Martin John by Anakana Schofield — Subashini Navaratnam

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.
Meddlers have rules. Rules have Meddlers. Meddlers do not tell you the rules until you’ve broken or filleted them.
They’ve rules, Meddlers. Rules none of the rest of us are privy to ‘til they tell us. Youse’ll do it this way, which is my way, Meddler way. Even if Meddler way is going through the cow’s mouth and out its ear to go up its arse, Meddler way prevails. Meddlers prevail at work and it troubles Martin John. He doesn’t like Meddler way. Mam doesn’t even know about Meddler way. She didn’t warn him. She shoulda warned him. She shoulda, he says that aloud so we, who might be sitting nearby, can hear it. We, who might be sitting nearby, find out-loud pronouncements worrying. We pretend the person, in this case Martin John, has said nothing and we stared ahead. Martin John is grateful for our avoidance.

The eponymous character of Anakana Schofield’s Martin John is a sexual offender and a marginalised loner with mother issues who is quite possibly struggling with his mental health. A lazy writer might let this combination of traits form a comfortable stereotype. Schofield has instead harnessed the powers of writing alchemy to create a truly memorable and idiosyncratic character. Martin John is not a man in anguish about what he does, which is masturbate in public and rub up against women and reveal himself to them. He is simply a man in anguish, although he might not realise it as such. In fact, at no point in the book does he express an overt interest in analysing his emotional states, but Schofield must show us how he lives it via language. As Foucault states in the chapter “Mad Language” in the book Language, Madness, and Desire: On Literature, “madness, even when it is silent, always passes through language. It may be nothing more than the strange syntax of a form of discourse”. This strange syntax and form of discourse is the structure that makes Martin John a jolting read.

To do this and maintain the reader’s interest requires skill and Schofield demonstrates an abundance of it. The book itself eschews narrative chronology of the realist novel and drops us right in the middle of Martin John’s life with a clue about what’s to come with the statement “Flashing is a very angry act”. The expression of this fact also feels angry, one solitary sentence taking up a whole page, surrounded by white. Indeed we come to learn that Martin John is a very angry character; that even as a child, his propensity for committing harm took a brutal form when he assaults a young girl by hitting her square between the legs. Much later, the girl who endured this assault is now an adult and notes what she felt she glimpsed in his eyes at that moment: “He wanted to be there and he wanted to do what he was doing, that was what she read in them. A sadistic spark.”

With the use of refrains and repetitions, and alternating chapters of “What they know” and “What they don’t know”, there is a fractured, stuttering rhythm to the novel that attempts to demonstrate how language passes through Martin John. The effect is occasionally poetic, as it is likely to be at the hands of a writer who is clearly enjoying experimenting with prose styling, but it also induces disorientation and alienation in the reader. This is how he moves through the world; this is how he sees and is seen. Nothing is smooth, comforting, and beguiling, like the language of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. There, it is the affected language of the complacent aesthete whose abuse is framed within his own grandiose understanding of himself. Nabokov takes care to make this prose self-aware, but the reader is still at risk of being lulled into comfort by the pretty sentences. Schofield takes greater care by not only imposing a jerky structure to the book, but by incorporating a variety of viewpoints into the fragmented narrative through the characters of his mother, the woman he assaulted as a girl, his aunt Noanie, as well as Mary, a random character that Martin John meets in London during one of his “circuits”—and who is unforgettable in her all-too brief appearance.

Similarly, the narrator’s voice interjects every so often, jolting the reader out of her readerly complacency: “You’re involved now. See? You are watching the headlines for him.” In this way, Schofield also carefully folds in a commentary on the modern surveillance society amidst the atomisation of the working-class in neoliberal British society. To the question of “Does one want an experimental novel with a special needs London masturbator?” as raised by one reviewer on Goodreads, Schofield’s novel doesn’t provide an easy answer. It situates the reader smack in the middle of the spectacle that they might want to pretend to be apart from. For people who relish news reports that describe in great detail the crimes of rapists and killers while condemning the actions in an attempt to obscure their complicity in the profit-driven, dehumanising society that produces these very crimes, this book tells them that the position of the neutral observer doesn’t exist.

