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Fucking Martin – Andy could’ve used asterisks. But he didn’t.

July 25, 2010

There’s a pretty good chance you haven’t heard of this novel. It was originally published in the States in 1993 as John and Martin, which is how you’ll find it in bookshops today. Fucking Martin was the title in the UK when it was first released there but I’m pretty sure they’ve reverted to the original title, too. The only possible explanation for this is gutlessness (and arguably taste). John and Martin is a batshitly boring book title (no, batshitly is not a word). Under no conceivable circumstances can Fucking Martin be described as a boring name for a book.

Fucking Martin is a metafiction fan’s wet dream. These days I pretty much despise metafiction (unless it’s really, really well done – The New York Trilogy, for example). But Fucking Martin was the first gay novel I bought and read in London, a city I’d fled to in hopes of somehow or other, half a planet away from my family, getting to grips with my own sexuality. Re-reading it 17 years down the track it has flaws, plenty of them, but it’s a novel for which I have a lot of affection.

And it will always be Fucking Martin to me. John and Martin? Bollocks.

Speaking of bollocks … Back to the metafiction. Fucking Martin is described as “A Novel” on the cover. But is it? Flicking through it you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a collection of short stories – which it is, in addition to being a novel – interspersed with… other bits. Other bits which are mostly narrated by the same guy – apparently – who narrates all of the stories. (That’d be John.) Most of these stories (not all, despite what the blurb says) involve two characters called John and Martin, who to some extent are sexually or romantically involved.  Martin only features in a handful of the episodes that break up the stories. Oh, and it’s an “AIDS novel”, a horrible name for a sub-genre but horribly understandable given its era. At about the time I read this novel I told a friend I assumed I’d end up HIV positive because that’s just what happened to poofs.

But never mind what was happening (or didn’t happen, as it happened) in my life in 1993. Actually now I think about it 1993 was pretty good for me. I saw U2 at Wembley. Ner. But what’s happening in Fucking Martin?

What’s happening, the reader comes to understand by the end of the book (or after reading the blurb, at least the blurb in my edition, which contains at least a couple of errors and gives away the entire storyline and is basically completely retarded), is that the episodes interspersed between the stories  – intrusions, is that the technically correct word? – are the “real” story, and the stories themselves are composed by the “real” John as he battles to emotionally process his life, particularly his life with Martin. There are elements of some of the stories which clearly relate to one another, elements of the intrusions which clearly relate to the stories. While most of the stories could stand alone, there is clearly some synergy happening here. The sum is certainly greater than its parts.

Oh, and there are lots of references to water. And apparently cum is the water of life. And symbolism is not this novel’s strongest suite.

All of this might just about make sense, assuming you’ve been to university or night school and you’ve done a course at some stage in modern literature and have some grasp of exactly how fucked up a lot of fiction is thanks to postmodernism.  But then the novelist has to take it a step further into the metafictive morass and, in the last few pages, have a character refer to the narrator as “Dale”. Dale? Dale? Who the fuck is Dale?

Take a look at the cover pic at the top of this blog. That name, the name above the title of the book? Yup. That’s who Dale is.

So what exactly are we reading then? Presumably this is a beautifully written, ingeniously constructed work of thinly veiled autobiographical fiction. And yes, despite my midlife cynicism Fucking Martin is often beautiful and it’s certainly ingenious. But is it autobiographical fiction? The first line of the first story is: “This is not the worst thing I remember.” In the final intrusion by the “real” John, in which it’s revealed that the “stories” are stories written by the “real” John, Peck writes: “I wrote: this is not the worst thing I remember, and then … I wrote something that hadn’t happened.” What? What?

At the age of 24 I was creaming my pants over this stuff. And it’s still clever and it’s still great to read, although there are some elements of the storytelling that jar today in ways they didn’t then – John finding his dad in drag, Martin making a joke in the bath as he haemorrhages. Today there are still plenty of writers who seem to think metafiction is the only way forward, but it’s not (thank god) as overwhelming an attitude as it seemed to be in the early ’90s. Peck himself may well be a cautionary tale: “this touchingly young writer will have a great future”, Edmund White tells us on the back cover; “the arrival of a prodigious talent”, says Dennis Cooper on the inside cover; “one of the most daring young writers of the 1990s and beyond”, says the retarded blurb. Peck wrote two more novels, each even more bizarrely metafictive than his debut (and each, if I remember, with te’bly te’bly clever references to John and Martin), wrote a lot of arguably ill-judged literary criticism that made a lot of people dislike him intensely, and now writes young-adult fiction. As far as I can tell that daring, prodigious talent, that great future,  all of it has since disappeared up its own self-referential, metafictive arse.

And that makes me a little sad. I know people with HIV. These days they will live longish, rather complicated lives. Longish and rather complicated wasn’t an option for the vast majority of people living with HIV and AIDS in the early ’90s. In the early ’90s, for most people, there was no option. Dale Peck wrote an amazing, wailing, gutsluicing eulogy of a novel to someone or some number of people he’d known. Presumably. And it is elegaic and it is beautiful and it is also just a bit fucked up by his obsession with his own cleverness. Fucking Martin is a creature of its time, a sort of museum exhibit. It’s worth revisiting, but I’m not sure how well it will continue to age.

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