Excerpt: Jami Attenberg's "All Grown Up"
Jami Attenberg is the New York Times best-selling author of six novels, including The Middlesteins and Saint Mazie. She has contributed essays about sex, urban life, and food to The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Lenny Letter, among other publications. She divides her time between Brooklyn and New Orleans.
Attenberg’s latest novel, All Grown Up, follows 39-year-old Andrea as she tries to chart the choppy waters of middle age, facing the challenges that contemporary society poses to women trying to go their own way along with a bevy of self-imposed obstacles. She is an eminently relatable modern heroine, at times self-pitying and frustratingly self-sabotaging, but through it all she maintains her unapologetic belief in her right to independence and in her potential, even if things get a bit messy along the way. In this excerpt taken from the first chapter, Andrea relays in condensed form her initial fall from grace and her attempts to pick up the pieces.
You’re in art school, you hate it, you drop out, you move to New York City. For most people, moving to New York City is a gesture of ambition. But for you, it signifies failure, because you grew up there, so it just means you’re moving back home after you couldn’t make it in the world. Spiritually, it’s a reverse commute.
For a while you live downtown with your brother and his girlfriend, in a small spare room, your bed jammed between shoe racks and a few of your brother’s guitars in cases plus a wall of books from his girlfriend’s undergraduate days at Brown. You get a job, via same girlfriend. You don’t hate the job and you don’t love the job, but you can’t sniff at a hard day’s work because you are no better than anyone else, and, in some ways, you are much, much worse. You acknowledge your privilege, and you get to work.
You start making money. You find a small, dusty, crumbling loft in a shitty waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn. It has one floor-to-ceiling window, a tiny Empire State Building in the distance framed beautifully within it. Now you are home. Everyone in your life breathes easier. She’s safe now, they all think. At no point does anyone say to you, “So you’ve stopped making art?” It is because they don’t want to know the answer or they don’t care or they are scared to ask you because you scare them. Whatever the case, everyone is complicit in this, this new, non-art-making phase of your life. Even though it was the thing you loved most in the world.
But you have a little secret: while you are not making Art anymore you are at least drawing every day. To tell anyone about this would be admitting there is a hole in your life, and you’d rather not say that out loud, except in therapy. But there you are, once a day, drawing the same thing over and over: that goddamned Empire State Building. You get up every morning (or afternoon, on the weekends, depending on the hangover), have a cup of coffee, sit at the card table near the window, and draw it, usually in pencil. If you have time, you’ll ink it. Sometimes, if you are running late for work, you do it at night instead, and then you add color to the sketches, to reflect the building’s ever-changing lights. Sometimes you draw just the building and sometimes you draw the buildings around it and sometimes you draw the sky and sometimes you draw the bridge in the foreground and sometimes you draw the East River and sometimes you draw the window frame around the whole scene. You have sketchbooks full of these drawings. You could draw the same thing forever, you realize. No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man is a thing you read once. The Empire State Building is your river. And you don’t have to leave your apartment to step in it. Art feels safe for you again, even though you know you are not getting any better at it, that the work you are making could be sold to tourists on a sidewalk outside of Central Park on a sunny Saturday and that’s about it. There’s no challenge to it, no message, just your view, on repeat. But this is all you can do, this is all you have to offer, and it is just enough to make you feel special.
You do this for six years. Brooklyn apartment in a changing neighborhood, why move when the rent is so cheap? Mediocre but well-paying job at which you excel; you receive a few small promotions. Volunteer work here and there. You march where your activist mother tells you to march. Pointless sketchbooks pile up on the bottom row of a bookshelf. Barely scratching a feverish itch. You also drink plenty and for a long time use, too, coke and ecstasy mainly, although sometimes pills to bring you down at the end of the night. Another way to scratch the itch. There are men also, in your bed, in your world, foggily, but you are less interested in them than in muffling the voice in your head that says you are doing absolutely nothing with your life, that you are a child, that the accoutrements of adulthood are bullshit, they don’t mean a goddamn thing, and you are trapped between one place and another and you always will be unless something forces you to change. And also, you miss making art.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg © 2017. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.