Wednesday 16 November 2016

Anakana Schofield's Martin John

Marco Roth (writing in the Brooklyn-based journal n+1) came up with the useful term 'neuronovel' for fictions that explore the experience of what he calls 'a cognitively anomalous or abnormal person'. 

He traces the neuronovel's origins only as far back as Ian McEwan's Everlasting Love (1997) and also cites Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in which the main character is a boy with an autistic spectrum disorder; McEwan again in Saturday (Huntington's disease) and many genre novels which feature, for instance, amnesia and bipolar disorders. 

What these very different novels share is an interest in the workings of the brain rather than of the mind, an interest that reflects, claims Roth, a post-Freudian, post-Lacanian movement away from traditional theories of personality. The neuronovel explores the loss of self, although selfhood - no longer the prerogative of novelists - has become the property of specialists working within their own professional disciplines. But human consciousness is too complex a subject to be monopolised by scientists and philosophers. We need artists, and literature offers a large cohort of pre-McEwan characters with cognitive disorders pre-dating Everlasting Love, from Don Quixote to Captain Ahab and from Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy to Hannibal Lecter. 

Alex Pheby, in his brilliant novel Playthings (Galley Beggar Press), vividly portrays how it must be to lose any sense of selfhood, evoking the terrible dilemma of Judge Paul Schreber, a rational and respectable  pillar of the establishment reduced to the status of a poor, bare, forked animal. Schreber's psychotic madness, interrupted  by occasional bouts of eloquent lucidity, when he speaks with dignity and authority, add to the nightmare. There is no chance that he will ever be allowed home.

A more recent novel is Martin John by Anakana Schofield, an Irish writer based in Canada. This was recently shortlisted for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize (which went to Mike McCormack's Solar Bones) and is also in the running for the first Republic of Consciousness Prize. The eponymous male character is an Irishman living in London. He has a lavish repertoire of behavioural disorders including a dislike of words that start with 'P', a paradoxical appetite for pork pies, an obsession with news media and the Eurovision Song Contest, persecution mania, obsessive compulsive traits, a reluctance to urinate (he prefers the discomfort of a painfully full bladder) and so on. Most troublingly he is a sexual pervert who lunges at women (and not only women), exposes himself and - how to put this? - enjoys public acts of self-pollution. He is not a likeable man.

But this is a likeable book. No, not likeable exactly - it''s startlingly original, stylistically innovative, bracingly erratic and absolutely unforgettable. The author offers a written correlative to Martin John's bizarre character through a prose style reliant on repetition and redundancy and a simple, deliberately impoverished vocabulary. She expresses his multiple disorders with clarity, precision, insight and sympathetic understanding. Martin John's mother is absolutely terrifying - in denial about her only son's nature, fearful and manipulative and at least partly to blame. Martin John himself is unknowable (especially to himself) and Schofield's narrative remains detached yet in step with his spiralling insanity. She knows just how much to reveal, and when, and how.

Martin John is  essential reading. Comparisons with Beckett are inevitable (and admirers of Murphy will leap on Schofield's book with a glad cry). But Maritn John doesn't need that kind of boost - it's a fully-realised and wonderfully unpleasant investigation into what it means to be inhuman.

Order a copy from the publishers And Other Stories.

Other people are, to a greater or lesser extent equally unknowable, even from the outside. Some we don't want to know. What runs through Trump's mind when he sees other people, most of whom are likely to be his intellectual superiors? (Not at his rallies, of course). What is it like to be him all the time? Getting dressed, arranging his hairs, choosing a tie, applying the slap?

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