‘The humanity of Martin John is its ultimate achievement’
Anakana Schofield forms part of a new and exciting movement of women writers who stand in contrast to realism, argues fellow author Megan Bradbury
Megan Bradbury: Martin John is proof that a novel’s form can be both unusual and readable
The greatness of Martin John, and what makes it one of my favourite novels of recent years, is the bravery of its themes and style and the way in which these are united with such skill and artistry by its author.
The novel’s subject is not an easy one to read about. Martin John, the lead character, is a serial molester, and the narrative does not shy away from the complicated and unpleasant nature of his consciousness. It describes, for instance, Martin John’s joy at sexually exposing himself to women, making the reader experience these moments as Martin John does, with glee, pleasure, power and also remorse. The discomfort we feel in reading about such a disturbing subject is testament to the excellence of the writing, which is rich, empathetic, human and deeply invested in the task of describing the trauma of living a life torn between compulsion and restraint. But not only that, for this book in many ways is not about Martin John at all but about the women he abuses, and this is where the true brilliance of this novel lies, for Schofield has somehow succeeded in showing us their trauma directly through his.
I have heard Schofield say that the shape and form of the novel is part of its content. “The way the book is made will tell you what it is about,” she says. The cadences and repetitions within the novel’s sentences and chapters mirror the looped and circular thinking and behaviour of Martin John himself, whilst, at the same time, expressing the sense in which the central questions in the book (how a person becomes a molester, how molesters are dealt with by society, how victims are affected throughout their lives) are themselves not easily answerable or understood.
The answers to these questions are themselves looped, circular and interconnected, for there is no easy answer to any of them, not that this book attempts to do so, and neither does it judge. This is not a novel about a monster. It is a book about human beings. The mood of the book reflects this. There is horror here but there is also humour. The humanity of Martin John is its ultimate achievement. It shows the reader a kind of truth beyond morality, perhaps even beyond understanding or qualification.
As a debut novelist who has tried to unite content and form in my own novel, I find the discussion of literary techniques particularly exciting. However, there seems to be a general reluctance amongst writers and critics to openly discuss the subject of form in relation to fiction, as if the ingredients of character and plot (the elements most commonly discussed) are the only two available. But, as Schofield herself says, why shouldn’t form take centre stage in fiction when it is so often discussed in relation to other artistic disciplines, such as poetry or music? Authors have such a vast range of techniques at their disposal but the current mood seems to be that if authors are to use them they should do so quietly, for fear of drawing too much attention to themselves, attracting the worrying title of “experimental”, and scaring off readers.
Form needn’t be disguised. Its manipulation can transform a subject, shape the rhythm and pace of a narrative, it can be used to investigate and clarify point of view, and it can determine action. All these things can be used to sharpen, extend and transform a novel’s characters, its plot and its underlying themes. Schofield is a master of these techniques and Martin John is proof that a novel’s form can be both unusual and readable. Schofield is a craftswoman, an artist, an empathetic and passionate writer who is respectful of the way books are made. And it seems to me that she forms part of a new and exciting movement of women writers (including Eimear McBride, Claire Louise-Bennett and Joanna Walsh, for example) who stand in contrast to realism, using non-realist forms in their work to uncover, question or play with the subject of reality, consciousness, and storytelling, with thrilling results.
Martin John is published by and other stories. Megan Bradbury’s debut novel Everyone is Watching was published by Picador earlier this year