On Andrew Ewell’s “Set for Life” – Chicago Review of Books


In Andrew Ewell’s debut novel, Set for Life, our unnamed narrator is a tenure-less creative writing professor at a middling college in upstate New York. He’s been riding the coattails of his wife/colleague/benefactor’s literary success for years and, as he approaches 40, he has yet to make good on his own writerly promise in the form of an actual book. After coming home from a summer fellowship in France without any fresh material, he begins to project his frustration onto an English department that demands publication before promotion and onto a wife who, through it all, just keeps on churning out books. The narrator’s downward spiral quickly, and predictably, turns adulterous when he winds up in bed with his wife’s best friend (also his best friend’s wife). You can probably guess a lot of the familiar beats that ensue as the narrator plummets toward rock bottom.

To be clear: Set for Life is not any the less entertaining for its predictability. Ewell’s narrator is consistently hilarious, and occasionally insightful, as he separates himself from the pack of similarly disenchanted protagonists in the specific, self-inflicted nature of his torment. The narrator isn’t quite young enough to be one of literature’s charmingly despicable man-children, and he isn’t quite established enough to have the stability of the classic campus novel’s disgruntled professor. This is a character well past his youth, yet still not quite in the throes of middle age, who has very little tangible success to his name and no financial security. Put simply: he’s one misstep away from disaster. Thanks to his precarious economic position, and to his non-existent literary achievements, he’s a fascinating, if not altogether likable, guide through the discordant worlds of art and commerce, of academia and publishing. This is precisely because it’s so difficult to discern the fine line between the jealous grumblings of a madman and the piercing observations of an industry insider.

“Once upon a time [my wife] and I had shared the same airy romantic ideals,” writes the narrator, “editing each other’s stories side by side in bed, spending the afternoons passing pages back and forth, content with having made something out of nothing, happy just to move the words around on a page.” This period of literary and romantic bliss came to an abrupt end when Debra, his wife, “got a story published in Harper’s, and a book deal soon followed. Then there was money, and everything changed.” The narrator became his wife’s “sidekick, adopting her successes as my own. He could no longer tell “the difference between what she wanted and what I did.” Soon after his wife’s rapid ascension he followed her to Halbrook College, assuming an Assistant Professorship he was very transparently awarded as a recruiting tactic to get Debra.

The woe-is-me routine here is a bit difficult to stomach, especially since the full-time job the narrator stumbles his way into are few and far between in an increasingly adjunct-dependent academic world. It’s also easy to be dismissive of his thoughts on how money bastardizes literature—it’s a convenient viewpoint for someone to have who has yet to secure any money for his own writing.

But Ewell deftly counterbalances the narrator’s complaints about the industry into which he desperately seeks entry with the same complaints from an author who has gained entry: “Sometimes I think I did my best work before I ever published anything,” says Carlos Cross, Halbrook’s writer-in-residence, fresh off his debut novel about a league of bond-trading superheroes. “Publishing ruins you,” Carlos continues, “It makes you self-conscious. People develop expectations. It weighs on you.”

Carlos is holding a vindicating mirror up to the narrator’s thoughts in what seems to be a moment of genuine connection, but the narrator quickly squashes any potential for tenderness—he refuses to accept his own wisdom when it doesn’t emanate from himself: “This was a sentiment [on publishing] I’d heard from other writers,” he says of Carlos’s assertions. “It was a stance you could only take once you’d achieved the success necessary for forming opinions about success.” The narrator is too spiteful and self-involved to recognize an ally in Carlos, largely because he views him as emblematic of a contemporary literature landscape that prioritizes high-concept flash over quality prose. “I couldn’t understand what they were publishing these days,” he says during a trip to the bookstore. “A notable critic had praised [an author] for having ‘learned as much from comics as from Conrad,’ as if that were a good thing.”

Ewell’s hyper-acidic tone when it comes to modern day pop culture will unavoidably rub certain readers the wrong way; some of the narrator’s whining about the Netflixification of art often reads like low hanging fruit. But his aversion to the present state of literature also makes for some of the novel’s most entertaining passages, ones I hesitate to quote from because they can hardly be done justice without being read in their entirety. I laughed out loud—something I seldom do while reading—at a hilariously accurate rendering of an undergrad creative writing workshop, and at a prominent Twitter poet who has a Trumpian view of the platform: “Twitter’s such a wonderful medium,” the poet says. “Your latest truth is only two hundred and eighty characters away.”

To be clear: the humor here isn’t ornamentation. Set for Life has a genuine interest in what the narrator perceives as the dampening effect social media culture has on literature, and on the institutions that serve as the purveyors of that literature. “It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece,” the narrator’s Department Chair, Chet Bland, tells him of the novel he needs to write to secure tenure. “It doesn’t even have to be great,” he adds. “Or even good, it just has to be published.”

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There’s a vicious cycle suggested here, one where publishing confers credibility, credibility secures teaching jobs, and teachers impart industry wisdom upon eager young writers who seek entry in the same watered down publishing world that landed their professor in front of them. It bears keeping in mind that it’s a cycle suggested by the same narrator whose jealousy lends him something like unreliability. But, as in his exchange with Carlos Cross, the narrator’s cynicism is substantiated here by someone who has benefitted from the system. Chet Bland does not share the narrator’s vendetta against the literary establishment, and yet he still acknowledges its shortcomings, tacitly admitting his own complicity in the process.

Ewell’s novel is more than just a book-long treatise on the failings of contemporary literature. It is probably best described as a kind of campus comedy of errors in the vein of Richard Russo’s Straight Man or Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. That said, I didn’t come away from Set for Life thinking about its social satire, or about the many ways its hero makes performance art out of self-destruction. Ultimately, Ewell’s debut left me grappling with a bold question for a debut novelist to pose: Is a novel published because it’s good or is it good because it’s published?

Set for Life
By Andrew Ewell
Simon & Schuster
Published February 6, 2024

Michael Knapp

Michael Knapp’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Cleveland Review of Books, The Adroit Journal and elsewhere. He’s an MFA candidate at the Writer’s Foundry.


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