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The fabulous weirdness of Martin John - a novel composed by its protagonist

Martin John by Anakana Schofield is formulated by the endless tinkering and fiddling of its outsider narrator.

Didn’t Pascal remind us that to judge less we need to understand more? Blake Morrison had the idea running quietly all the way through As If, his finely tuned account of the toddler James Bulger’s abduction and murder by two schoolboys in Liverpool back in 1993. There, Morrison’s writing beautifully balanced the harshness of the facts with the softening power of ­imagination and intelligence. “Judging this is like trying to catch the wind in your hands, or to iron the creases out of the sea,” he wrote of the trial, embracing victims, perpetrators and his book’s readers as one. We are all in this together, he reminds us. There are no demons, no monsters – there is only society, to which, whether we think we do or not, we all belong.

Martin John, the second novel by the Irish-Canadian writer Anakana Schofield, recently shortlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize for fiction, joins the ranks of literary works that seek to bring the outsiders in. Like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Cormac McCarthy’s Lester Ballard in Child of God, her protagonist is someone shunned by society and yet, through the power of fiction, he comes right up close to us as a livid, vivid presence in our minds. Raskolnikov murders his helpless landlady with an axe; Lester takes home the bodies of recently deceased young women and arranges their decomposing forms in preparation for sex. Martin John presses himself up against women on buses and the Tube, masturbates in public and opens his flies to “the sight of her, any her, but especially the one he’d selected, with her eyes on him, on it specifically”. He gets to witness her horrified reaction. “The delight could have expanded his skull.”

Martin runs out on the hospital and care staff who try to hold him back. He is beset by paranoid delusions and fear of a mother who, from when her son was a child and first presented his own peculiar kind of sexual violence (he held on to a young girl by the leg and struck her repeatedly between the legs with his balled fist in a dentist’s waiting room), kept him strapped to a chair and forbade him to urinate. From that straitened, damaged memory of boyhood comes the man, at large in the railway and underground stations of London, evil-smelling and filthy, touching and smearing all he meets with his proclivities and desires.

This comprises Schofield’s novel entire: one character’s movements and mutterings, his obsessions, his needs, his fear of a mother who, though she has sent him to live in England, still “summons him . . . home . . . Always by ferry”. Martin John could have been a short story if the author had contained her literary vision to a free indirect narrative, keeping the story within the confines of the protagonist’s sensibility. But, in many respects, the most interesting thing about this novel is that the author has put someone else in the frame.

This is not altogether clear from the outset, though. Yes, there are some fabulous weirdnesses going on – blank pages, manic numbered lists, chapter headings and repetitions – that denote a formalist at work. And there is that very voice of Martin John, so rich with lyricism and shape-shifting on the page as to be poetic. But both effects in themselves, apart from being not unlike others now well registered as part of the “new wave” of Irish fiction, would be no more than a kind of mannerism were it not for the acknowledgment, by page 219, of the narrator who has put all this together. That presence in the text acknowledges our own:

 

Martin John would find that suspicious. A man having an erection on the verb to be, and at a question too . . . So you should know that. You should know the things he does and doesn’t appreciate, if we are going to carry on with this. If not – well, hang up now, as the operator would say.

That’s aggressive, but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.

In a rush, the whole story takes shape and sits uncomfortably in our hands. Martin’s “it” becomes this thing we are reading.

All too often, novels neglect to touch us in this way; the story remains out there: in the end it’s nothing to do with us, it’s just “fiction”. In Martin John, though – more than the detailed research into sexual deviancy that has gone into creating a terrible life with its own nauseating logic and rules – it is the invisible maker, shaping and endlessly fiddling with the content of the story, who draws us in and makes it real. Schofield gives us a portrait of someone who is not only believable, but understandable. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” John Donne wrote; “every man is . . . a part of the main.”

Kirsty Gunn’s collection of short stories “Infidelities” is published by Faber & Faber

Martin John by Anakana Schofield is published by And Other Stories (256pp, £10)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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