Thursday, 9 April 2009

Mark Wernham, Martin Martin’s On the Other Side (2008)

Nine points:

[1] This book’s title really is extremely, almost heroically unmemorable. You see it on the cover, look away and it just slips out of the mind. I’m not entirely sure why: Martin’s a straightforward enough name. It might have to do with the fact that the author’s first name sets up an interference pattern with the ‘Martin’; or maybe the reduplication of Martin wrongfoots us; or maybe ‘s On The Other Side is too unidiomatic or clunking phrase. I don’t know.

[2] The novel, like a dodgy second hand motor, is two elements welded together without due attention to the requirements of road safety. Down the left side it’s a near-future dystopia in which Loaded or Nuts! magazine provides the social and cultural template. On the right it’s an odder, and better, sub Phil-Dick ‘Mercerism’ rerun, in which a TV-psychic from nowadays turns out actually to be able to channel spirits, including a murdered WWII soldier and the narrator of (most of) the novel, foulmouthed and shallow ‘Jensen Interceptor’ from the Nuts! future.

[3] It’s a jumble. About a quarter is good jumble; the rest … not so much.

[4] At first blush Martin Martin’s On the Other Side looks like a self-consciously intertextual intervention into the genre of postwar dystopian fiction: slangy first person narration by an unlikeable young droog, complete with random Russianisms, like a paler Clockwork Orange (an if-you-will Clockwork Yellow); a police state keeping the proles in misery and ignorance and subjecting its core members to intrusive surveillance, like a tuned-down Nineteen Eighty-four (reduced, since it’s you, and I like you, to 7:99); society kept docile with copious drugs and sex, like a considerably feebler Brave New World (a sort of Bert Lahr New Worldactually, I’m going to stop doing these parenthetical add-ons now); grim extrapolation parleyed into black humour and oddness like a unGilliam'd, de-deNiroed Brazil.

[5] Now, if we take the book to be an exercise in dystopian fiction, it seems to me it fails quite badly, for it is incoherent and excessively derivative. But actually I don’t think the book is an exercise in dystopia, or not primarily so. I think it’s an exercise in tone—the inadvertent eloquence of Jensen’s ‘fucking fucker’ laddishly limited register, the creation of a world less through description of concrete paraphernalia and more through monotony of narratorial voice. In that respect the book is rather better that it might at first appear, although ...

[6] … it's still not very good. One reason for its not very goodness is that, for all its vim, its spurts of energy and humour, it is very small-c conservative work. The Guardian blurb, quoted on the back, calls the novel ‘satire from a maverick new talent who clearly has a lot to say about these interesting times we live in.’ A couple of things here. First, and aiming my point at Cathi Unsworth rather than Wernham: '... interesting times in which we live'. Please! Second I must assume maverick is used, there, in the sense that John McCain and Sarah Palin applied the word to themselves last year. But most of all, whilst Wernham does indeed 'have a lot to say' almost all of it is straight from the ideological arsenal of the Daily Mail. The pastimes favoured by the working classes, particularly by working class males (larking about with mates, getting drunk, snorting coke, having sex) are Literally! Hell! On! Earth! On the other hand, the pastimes favoured by the middle classes (going to nice Italian restaurants, drinking glasses of red wine, not swearing, gathering in one another’s flats to talk about how the world is not as nice as it used to be) are Mankind’s Only Hope In These Desperate Times! The word for this is Snobbery. We might call it Reactionary Snobbery, except that that's two words.

The novel continually risks collapsing back into the Harry Enfield one-note gag (the boneheaded South African gym trainer who glosses his account of last night’s horrible, violent pub-binge with ‘you would have loved it, man’) from which, I'm prepared to believe, it originated. There's also a too-pat analysis offered, viz. that Jensen's problem is he didn't have a mummy to love him, that he's really just a big kid (in Starfucks: 'I sort of passed out with my head on the belly of one of the girls with her big boobies resting on my face. Very comforting. I could hear her blood running around her belly in pumps, rhythmical and soft. Everything at the right temperature. It made me feel safe and happy', 71) This seemed to me shallow qua analysis of youth discontent.

[7] Here’s a shorthand for what I’m saying: Wernham’s satirical commentary on contemporary Britain is too Yellow Dog and not enough The Information. Its Phildickishness, on the other hand, suffers by too shallow an understand of PKD specifically, and SF more generally.

[8] There’s a deal of creak in the construction. Wernham’s PKDocity excuses a certain amount of harebrainedness in the plotting and overall construction, but it's awkward nevertheless. The ending isn't strong. A couple of key transitions are lumpishly done. The novel is also not nearly as funny as it wants to be. There are some laughs, but not many laughs, and often phrases have the form of jokes without containing any actual humour (‘It’s The Barbara James Show … it’s “live”, which, I suppose, means it’s not dead’, 225).

[9] And yet ... there are a number of sustained stretches of very good writing in Martin Martin’s On the Other Side, evidence of a hugely promising, if not yet quite hitting-the-button, stylist at work. There’s an expressive vigour and an impressive forward momentum to Wernham’s writing, and when it steps outside its too obvious barrelfish-shoot it manages some remarkable effects. Jensen fleeing across the rooftops, getting his face changed by a bizarre Govt team, eating eels with a tramp, leaping out of his 29th floor window (plus the opening teaser trailor, not narrated by Jensen, describing a burning truck in WW2 France)—these, often brief scenes are very well nicely handled. Wernham is working his way up to something. Not leader articles in the Telegraph, I hope ('a stinky reek coming off old Blighty ... people running in and out ... like rats in and out of their burrows', 254). A better second novel, I hope.

