Book review: Martin John

Anakana Schofield thought her dark tale about a sexual deviant would be a hard sell but she tells Colette Sheridan women understand it, and men are shocked by her acclaimed work.

ANAKANA SCHOFIELD admits that she was initially very anxious about how her second novel, Martin John, would be received. 

Written from the perspective of a sexual deviant who masturbates in public and assaults women, she thought it would be a particularly hard sell.

As well as dealing with an unsavoury character, the form of the novel, with its loops and refrains, reflects the cycle of mental illness. 

But thanks to its humour, its shades of Beckett and sheer bizarreness, Schofield’s novel has been well received by the critics. 

It was shortlisted for the Giller prize, the Canadian equivalent of the Booker prize.

For 44-year-old Vancouver-based Schofield, who was born in London to an English father and an Irish mother, being shortlisted “for a pretty mainstream prize was extraordinary. At the risk of sounding Catholic, it did feel like a miracle. 

"It’s great because publishers don’t want to take risks. But small presses like the one I’m with are hungry for these kinds of books. It’s really great to see those presses rewarded.”

After the success of her debut novel, Malarky, Schofield feels she could have approached bigger publishing houses for Martin John but decided to remain with an independent publisher. Thanks to being shortlisted, Schofield has reached a wider audience than she anticipated.

“What’s interesting is that women have no problem with the book as it’s not that surprising for them. 

"They know this man; they’ve seen him on the buses. But I notice that sometimes, male reviewers say the book is shocking and disturbing.”

It is a tragic story about a man with psycho-sexual problems and obsessive compulsive disorder. 

His OCD sees him walking circuits in London’s Euston Station, avoiding words beginning with ‘P’, doggedly collating information about the Eurovision Song Contest and repeating lines such as “harm was done” and “rain will fall”. 

Martin John’s Irish mother, a rural sounding woman, driven demented by her son, packed him off to England following a particularly nasty assault on a woman in Ireland that resulted in gossip and speculation.

He is “a man with an allegation” and for the sake of his safety, Mam wants him to keep his head down, hold onto his job as a security guard and visit his Auntie Noanie once a week. And that’s about it. 

But Martin John is in the grip of a compulsion that doesn’t make for a safe uncomplicated life.

The novel is far from safe with its dark subject matter. But there are laughs.

Writing in The New York Times, Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, states: “It’s not often you feel sympathetically disposed towards flashers, gropers, public masturbators or punchers of women’s private parts, and in fairness, you don’t often feel it while reading Martin John either — but you sometimes do, which makes Anakana Schofield either an extremely persuasive apologist for the sexually aberrant or a very fine novelist.”

Schofield sees Martin John (who appeared briefly in Malarky) as “a simpleminded molester”. 

For her, “the real challenge” was to avoid “making this man a lovable eccentric. At a certain point, especially towards the end, I really had to nail myself and say ‘no, no, no’ to that. He’s a deviant. 

"Go back to what he has done. I had to keep myself in check. You do get somewhat fond of these people you create, no matter who they are. 

"You could say the same thing about sociopaths who can be very charming.”

Asked why she chose to write about a sexual offender, Schofield is resolute about the artist’s function. 

“Why wouldn’t I? Why do war reporters report on war? Because it’s happening. 

"The role of the artist and art is to respond to the world and human depravity is such a large part of this world. Literature asks questions in only the way that literature can. 

"They aren’t questions of social science or qualitative research. Martin John is not about a subject matter. It is a literary exploration of an entire situation. 

"It is not about something. It attempts to be or inhabit that something. 

"The French writer Georges Bataille said that the role of literature is to bring into question anguish, and that anguish always involves something going wrong. 

"It’s in putting the reader before this disagreeable situation that literature keeps boredom at bay.”

Schofield, mother to a 16-year-old boy, Cúan, whom she adores, says Martin John also deals with “the darker side of motherhood.

"I’m kind of concerned that people might not understand the dilemmas of motherhood. 

"It’s not all skipping in the park. It’s very tough. I mean, you don’t know who you’re going to give birth to and when they get out, you’re stuck with them.”

Cúan hasn’t read Martin John. 

“My son is extremely scathing about my work. But he really enjoyed the five days and the room service at the Ritz Carlton in Toronto for the Giller prize event.” 

That’s the rare upside of writing, as far as Schofield is concerned.

“I never find any aspect of the process of writing pleasurable. I really enjoy conceiving the idea. So much of the way I write is about form and language and the structure of sentences.”

Martin John, says Schofield, could have been an easier book. 

“But I haven’t tried to make it more palatable. I could have written the whole thing distantly, in the third person, in very descriptive lyrical passages. But I’m not interested in that kind of book.” 

Schofield got in touch with an Ottawa-based forensic psychiatrist, Dr Paul Federoff, for research purposes. 

“Later in the process of writing, I was struggling. I felt men like Martin John have no remorse about their behaviour. I read some internet postings on flashers and felt really sick.”

Dr Federoff referred Schofield to Psychopathia Sexualis. 

“It was written in the late 1800s by a Russian doctor. It’s basically a compendium of every possible sexual deviance. 

All the prurient detail is written in Latin. It’s really funny and it was so interesting to read it. But it really changed my perspective, even though it’s such an old book. 

I could see that many of these people were really struggling with their behaviour. The other thing I learned from a doctor is that the efficacy of treatment is quite good. 

I was surprised by that.

“The public perception is that these people are a lost cause and we should castrate them. I’m loath to speak about this subject because it’s so complex and I’m a novelist that works with language. 

"But Dr Federoff’s line is that you don’t need to commit a crime to get help.”

When she’s not writing difficult but highly engaging novels, Schofield works part-time writing news items for a gambling website and also does literary criticism. 

“We’re basically poor, living on a low income.”

But Schofield, who spent nearly a decade trying to get her first novel published, is very focused about the kind of writing she’s interested in, even if it is not commercially viable.

However, humour is an important part of her arsenal. 

“I have less of a hard time understanding very disturbed or angry people than people with no sense of humour. There’s something just so absurd about life.”

Anakana Schofield

And Other Stories, £10

Book review: Martin John


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