This pair of recent Giller Prize nominees attests to a streak of earnest, bleak writing in Canadian literature. These two novels, which are the sort of novels that reviewers will often call “darkly funny”—a label that I’ve never understood—are disturbing reminders that things are often not quite what they seem, that life is a highly complex thing, and that difficult times and difficult lives can be written about with grace and elegance. Both are grim novels of masculinities gone horribly awry and are difficult yet compelling reads. Ricci’s novel was long-listed for the Giller, and it was no surprise to me that Schofield’s novel made it to the shortlist, alongside an additional title from Biblioasis, Samuel Archibald’s Arvida.
Martin John is a story about the eponymous Martin John, a deeply ill, deeply disturbed protagonist whom we watch descend into his madness. His illness, which is never precisely defined, is characterized by repetitively, obsessively following patterns—“circuits,” his pathways are called—by collecting materials on the Eurovision contest, by denying himself the ability to urinate, by masturbating in public, and by publicly rubbing himself against, exposing himself to, and assaulting women, often young women in particular. As his behaviours lead to his further and further debasement, including job loss, isolation, and being forcibly admitted to hospitals in London, England, in which much of the narrative is set, readers are brought along as uncomfortable witnesses to his acts. Martin John is awful to read about; what is more challenging is to recognize the ways in which he may be a realistic representative of some elements of the world that we inhabit.
The strength of Martin John, however, is stylistic. Schofield handles her troubling narrative with wonderful timing. Readers do not find themselves quite inside of Martin John’s thoughts; rather, we travel with him, as he contemplates conversations—some of them hallucinated—with his mam back in Ireland and as he plots against Baldy Conscience, the man who rents the room above his own. Martin John’s paranoid, rambling, disconnected thoughts are delivered to us in the third person, and they devolve into fragments that lend a sense of convincing accuracy to Schofield’s depiction. The narrative moves between passages detailing “what they know” and “what they don’t know” and observes Martin John placing his acts into the passive voice: we are repeatedly told that “harm has been done.” His memory is slippery; his words may captivate us, but it is a deeply unsettling ride. Even more unsettling is Schofield’s uncanny way of observing the reader’s role: we are compared to the other riders on the Tube or to the commuters at Euston station who look away when Martin John commits one of his many acts. “Have you had a role in it? Do you have a role in this?” Schofield asks of us. By failing to confront someone like Martin John, she asks us, do we allow his horrible acts to continue? Alternatively, when people confront him, or beat him up, he seems to enjoy it, making the interveners complicit in fulfilling his desires. What to do with someone like Martin John? When a woman who works in Euston Station confronts him late in the book, she blames a lack of community for his existence, suggesting that churches could keep people like Martin John from degenerating into the paranoid husk that he has become. None of us can escape from this book unscathed: it not only calls upon us to take responsibility for every ill body that we encounter, but it also interpellates us into its pages. As fellow travelers in a difficult world, Martin John’s moments of seeming lucidity remind readers of the at-times thin line that separates everyone from gripping illnesses.
Nino Ricci’s most recent novel, Sleep, also takes us into the grim depths of a male protagonist who is coming apart at the seams. Sleep’s protagonist, David Pace, is an academic, a historian, who has found widespread success with his first book. He has also developed what is diagnosed as a sleep disorder. We meet him, at first, on his way back from a trip to the zoo with his young son Marcus, where a near miss on the highway caused by David’s drowsiness leads to an argument at home with his wife Julia. On the one hand, the narrative begins with this moment, and it seems to be the moment at which David’s life begins to unravel. But, on the other hand, perhaps it has already unravelled, years ago, before any of his sleep problems begin. David has issues with both of his parents, is distant from everyone, is a pathological liar and womanizer, and, whenever he is confronted about anything, no matter how small, he reacts in anger and by turning the accusations back on his interrogators—often those who love him the most, each of whom give up on him, one by one.
From this drowsy beginning point, we watch David’s life spiral out of control. As he begins to take medication for his sleep, he finds himself traveling on an ever more outlandish cocktail of drugs that he conceals from everyone around him. His ability to sleep disappears, his hold on reality slips, but his anger only grows. We watch him lose his marriage and access to his son, and then he is put on unpaid leave from his academic position after a series of errors and debauches. A long-time friend from his grad school days attempts to throw him a lifeline, but David only squanders that goodwill, in turn, through the shadiest of acts. We find him eventually washed up and traveling in an unnamed and very dangerous failed state, attempting to track down the thread that will lead him to be able to write his next book, an act that he somehow stupidly thinks will save him.
Sleep is deeply frustrating because David is so boneheaded. Late in the book, the third-person narrator observes that David “is a man of history who wants to stand outside it” and that although he “claims such an interest in history,” he “has not even bothered to understand his own.” Perhaps he believes himself to be better than everyone else. What is so irksome about this superiority is his utter inability to apologize or to show even the slightest sign of contrition for any of his acts. He is given many, many opportunities to apologize or to change, and yet he does nothing different, plunging headlong down his self-destructive path. His self-assessments are damning, yet he does not translate this awareness of his failures into action that could lead to forgiveness, instead clinging to his impossibly wide-ranging follow-up book, a project that is clearly never going to materialize.
Both Nino Ricci’s Sleep and Anakana Schofield’s Martin John present us with fully realized, deeply problematic protagonists who display shadow sides of masculinity. The depths that these characters reach are frightening; their impact on the worlds around them are alarming; and the result is two novels that are difficult to put down.