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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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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.