Anakana Schofield, a Canadian writer of Irish descent, makes strong demands on us. Her novel, MARTIN JOHN, is not particularly long. And its vocabulary is not difficult though it helps to have some familiarity with British English so when the word “torch” appears you realize it refers to a flashlight and not a flaming cloth wrapped around a stick, and that “tube” refers to the subway not the TV. Nor does Ms. Schofield trouble us with convoluted sentences or interminable paragraphs. Just the opposite is true. MARTIN JOHN begins with several pages that contain only a few sentences each and the text is broken into fragments throughout. You will encounter a lot of blank white paper as you rush along. You will find yourself at page thirty and you’ve hardly had to breathe.
But the question at page thirty (or for that manner at sixty, or ninety) is: Where the hell am I? You will have learned that Martin John is a person, that “Rain will fall,” that “Flashing is a very angry act,” that Martin John has not been to Beirut (though he will declare often that he has). That he has been to London to visit his Aunt Noanie, that a dentist’s waiting room shaped his life. And much of this has already been repeated several times. So, you ask: Where are we?
Well, we are not exactly in the mind of Martin John. This is not, in other words, a first-person narrative. No, we are in the mind of the author Anakana Schofield, and sometimes she is talking directly to us:
“She [being Martin John’s mother] did not like the idea she had a role it in.
You would not like the idea you had a role in it.
Did she have a role in it?
Have you had a role in it?
Do you have a role in this?”
The author is asking if we the readers are complicit in the behavior of Martin John. It’s a troubling thought because Martin John’s behavior is troubling. He is paranoid and sexually perverted. So it is not surprising to learn that our hero hates all words that begin with the letter “P.” He counts the number of P words he finds in the morning paper and that number helps to shape his day. He is also obsessive-compulsive, you see.
Another time the author speaks directly to the female reader. “You are incidental,” she tells her. “You need only be on the Tube when Martin John’s on the Tube, if he decides it’s the day to cage a rub. His leg against a woman’s leg. You need only be a woman with a leg. You aren’t special, you aren’t chosen, you are a woman with a leg. That’s it. A leg he finds access to. A leg that happens to be available. That’s all you are.”
In a later statement directed to we readers, the author even releases us from the commitment we have made to read the book in its entirety, and in so doing she makes a confession: “You should know the things he does and doesn’t appreciate, if we are going to carry on like this. If not—well hang up now, as the operator would say.
“That’s aggressive, but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.”
Ms. Schofield is correct. MARTIN JOHN is not an easy book to read and one can assume it was not an easy one to write. Information is presented to us in a disjointed, incoherent manner. We are sent back and forth in time and place as we learn snippets from Martin John’s life. Words and phrases are repeated over and over, obsessions exposed. The narrative is confusing, repetitive, chaotic, as we can assume the mind of Martin John is confused, chaotic and chock full of phrases and exhortations endlessly repeating themselves.
Martin John is living in London but he has come there from Ireland. Bad things happened in Ireland. Through snatches here and there we learn of incidents that got him “knocked off the island.” He appears to have been in London for several years, decades even. And there have been times when his life has gone relatively well. He has a job as a security guard. He has a house. He may be somewhat controlling his impulses. He goes to see his Aunt on Wednesdays. But Martin John’s relative stability deteriorates as the novel progresses.
The novel is also not easy because the subject matter is not easy. Martin John may struggle with his urges but he has often given in to them and sometimes we are there when he does. We witness his predatory behavior and we experience what he enjoys about it—and he does enjoy it. It becomes a game of capture for him. It gives him pleasure when he has captured a girl’s attention (and often they are mere girls) and alarm registers on her face as she realizes he has exposed himself and is masturbating in front of her. In the aftermath of one particularly brutal incident we witness the damage done to the victim even decades later; the way it has circumscribed her life, governed her choice of a husband, intensified her need to protect her own children.
