Building Ships Out of Matchsticks
Anakana Schofield’s bold second novel Martin John centers on a deeply disturbed man who has been exiled to London by his mother after an “incident” in Ireland involving a young girl. Martin John and his mother are classic unreliable narrators, leaving the reader often unsure of what exactly happened and when. Schofield’s prose has been described as “highly-Beckettian” and some reviewers have aligned her with the dark humor of Flann O’Brien, Seán O’Casey, and James Joyce. Although certainly a deftly executed exercise exploring a character’s perversity and obsessive behavior, Martin John is not Beckett, nor does it need to be. What Schofield presents is an engrossing and uncomfortable read: an ugly, at times compassionate, and darkly funny exploration of a disjointed mind shown through the use of disjointed narrative. Avoiding clear chronology, and consistent point of view, we have to follow different markers to find our way through the novel. With chapters titles like, “What They Know” and “What They Don’t Know,” Schofield draws the reader in to the narrative, implicating us as we become pruriently curious about just what it is that Martin John has done, is doing and will do. We are told that “Harm was done. Harm was done and further harm will be done.” But Schofield intermittently introduces an omniscient narrator who tells us, no matter what we may want, “There are some things we aren’t going to know about Martin John.”
What we do learn is that Martin John is a man unable to comprehend or to live by the rules and systems of modern society. He is a deeply disturbed and disturbing individual—a flasher, a public masturbator, a man who molests women and girls on the subway. He is a man people want to avoid, but Schofield will not let us avoid him. Schofield’s sharp prose draws us into John’s confused brain and we follow the systems he has created for himself to survive. Every day he walks specific routes and utters specific phrases. He buys and reads the same newspapers, eats the same food. The newspapers are a dangerous area for Martin John as he must avoid the letter “p.” There is a certain inevitability in the novel; and Martin John’s focus on language, his obsessive need to understand words reflects this inevitability, the way one thing leads to the next and returns again upon itself—an endless circuit: “Strange. Estranged. Estuary ranged.”
Martin John works as a night security guard. He avoids “meddlers”— psychologists, social workers and other medical professionals, and of course, his mother. He lives in a house cluttered with his “papers” and beset by spying neighbors and a housemate who fills him with paranoid delusions and rage—Baldy Conscience, who “liked building ships out of matchsticks.” On Wednesdays, Martin John visits his Aunt Noanie, as his mother requires him to. Although still in Ireland, Martin John’s mother remains a dominating force in his life and her appearances in the novel provide us with an example of the duplicitous systems that refuse to acknowledge violence and mental illness at the detriment to all of us including Martin John and his victims.
Schofield presents a shifting and compelling narrative that struggles to represent what is unrepresentable. The layout of the print edition of the novel is such that we are given arrows, transit symbols and told in large font, “Flashing is a very angry act,” then later, “Coats can drift. Open. That’s what coats are like. That’s what women like, open coats and a quick face full of him. He likes it too. He likes what they like.” It’s deeply disturbing, makes us feel uncomfortable and yet, we read on because we want to know. The subway symbols, the references to systems and proximity, to the private merged with the public are all important in understanding this novel — we are implicated, Martin John is not only living, working, and riding in our proximity, he is one of us. And it is this, perhaps, that makes us most uncomfortable. As we read, it becomes clear that Schofield is less concerned with how we see Martin John (as predator or victim of a system unable to “cure” him) but instead, she wants us to feel the unease brought on by our efforts to categorize him as one or the other. At times, the novel seems more of a case study, a social worker’s effort to “understand” and to categorize. However, per the novel’s final sentence, “It is never defined.”
ContributorYvonne C. Garrett
YVONNE C. GARRETT holds an MLIS (Palmer), an MFA (The New School), two MAs (NYU), and is currently working on a PhD in History & Culture at Drew University where her dissertation focuses on women & gender identity in 1980s American punk rock. She is Senior Fiction Editor at Black Lawrence Press.