Martin John is a deviant, in the technical sense. He’s a public masturbator, a back-lane flasher, a sneaky practitioner of Tube station frottage. Even when his hand isn’t down his pants, he mutters, stares at his feet, stands too close, ignores the fundamental norms of hygiene. He’s the kind of man that most of us would cross the street to avoid.
The difficult genius of Anakana Schofield’s second novel is that she won’t let us avoid him. With resolute insight and strange, supple language, she takes us right into Martin John’s tortured rat-trap of a brain.
The rules that underpin ordinary society are a mystification to Martin John, but he compensates by making up his own. Every day, Martin John needs to walk prescribed circuits and utter specific phrases. He needs to buy and read certain newspapers, a habit that often conflicts with his pathological avoidance of the letter “p.” He is also obsessed with the annual Eurovision song contest, which makes a perfect comic counterpoint to his grotesque sexual proclivities.
Exploring the mind of a sexual offender has become a pot-boiling pop-culture cliché lately, but there’s nothing clichéd about Martin John, which comes off as challenging, uncomfortable and unexpected, in both content and form. Schofield, an Irish-Canadian writer currently based in Vancouver, describes Krafft-Ebing levels of perversity without being exploitative. She is clinical but still compassionate and mordantly funny without being flippant. She doesn’t flinch from the ugly and irrevocable consequences of Martin John’s actions: “Harm was done. Harm was done and further harm will be done.” But she also conveys the hidden harms of mental illness, digging down into Martin John’s relentless internal struggle with compulsion, delusion and fear.
Martin John is a sideways footnote to Schofield’s 2012 novel Malarky, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Debut-Litzer Prize for Fiction. Malarky’s central character, “Our Woman,” meets Martin John in a psych unit, where he is talking on about Beirut (another obsession). That encounter is seen from a different angle in this book, which has been longlisted for the 2015 Giller. (Fingers crossed for the short list.)
Martin John has committed some awful act (unspecified, at least at first) and been sent from Ireland to London by his worrying “mam,” though it’s not clear to us ̶ or to her, for that matter ̶ whether she is trying to get him away from the justice system or just away. Mam is both frightened for and frightened of her son, veering between angry accusation and deep denial. Surely the unnamed act is merely “messing gone wrong,” she says, in a passage that suggests a deep Irish well of silence and sexual shame.
Martin John’s relocation doesn’t help, of course: “The other thing is at him again. The thing his mother won’t say aloud. So he’s not saying it aloud either. The thing she says he has stopped. He’s doing it again.”
In London, Martin John ekes out a marginal existence with a nighttime security job. He eats and sleeps in a grotty flat, but mostly he lives in his mind, with its repetitive rituals and paranoid patterns. He hates “Meddlers,” and he especially hates and fears a fella he’s named Baldy Conscience, whose residence in Martin John’s “upstairs” could be literal or metaphorical or both, Schofield’s elisions being wonderfully slippy.
Mostly he thinks about “doing it,” though as the narrator keeps reminding us, “It can never be defined.”
Paralleling the confused and clammy murk of Martin John’s mind, Schofield’s chronology is deliberately unclear. The timeline isn’t a line at all, but a vicious circle of knowledge and dread, cause and effect, doing harm and being harmed. (Does Martin John do “it” because mam punished him or does mam punish him because he does “it?”)
There are gleams of the Irish tradition ̶ writers like Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett ̶ in Schofield’s dark absurdity, in her poetic vernacular and sprung rhythms. The use of repeated phrases and refrains evokes Martin John’s endless circuits, while the disturbing gaps in his inner narrative are given concrete form in near blank pages and ominous pauses. There’s a tangle of unanswered questions in this novel, so many mysterious pronouns, such a welter of unclear antecedents, all conveyed in hilarious, deadpan beautiful prose.
Standalone pages that mimic the graphic design of the London Underground map tersely list Martin John’s perceptions of Meddlers and their meddling (divided into “What they know” and “What they don’t know”). Meanwhile, the not-so-omniscient narrator, clearly a Meddler, is struggling mightily to figure out Martin John and his “situations,” and dragging us into it, too. (“You’re involved now. You have a role. See? You are watching the headlines for him. You are forecasting….”)
Schofield’s first achievement is to burrow into Martin John’s rackety mind. Her second crucial achievement is to turn this unsettling apprehension into a necessary, extraordinary act of empathy.
Biblioasis | 322 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1771960342