Donald Trump, Martin John and sexual assault: not an easy read but a timely one
Why, when many accept books that deal with, even glorify, violence, rape, murder, is Schofield’s book considered so disturbing?
Like many of the most exciting contemporary women writers, Anakana Schofield deals with what is unsaid, particularly by women
As you already know, Martin John is not “comfort reading”. But there are readers who prefer to be discomfited. Don’t go looking for “likeable” characters here. As Claire Messud famously said when an interviewer told her she wouldn’t like to befriend her heroine, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” The Lolita comparison is pertinent because Martin John is a minor-league sex offender – a flasher, a frotteur, with a preference for young girls – whose offences are nevertheless traumatic enough for his victims.
Rightly or wrongly, Martin John is not judged dangerous enough for prison, or disturbed enough for hospital. Why, when many readers will accept books that deal with, that even sometimes glorify, violence, rape, murder, is Schofield’s book considered so disturbing?
Like many of the most exciting contemporary women writers, Schofield deals with what is unsaid, particularly by women. This is something not easy to do in a book: an artefact made of words. There are pages of barely-filled space, gaps that leave the reader to complete the story. “There are some things we aren’t going to know about Martin John.” Nevertheless, the novel has a faith in the role of language in bringing his acts to light: There “was a time when people didn’t see stuff… It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions”. After the charges brought against a number of public men of the 1960s and ’70s, we all know what she’s talking about.
We live now, as Martin John’s mother says, in a “difficult time” and she is “A mother who puzzles… She organised around the damage, his damage”. Schofield understands how we use words inaccurately and as cover, rather than a mode of “expression”. She is an expert, particularly, in subversive and self-subverting female language. Martin John internalises his mother’s instructions – as she attempts to keep him on the straight-and-narrow. The whole book could be claimed as an engagement with specifically female kinds of language: the speech of compromise, of small objects, and small objectifications, which are as hilarious as they are horrifying. As a woman it is no more comfortable for me to watch the mother attempt to draw a floral cover of words over Martin John’s condition than it is to look directly into his unsteady mind.
Martin John himself is a language obsessive: versed in the lyrics of Eurovision hits, but unable to stomach the letter P, he wonders about “a man having an erection on the verb to be, and at a question too”.
But Martin John and his mother are not the only voices in the book: Schofield’s most subtle achievement is the narrative voice itself, which prods and questions, bullies, and elides, sliding with expertise between the vocabularies of Martin John his mother and the public languages of punishment and care. All this done without leaving the third person: an exhilarating tour de force of free indirect discourse that occasionally breaks the fourth wall and demands things of the reader directly: “You’ll decide amongst yourselves.” This book asks uncomfortably specific questions. “Could there,” she asks, “be a reason why a man might not want saving?” Schofield is interested in the way we understand things, and the channels through which we attempt to deal with this knowledge. The first to point out that she is not a psychiatrist, she pays close attention to the surfaces of things without analysing beyond her remit. She is particular and accurate. She never succumbs to the temptation to leap to easy or general solutions.
Martin John is an extraordinary engagement with the words we use to ourselves, to each other, to think about damage. “Harm was done.” How do we deal with the harm that we do, that is done by those close to us, and by our institutions? How do we deal in words with harm when it is done to us? “She had to open her mouth and speak of him,” Martin John says of one of his targets. It is the difficulty in finding words to speak about Martin John and his actions, that allow such acts to remain unaddressed. Schofield has found words for the complexities of this situation, and that is no mean achievement.
“You see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us,” the narrator tells us. Martin John is a book some readers have found difficult to look in the face: they’ve wanted anything but to look at the banal evil done by its central character. In the light of the electoral victory, in the most powerful country in the world, of a man under the shadow of multiple accusations of sexual assault, there is no better moment to look Martin John’s statement in the face and recognise it not just as that of a weirdo, a loner, an outsider, but as a thought deeply embedded in our culture, an idea that needs examination such as Schofield provides: “harm was done but he liked it.”
Joanna Walsh is the author of Vertigo (Tramp Press), Hotel (Bloomsbury), and other books