I first came across this book when it appeared on the longlist and shortlist of the 2015 Giller Prize. It didn’t win but after reading it and the winner, Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, I’m even more disappointed with the jury’s verdict. Fifteen Dogs is lackluster next to Martin John. (See my review of the former at http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2015/11/review-of-fifteen-dogs-by-andre-alexis.html.)
This book is a look into the dark and chaotic mind of Martin John, an exhibitionist, public masturbator, and aggressive sexual molester. In the end, though the reader will be disgusted and repulsed by Martin John’s behaviour, he/she will also feel sympathy for this lonely, confused man who struggles with his compulsions, delusions, and paranoia.
The portrait of Martin John is discomfiting and incomplete. We see his use of work routines and daily rituals to distract himself from his sexual compulsions. We see him distancing himself from his responsibility for his actions by his refusal to answer questions about incidents (“To every question he said he did not know”), by his use of the passive voice (“Harm was done”), and by his insistence that his victims enjoy his actions (She must have liked it. That was it”). But just like the mental health care system which doesn’t understand his sexual deviance, the reader does not fully understand him either. The reader is even warned at the beginning, “There are simply going to be things we won’t know. It’s how it is. As it is in life must it be unto the page. There’s the known and the unknown. In the middle is where we wander and wonder.” But though we may not be able to totally comprehend Martin John, we come to understand his fear. His continual references to Baldy Conscience, a (probably imaginary) tenant who lives above him “stamping all over my head”, clearly convey his paranoia.
As the novel progresses and it becomes clear that denial of Martin John’s culpability is futile, the descriptions of his behaviour, including sexual assaults, become more detailed. These explicit descriptions make the reader feel like a voyeur, and the narrator’s comment to the reader that “You’re involved now. You have a role. See?” is unsettling.
One of the things that is emphasized is that Martin John has no support system. Mental health professionals and institutions seem to be able to do little for him. Mam, his Irish mother, is overbearing and has dominated his life so much that Martin John constantly hears her voice in his mind. After her son was involved in an incident, she sent him away to London to protect him but also so she doesn’t have to deal with him. It seems that her treatment of her son contributed to his behaviours; to her credit, she does think about her role: “She did not like the idea she had a role in it. . . . Did she have a role in it?”
The style of the novel is unconventional. Paralleling Martin John’s fractured mind, chronology is unclear. The gaps in his narrative suggest the many unanswered questions that remain. Throughout, there are chapters with headings beginning with “What they don’t know.” Repeated phrases mimic the endless circuits Martin John walks as part of his daily calming rituals. The cryptic style, episodic vignettes, non-sequiturs, lists of words, and stream-of-consciousness passages are disorienting and that’s precisely the point.
This book is not an easy read. Because of its subject matter and its style, it is at times a very difficult read. The narrator even admits, “this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.” Nonetheless, it is a compelling, worthwhile book that should be read. And it should have won the 2015 Giller Prize!