Martin Martin's on the Other Side is the debut novel by Mark Wernham, a former music and lifestyle journalist. It has appeared from a mainstream publisher and it has received warmly if not volcanically glowing newspaper responses, including the claim that it is "a dark, brilliantly funny satire from a maverick new talent who clearly has a lot to say about these interesting times we live in." However, this undeniably makes the book sound more substantial than it is. I'll agree to "funny," but I think some of the rest may be a touch charitable.
The book revolves around Jensen Interceptor, a foul-mouthed but oh-so-hip civil servant who spends his work days carrying out focus groups and market research for the government, and his evenings off his face at sex-club coffee shop Starfucks or watching Porn Disco on his state-of-the-art TV. One day, he meets Reg who, while showing little interest in 15+ meals and the latest products, has a suspiciously good grasp of world history and politics. Before long he is recruited to investigate Reg and his group of supposed Martin Martinists, Martin Martin being a TV psychic who once displayed real supernatural powers before being murdered by the government in the wake of riots caused by his airing of the nation's dirty linen. Jensen then falls in love with caring spy and health worker Claire because of her lovely white "knicks" and then briefly becomes Martin Martin before returning to his old life as though nothing happened.
From the start, we expect the book to be a dystopia. This is partly for cosmetic reasons, such as Wernham's low-key borrowing of tropes from better-known examples of the British dystopian subgenre. For example, we have the cult of the leader and the vast security state from Orwell's 1984 (1948), the illogical bureaucracy from Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), and the viewpoint character's weirdly colloquial narration peppered with Russian-inspired neologisms in Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962) and mockney obscenities here.
However, Martin Martin's... dystopian credentials do mercifully extend beyond the pastiche. Ultimately, we know that Wernham's world is a dystopia not because of the reactions of the viewpoint character (who is invariably chirpy), but because of our own reaction to its content. There are two particular areas I want to discuss.
The first is the novel's expression of the Madonna-Whore Complex. One of the most famous ideas to come out of Freudian Psychoanalysis, the Madonna-Whore Complex suggests that some men are incapable of mixing sex and love in one person and instead carve womankind into women who are sexually attractive and capable of satisfying their sexual urges and women who are worthy of their love, such as mothers or wives. This vision of womanhood is systemic in the world of Jensen Interceptor. The main characters in the book are all male. The only women we encounter in the book seemingly exist only for the main characters to interact with and even then they fall into two crude categories.
The predictably more popular category is that of the "whores." These make up the overwhelming bulk of the female characters we encounter in the book. Jensen's fellow workers are all male, as are his superiors; his only contact with women is through Porn Disco (comprised entirely of up-skirt footage shot in a night club) and Starfucks. Starfucks does for sex what Starbucks does for thinking. Starbucks works as a business because it does not just sell glorified milk-shakes and cups of coffee, rather it sells an identity. By making a purchase at Starbucks you are not just getting a caffeine hit, you are declaring that you are the kind of person who listens to jazz and reads interesting books and cares about the rain forests. Similarly, Starfucks allows Jensen Interceptor to purchase the right to be the kind of guy who has loads of sex with loads of different women. For Jensen, women are entities without name or mind; they are simply to be consumed like a skinny mocha with whipped cream.
Conversely, Jensen encounters "madonnas" in the shape of kindly old ladies and Claire. Claire is a health care professional who looks after children and the poor. Within minutes of first talking to Jensen she falls utterly in love with him, despite his vomiting on her. Such is her devotion that her final report to her superiors is about her love for Jensen. The couple having sex is presented as a significant moment of psychological growth for Jensen; here is a woman worthy of both love and lust! Unfortunately Claire is no feminist icon. Beautiful, sexy, caring, and all-forgiving, Claire's qualities are as saintly as she and her relationship with Jensen are unbelievable. Far from representing a Damascene rejection of the Madonna-Whore complex, Jensen's relationship with Claire feels a lot more like an example of that other misogynistic favourite—the placing of a woman on a pedestal—suggesting that even the book's supernatural elements lack the power to cure Jensen and his world of simple-minded sexism.
