“I’m compelled by what the novel might become rather than what I know it to be,” might well be the credo of the Goldsmiths Prize, so it is perhaps no surprise that Anakana Schofield’s second novel, Martin John is to be found on the short list. Martin John is an unusual novel, but then Martin John is an unusual man:
“They had come for him after the incident outside the SuperValu shop, down the lane with the girl.
They had come for him with the one on the bus.
They had come for him that time with the girl who said he put his hand down the band of her skirt.
The other girl where he put his hand between her legs.
They had come for him.
They were her brothers. It was brothers who usually came. Well their fists mostly.”
Martin John doesn’t mind the beating – “He derived pleasure from their aggression” – but his mam decides something must be done:
“- We’ve got to get you out, mam said when she saw the state of him. If you can’t stop, we’ve to stop it.
Could he stop it? What would he stop?
– Stop what, he said. She will not go further. She will never give voice to that which she wished stopped.”
Martin John is exiled to London where he finds work as a security guard:
“Mam has warned him the only thing keeping him on the straight is the job…
The job, she points out, stopped you doing the other stuff. The other stuff no-one can save him from.”
This not the tale of Martin John’s redemption or damnation, however: this is the story told but not the way the story is told. Martin John’s past and present unfold together in a pattern of tenses and voices. Repetition is the key because Martin John is a repeat offender. The circuits he patrols as a security guard, and in his own time around Euston Station, are both his salvation and temptation.
“To clarify: the novel is predicated upon a loop, the form of the novel is deliberately circular, punctuated throughout by five recurring refrains. It is constructed this way to speak to the cyclical nature of reoffending, the cycles of mental illness and the cycle of complicity.”
The daily crossword, the weekly visits to Aunty Noanie, the annual Eurovision Song Contest: Martin John’s life is one of ritual. The language, too, takes on the rhythm of ritual, with Martin John’s five refrains listed at the beginning in an index (surely a sign in itself that order will not be observed). These five nonsensical statements accrue meaning throughout the novel, but do not become meaningful: they are little more than hooks on which Martin John hangs his life and rationalises his irrational behaviour. The circuits with which he seeks to control that life simply circumscribe it; as time loops backwards and forwards, language tightens the noose, the echo of recurring phrases emphasising the walls of his prison.
Novels about ‘bad’ people can seduce the reader (think Lolita, think American Psycho), but Martin John lacks any glamour. The looped world of his obsessions makes him small, yet we also come to understand that world. Martin John is so focused on his own gratification he does not consider his actions within the realm of right and wrong; “harm was done”, one of his five refrains, is an empty catechism, not an empathetic realisation. Schofield achieves the perfect balance of engagement without identification: we understand Martin John but do not sympathise.
What, then, is the attraction for the reader? Firstly, the poetry of the prose; not a poetry of beauty but one of power – fierce, incantatory – allowing, secondly, the cracking open of Martin John’s mind, an under-the-stone glimpse, but without forgetting, thirdly, the reverberation of his actions on those around him. Schofield lures the reader, at times, into the narrow tunnel of Martin John’s viewpoint, only to suddenly look up and reveal the outside: mam’s complicity; the treatment of his victims:
“Years ago his mother had come. His mother had come and asked that she – The Girl – not press charges. She, his mother, said The Boy, her son, would be going away and promised he would never bother her again.”
The novel may come from a different time – “It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions” – the 1980s, but its urgency is never in doubt. The paralysis Martin John creates in the final scene echoes society’s indecision when faced with the problem he represents. Ironically, as much as Martin John remains unchanged, in Martin John we witnessed the novel becoming something new.
Quotations from Anakana Schofield are from an interview in the Irish Times.