martin-john-FINAL-300x460

Martin John is an ideal employee, always on time and reliable; he maintains this facade thanks to his mother’s repeated warnings to do so. On a surface level, he appears to be a responsible person who works hard—a trait always appreciated by fascists and liberals alike—and is an ideal keeps-his-head-down-and-minds-his-own-business-type subject. But as we learn from Schofield’s depiction of his workplace, where sexual harassment of women is rampant, the ideal worker in the modern workplace can be a serial killer for all management cares. At the end of the day, it’s about getting the job done and ensuring the work process in service of surplus capital moves like a well-oiled machine. Martin John is clearly only the centre of attention when he’s exposing himself to women. Outside of these acts, he’s invisible and an outcast; an underground man, not worth anyone’s time even as he is expected to contribute to society by selling his labour.

This fact of existence in modern-day cities is part of the impetus that drives Martin John’s actions. Schofield is careful not to explain in detail the way in which women women appear to him, thereby avoiding objectifying his victims. (One wonders if a male author would have done this differently, especially one who thinks of women in terms of a hierarchy of fuckability.) The acerbic narrator makes it clear that attractiveness and sexual desire cultivated by the need for a mutually-pleasurable connection is absolutely not the point: “Doesn’t matter who you are, love. You’re incidental. You need only be on the Tube when Martin John’s on the Tube, if he decides it’s the day to cadge a rub”.

Schofield takes care to ensure that Martin John’s actions are not attributed to male sexual drive; he gets off on doing it, yes, and several factors help him achieve this (a full bladder, a timid-looking young girl), but underlying it all is the ultimate drive to be seen. As he is generally invisible on most days, getting his cock out seems to be a surefire way of achieving visibility. After observing with longing and bitterness how a teenage boy attracts, and is oblivious to, the attention of girls of his age, Martin John exposes himself to one such young girl and his goal is clear: “He would have her attention no matter what it took”. It is no wonder that the desire of being seen has also made him paranoid about being watched—by Meddlers, as he calls them: people who see what he’s up to and alert law enforcement. He is not the only one among us to both hanker for visibility and be afraid of it in the age of required social media exposure and surveillance cameras.

Martin John’s sexuality is formed in response to, and within, several factors: the upbringing he had with his domineering, abusive mother, and the way in which society fails people like him by rendering them deviant outcasts from an early age, thereby alienating them from what other people deem “normal” behaviour and “healthy” social relations. His mother is a working-class woman who raised him single-handedly. She is someone who had to make her own rules about parenting as she went along to help her make sense of the son she birthed: this involved, for example, tying him up in a chair when he was younger for the whole day when she went off to work. In retrospect, Mam justifies this as what she had to do in order to contain bad boys like Martin John. The chair looms large in his imaginary, though not in the manner of having his feelings about being tied up being discussed at length; instead, it’s a documentation of the sensations he developed while in the chair with a full bladder combined with the terror of being imprisoned in that manner. Fear, longing, and terror: a cocktail of factors that produce this particularly distressed and harmful subjectivity. The refrains, circuits, and rituals that the novel uses as a structure for approaching Martin John’s worldview are unintelligible outside of his mind, but exist within it to impose some logic on an existence that at its core cannot be reached by anyone: not us, not the narrator, not the medical personnel who may or may not care enough to get him any form of help. As one of Martin John’s refrains go, “Harm was done”. As this bleak, blisterning novel shows, there is no single solution—and no one is able to really wash their hands of it.


Subashini Navaratnam lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and has published poetry in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Mascara Literary Review, Poetika Malaysia, Aesthetix, and Sein und Werden. Her writings on books have appeared in The Star (Malaysia), Pop Matters and Full Stop and she has published nonfiction in MPH‘s anthology, Sini Sana and Buku Fixi’s ebook, Semangkuk INTERLOK as well as fiction in KL Noir: Yellow. She tweets at @SubaBat.

Anakana Schofield won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Debut-Litzer Prize for Fiction in 2013 for her debut novel Malarky. Malarky was also nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and named on many Best Book of the Year lists for 2012 and 2013. Martin John, her critically acclaimed second novel, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Schofield contributes criticism and essays to the London Review of Books Blog, The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Globe and Mail and more.

Image: London tubeFUMIGRAPHIK-Photographist, Creative Commons

Martin John is published by And Other Stories. Author bio courtesy of the same.