Martin John by Anakana Schofield: ‘an extraordinarily important book’
A novel about compulsion, poverty and sexual deviance, which extends our notion of empathy without ever asking us to condone or even understand Martin John’s behaviour
Martin John by Anakana Schofield: its distinct power comes from the way form and content come together to alienate and fascinate in equal measure
When I first read Martin John I decided two things. The first was that this was clearly an extraordinary – and extraordinarily important – book. The second was that it was a novel that was clearly in sly dialogue with Samuel Beckett’s Murphy.
Consider these facts: both books describe the exile of a man from Ireland to London. Both are scrupulously specific about the city in which they’re set. Both Martin John and Murphy are what Beckett called “seedy solipsists”: claustrophiles, largely indifferent to the world outside themselves, dwellers of garrets and other closed spaces.
Both engage in ritualistic activity to liberate themselves from the restless wanderings of their own minds. Murphy finds freedom through his repetitious rounds as a warder in the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Martin John becomes a security guard, his mind stilled for a time by the circuits he makes around the building. Both seek to discipline their bodies: Murphy ties himself to a chair and undergoes sensory deprivation; Martin John is tied to a chair by his mother in order to stop his hands from wandering. Both are rejected by the world and in turn reject it, seeking to remove themselves into what Beckett called the “little world” of their own skullscapes.
It was slightly deflating to find out, therefore, when I sent her a message saying how much I admired the novel, that Anakana Schofield avoids reading Beckett, other than his letters, because she “doesn’t want to succumb to his influence”. Instead the direct sources of Martin John, she told me, were more idiosyncratic: the Saville report, an image from an Irish TV news report, and the nineteenth-century Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s study of sexual behaviour, Psychopathia Sexualis.
Martin John is a novel about compulsion and poverty and sexual deviance, and it is a novel which extends our notion of empathy without ever asking us to condone or even to understand Martin John’s behaviour. One of the great achievements of the novel is the fondness with which its central character is imagined despite all this. Martin John is, according to all orthodoxies, deeply unlikeable, and yet he emerges here, if not as a sympathetic character, as a person you want to spend time with. His obsessions are recorded affectionately. He likes the Eurovison Song Contest. He is fearful of the letter P. His sexual proclivities, for him, are self-directed. For Martin John flashing people is just another of his ritualistic behaviours, just another thing he has to do to get through his days in one piece.
Martin John is a funny book, but it’s also a strange one, a novel which is sui generis, owing far less to its apparent predecessors than I’d initially thought. Its distinct power comes from the way form and content come together to alienate and fascinate in equal measure. The rhythms of the novel – broken and disordered, yet possessed of a deep internal logic – are those of Martin John’s own mind: his refrains become the circuits of the novel. It’s a book about madness, but it reads more like a catechism of psychopathology.
The fragmentary nature of the narrative isn’t really mimetic, in that it doesn’t seem to aspire to present us with a vision of what it might be like to think like Martin John. The narrative techniques often associated with modernist fiction – the stream of consciousness, free indirect discourse, interior monologue – presupposed a stable world and stable minds to behold it. They depended too on the idea that consciousness can be transcribed – that our psyches, which appear to us so distinct and ungraspable, can in the end be pinned down in language and shared.
Yet these conventions have ossified over the last hundred years, as have the objects –the minds – they were used to convey. Modernism has become something of a classical mode, and its conventions nowadays feel just as conventional as the techniques associated with, say, realist nineteenth-century fiction. What’s remarkable about Martin John is that it isn’t in the end an attempt to excavate modernism or to reanimate its dying corpse, but is instead interested doing something on its own terms. “It is not about something”, as Beckett wrote of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, it “is that thing itself”.
Jon Day is a writer, academic and cyclist. He worked as a bicycle courier in London for several years, and is now a lecturer in English Literature at King’s College London. He is the author of Cyclogeography, published last month by Notting Hill Editions