There are two important characters in the novel in addition to Martin John. First his mother who is known to us as “Mam.” Mam is still in Ireland but they speak by phone and when they are not on the phone, Mam is often a voice in Martin John’s head. Sometimes she speaks in italics:
“Stay out of it Martin John, for the love of God stay out of it. I can’t save you now you’re in London, get yourself in bed and stay out of it. D’ya hear?”
Mam is terrified her son will end up in prison where she thinks he’ll certainly be killed. But other than shouting warnings, she is at her wit’s end what to do. Besides, she is herself fearful of him. She sent him off the island to save his skin, but also to protect herself. He had become a grown man. He was exposing himself to her and she was afraid of him.
Mam is a bit of a case herself, vacillating between denial and dire warnings. She keeps a secluded teapot in which she places notes she has jotted down about Martin John’s behavior. All mam’s worries, we learn, “live inside a teapot.” She has filled a dozen of them over the decades. That might sound like bizarre, even ridiculous behavior. But the author keeps asking us the troubling question: “What would you do?” if Martin John were your son.
It is a legitimate question. Police have hassled him, he’s been arrested, has been in hospitals, been interviewed by therapists. He has been injected with medicines and given pills. He has been badly beaten up. But nothing in the end has deterred him, nor has he been capable of controlling himself. “What would you do?”
The third character is a nemesis who, though only marginally real on the page, comes to dominate Martin John’s life. If the nemesis has a real name we don’t know it. Martin John calls him Baldy Conscience (a name susceptible to more than one interpretation) and he has moved into an upstairs room of the house where Martin John lives. As the author explains, Martin John “is trying to defeat someone living on top of his head.” Baldy Conscience has a guitar and he has friends who have guitars and they come over and make noise and cause trouble.
Martin John has sublet the room to Baldy Conscience and now he cannot get rid of him. This man’s presence chases Martin John from his own house, disrupts his routines, fractures his calm, ruins his sleep, destroys what sense he has of control. And Martin John knows something that no one else knows: “THAT BALDY CONSCIENCE IS AFTER HIM FULL TIME.” When Martin John obsesses about his nemesis it is often presented to us in capital letters and we can almost hear it amplified in Martin John’s head: “HARM WAS DONE. THERE ARE REASONS ENOUGH HARM IS DONE. BALDY CONSCIENCE HAS FOUND THE REASON TO HARM HIM. HE HAS FOUND OUT WHAT HARM WAS DONE.”
Martin John comes to believe that Baldy Conscience is in control of most everything. Even Mam it would appear is now in cahoots with Baldy Conscience. From that point we witness an accelerating deterioration of Martin John’s life and by book’s end we have a devastating portrait of this man, a portrait composed of bits and pieces, a collage of a portrait.
One has to ask: Why bother ourselves to read a book such as this? There are thousands of other novels. Some are lyrical in form and contain beautiful descriptions of nature and foreign places. Others expose us to acts of courage, loyalty, romance, mystery, love and betrayal, great historic events, tales of triumph and disaster. Why this incoherent tale of perversion, incompetence, moral and personal devastation?
Well, for one thing, the form, the structure of the novel, is unique and captivating. The writing sparkles with energy. It pops and crackles like a good rock song. For another, the novel is often hilarious: “You aren’t allowed to dislike firemen,” we learn. “There’s a law against it. They’ll save your life even if you don’t want saving. Sssh. That’s Martin John speaking.”
This may be a writer’s novel: that is a novel that brings more pleasure to people who write novels than to those who do not. It requires close reading, a tolerance for confusion, a willingness to flip pages back and forth, the patience to take a second or third look, the time to linger over a few lines. But persistence rewards us with a powerful, funny, sad, disturbing exploration of a life, a life that is, thankfully, not our own.
“Here it is,” Anakana Schofield, seems to be saying as she tosses the book onto your lap. “You figure it out.” I’m glad I took up the challenge.