Fiction – paperback; Biblioasis; 322 pages; 2015.
If budding writers wanted to learn how to best use refrains in their work they should read Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.
This new novel, Schofield’s second, is dotted with refrains — “harm has been done”, “it is never defined”and “rain will fall” are just a handful of examples — that form a kind of hypnotic litany that works a spell over the reader. It’s hard to pinpoint how the author has achieved this without detracting from the storyline, but somehow the refrains add to the musicality of the prose, which is stripped back and very simple, the kind of style that particularly appeals to me.
It’s no secret that dark subjects in fiction appeal to me, too, and Martin John is about as dark as they get.
A man with a problem
The story is about a man — the Martin John of the title — who is, to be perfectly frank, a pervert or sexual molester. He likes women and girls. He specifically likes “flashing” his you-know-what at them. He also likes rubbing up against women, touching their feet and sometimes putting a hand on their leg, in order to get even closer to them. He does this in public, usually in parks, alley ways or on public transport. He once did it in a dentist’s waiting room — to a 12-year-old girl.
He’s been caught, of course, and spent time behind bars. He’s been in a mental facility at a hospital on more than one occasion. He’s also received many, many warnings from police. But this has never deterred him from what he likes to do. It’s almost as if he can’t stop himself:
Because she was a woman in that room there’s bound to be a problem. Whenever he is alone in a room with a woman a problem follows. He waits for the problem to come and follow him. He waits for the knock.
The narrative is told in the third person, but it’s done so cleverly, you’re not quite sure if it’s been told from the perspective of Martin John himself or his hapless Irish mother, who hasn’t so much as disowned him but given up trying to help him. Although she’s always on the end of the telephone and will happily give him advice, she did make him leave Ireland for London, presumably to start afresh in a city where no one knew of his wicked ways — or maybe it was simply to rescue her own reputation? No one wants to be the mother of a sexual pervert, after all.
Occasionally, the narrative even appears to be told from the perspective of the victim. This quote from a 32-year-old mother of two children shows how she’s still grappling with the impact of the crime committed against her 20 years after the fact:
She never lets her children sleep the night at any house, apartment, bunk bed but hers. This is how she remembers. It is within those decisions she remembers. Every person she comes into contact with she must assess for danger. This is how she remembers it. Within the cracks of possibility she remembers.
If I’m making the book sound a bit oppressive, I don’t mean to. The serious nature of the crimes committed here (none of which, by the way, are ever trivialised) are lightened by humour. The prose is ripe with witty remarks and ridiculously funny, if absurd, situations, so much so that you can’t help but feel a little empathy for Martin John. Yes, he’s manipulative, yes, he’s a liar, yes, he harms others, but somewhere along the line you realise it could all be stopped if he received the right treatment, for Martin John is not normal.
At the risk of diagnosing a fictional character, I’d say he’s got some learning difficulties and is perhaps sociopathic. He doesn’t appear to learn from any bad situations he’s in — and while he can hold down a job (as a security guard) and look after himself, he doesn’t appear to be able to make friends or get along with others. He’s the perfect example of a social misfit.
He also has paranoid tendencies, which worsen as the story develops, and he firmly believes that his flatmate, whom he dubs “Baldy Conscience” is out to get him. Martin John’s solution to this “problem” is to try to oust his flatmate in a series of ludicrous of ways, none of which have a remote chance of success. (At times I was reminded of Matt, the completely delusional character in Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, who justifies all manner of crimes, including murder, and of the nasty unnamed narrator in Michael Dibden’s Dirty Tricks, who carries out an affair right under his wife’s nose. Both books, I must point out, are black comedies.)
Perhaps the weakest point in the novel is the ending, but on the whole Martin John is a darkly comic story about a deeply troubled man, and Schofield’s dissection of his motivations and preoccupations helps to show us that we can’t fix things by simply labelling such characters as “monsters” and then forgetting about them. In posing the question, is it the mother’s job to stop such perverted behaviour, she also gets us to think about who should take responsibility for those people who can’t (or won’t) take responsibility for themselves.
This is an intelligent, deeply thought-provoking — and brave — novel. For what it’s worth, I think it would be a worthy winner of the Giller Prize, which will be announced next week (10 November).
UPDATE Sunday 8 November: The Shadow Giller Jury has named “Martin John” as our winner for 2015. You can read more about our decision on KevinfromCanada’s blog. The real Giller Prize winner will be named on Tuesday.