The second area in which Martin Martin's on the Other Side's dystopia is particularly provocative for us as readers is in its presentation of the Cult of the Idiot. Jensen is an idiot. His vocabulary is limited to a string of inarticulate obscenities, and he spends much of the book describing the world as though he has just encountered it for the first time. Upon attending an Italian restaurant, he is told:
"The bolly naze is good," says the girl.
"Is it?" I says.
"This is the best little Italian for miles," she says, smiling at the bloke holding the pencil, and he smiles back at her, his fat cheeks almost covering his eyes.
I look at the bloke holding the pencil.
"Is he?" I says. (p. 88)
Even when he starts to grasp the peculiarities of the world, his opinions are idiotic and immediately met with an avalanche of self-praise.
"Pepso Nouveau is so much better. It's new." Which it is. Stands to reason. It's totally fucking great. (p. 17)
Nor is Jensen alone in his stupidity. His best friend Fyodor is little better despite speaking a number of different languages; the same goes for his boss, Brock, who is merely a slightly older and better paid version of Jensen.
What is most distressing about Jensen's world is the fact that he is clearly a representative of the moneyed middle classes. Working class people are frequently referred to as "trampies" and are usually raving vagrants, husks of the people they might have been had they not spent their lives desperately clinging to the remaining vestiges of their sanity. Furthermore, politics is pitched at Jensen's level. The prime-ministerial art, we are told, includes images of the PM shaking hands with a banana ("fucking funny," notes Jensen), a painting of him doing a trick on a skateboard, and a huge sculpture of him naked and flexing his muscles. Indeed, Jensen's PM is effectively Big Brother but with the collectivist militarism replaced with a kind of Jackass-inspired fratboy puerility. However, Jensen's world also includes intelligent people, but they too seem to be, well ... morons. For example, Reg, an educated revolutionary, has devoted his life to creating a cult surrounding a dead TV psychic. He is mocked by his academic peers, who claim that the only way forward is to toe the party line and get rich telling the government what they want to hear. Even the evil spy-master aims no higher than the creation of a self-justifying bureaucracy that exists in order to investigate itself. He does not aspire to personal power or wealth, merely to be a cog in a vast impersonal bureaucracy. Jensen Interceptor's world may be created by and for men, but none of these men are particularly bright, including the Messianic Martin Martin himself.
Martin Martin's on the Other Side presents a world in which life is so absurd that it passes through existentialism and enters into the arena of farce. The book's two big conspiracies, neatly hidden behind traditionally SFnal conceptual breakthroughs, are both clearly ridiculous. In one case it is the pointless creation of a self-perpetuating and self-obsessed security apparatus, and in the other it is the figure of a murdered potential Messiah who does not preach morality or philosophy but instead pulls skeletons out of the nation's cupboards, publicly airing who is a crook and who is a paedophile. This absurdity is compounded by the fact that Jensen Interceptor learns both of these facts and then ends the book back where he started, off his face in Starfucks wearing a designer suit.
The dystopia is a genre that is fundamentally concerned with the present day; it is a literary reductio ad absurdum addressing contemporary trends and a warning of what might come to pass should we not realise the error of our ways. 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).
I mention all of this in order to demonstrate that Martin Martin's on the Other Side is not a particularly original piece of work. In fact, it is tempting to call it derivative. Nor is it a particularly profound or well-structured book, since the plot rapidly descends into unconvincing Philip K. Dick-style obfuscation and the kind of plot-resolving supernatural trip that Terry Pratchett has been known to use in books such as Lords and Ladies (1992) and Thud! (2005).
However, despite lacking substance on a stylistic or conceptual level and having a plot that could charitably be described as "more or less coherent," Martin Martin's on the Other Side is still an enjoyable read. The book is undeniably funny in places and features a few memorable phrases. If judged as a work of transgressive dystopian fiction, it is lightweight and unoriginal, but if judged as an undemanding way to spend a couple of hours, it is surprisingly pleasant.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in the U.K., where he writes and teaches.