:: Article

Erik Martiny’s The Pleasures of Queueing

By Peter Harris.

Erik Martiny, The Pleasures of Queueing, (Mastodon, 2018)

Erik Martiny, author of this hilarious and vividly written first novel was, like his narrator, born in Cork, Ireland and grew up speaking French at home. This dual heritage inscribes itself on every page of this Bildungsroman. It may be that Martiny’s bilingualism in both language and culture allows him a more than ordinary awareness of the potential playfulness and variety of English as spoken in Ireland. He may also just be inordinately gifted. In any case, the novel abounds in verbal play with choice renderings of the speech patterns and pronunciations of Corkonian school kids, interspersed with diction that ranges high and astonishingly low. Martiny plays all 88 keys of his piano with gusto.

The Pleasures of Queuing is not for those who adhere to what the aptly named narrator, Olaf Montcocq, calls “the standards of the gentility principle.” Gentility rarely appears in the novel; it is an almost-Rabelaisian romp that trades in the grotesque-made-normal. A witty self-conscious distance allows Martiny to contextualise the bizarre into familial banality. Olaf recounts his life chronologically, as if it were a memoir. Almost everything in the house involves queuing, not surprising since Olaf’s mother Anne gives birth, by one count, 27 times. The dominating presence in the novel, other than its narrator, is Olaf’s ultra-French father, Martin Montcocq. Spending his youth in both occupied France and a state of satyrisis, with marriage he becomes monogamous. While he is a loving, brilliant, highly creative father, M. Montcocq veers between grandiose gestures of generosity and the austerity he inherited from his wartime childhood. One year he buys toothbrushes for all his students and in another gives them bicycles. At the same time, he forces his children to eat cheese made from his wife’s breast milk and to eat burgers cooked out of her offspring’s placenta. No bodily function or fluid fails to make a visceral appearance.

Olaf’s own excesses do not so much match as mirror his father’s. Sex obsessively possesses him, His polymorphous masturbation engages walls, wallets, furniture, and beyond. In college he finds himself in two successive relationships with women who harbor and eventually reveal some major-league kinks (sex with eggs and vegetables is a minor example.) Martiny makes all of these graphic descriptions enjoyable rather than just gross by maintaining both a comic distance and linguistic virtuosity.

This is a literary novel, complete with post-modern meta-textual self-commentary. Olaf loves to collapse hierarchies, so we encounter allusions to hosts of writers and texts from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Joyce and the Joycean. At the same time, the novel alludes to dozens of pop icons, many movies and their stars, often in very funny ways. The narrative mainly focuses on deviant domesticity and as such is largely apolitical. As counterbalance, each chapter begins and ends with a brief selection of highlights from the year it covers, which range from the tragic to the farcical, often tongue-in-cheek. The round up from 1987 reads in part

“Iraqi war planes drop mustard-gas bombs on Iranian residential areas. . . 11 people are killed by the Provisional IRA at a Remembrance Day service at Enniskillen . . . Starbucks coffee begins to spread across America.”

He then skips into births and deaths of the creative and famous, such as Andy Warhol. Olaf surmises that readers may take his annual summaries as a “postmodernist whim, a contextualizing advice, self-aggrandizement, self-belittling statement of relativity, or the author trying to look globally committed.” Disarmingly, the narrator agrees, in part, with all surmises. In fact, the novel, in a very lighthearted way, follows Wordsworth’s practice in the 1805 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by trying to simultaneously create the terms and to highlight the themes by which the work will be judged, both positively and negatively. This works well because Martiny acknowledges his own literary conceits.

While wildness continues throughout, the final chapters slow the previously frenetic pace as Olaf reflects on his goal to be a writer. The essence is that he can find no physical or psychic space in his teeming home. He opts to go to Paris, intending to sleep under bridges while learning his craft. His mother is appalled at his plans to be a literary bum, but his father is joyous at his son’s bold adventure.

One lovely quality of the novel is its generosity and compassion towards almost everyone. In retrospect, Olaf judges his parenting, despite and because of its extravagant eccentricity, as “better than good enough.” One might say the same for Mr. Martiny ‘s own fostering of his first unruly but highly literary offspring.

Peter Harris has published many essays two books of poetry, including Freeing the Hook. His essays and poetry have appeared in, among others, The Atlantic, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Ploughshares. Peter Harris is an emeritus professor at Colby College in Maine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 14th, 2019.