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Social Change and Stagnation: A Book Review of Chelsea Martin’s The Really Funny Thing About Apathy

By Terry Trowbridge

What is The Really Funny Thing…?

The Really Funny Thing About Apathy is a book of four short stories by the California author Chelsea Martin, published in 2010 by the Buffalo, New York, publisher sunnyoutside [sic]. This book review is being written more than a decade later. When I was given my copy of TRFTAA as a gift (6ish years ago), the gifter had written the following inscription on its title page:

I feel like these stories are probably like the ones you write in your head while doing the dishes. Maybe that’s how the author writes them, too. -J

-J had often observed me washing dishes by this point, so -J would know. However, -J had more often observed me avoid washing dishes by hand, stuffing everything possible into our dishwasher appliance. With -J being a cultural critic: perhaps my penchant to load the dishwasher appliance as quickly as possible so that I could avoid hand-washing the oblique shapes of the pots and pans, while disingenuously satisfying my self-apportioned kitchen chores, is what actually led -J to write an inscription. -J meant to remind me that I am annoying, rather than encourage me to read Chelsea Martin’s book.

On the other hand, -J was a witness to the way I talk to myself like a budgie does, especially while perched at a chore, pecking away at bits, sometimes lapsing into a quiet concertation, until suddenly producing sound effects of exploding spaceships and laser blasts, eventually returning to my narrating a mock trial or a hypothetical lecture going on entirely in my own headspace. Usually, those mock trials or pretentious lectures did veer into cosmological inferences made from social theories or the evidence of history. So! As far as book reviews go, -J provided a serviceable one, if an interlocutor really wants to know. Anyone who watches a chirpy chore-dodger hand-wash dishes can relate to -J and therefore to TRFTAA.

How -J managed to obtain a copy of TRFTAA is a small mystery. At the time, we lived in Toronto. That was a decade in which Torontonians in their twenties, like -J, had formed subcultures that revolved around distinct online communities with names like Bunz Toronto, Weird Toronto, Queer Toronto; dedicated to meeting people in TTC subway stations to trade clothes and books and art supplies and pet rodents, sometimes to gather in a park for board games or poetry readings, etcetera. -J was an active lurker, online and in-person; as well as a prolific Tumblr diarist linking and liking Toronto’s infinite scroll of cyberspace. Chelsea Martin might have been a Californian author at the time, but I believe that The Really Funny Thing About Apathy had a momentary pulse of support in Toronto’s infinite cyberspace scroll, likely emitted from a combination of genderqueer Tumblr and Bunz-adjacent meet-up culture.

-J is the kind of person who constantly obtains books. -J, however, obtains books based on some kind of reasoning given by a critical source, whether that is Tumblr, is a literary critic, or an acquaintance. -J’s reason for choosing a book is never arcane, unless family has plopped a stack on the couch and then left. -J, however, does not keep books. As soon as they are read, books become proverbial hot potatoes that absolutely must be actually passed on to the next schlub. Literature can be a sport sometimes and -J is a quarterback who catches a snapped text, reads voraciously, then hurls it far afield before a spry clutterbug or a burdensome bookshelf can manage a tackle. For -J to actually read a book and then pass it along for a person to keep transforms that book into a mysterious object. While -J’s inscription makes the reason for the hand-off obvious, inscriptions are superlatively permanent gestures from -J, a literary persona who is allergic to personal libraries.

Who is Chelsea Martin like?

Graphed on a zed axis, The Really Funny Thing About Apathy is thin enough to fit in the back pocket of a pair of jeans, but too wide on its ex-why axes for anything narrower than a parka pocket or a purse’s marsupial side-pocket. Chelsea Martin’s short stories are not micro-fiction, but nor are they prolix. The picture of Chelsea Martin on the back makes her look like a dead-ringer for a stage actress from St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, named Heather Lowe, who has nothing to do with Chelsea martin except that they are apparently clones.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Heather Lowe was an iconic incandescent personality in the artistic scene of St. Catharines. She worked at the Strega Café and other service jobs along with a troupe of actors loosely organized by impresario Kelly Gillard.

