Anakana Schofield Martin John (And Other Stories, 2016)
By Xenobe Purvis
Consider this: never in Nabokov’s Lolita do we actually meet Humbert Humbert’s mother. She is mentioned briefly on the second page; “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three,” we read. (“Those vicious Nabokovian parentheses,” Craig Raine observes in his Afterword to the novel.) Humbert’s origins are largely obscured from view from that staggering moment onward, and his use of a pseudonym – a bland, repeated name – only adds to his opacity. Patrick Bateman, another psychologically disturbed narrator, gives us a brief glimpse of his mother. She is, we hear, “[h]eavily sedated” when he visits her. But Martin John, the molesting protagonist of Anakana Schofield’s novel of the same name, has a mother whose voice is ever-present in his mind, who has a profound, shaping role in his narrative.
It is, perhaps, unfair to draw parallels between these three men. They are united in their pyscho-sexual deviancy, but their voices are hardly comparable: there is nothing of Humbert’s poetry in Bateman’s impassivity, for instance, and no hint of either in the lists and loops of Martin John’s thoughts. The intentions behind their creation feel dissimilar, too. In the lurid alignment of commercial consumerism and violence, Ellis makes a comment on the appetites of his time (“I wondered,” Roger Rosenblatt wrote in an outraged review in The New York Times, “could this fellow really think that he, like Dostoyevsky, was being shockingly critical of the amorality of modern urban life? Why, yes! The rake.”). Nabokov, on the other hand, had “no social purpose, no moral message,” he explained in an interview in The Listener in 1962. He wrote Lolita “[f]or the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty.” There are moments when Martin John feels similarly like a literary experiment, an exercise in claustrophobically close third person. When the narrative lays claim to Martin John’s thoughts, we hear him trying not to use words beginning with P (for their connection, we infer, to words like ‘pervert’). His story is structured around a list, and the chronology is circular and strange. But if Lolita was undertaken by Nabokov to test his writerly capabilities (“I think like a genius,” he remarks at the start of Strong Opinions), Martin John feels like a test of writerly sympathies.
Martin John’s relationship with ‘Mam’ – though troubled and often uncomfortable – tethers his narrative to the reader’s sympathy. His total, hysterical dependency on her (“IF MAM TOLD HIM TO DO IT/ IT WAS RIGHT/ RIGHT?”) reduces him to the role of a child, and this lack of agency absolves him a little, alleviating the horror of what he has done. We find ourselves feeling sorry for Mam, who “hears the former drug-addicted mother puzzle it out,” and “recognizes there are many mothers out there puzzling things out.” Later, the “psychiatry people” ask her how long Martin John has “not been himself”; “It’s about thirty-five years since he was absolutely normal,” she confirms flatly. This acknowledgement of Martin John’s filial relationship, and the problematic accountability of his mother (and absent father) for his actions, is precisely why Humbert’s mother is so swiftly dismissed, and Bateman’s has such a brief appearance in American Psycho.
Mam’s interpolations are not the only feature of Martin John to lessen the brutality of its subject. Schofield’s decision to pepper her writing with moments of humour makes the novel feel as though the subject it treats is not so ugly, that Martin John, in the words of his mother, is “not as bad as the ones they kill.” The book’s lighter passages invite us to read on, and we are further compelled to do so by its unsettling use of direct address. Frequently, we find ourselves drawn into the action, the third person narrative voice appealing to us in its interrogation of Martin John. “If you ask him anything directly he will go quiet, retreat,” the voice tells us. “Did you do it? Did you touch her? Who else did you touch? See, he’s gone quiet.”
When asked by the Guardian writer Richard Lea about this sense of readerly complicity, Schofield said that she had been hoping to create a “sort of Brechtian thing.” She goes on to observe that she was attempting to dismantle a wider idea of ‘complicity’, a prevailing public belief that sex offending is “some aberration that’s very, very far from you and me […] It’s at the kitchen table, it’s on the bus beside you. We are Martin John.” This act of demystification brings to mind Posner’s remark in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys: “to put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained. And if it can be explained that it can be explained away.” There is a danger – in giving Martin John psychological quirks which mitigate his behaviour, in allowing his mother to enter the narrative – that his abuse of women might be ‘explained away’.
Is Schofield guilty of explaining away? I don’t think so. One reason for this is the novel’s unflinching catalogue of Martin John’s abuses. The severity of what he has done is never brushed over or belittled, and is often related in horrifying detail. Schofield’s use of close third person is worthy of note, too; it absorbs the viewpoints and memories of Martin John’s victims, as well as Martin John and his mother. This decision further distinguishes Martin John from the likes of Lolita and American Psycho. Many have commented on the silencing of Dolores Haze, Humbert’s ‘Lolita’, observing her voice and personality to be lost in the blur of the narrator’s adoring gaze. Of the Lolita-fantasy Humbert manufactures in his mind, he comments that she was his “own creation, another, fanciful Lolita – perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping her, encasing her […] and having no will, no consciousness – indeed, no life of her own.”
One of the most powerful moments in Martin John comes at the start of a section called ‘The Girl’. This episode, focalised through the perspective of a woman attacked by Martin John, is difficult to read. It is fragmented, broken into brief sensory impressions (“Pain. Sharp pain. Again. Harder. Stronger. That balled-up right fist. Smack. A hard hit to her pubic bone.”). Martin John’s extreme violence towards her continues to haunt the woman years later: “She was living in it as she put the washing on the line. As she picked up the phone at work […] The pain revisits her like a phantom limb. Never quite gone.” Through such passages, Schofield shows her concern for the lasting implications of sexual abuse – for the abused, as well as the abuser. This is not simply a literary experiment, a novel undertaken ‘for the sake of difficulty.’ It is a testament to previously unheard voices.
Perhaps, then, my enquiry about the provenance of Martin John has led me to the wrong conclusion. This novel hasn’t been conceived out of the examples of Nabokov or Ellis. Rather, it is the child of Joyce and Beckett, looking to disarm its readers through its fractured sentences, speech mark-free dialogue and scrambled chronology (“Chronology is important to [Martin John]. He wants it in sequence. But it won’t be told in sequence because these things never happen in a sequence, do they now Martin John?”). Schofield’s deft – if deeply uncomfortable – investigation into the mind of a sex offender, his victims and his mother cements Martin John’s place as a worthy successor to the Irish modernists.