Martin John Gaffney is frequently involved in public incidents, most of which involve exposing his erect penis to women who would rather not see it. In her audacious and original second novel, Vancouver author Anakana Schofield takes the reader inside the mind of an aggressive and disturbed exhibitionist. Eschewing both moral didacticism and easy narrative conventions, Schofield offers a slow and careful reveal of the troubled thoughts and actions of a sexual perpetrator.
The author does not dive into the graphic details, but first provides some context on her main character’s daily life. As becomes clear very quickly, Martin John is a man of many obsessive habits, who simultaneously disregards many social conventions. He compulsively reads tabloid newspapers, and is especially fixated on coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest. He has an aversion to the letter “p.” His mental health is in serious question, as frequent stays in psych wards confirm.
During his late-night patrols while working as a security guard, Martin John likes to keep his bladder full as much of the time as possible, to create a perpetual state of heightened sexual and psychological tension. He keeps a house so messy that it catches on fire. His preferred choice of tenant for an upstairs bedroom? Vulnerable women from Eastern European countries.
Rather than following a traditional narrative structure, Martin John reveals bits and pieces of the story in an unreliable and contested fashion acknowledged in the text: “We’re not fooled. We’re onto you Martin John, more than you may realize.” We come to understand not just that Martin John gains pleasure from forcing women to pay attention to the naked fact of himself, but that he sees these women as instruments rather than individuals: “Doesn’t matter who she is. Doesn’t matter who you are, love. You’re incidental.”
Schofield is the author of the celebrated 2012 debut Malarky, which focused to a significant extent on a mother’s thoughts about and relationship with her son, whom she once witnessed in an unexpected sexual situation. In the new novel, a relationship between mother and son (who were bit players in the earlier book) is even more central, and the sexual issues are far darker.
Questions of culpability loom large in the book, which alternates predominantly between the perspectives of the titular character and his mam. Martin John walks circuits through Tube stations looking for victims – “always her voice in his head.” For her part, his mother “fantasizes he might be killed. Shot or run over by a bus.” She cannot help but ask herself, “Did she have a role in it?”
After all, she did discover him as a little boy with his trousers around his ankles, slowly wanking in front of a painting of the Virgin Mary. And she was aware of the highly contested incident in the dentist’s office when her son was still young. In utter denial, Martin John would not confess to her what he had done: “I was in the room and I still don’t know.” But the reader eventually learns that he grasped a young girl’s leg with one hand and repeatedly punched her genitalia with the other, a moment with defining repercussions for both children. It is Mam who later approaches the girl to try to keep things quiet.
Martin John displays the typical psychological profile of a flasher: his actions are angry and attention-seeking, and escalate in severity. He blames his victims, assumes they enjoy his actions and seek them out. Even when he is punished – “It was brothers who usually came. Well their fists mostly” – he welcomes the assaults, as they mean he cannot be ignored. The revenge beatings he receives at the hands of these aggrieved siblings make sense to Martin John as an almost erotic form of reciprocal male violence: “They beat him. They beat him hard and relentless. … He derived pleasure from their aggression. They desired him. He noticed this. He liked the desire. That they desired to pummel him, secondary to the reasons they felt they needed to.”
Though the book is structurally unconventional, the prose is accessible and engaging throughout. In a style that mimics the way the characters’ denial about Martin John’s actions is slowly stripped away, the references to incidents of exposure and sexual assault become more direct and explicit as the book progresses. The author’s tone in these segments is coolly detached and nearly journalistic, generating in the reader a sensation of voyeurism that is profoundly unsettling and in keeping with the experience of reading Martin John, which is one of effective and captivating disorientation.