After her early-morning-to-late-night shift work at one or two service jobs, Heather would carouse downtown, each of 365 nights as year without fail, until long after Closing Time, with the poet James Millhaven and the actor Graham Shaw. Lowe, Millhaven, and Shaw would claim space at the busiest patio at the busiest corner of the entire city. There Heather was a landmark dazzling force of nature and personality. A chain smoking, beer swilling, perpetually sparkling great attractor without ego, nor a trace of inhospitality, whose laugh was louder than music, students, and taxis combined.

Chelsea Martin appears to be of the exact same genetic helix. Heather was delighted by the poet James Millhaven’s ability to quote, from thin air, the lines of every poem, novel, movie, and song ever produced by a human. Heather also was delighted by Graham Shaw’s ability to not-only know the next lines following Millhaven’s quotations, but to know every popular culture parody of every text, and be able to riff about those. Heather, for her part, could be on her third pitcher of beer after a long workday and yet still follow incredibly intricate arguments and bullshitting, at 2am, after a night’s dazzling lights and hours of passing throngs that had been hanging over her part of the patio fence to get her to smile. Somehow, Heather was never hung over, sickened, disparaged, sluggish, nor ever quiet. Which suggests to me that Chelsea Martin is also indestructible, bulletproof, impossible to poison, and while inebriated five sheets to the wind and six ways to Sunday, still can whirlwind encyclopedic bullshit, in a way that makes the most boring places on suburban Earth feel like the raucous lamplit Paris of Edgar Degas.

The Really Funny Thing About Apathy reminded -J of my interior storytelling (-J’s poetry mentions more about those interiors for anyone who is interested). The author, Chelsea Martin, reminds me of an actress who helped make turn of the century St. Catharines nights into a story worth telling (James Millhaven’s poetry expands on those suburbanite nights).

Story 1

The first story in TRFTAA is titled, At the End of This Story the Door Will Have Opened and Under Eight Seconds Will Have Passed (9-24). Had this title been submitted to one of the niche literary journals that publish one-sentence poems or one-sentence prose, it would have been sufficient. In fact, the style of the first story incorporates plenty of one-sentence paragraphs. The one-sentence paragraphs contravene conventional rules for prose writing, but when they were published in 2010, they foreshadowed the influences of social media sentence and sentence fragments on this century’s literary syntax. The clipped style that implies connections between one sentence and another, also implies topic changes by summarizing a list-like series of sentences in a final paragraph. This affected social media literary voice seems to be a hallmark of self-identifying Gen Zed writers from North America since TRFTAA’s first print run.

Whereas older generations (Millennials and their X-elders) develop ideas in paragraphs, Chelsea Martin writes with far more white space and brevity. Martin’s brevity is an illusion, because there is no lack of sentences in her sentence lists; merely a lack of clauses or woolgathering exegesis. Many of the sentences could have stood on their own in one-sentence literary journals. None of them, though, is particularly oceanic or vivid in the sense of haiku nor other split-second literary forms. Martin’s first story is actually quite didactic.

Eight Seconds’ central problem is to illustrate a human anxiety response to an event from daily life: a knock at one’s door. Martin’s story raises the mundane situation to the levels of information theory and psychology. When somebody hears a knock at their door, all of the explanatory information about the knock is on the other side of the door. The story is the internal monologue of a narrator who hears a knock at their door and wonders who is there. The action of the story is the narrator’s brainstorming and, presumably, their motions for moving toward (Walking? Wheel-chairing? Skipping?), and then opening the door.

The social meanings of Martin’s story have changed since it was written. Private surveillance communities of closed circuit tv cameras and web-enabled homeowner cameras are currently burgeoning in response to this doorway problem of legal consciousness, property law, social interactions, architecture, and privacy. All are being reconstructed by doorbell surveillance. Martin predates the deluge of American-owned corporate door cameras, microphones, and their online surveillance networks that have colonized doorways around the world, with US laws governing the servers and therefore the flow of information, thereby replacing anxieties about strangers at the door with anxieties about who regulates American corporate-owned network data, as well as the documented American prejudices that seem to be ingrained into the design of the user interfaces. Therefore, also, readers around the world have moral and ethical reasons to critically consider Martin’s American storytelling.

