Although it’s already being hailed as one of the year’s most important novels, having been shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize, Anakana Schofield’s new Martin John is an unsettling book to read.
It was also unpleasant to write.
“It is not easy to spend 300 pages essentially in somebody’s groin, you know,” the Irish-Canadian writer tells the Straight in a telephone interview from her Vancouver home. “All books are hard, but some books are definitely harder. They just take more out of you, and I think this probably will be the hardest book I’ll ever write.
“In fact,” she adds, “I’ll try not to write another book like this!”
It’s not that Martin John is unique. The horror genre is rife with tomes written from the point of view of the socially incompetent and sexually twisted; moving into Schofield’s own arena, literary fiction, comparisons could be made to the self-involved narrator of Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, or to the monstrous, near-pedophilic antihero of Michel Tournier’s The Erl-King. Tellingly, those are also disturbing books redeemed by their authors’ extraordinary skill, and what pleasures there are to be found in Martin John come through Schofield’s virtuosic use of a deliberately limited vocabulary.
Taking as her starting place a character who makes a brief appearance in her debut novel, Malarky, she has crafted a wholly believable journey into the mind of a deeply warped young man, labouring under the double burden of paranoid schizophrenia and an erotic obsession with rubbing himself against women’s legs. In public.
Illness and sex also feature in Malarky, and Schofield describes the two books as a diptych. “It [Martin John] is its own panel,” she says. “In Malarky, there’s one footnote that I push. It’s when I’m referring to the character Beirut, and his mother calls him Martin John at one point. And for absolute, as my mother would say, pure divilment, I put ‘See Martin John: A Footnote.’
“I had no idea as to whether I’d actually write Martin John: A Footnote at all,” she continues. “I had material, because Malarky was originally a parallel narrative about two mothers and two sons, and with the second mother and son, the relationship was predicated upon this idea of ‘Can you love your child to the point of destroying them?’ And so at a certain point in Malarky—well, actually, quite late in Malarky—I threw out the second narrative. Actually, on the advice of [Vancouver author] Helen Potrebenko, who was incredibly helpful to me.…She just said, ‘Martin John, begone!’ and he was gone. But I did save some of this material.”
Whereas Malarky was rich and varied, Martin John is grey and serpentine. If the earlier book drew equally on hilarity and heartbreak, Schofield’s new effort examines the monotone world of the obsessive. Yet, on a technical level, it’s an astoundingly focused piece of writing. Unlikable as Martin John Gaffney might be, with his psychopathic lack of remorse and empathy, Schofield manages to draw us into his squalid, claustrophobic inner life through the relentless incantations of his inner voice.
“I’m always puzzling about form,” she says. “Where’s my entry point? How can I speak to this through form? How can I use language in a way that is more than just heapy descriptions and conventional middlebrow novels—which would probably be more sensible to write.
“It was very important that this was a loop, with loops, and it’s pretty loopy. It unrolls and it answers only to itself within itself, in essence.…I do think that the form of the book goes right into the syntax of the language, the syntax of the sentences. And it’s true: there is a different kind of musicality in this book.”
Beyond the thrill of mastering a technical challenge, however, there remains the question of why Schofield would opt to explore such troubling subject matter.
“My interests tend to be more in the margins,” she says at first. But there’s a moment in Martin John where she briefly abandons the title character in order to illuminate how his sexual violence caused lasting harm.
“Today, a 32-year-old mum with two kids, she was still living in it,” Schofield writes. “She was living in it as she put the washing on the line. As she picked up the phone at work.…Who was this guy anyway? Who was this guy to be putting his hand on her leg? What the fuck was his hand doing there? 21 years later, as she is sending a text, she is still asking questions that may not be answered.”
Another question that may not be answered is this: was there a specific incident that sparked Schofield’s interest in sexual pathology?
“I just do not feel comfortable with the conflation of my personal biography with anything I write. And certainly I’m not going to submit the biographical details of my life in order to sell a book,” Schofield says. “It’s a work of language: I started with language, I ended with language, and when I struggled, I went back to language.”
This sounds harsher on the page than it did in conversation. And Schofield goes on to explain her fascination with the phenomenon of the male sexual predator.
“The one thing that comes out in all these reports is how people with predatory instincts go after the vulnerable,” she says. “There’s something very disturbing about it, and I just thought that I couldn’t write another book, ever, without addressing some aspect of that incursion into women’s bodies. And the same goes with flashers and frotteurs.
“I would hazard that very few women haven’t experienced that. Throughout your life you’re looking at something and you’re thinking, ‘No. No! Is that… Is that? Oh, fuck, it is.’ And there’s the question of ‘Where do you put this stuff?’ Where do you store this stuff? So my job, as a novelist, is to respond to that. And I wanted to! I wanted to attempt to understand some of the complexities. These things aren’t simple.”
Neither is Martin John itself. It may prove an anomaly in Schofield’s burgeoning catalogue—her current novel in progress, she reveals, is proving “a really fun book to write”—but it’s no less powerful for that.
Anakana Schofield will be a guest at two Vancouver Writers Fest events this year, on October 22 and 23. See The Vancouver Writers Fest website for details.