattering of sudden fiction, short shorts, prose poems, and lists. Sarcasm and irony are de rigueur.

Chelsea Martin

Chelsea Martin

EWFUW’s characters could have stumbled out of a Harmony Korine film. Like the kids in Kids, they’re young, irresponsible, and unhinged. They disturb like Gummo’s oddballs, the sad sacks swimming in some nameless town’s backwaters. And like Julien Donkey-Boy’s dysfunctional family, they’re often overbearing and abusive. In “Maybe Her Pending Corpse Is a Window,” Ira watches a woman die after presumably being knocked off her bike by a car. An “Internet stranger,” he’d met Kate through “an online social network catering to travelers.” As she dies, Ira, emotionally ill-equipped, clinically describes the events as they happen. Noting “her unfamiliar stomach fat drooping over her pants unpleasantly,” he thinks, “It’s like live reality television.” And later, he thinks about life without blood and

feels himself becoming alone and stranded, sees himself standing on the concrete uselessly, a lone parasite that has found himself without a host, staring blankly at the pending corpse of what was once an abstract sexual fantasy. He sees the thoughts in his head as if they were lines of an instant message:

(3:46) Does the world know it doesn’t need me?

(3:46) It does, it definitely does.

(3:46) Maybe the world needs me. It’s possible, I think. Is it?

(3:47) It doesn’t. It’s not. No.

Like many of Martin’s characters, Ira filters his life through various screens. A woman in another story admits that she tries “[e]ven on Christmas… to be in a text message conversation at all times.” Later, a woman says, “I hope it’s okay that I’m not referring to all the text messages I’ve received while writing this.” And in “Life Is Time Consuming”—a title worthy of Bill Hicks, as are “I’m Not Drunk, I’m Big Boned,” “Do you want me to be sincere or do you want be [sic] to be myself,” and “Today Is the Worst Day of My Entire Life (I Always Live in the Present)”—after a botched attempt at flirting with a telephone operator, a woman begins emailing a guy she used to babysit.

Martin’s hyperactive one-liners act as refractions, and her characters often use self-deprecation to sidestep criticism. “Watch this,” she writes in one aside. “I can make fun of myself in a way that makes you feel bad about yourself and I can do this and make you think I’m insecure at the same time and you will think it’s totally charming.” Another recurring disruptive device is the probing lines running in tiny type at the bottom of some of the stories. “My diary used to be filled with positive body affirmations, but now it is filled with anxiety about debt and weekly observations of this weird mole I have,” reads one. Another says, “Sometimes I read my own poetry and think that’s not right. Or I read it and call my mom and ask her to be nice to me.” In still another: “I accidentally shat on a person once. There, I said it.” These asides have the same cringe-effect you feel when a performer rambles into the microphone about how they don’t deserve to be there, and then lash themselves for their own intellectual and creative lapses. They make for powerful moments of discomfort, but don’t necessarily endear the reader to the writer.

EWFUW opens with a letter detailing what Martin expects from the reader, but it’s really just Martin’s first effort at misdirection, another veil you have to try to pull aside. While I certainly didn’t meet any of her expectations, what EWFUW did do, AFAIK (As Far as I Know), was make me draw my face into a BEG (Big Evil Grin) as I read about people who are FUBAR (Fucked Up beyond All Repair/Recognition), who suffer from FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt), and need to GAL (Get a Life). I don’t mean to be a PITA (Pain in the Ass), but I’m glad her characters are NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard). Sometimes I found myself LOL (Laughing Out Loud), or LMAO (Laughing My Ass Off). And that’s AFN (All for Now).

John Madera is published widely, and his work has recently appeared in Conjunctions, The Believer, Opium Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. More from this author →