Martin’s story gives readers a snippet of insight into how the problem of information and doors was being internalized just before these surveillance portals changed a door from a kind of wall, into a kind of information reader for evaluating people who approach. The information problem is reversed, now. The identity of the door owner is, nowadays, the unknown quantity protected by privacy; while the door knocker is the one who approaches doors with an information deficit.

The drastic epistemological switchover from privacy to surveillance society may have been motivated by homeowner anxieties like those of Martin’s narrator. That historical reading, though, assumes that the narrator is anxious. There are moments wherein the narrator could be imagining reasons for nervousness or worry. In real life, though, there are millions of North Americans who think of monsters and disasters when they open doors, but they think about those anxieties entirely for fun. Sarcasm, playful teasing of oneself, a mordant wit, or a fan of horror movies, are examples of traits that imagine danger as a sense of play rather than a sense of fear.

Of course, some people just like surprises. Some people are friendly. Anxiety is not the only desirable reading of Martin’s story. Toward the story’s end, the narrator enters a kind of genre-bending speculation about themselves and their effects on other people. This is a continuation of the information theory problem at the heart of the story. When blindly responding to a knock at a door, whatever a person thinks about the mystery on the other side, those thoughts only reveal themselves. They have no information about the knock, and therefore no necessary correlation, to who is knocking or why. Speculation is a way to engage with ourselves.

A surveillance society short-circuits the pathway we take from hearing a knock and walking to the door. A surveillance society loses the eight seconds of creativity and self-reflectivity that Martin’s narrator gets to play with. Martin’s story does, at least, demonstrate what individual internal monologues lose when they are placed in a surveillance society like our contemporary suburban doorbell panopticon.

Although, at times, Martin’s lists of maybes and might-bes feel exhausting and over-reached. An unreliable narrator is a narrator who can be surprised. Is an unreliable narrator who is so thoroughly exhaustive when confronted with unknowns even capable of surprise? Is that narrator just a minor avatar of an omniscient god whose omniscience is the power to know all possibilities, (instead of, say, the omniscient power to know exactly what will happen)? What is the reliability status of Martin’s brainstorming figment?

There are serious epistemological, legal, psychosocial, and geographical implications for this story from the year 2010. The differences between a society of pre-revealed surveillance versus a society of privacy’s chances for discovery are evident to the decade-later reader of the twenty-twenties. What is our affective imagination? When do we find out the things we find out? Martin is a skilled information theorist whose Eight Seconds story provides multiple readings for debate and discussion.

Story 2

The second story, Moments Before the Future Begins to Approach (27-38), feels like Martin is staging a dream. A reader might ask if the title refers to the hypnogogic dream state that happens moments before waking up from REM sleep.

This story is dreamlike because Martin writes in a series of images connected to uncommon plot points that Martin never explains. The narrator is going to be visited by their father, but rarely thinks about him. The narrator’s mom is the one who brings news of the visit, but we never find out why. The narrator slept on a porch one time with two girls named Megan but why are we learning about this episode is not explained. The story has a plotline, of sorts; at least insofar as postmodern writing has accepted that life is a series of events and that humans need to narrate themselves through their own lives. Moments Before is an existential story bordering on absurdism, absurd both in the way dreams are absurd, and in the comedic sense of a Cohen Brothers film.

Some episodes in the story are Kafkaesque. The narrator recounts that, as someone living in a gated community, neighbours would rat-out kids who have fun raucous birthday parties after dusk. When some uniformed men arrive to potentially quell another backyard sleepover, the narrator’s friends and mom are somewhat relieved to see they are painters. The painters, though, in a Kafkaesque moment of ambiguous policing, ignore the kids hiding in the house, but still search their tents. “After that everyone was sort of edgy” reports the narrator (30). However, the thick layers of repression that the narrator simply assumes is a matter of circumstances, living in a gated community, are banished by their hypnogogic lack of contextual recall on the next page, “Maybe it was summer; maybe that’s why I wasn’t in school” (31).

Through the lack of information, Martin builds up tension but also casual dreamy scenes. There is no indicator if the narrator is a child, teenager, or adult. Nor is there an indicator whether the narrator lives in the gated community still, or not. Plausibly, the narrator is a teenager and has not yet gained the insight of age that would explain the events of the story; or at least, that would enable a more coherent construction of the story so that there would be cause-and-effect constructions instead of happenstance.

