Reviewed by Valerie Silva
Martin John. Biblioasis, 2015.
Anakana Schofield’s second novel, Martin John (2015), is first alluded to in a seemingly trivial footnote in the author’s critically acclaimed debut, Malarky (2012). In response to this self-referential dare embedded in her earlier work, Schofield transplants a minor character from Malarky to her latest work. This time, Martin John is more than an endearing psychiatric patient with deep, delusional love for Beirut; he is a sex offender and a public masturbator. While his deviance is announced early on in the novel, Schofield prolongs the telling of his offenses—and the resounding discomfort felt by readers—to show that he is not the only one who has committed crimes. Society egregiously fails to provide adequate care to those living with mental illness.
Martin John does not know what happened to him. Or, at least, that is what he says. He oscillates between moments of lucid intention (he wilfully burns down his home in an act of defiance against his rival, the Baldy Conscience) and episodes of complete delusion (he sees cameras everywhere, documenting his every step). Readers are likely to experience corresponding feelings of ambivalence toward Martin John. How could they not when they are given such inconsistent evidence? Martin John’s employer deems him “the most reliable person who worked for him,” but his co-workers call him a pervert (139). Newsagent Mr. Patel describes him as “not a violent man. A good man,” but a fellow shopper judges him a “fucking lunatic” (115). Even Schofield’s narrator vacillates between accusation, empathy, and absolute bafflement, admitting “this hasn’t been an easy book for any us” (221). The result is a nuanced and sensitive look at the life of a man yearning to be noticed—no matter how perverse his methods.
At first glance, Martin John appears to be an all too familiar postmodern trap. Where other writers employ experimental aesthetics with hollow exuberance, Schofield does so with purpose and caution. The use of varied typeface, refrains, and repetition mimics Martin John’s fixation on patterns and circuits (the London train schedules, letters in newspaper headlines, and Eurovision singing competitions, in particular). Experimentation with white space and fragmentation emblematizes the breaks in Martin John’s inner monologue. Even the inclusion of arrows and designs of London’s underground moves beyond postmodern play. These shapes suggest movement, direction, and purposefulness in a story where there is none to be had. They beguile readers into thinking that an end point exists only to have entangled readers into the circuit. “You’re involved now. You have a role. See? You are watching the headlines for him,” the narrator explains (44). Culpability is juggled from Martin John, to Mam, to Schofield’s readers, and back. More important than this circuit of accountability is the interconnectedness of mental illness, sexual violence, and social practice in the novel. Look at that circuit, Schofield implicitly entreats.
Schofield demands the same recognition from her readers that Martin John demands of his victims. She coerces us into complicity; she forces us to inhabit the deviant mind rather than to neglect it. She understands our urge to abandon Martin John, but she challenges us to persist: “you’re probably thinking about how long this is taking to read or how uncomfortable that chair is. Say it. Say it now. It’s uncomfortable. Time to shift cushions behind your back” (260). If you shift the cushion and stick with it, you will see that Martin John is not evil; he is ill. Schofield’s sympathy for Martin John undoes the social medical hierarchy that unfairly demonizes some forms of mental illness, impeding Martin John from accessing proper medical treatment.
Eschewing the conventions of linearity and progression, Schofield uses Martin John’s subjective, undefined refrains to structure his story. The passive construction of his fourth refrain, “harm was done,” repeated over twenty times throughout the novel, undercuts the accountability of the subject who becomes the mere recipient of the action. Nonetheless, these questions remain:
Did he have a role in it?
Did she have a role in it?
Do you have a role in it? (28)
We are trapped in these recursive loops. Instead of distancing the criminal, Schofield uncovers the latent criminality in us all, widening the scope of blame to include an entire society that has too easily wiped its hands clean.
Valerie Silva is a Montreal-based editor. She holds a Master's degree in English from McGill University, where she specialized in literary activism, feminist theory, and contemporary Canadian life writing.
Click here to return to the current issue