Mean Martin Manning
by Scott Stein
(ENC Press, 226 pages, $17.95)
This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but a…knock on the door from a busybody do-gooder.
Epic conceit is the bread and butter of the dystopian author: The machines are rising or falling, with apocalyptic consequences; the government has collapsed or else been usurped by theocrats or fascists or fascist theocrats (but seldom, strangely, Objectivists); humanity is doing battle with giant insects or having its potential limited by genetic coding or…well, let’s just say it’s hardly ever a walk in the park out there in the far-beyond.
By contrast, the Nanny State dystopia envisioned by Drexel University professor Scott Stein in his satirical novel Mean Martin Manning is smaller in scope, relying more on the morning newspaper for inspiration than a crystal ball hazy with dire prophecy. Crafting a breezily subversive, funny narrative out of a barely hyperbolized modern American zeitgeist, Stein spins perhaps a bit too-timely-for-comfort cautionary tale.
MARTIN MANNING, A ONCE-POPULAR commercial artist, has not left his apartment in decades. Within its walls the septuagenarian has constructed an idiosyncratic utopia, having all essential supplies delivered, collecting ceramic frogs, watching trashy television programs, never changing out of his bathrobe and subsisting mostly on salami and cheese hoagies — heavy on the mayo — as he leisurely awaits the Grim Reaper.
Much like the hapless Eloi of H.G. Wells’ heavy-handed dystopian class war parable The Time Machine, in his bubble Manning fails to recognize what easy prey he has become. Unlike the Eloi, it isn’t ravenous subterranean monsters that break his reverie. Instead, it is a prim and proper bureaucrat at his door named Alice Pitney, a nightmare version of Supernanny Jo Frost empowered by executive order of the governor to administer a new neighborhood life-improvement zone.
Manning has tailored his life exactly to his own quirky pursuit of happiness, sustained by his own resources and harming no one. Alas, Alice Pitney hews tightly to a view of humanity akin to the one espoused by Sigmund Freud in The Future of an Illusion: The “masses are lazy and unintelligent,” the father of psychoanalysis wrote, with “no love for instinctual renunciation.” They require elite leaders, Freud explained to induce them “to perform the work and undergo the renunciations on which the existence of civilization depends.” It’s an ethos fairly far removed from the non-coercion principle.
In other words, Pitney is there to make Manning eat his vegetables, both literally and figuratively. If Martin Manning isn’t renouncing the things or behaviors she believes he should, he isn’t progressing. And if he isn’t progressing, he certainly isn’t improving. Failure to improve clearly places him in noncompliance with the rules and regulations of a life-improvement zone, however content he may erroneously believe he is.
“I’m sure that you think you don’t want help,” Pitney tells the shut-in when he tries to opt out of her non-optional assistance. “That’s standard. In fact, not wanting help is one of the signs of needing it. Yours is a textbook case.”
A FEW DAYS OF PASSIVE RESISTANCE and one Elian Gonzales-style raid to remove him from his apartment later, Martin Manning finds himself in a brave new world of few allies, but armies of sycophants and apologists. “We’re a bit outside my area of expertise,” a doctor, moments before performing an under duress colonoscopy at Pitney’s behest, explains when Manning protests that his constitutional rights are being violated, to say nothing of his poor colon. “I can only assume they had a good reason.”
“Very few people believe that they’re pursuing selfish ends exclusively, or that they need a big, rhetorical goosing from their elected officials to get up and do the right thing,” Andrew Ferguson writes of this societal tic. “But with a little persuasion, people can be made to think that other people need a goosing.” And no matter how much lip service is paid to our foundational rugged individualism, it is hard to deny “goosing” now occupies a heroic space in our culture.
Stein captures this cultural pathos extraordinarily well, putting Manning through, alternately, a hellishly inverted version of This Is Your Life, during which a long parade of disgruntled people from his past testify to his meanness at a therapeutic show trial (“Apparently Pitney has been unable to track down some transsexual paraplegic lesbian dwarf virgin of Eskimo descent and Aztec heritage, whose future had been shattered by my lack of sensitivity to her special needs,” Manning acidly observes when testimony concludes); a guest spot on a Dr.-Phil-by-way-of-Oprah pop psychologist’s television show (“After a brief time in private practice, specializing in family therapy, I found an agent and got a syndication deal,” Dr. Karen says by way of explaining her qualification, adding, “Plus — and this is no minor achievement — I single-handedly made broaches popular again”); and a session with a man who works to end racism by getting patients to scream racist epithets (“Your racism is so real, so central to who you are, you’re afraid to shout the truth in your heart,” Mr. Bob snarls at Manning when he refuses to shout a certain loaded word Jesse Jackson recently employed. “Afraid you’ll lose the essence of who you are if you purge your hatred.”)
In between these sessions Manning returns to an empty apartment, all his material possessions confiscated by Pitney to reduce self-improvement distractions and wean him from the wrong kind of materialism. (As Manning learns from a local university consumerism expert, cheap ceramic frogs are symptomatic of bad materialism while much more expensive first edition novels and pretentious abstract expressionism paintings are symptomatic of a refined cultural palate.)
“Now our renunciations have failed us,” Philip Reiff wrote in The Triumph of the Therapeutic of the end result of Freud-worshipping “psychologizers” like Pitney who become “fully established as the pacesetters” of cultural change. “Less and less is given back bettered.”
“Less than zero,” Manning might say. Left with none of what he loves, the man dubbed “Mean Martin Manning” foregoes progress at the barrel of a gun for a campaign of creative and oftentimes hilarious vengeance, the details of which it would do no good to ruin here.
IN THE CLOSING PAGES of Mean Martin Manning a hardly chastened Alice Pitney stands next to the governor who empowered her as he announces his bid for the presidency. A national “life-improvement zone,” one presumes, cannot be far off, and as Martin Manning looks out into the cheering throng he has an epiphany: He has been dragged out into a world where individuals are not victims but, indeed, the enablers of those who seek to infantilize us and codify their own arbitrary mores as inviolable:
Alice Pitney was only possible because the governor gave her power. The governor was only possible because the people gave him power. And his opponent, with the same damn plans, was only possible for the same reason. It was hopeless…I looked around and saw only Alice Pitneys, little tyrants everywhere.
Shawn Macomber is a contributing editor to The American Spectator.