Book Review Travel

Martin John by Anakana Schofield

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I’ve accidentally grown a goatee and as a result of this I now look like a sex pervert*.

This was not my plan. Of course it wasn’t my plan. I don’t belive anyone ever sets out to grow a goatee. (I hope not, they ALWAYS look awful.) My plan has been – still is – to look like a pilgrim while I’m walking my Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. An obvious way for a male man to look like he’s been walking for weeks is for him to have a beard, so I thought I’d give my technically post-adolescent facial follicles a gentle head start before my walk began by not shaving for ten days in advance of the day I set out into the wilderness. I’m now a week through that, and all that has grown is a paltry, fake-seeming moustache and an unpleasantly itchy bit around my chin and the flap of fatty neck directly underneath it. The important lesson this has taught me, though, is that any man with a goatee is one who has tried to grow a beard and given up/realised he can’t. Unless – and this is a terrifying possibility – he has seen the goatees of others and thought, “yeah, that’s just the look I wanted”.

“Do not confuse remorse with regret of detection…”

I don’t think Martin John, the eponymous protagonist of Anakana Schofield’s painful Martin John, has a goatee, but he does all the other thtings one would expect of a “sex pervert”. Sorry, that sentence implies the book is predictable and derivative, which it isn’t. What I wanted to make clear was the fact that Martin John is a sex offender in a very understandable and readable way. He is violent, aggressive, self-important, threatening and feels no remorse (do not confuse remorse with regret of detection), he assaults a huge range of women in a huge range of ways, and though we, the reader, see some of his actions and understand some of the crimes he has committed, we are forever left partially in the dark, being given only Martin John’s refrain and its confirmation of action but denial of detail:

Harm was done.

This is one of several refrains MJ has, the other most sinister is the one he says before an attack is due to occur:

Rain will fall.

This phrase reminds me of the most recently translated volume of Knausgaard’s Min Kamp (Some Rain Must Fall), and in many ways this DOES tread similar territory through its deep exploration of a sexually confused man with a presumption that a spirituality he doesn’t believe in could cure him of his pain if only he could believe it could. However, the real 2016 new literature comparison point for Martin John is Andrew Hankinson’s You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You are Raoul Moat] for these are both experimental, evocative and aggressive texts about men on the edge of society. They are about men who have been failed by the state – by psychiatric/psychological services specifically – and they are about men whose personal failings lead them to hurt others. The big difference, though, is the scope of hurt, and the amount of real people injured. Moat was a violent man who assaulted, killed and maimed. Martin John – though fictional – may never have physically scarred anyone for life, but the psychological after effects of the potentially tens of thousands of women and girls he assaulted, groped, flashed and probably did worse to is far higher. The reader never knows how bad he got – or gets – and this is the threat inherent in the novel. Yeah, so what if Martin John isn’t real, men like him are. Men who sidle up to women on public transport and rub their elections – through clothing – on them, men who hide in alleyways flashing at people who walk past, men who sit in public places and wank off under tables, staring into strangers’ faces until they realise what they’re doing. Men who make connections, make friends, with other men who behave as they do. Men who dissappear into metropolises to avoid accusations and trials in smaller towns, men who seek anonymity and a knowledge that most people will shrug off an unwanted frottage, a grope maybetheyimagineditwassofleeting, will laugh at a public masturbator, will giggle at a visible erection poking through an overcoat, seeing it as an embarrassment, rather than a threat.

Martin John is reprehensible. He is an Irishman who’s been sent to London by his mother to prevent the many circulating rumours about him coming together with enough strength to send him to jail. How old he was when she made this decision and how old he is when she summons him back, we don’t know. The Martin John in the present day of the novel could be anything from under twenty to over sixty. Anyone who has read the book may shout at me here the passage where MJ’s mother states, “he hasn’t been normal for 35 years.” The person she says this to doesn’t understand it as a response – understandable if MJ is younger than this or young enough for him to have been prepubescent 35 years ago, but the narrator is unreliable, the narrator – an occasional I – could be MJ himself, could be his mother, could be the girl he assaulted incredibly violently in a dentist’s waiting room many years earlier, it could be the man he believes lives upstairs and watches his every move, Baldy Conscience (who may not exist), it could be a caseworker, it could be a post-Barthesian author, it could be Mary, who works in the Delice de France in Euston and has encountered MJ regularly, it could be one of his former colleagues, it could be his aunt Noanie, the only family member he has in England.

