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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

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”