At the beginning of Martin John, the brilliant, exhausting second novel from Vancouver’s Anakana Schofield, there is an “Index.”
1. Martin John has made mistakes.
2. Check my card.
3. Rain will fall.
4. Harm was done.
5. It put me in the Chair.
We are familiar with indexes in the backs of books but this one functions more like the Dow Jones, with these apologies and platitudes repeated throughout the novel with varying intensity. Martin John’s London is a threat-based economy and these five statements are its commodities. The novel’s central character, Martin John, is a sort of trauma-broker, picking up fear at work and at home and then inflicting it upon women in the streets and on trains.
These five terse statements also limn the nimble changes in tense and tone Schofield uses to dismantle linear time and cohesive characterization in pursuit of her central character. Martin John has been described as a “footnote novel” to her dazzling debut, Malarky, in which Martin John was a psychiatric patient compulsively listing facts about Beirut. Here, Martin John is described through a collection of characteristics – difficulty with social cues, fixation on repetitive tasks, photographic recall of detailed systems such as train schedules or Eurovision competitions – that should be familiar to anyone that has seen a recent detective show. This familiarity is crucial, as Schofield dispenses with the customary vagueness to directly interrogate the relationship between mental health and sexual violence.
Instead of dropping the reader into Martin John’s first-person perspective, as in Samuel Beckett’s Molloy or Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Schofield has kneaded, stretched, bent and broken the conventional novel form to create a book that seems as if it, too, is straining to understand its focal character. We are told, in enormous letters, “Flashing is a very angry act,” then later, almost casually, “Coats can drift. Open. That’s what coats are like. That’s what women like, open coats and a quick face full of him. He likes it too. He likes what they like.”
Do we believe that Martin John is driven by rage, or do we believe he is trying to satisfy women, coats and himself? Should we believe either? Does his intent change his effect? Are we inside Martin John’s head, or someone else’s attempt to decipher him?
A reader’s initial response may depend on whether she feels Martin John is primarily a sexual offender or afflicted by psychological disorder. Yet Schofield is more interested in the sense of unease produced as the reader tries to sustain either impression. The arrows punctuating the novel’s blank spaces resemble Post-It flags reminding us to sign our names in a legal agreement, but each subsequent paragraph reminds us that we are assenting to something beyond our comprehension. The novel’s final sentence, alone on a page, is “It is never defined.”
All social organizations – family, employers, the National Health Service, police – have failed to adequately protect Martin John from the world, and they have failed to protect the world from him. A particularly affecting section shifts perspective to a woman assaulted by Martin John in a dentist’s waiting area when she was only 12. Now, 20 years later, “[w]henever she is nervous for her children, she remembers.” She had tried to report him, but the receptionist refused to corroborate her story. “It was a time when people didn’t see stuff. That was the time it was.”
It is a testament to the novelist’s skill that such a hard read is not necessarily difficult. While Schofield has digested all of postmodernism’s tics and tricks, her writing is fundamentally empathetic, and the various interventions feel like necessary attempts to render the unspeakable, rather than as flashy mystifications of a straightforward narrative. In its social critique, Martin John has much in common with the brilliant journalism of Ann Brocklehurst and Ed Tubb, but as an avant-garde Canadian novelist, Schofield is in a class unto herself.
(If some benevolent publisher would commission a 21st-century rejoinder to Aspects of the Novel, Schofield should be their first and second choice.)
In June, Schofield blogged for the London Review of Books about reading in bed so intensely that her rib “popped-out.” It’s a funny story, but one that lightly reminds us of the exacting mind behind the novel and of the sense of humour that guides its dark comedy. She was reading Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and it begins with an author’s note: “why should Comedy, which corrects behaviour by ridiculing it, make an exception in favour of one power, when the Parisian press spares none?” The contemporary Canadian press is a great deal gentler than the French were in the 1840s, and when Martin John was longlisted earlier this week for the Giller Prize, it felt like a recognition that we have at least one writer that will spare no one.
True, it is not perfect. In particular, its conclusion – a risible deus ex machina in the form of a Nigerian fast-food employee – belongs to a less sophisticated novel. But the art has gained more from its experiments than it does from the great many writers who would prefer to play safe and vague. It is a novel that deserves to be discussed.
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