A postscript. Jonathan M. notes the ‘idiocracy’ angle (personally I prefer the term stultocracy, although I wouldn't go to war over it). I was going to include my own opinion of this topic, but J. has already done the job better than I would:

Martin Martin's on the Other Side is not what you could call a serious work of dystopian fiction; its political analyses rarely rise higher than that of comedic works such as Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit? (2005) and Idiocracy (2006), which also features a restaurant-based gag in which the burger chain Fuddruckers sees its name changed to "Buttfuckers." Martin Martin's... also treads very similar ground to Nathan Barley (2005) whose first episode featured a writer being lionised for heralding the rise of the idiots—a subculture entirely composed of terrible fashion victims who speak a blend of Jamie Oliver mockney and gibberish, much like Jensen Interceptor. However, the book also bears certain similarities to traditional dystopian works of SF such as C. M. Kornbluth's The Syndic (1953) and his collaboration with Frederik Pohl, The Space Merchants (1952). Kornbluth, much like Wernham, did not base his dystopias upon plausible political or economic analyses but rather upon selecting an unsympathetic group and then speculating as to what society might be like if it came to be dominated by said group. In The Syndic this group is criminals, in The Space Merchants it is advertising executives, and in Martin Martin's... it is idiots. Indeed, Kornbluth even produced a famous short story, "The Marching Morons" (1951), based on the very similar idea that society comes to be dominated by idiots, an idea which has recently been reprised by the excellent "Pump Six," the titular story of Paolo Bacigalupi's debut collection(2008).
That’s right, I’d say. Stultocratic.


Jonathan M said...

Stultocracy = Rule by the foolish? sounds about right.

I think you're right about the potency and the monotony of the book's narratorial register but I think the distinctiveness of that register is one of the book's strengths. Remove Jensen Interceptor's commentary and I suspect the book would have sunk without trace but while I'm still ambivalent about a lot of it, I think it has grown on me since I reviewed it and the narratorial voice has a lot to do with that.

Jensen is not just an idiot but a carbonfibre, metal-clad idiot. He is sucked into a political conspiracy, made a spy and then becomes a messianic figure upon whose teachings a new society is constructed but despite all of these things, he never stops being a bloke who worries about his shower and loves to get off his tits down at Starfucks.

You occasionally get critics wondering who is narrating a text or raising the issue of unreliable narrators but the narratorial voice of Jensen Interceptor is so singular and important to the book that I think the book could well have ended with "and reader I fucking married her" and it woud not seem that silly or pompous.

Adam Roberts said...

Well, yes. At the end he fucking loves big brother.

I agree that 'the distinctiveness of that register is one of the book's strengths'; I just don't see that you need 300 pages to give voice to that register. Its saggy, and coils about in ungainly ways.

I also think that the book doesn't quite get its Brave New World ducks in a row. What's so clever about Brave New World is that, whilst the world portrayed is clearly a dystopia, it is in so many ways an attractive place. They're superficial ways, but Mustafa Mond's speech at the end (about freedom meaning amongst other things the right to be sick and miserable and starving, and that people are better off without that) has real bite. There's nothing so alluring about Wernham's brave new world, which is just crass and Mad For It. Its too obviously horrid.

Jonathan M said...

Hmm... can you believe that anyone would want to live on Airstrip One?

I'm not sure that the book needs to present a place that might be attractive to certain people but if it doesn't go down that road it needs to give some account of why people have allowed themselves to get into that state.

The book does attempt to provide those answers with its "it turned out loads of politicians were paedos and crooks so everyone rioted" origin story but while I think you're right that there was an attempt to do something Dickian and clever in those sections, I thought that part of the book failed to work at all.

Adam Roberts said...

Airstrip one, no: but Wernham clearly isn't pitching this as a pure Airstrip one dystopia. It's rather too obviously taking the Huxleyan path that populations will be controlled more effectively with hedonism (sex! drugs! monster trucks!), and the problem I have here is that the hedonism is too narrowly and repulsively conceived. I can imagine myself enjoying a touch of soma and a feelie, actually; I can't imagine I'd have much fun in Starfucks.

Orwell objected to Brave New World precisely because he didn't think that hedonism could function as an ideological basis for state control. Wernham doesn't even (you're right) begin to try to conceive how his dystopia might work ideologically. Idiots might be content in it, but nobody else would.

The Dickian side of the book was more interesting than the 'Laddism is Bad' side, I agree with you; and I also agree that it didn't really work. But it's a more honourable sort of failure.

Martin said...

There's nothing so alluring about Wernham's brave new world, which is just crass and Mad For It. Its too obviously horrid.

Aren't you guilty of the Reactionary Snobbery you accuse Wernham of here? (Or would you prefer "you here accuse Wernham of?", they didn't learn me too good at the Education Unit...)

This is an excellent review, by which I mean it aligns very closely with my opinion of the book. I liked it rather more than I expected because I liked its protagonist (or rather his voice) rather more than I expected. The first page of it is like someone shouting in your face, hence (presumably) the two unneccessary prologues to ease you in. You quickly become attuned to its "inadvertent eloquence" though and I disagree with the trapped in a lift school of criticism. However, even at its modest page count it feels very over extended.

Adam Roberts said...

"Aren't you guilty of the Reactionary Snobbery you accuse Wernham of here? (Or would you prefer "you here accuse Wernham of?")"

No! No! No! I would prefer 'of which you accuse Wernham, here'.

Now, write it out a hundred times by dawn, or I'll cut your balls off.