‘No banging over the head, but rather a book that may leave you stunned’
Martin John – a meticulously orchestrated, voice-driven novel about a paranoid sex offender on the London Underground – has its fingers firmly up the skirt of the zeitgeist
Anakana Schofield on Martin John: “I can honestly say it was quite terrifying writing this book”
It is unusual for Canadian writers, even the Atwoods or the Ondaatjes, to appear in photo-collage on the front page of a national paper alongside the likes of David Bowie and Charlize Theron – but on December 19th last year, so it happened for Anakana Schofield in the Globe and Mail. The Irish author of two novels, Malarky and Martin John, has achieved a kind of cult star power in her adopted country, and among writers and critics in Ireland, Britain and America, her work is now spoken of with exuberant reverance.
Malarky, Schofield’s debut, took us inside the head of an outwardly dull yet inwardly droll Mayo mam, who refused – as Schofield is fond of saying – to be sunk by what life served her. Often dark but frequently illuminated by Our Woman’s eccentric heroism, Malarky earned praise from Margaret Atwood, Jenny Diski, Emma Donoghue, Colum McCann, Helen Oyeyemi and more.
But to make a comparison via Samuel Beckett, whose influence on Schofield is evident and enjoyable, reading Malarky before Martin John is a bit like chuckling through Mercier and Camier before diving into the seedy solipsism of Murphy. Suddenly laughter becomes an estranging and uncomfortable thing. And indeed Martin John, published by And Other Stories in February, saw accolades for Schofield deepen and intensify. “Utterly brilliant”, exclaimed Eimear McBride, further describing the novel as “bleakly hilarious, incredibly painful and one of the most formally exciting books around”. In the Guardian John Self called it “ambiguous; funny; distressing and complicated”. Currently shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, and having been both intelligently reviewed and enthusiastically lauded in the Irish Times, the Spectator, the Sunday Telegraph, the New Statesman, the Mail on Sunday, the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and more, there’s no question that Martin John – which is, we should mention, a meticulously orchestrated and voice-driven novel about a paranoid sex offender let loose on the London Underground – has its fingers firmly up the skirt of the zeitgeist.
Martin John – which begins with an index, is punctuated by refrains and lone-sentence pages, and whose approach to plot is every bit as elliptical as the circuitous machinations of Martin John’s mind – is structured around a disturbed man’s obsessions and avoidances. And the portrait that emerges, never judgmental or trivialised or sensational, is a pitch-perfect, instantly authentic, theatre-worthy exchange of voices:
Now it’s feet. He’s started pulling slip-tricks with his foot and their foot, your foot, woman-foot and women-feet and sometimes even woman-legs. Legs are daring. Legs are especially daring on the Underground. Mam told him I don’t want you on the Underground, don’t go on the Underground. She wants him overground where he supposes she can see him. People make things up on the Underground, she told him cryptically.
Martin John is back on the Underground. It cannot end well.
What draws a reader into Schofield’s work, and what drew us to her as publishers, is this extraordinarily controlled counterpoint, her simple-yet-flashing vocabulary, and an astonishing ability to conjure an empathy that is at once sincere and also, uncomfortably, interrogatively, a sort of complicity, a sort of guilt. As Schofield herself has said, “These issues, they’re not simple; there’s complex stuff in the middle … And I think the form of the book was a way to poke at these things, to suggest these things, without banging people over the head.”
So. No banging over the head, but rather a book that may leave you stunned. No part of Martin John was easy – in Schofield’s words, “I can honestly say it was quite terrifying writing this book” – but equally, there’s no part of this novel that isn’t extraordinary. We’re intensely proud to have published it. Long may she write!
Tara Tobler is a writer, reviewer, and fiction editor at And Other Stories