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 appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster