Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Funny business

My sense of humour may be broken. Or maybe sex offenders just aren't that funny.
He has made mistakes.
Baldy Conscience was a terrific mistake.
Baldy Conscience was a turbine of a mistake.
He was a tubular bell of a mistake.
A Chernobyl-fucking-cloud of a mistake.
Martin John, by Anakana Schofield, according to cover copy is "hilarious."

John Self in The Guardian says in his opening paragraph that it's funny, but never elaborates.

Emily Keeler at the National Post laughed out loud at "deeply troubling jokes," which make me wonder if the laugh might come as a reaction to the awkwardness of uncomfortable truths rather than as a genuine response to humour.

David Hobbs in The Globe and Mail barely touches on "the sense of humour that guides its dark comedy."

But he astutely observes:
Do we believe that Martin John is driven by rage, or do we believe he is trying to satisfy women, coats and himself? Should we believe either? Does his intent change his effect? Are we inside Martin John’s head, or someone else’s attempt to decipher him?

A reader's initial response may depend on whether she feels Martin John is primarily a sexual offender or afflicted by psychological disorder. Yet Schofield is more interested in the sense of unease produced as the reader tries to sustain either impression. The arrows punctuating the novel's blank spaces resemble Post-It flags reminding us to sign our names in a legal agreement, but each subsequent paragraph reminds us that we are assenting to something beyond our comprehension.
It's clear to me that Martin John is both a sexual offender and afflicted by psychological disorder — these are not mutually exclusive conditions.

Eileen Battersby of The Irish Times describes the novel as a comic tour de force, with plenty of gags.
Be warned: regardless of one's views on sexual deviants who prey on women and who also get their kicks out of sustaining a very full bladder, Martin John will make you ill with laughing but also guilty for smiling at a human tragedy, which it is.

Is Martin John a comedy? Possibly, in the sense that it breezily employs linguistic acrobatics to describe aberrant situations that rub up against social norms. It's entertaining, enjoyable (as a thing to read, despite its subject matter, and somehow (this is Schofield's magic) light even while deeply ambiguous. But I wouldn't call it funny.

Maybe I just need a different word for the kind of funny this.

About that ambiguity... So much of the narrative is related from Martin John's perspective, it makes me question not just the nature of his relationships with other character (are we given verifiably true accounts?), but the very reality of the other characters. Who is Baldy Conscience if not Martin John's bald conscience. Does he live in the house, as Martin John's "tenant," or in his head? What about his mother? Is she a continuing presence in his life, or is it all torturous memory that nags him through his days?

All this makes the novel puzzling, like Martin John's character, his motivations, his worldview are puzzling. But not exactly funny.

Perhaps because the verdict on the Jian Gomeshi trial is still fresh. Perhaps because I work with a recently paroled sex offender, even though I personally, not being a young, male aspiring hockey player, feel no threat apart from that to my moral sensibility. Martin John is no rapist (I don't think), but he should not be excused for unacceptable behaviour simply because it is lies on the milder side of the spectrum.

We do not give sufficient voice to society's victims, so it becomes uncomfortable to spend the length of a novel inside a perpetrator's head. I think we have too much sympathy for the devil. Very much a tragedy.

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