Further to the dreamlike quality of the story, the narrator is informed that their mother begins a love affair with their uncle (dad’s brother). Near the ending, the narrator’s dad confesses it is not a problem for him, in fact he finds it funny. The Freudian implications of childhood imagination and psychosexuality are evident. So is the Freudian, and general psychoanalytical opinion, that youth are cognizant of adult sexuality but mostly observe those aspects of life in snippets and declarations by adults. Even though the narrator is sexually active, the superficiality of their description of unusual family sexual structure seems like the story is meant to end with the unfinished, fragmentary inference that it is the remembrance of a dream.

That, or else the moral of the story is that Chelsea Martin is writing toward blurring the genres of literary fiction and the taboo pornography that become salient to American popular culture after 2016, few years after 2010, during the Trump administration. Martin is no prude nor a pornographer by any stretch. Nevertheless, the mass-market appeal of psychosexual taboos that currently spans our mass media had to begin in recent discourses, and Martin’s sparse storytelling is one potential early indicator of those Kafkaesque Californian-produced gated community discourses.

Story 3

McDonald’s is Impossible (41-54), TRFTAA’s third story, expands Zeno’s Paradox to include kinesthetic steps in movement and cognitive decision-making moments. Martin plays with the boundaries between ontology of being in line at a restaurant. She abstracts the restaurant as a particular social space defined by a menu, and then expands the institutional contexts for social spaces that radiate from that very particular McDonald’s lineup. Martin also plays with phenomenology of lining up, of choosing from menus, of financialized retail organizing of space and time, whether that is the time spent idling at a cash register or the institutions that socially construct adolescence as its own social time.

Martin’s last line, though, is an incorrect conclusion. The story is a long list of Zeno extractions: “They have to… They have to… They have to…” sentences. Martin concludes that, “And eating food from McDonald’s is mathematically impossible” (54). What Martin really described up to that point, is that McDonald’s restaurants, and visiting McDonald’s restaurants, are socially constructed activities. The additional steps Martin lists include institutions that people spend time in before they go to McDonald’s, “And before they can meet, they have to have in-school suspension the same day” (54). Martin is describing the way McDonald’s builds synergy with local buildings and the flow of people through suburban streets. That is not a paradox of steps in the sense of Zeno’s geometrical divisions. However, to Martin’s philosophical credit, the social context is potentially a way that social construction and institutionalized routines are beyond the descriptions of mathematics. There is no way for math to demonstrate that detention has to exist or that people have to be in school after-hours in order to go to McDonald’s. That’s a combination of disciplinary roles, socialization and city planning, corporate strategies, and adverting that targets young student commuters. McDonald’s is not mathematically impossible, although it might be a phenomenon impossible to quantify.

Chelsea Martin might have missed an opportunity to be more rebellious or critical of institutions like schools and fast food. Schools and fast-food chains are part of a society-wide collusion to route teenagers through mass market vending experiences. Martin, though, is more interested in the experience as a Zenoid game. Her McDonald’s story is an example of the Apathy in her book’s title.

Story 4

The Consumption (57-67) is the most modernist, rather than postmodernist, story of the four. Martin explores the sociological concept of habitus: the way people posture their bodies to express their social meanings in conversations, or while in a particular social context. Martin does this by writing a narrator who, in the present tense, describes choosing what to say and their inflections in conversation; by reading the postures of people they converse with; incorporates the social context, e.g.: “Netta flops on my bed and embraces my pillow. I determine this is the moment she expects me to ask about her romantic life” (58). This story is Chelsea Martin as a talented anthropologist.

In this story, the narrator has been dumped by a boyfriend named Reid. Martin writes about stagnation in basic life events by making self-conscious parallelism to the theories of David Hume’s physics, that all movement can be divided into instants in which object are not moving. The Humeian sense of images of stopped time resonate with the narrator’s self-image in their own motionless apartment spaces. Stagnation in social relationships, the narrator feels, is also arbitrary, “Nothing moves anywhere that I can sense. I am stagnating. I am moving through time, but each second, each snapshot of a second, is exactly the same” (59). Martin also notes the arbitrariness of moving the plot whether in stories or in real life, “Something moves in the refrigerator’s motor and it begins to make an intrusive hum,” (Ibid.), is an example of arbitrary literary profusion that most humans experience in our mundane kitchen moments. Nothing makes our personal plots progress except a meaningless gesture from an appliance.