Whichever narrator the book ultimately has – if indeed it does have only one – starts off with more sympathy for MJ than it ends with, and keeping close narrative contact to the molester erodes empathy away. As MJ becomes more aware of what he is doing he becomes less ashamed; as he understands better and describes in more detail his own urges and desires, he chooses to embrace them, rather than try to repress them. The reader watches him open up his past and his present and his future, the reader watches his mother hope to, try to, hide herself from the reality of her son’s behaviour. We see her actions and understand her desperation, but we see his actions and never once do we have to debate their morality. MJ knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he enjoys it too much and he hasn’t yet been caught.

“Harm was done,” he admits, but in the same breath understands he will rise again and whispers, “Rain will fall.”

I spoke about Martin John to a friend before I’d read most of it, and they said that it seemed a strange text to have been written by a woman, something so tight against the male, molester, aggressor, position. I can counter this twofold: a) all important, socially conscious fiction at the moment is being written by women and b) every single thing the #everydaysexism movement (plus other online activism) and frank conversations with female friends has led me to understand about lived female experience offers a bleak picture, and a position from which evocation of this kind of behaviour is possible. The hashtag battles the liberal activists I’m friends with focus tightly on specific and important ideas, one of which is #notallmen. This is a hashtag used by patriachy-denying men who, tbf, don’t assault women, but do deny that other men behave in a sexist manner. The fact of the matter is that what the average straight man experiences, as a straight male, is irrelevant when the discussion is about what the average women experiences. If you as an individual straight male are not contributing to what makes women feel uncomfortable: good. But the rival hashtag no #notallmen is #allwomen. Do you see the difference?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a “good guy”, it matters that there are enough men who aren’t for women you care about – and I hope there are women you care about – to feel intimidated and scared when travelling around the towns and cities in which they live.

The last two paragraphs exhibit what I believe is “mansplaining”. Don’t tell me I’m not self-aware.

Martin John as a specific may not be a real monster, but the threat inside Martin John is a very realistic one. If this book had been written by a man, the molestations  would’ve been graphic, the assaults would’ve been eroticised, the writer would have directly tried to arouse his straight, male, readers because he’d think that would somehow make his points more complex and his conclusions more ambiguous.

How do I know this?

Look at my mounds of unpublished fiction.

All the good stories about straight white men have already been told. Martin John isn’t a novel about Martin John, it’s a novel about the lives he has ruined, one of which is his own, but this is far from the most important.

This is relevant, angry, opinionated fiction and we need more writing of this type. It’s a grilling and a gripping read, a narrator as unreliable as Patrick Bateman but without the inbred charm to get a good job. Harrowing, important, I stayed up hours later than I’d intended to two days in a row to read it, which is the kind of thing professional critics decry as important.

Even for a man with a goatee, it’s a good read. Literary, significant, heavy. Fucking sploosh.

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* “Sex pervert” is such a commonly used phrase one no longer stops to question whether or not it’s a tautology. Of course, one proclaims if responding to this assertion without having thought the topic through, yes: the only type of perversion that exists is a sexual one. I would counter that with a referral towards how I believe “pervert” has come to be defined in contemporary society. A pervert is someone who does not behave within broadly accepted societal norms, but as societal norms have expanded to be fairer/more realistic/honest, it follows that pretty soon there won’t be much, sexually, that will remain taboo. The word pervert, full of great consonant sounds, shouldn’t be consigned to the slagheap piling up beside the steelworks of social development, but should instead be transported onwards with us, “Sex pervert” being used as a mainstream ex-tautology to allow the normalisation of phrases such as “political pervert”, “acceptance pervert”, “equality pervert” until eventually “pervert” can be spun back upon those who once used it aggressively, the four or five homophobes left in Europe in 2055. This is a completely different discussion and set of ideas to the ones discussed in Martin John and I’m wasting precious time (precociously) with this footnote when I should be-

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