Martin John, by Anakana Schofield
Martin John is one of the best reviewed novels of the past couple of years, both in number and quality of reviews. Not bad for a book which I suspect hasn’t actually sold that well. It epitomises the willingness of small press publishers to take risks on unconventional stories and styles.
At its simplest level Martin John is a novel about a sex offender. Mostly he’s a flasher, but given the opportunity he’s a groper and if left unchecked he is quite capable of escalating to full on assault. He is profoundly damaged and damaging. He lacks remorse or even the most basic willingness to acknowledge the consequences of his actions. One of his refrains is “Harm was done.” He prefers not to consider by or to whom.
What’s truly interesting here is not so much the portrait of Martin John himself, excellent as that is, but the manner in which that portrait is painted. The book opens with an index, as follows:
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.
These are phrases (“refrains”) that Martin John lives by and which help him give meaning to his world. His mam has sent him to London from Ireland to get him away from the trouble he caused back home and he believes that if he follows certain systems that trouble won’t find him again. His world is carefully built up from patterns, mantras, his mam’s warnings and his own denials.
Much of the book is told from Martin John’s perspective. The style is staccato. A single page might include only four or five lines of text. Each on a single line. We’re locked in Martin John’s head. His experience.
Other perspectives intrude. Mam’s. The narrator’s.
In most novels the narrator is either abstract and omniscient or a character within the fiction. Here the narrator seems to be the author – commenting from within the text on what she’s written and making asides to the reader. At one point Schofield reflects:
Rules have already been broken in this book. The index told us about refrains, not rules. There was no mention of rules early on. Martin John will not like this.
This is a book whose structure is inseparable from its subject. The text is fractured, sly, often opaque. Martin John the book is Martin John the man.
At times this is extremely funny. As Martin John’s mental state unravels he becomes obsessed with his upstairs lodger who he believes to be the vanguard of some inchoate but implacable enemy and Martin John’s reactions to the most ordinary of events become increasingly extreme. He’s losing control. His refrains aren’t working any more. They were never that reliable anyway.
When interviewed, Mr Patel – the most gentle of souls, arthritis in his left knee – could not credit the fight that took place and the bags of sugar that flew, and the tinned steak and kidney pies that were toppled in that brief five-minute bare-knuckle dust-up over the last copy of the Daily Express.
As the book continues both it and Martin John himself find it harder to avoid the reality of what he is and what he does. Slowly the nature of his behaviour emerges. His crimes; his excuses.
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.
Martin John is a petty predator. When he goes too far he risks getting in the trouble his mam sent him away to avoid. However, what becomes apparent is quite how much he can get away with before that point. Sitting next to women on the tube and rubbing against them. A little casual exposure here and there. Mostly people just move away or try to ignore him. That silence allows normalisation. Escalation. We’re at page 176 before Schofield comments:
See how still no one mentions the girl?
Before the book closes we’ll find out quite what it was he did that led to his mam sending him away from Ireland. Making a life for yourself in London isn’t much of a punishment. It isn’t really a punishment at all. The girl, now a woman, she still lives with what Martin John did.
Until Schofield asked the question I was paying more attention to Martin John and his life than I was to his victims. They weren’t named. They are faceless women chosen by him for proximity or ease of access. Schofield directs our gaze as society directs its – towards the man. When she turns back to the woman he assaulted it’s devastating.
My last thought is on sense of period in the novel. Interestingly many reviewers don’t seem to have picked up that Martin John isn’t a contemporary novel (Grant at 1st Reading is an honourable exception). No date is ever referenced, but there’s plenty of clues. There’s pay phones rather than mobiles; no mention of the internet; a guard station has an old black and white portable television; Pat Kenny is presenting the Eurovision which is hosted by Ireland (which suggests 1988); there are VCRs and teletext. It’s actually a fairly precise and clear depiction of period. If you read carefully it’s evident that Martin John is set in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.
Why do some miss this? My theory is that it’s because much contemporary literary fiction is terrible at portraying our everyday present. If novels set now feel vaguely historic, which to me they often do, it’s easy to miss the fact that another novel is set in the recent past unless it flat out tells you that it is. So, what time does Martin John take place in:
It was a time when people didn’t see stuff. That was the time it was.
Finally, if you read books both in ebook form and hardcopy this is definitely one to get in hardcopy. The formatting matters here and while it’s preserved in the kindle sample I looked at it’s not nearly as apparent. The pages and structure have an impact which is best seen in the physical version.