Martin develops habitus as a technique for profusion. Profusion is the term in literary rhetoric for moving a plot from one scene to the next. Martin’s narrator begins to focus on how they can use posture or vocal inflection to end arbitrary interactions and move to the next social moment in a conversational sequence, “I quickly calculate a response that would appease this guy, whose name I’ve forgotten, in an unmemorable way so he won’t be encouraged to befriend me” (60). Habitus becomes a form of power for the narrator. At the same time, the narrator becomes further and further distanced from the content of what people are saying. The narrator examines minute social meanings in order to disengage from creating more enlarged social meanings. The narrator rushes social relationships through conversations without deepening their own responsibility to maintain them.

Eventually, (63-65), the narrator has to contend with a co-worker who uses the same techniques to prolong engagement rather than limit it. The co-worker presents ambiguous conversational hooks that have the potential to create social meaning. Martin is masterfully funny at this point, by coercing her narrator into a responsibility to make vague or ambiguous social cues into conversation that is not easily predetermined. The social power of profusion can be subverted after all. Oral culture is not so easily gamified as the narrator wishes.

Finally, Martin reveals that there is stress in using the rhetoric of habitus as tactical power to control encounters. Such contentless control strains against one’s own truths. When the narrator leaves work for a parking lot, they discover flowers on the windshield of their car, only to realize that “one of my homosexual male friends innocently flirting, trying to rack up points with me to solidify our friendship” (66). The narrator obsesses, briefly, over ways to display a false loyalty to the friend. However, the narrator is committed to that falsehood, not the anonymous flower friend himself, “They cannot be expected to understand that their innocent game has led me to rationally entertain thoughts I had been suppressing for months…I will not make them pay in any perceptible way” (67). While fair, this verdict is stressful, and portends even more uncomfortable conversations in the future.

There is no reason in the particular friendship for the narrator to be so disingenuous. The narrator’s reason for false friendship seems to be only that it continues the habitual pattern of reacting to social cues without internalizing their contents. Therefore, when Martin ends the story with the narrator continuing to stagnate in depression of a dumped ex-mate, the story concludes with a modernist ending idea that the narrator could have made changes by engaging with sincerity.

Apathy as Place

Whatever else -J saw in these stories, the Apathy in the title is not reflective of me. I am one of the least apathetic people in the universe. The mathematics, the social theories, the problematization of minutiae, however, resonate. Martin and myself share a need to explain apathy without really understanding why apathy should exist as an alternative to everything while simultaneously existing in opposition to nothing. Apathy is not a cause, neither is does apathy have a necessary cause.

Chelsea Martin does connect apathy to places, though; which is a kind of correlation. Reading Martin’s stories is a reminder that doorways, gated communities, fast food restaurants, and the home we return to when we experience social disappointments, are all capable apathy generators. Like the completely unrelated actress Heather Lowe, though, Chelsea Martin’s style turns apathy of boring social commonplaces into a character generator, a charismatic resistance to North American society’s worldbuilding beige for the middle class. The Really Funny Thing About Apathy is an artifact that resists the apthygenic environments of the twenty-first century.

That this book can be situated historically is a testament to its place in various discourses. The stories appeal to a curbside approach to thinking about social theory, just as much as they appeal to anyone who has lived in homes and jobs that are disconnected from their own complex identity. For that matter, Chelsea Martin is a sympathetic narrator to the plight of readers who doubt they have a meaningful identity at all. If absurdism is all there is; and you are not interested in moving your plot forward by doing a routine chore like washing dishes, nor by making yourself into a local landmark by going outside simply because you are all that there is downtown; then you can, at least, move yourself forward through life by spending the next hour reading The Really Funny Thing About Apathy.


Buy the book: Amazon

Publisher: Website

Chelsea Martin:





About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, a book reviewer, and a Pushcart nominee. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.

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