No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, March 22, 2009

#20: Martin Martin's On the Other Side -- Mark Wernham

We're all like ... eels in the mud at the bottom of the river, all burrowing away in our little tubes, eating the fucking mud and thinking that there's nothing else going on -- just our little tunnel and our mud and our wriggling. But that's not how it is. There's totally, like, a fucking whole lot more to it. Like, eels, yeah, they're just in the mud at the bottom of the river, They think that's all there is. Until they get grabbed by a hungry trampy, then they discover that there is air and blue sky and the whole world above the river. Then they get stabbed in the head and have their skin stripped off and then they get eaten. (p. 180)

Read for a panel on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. Martin Martin's On the Other Side feels like science fiction for people who don't read science fiction, though I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the unlikeable laddish narrator, Jensen Interceptor: maybe it's the very British dystopia, reminiscent of 1984, A Clockwork Orange, Brazil.

Jensen Interceptor (the name feels like a joke, though there's no explanation of it: other characters have 'normal' names) works for the Department of Media and Culture, paying off his Life Debt, and spending his free time at Starfucks (pills and orgies, general laddishness) and watching Monster Trucks and Porn Disco on his plasma TV in his trendy Rotherhithe Sky Tower flat. North of the river, London is a sleazy dirty backwater: south of the river is where it's all happening. And Jensen's going to make sure he's part of it.

It looks as though his bosses have faith in him: they assign him to investigate Reg Rankin, leader of a group of Martinists. The cult of Martin Martin is distinctly messianic: MM was this bloke who lived in olden times and ... could read minds and see into the future and talk to the dead ... he was killed by the king or something because Martin was going to teach everyone in the world how to be like him ...(p.62). He had a TV show, and was being promoted by his manager Devlin Williams when they both died after a police chase: Martin Martin was thirty-three years old.

Naturally Jensen Interceptor doesn't believe a word of this. Not at first. But then he's given a make-over, and infiltrates Reg's group: meets a girl, walks the streets of Islington, and starts to doubt the world he lives in and the value of the life he's been leading. Oh, and he has some very peculiar experiences. Or perhaps he doesn't.

Jensen doesn't know what's real and what's not: realistically, neither do we. How much of what he experiences is drug-induced or fed to him by the 'gov'? Is he really, at any point, possessed by the spirit of a murdered man? Jensen doesn't always distinguish between reality and virtuality: Starfucks, for instance. And maybe, like Reg, he's the subject of medical experimentation.

Jensen does become more likeable as the book progresses, as his perceived world starts to fracture and he begins to question the government, the society, the world in which he lives. But that's a narrow blinkered world: there's little sense of the world beyond Britain, except in the (possibly hallucinatory) glimpses of Reg's past, of a time when the EU broke up, the American empire collapsed and China intervened in the Middle East. The emphasis is on the police state that's Britain, where security and paranoia are two sides of the same coin, where everyone's investigated.

There's more to this novel than I initially thought, but it still has a hollow empty feeling, an unsatisfactory inconclusion.

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