As calendar year 2019 dawned, political junkies were staring in wonder at the pitched battle raging between U.S. president Donald Trump and incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Literary junkies, on the other hand, could avail themselves of a different, but no less intense, set-to – this one opposing Irish-Canadian novelist Anakana Schofield and tidying guru Marie Kondo. Schofield had tweeted her umbrage at Kondo’s insistence on decluttering by divesting oneself, among other things, of books that do not bring joy. The tweet went viral and was quickly followed by a long-form piece in the Guardian, in which Schofield wrote, “Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.”
That Schofield is speaking at least partially out of self-interest is obvious: the author herself suggests that she would be quite worried if anyone other than psychiatrists or sex criminals found joy in her 2015 sophomore novel, Martin John. That book, focusing on a serial sex offender, is told in a fractured, disjointed narrative that dives into the psyches of the disturbed title character and his enabler mother. Martin John is without question a book to “challenge and perturb us,” though one might cavil with the author on the subject of joy. There is joy in watching a consummate prose stylist in complete control of her materials and sublimely confident in her sensibility.
Schofield’s third novel extends her innovative approach to form and style, which once again circles around key incidents and moments without ever explicitly alighting on them (one of the title character’s repeated admonitions to herself is to “stop roundabouting”). Bina, like Martin John, is a spinoff from Malarky, Schofield’s 2012 debut. The title character (“Bye-na not Bee-na”) had a small role in Malarky; that novel’s protagonist, Phil (a.k.a. Philomena, a.k.a. Our Woman), is a secondary character here. If the author continues to return to this well, readers may have to start thinking of the novels as instalments in the Anakana Schofield Extended Universe.
Of course, it’s not Marvel Comics that serve as inspiration for the author so much as the work of James Joyce and William Faulkner, each of whom used characters from previous texts in successive books to create a tapestry of a particular place and time. As with Joyce and Faulkner, Schofield is primarily concerned with weaving her tapestry via innovative approaches to narration and structure. If Martin John fractured its narrative by breaking down scenes and incidents into discrete chunks of elliptical prose, Bina pushes this technique even farther, with successive short passages that read like point-form notes or jottings. (The conceit is that Bina is scribbling her story on the backs of envelopes, bills, receipts, and other ephemera cluttering her home: Marie Kondo would be appalled.)
Here the comparison with Joyce breaks down: it is not the ornate, maximalist Irishman who offers Schofield a key literary touchstone so much as his parsimonious, Protestant confrère, Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s spare, glancing, incantatory prose provides a springboard for Schofield’s narrative, about a 74-year-old woman grieving in the wake of her best friend’s death (her best friend being the aforementioned Phil). As Bina unravels her story in fits and starts, we learn that she once took in the nephew of another friend who proceeded to take up residence for a decade, during which time he became increasingly violent and appropriated the land behind Bina’s house for shady, probably criminal, enterprises.
Bina also opens her front door to an apparently civilized tall man (known only as the Tall Man in Bina’s retelling), who plays Scrabble with the old woman and recruits her into a group of people who act as angels of mercy by dispensing lethal injections to suffering souls wishing to end their lives. This latter practice has resulted in jail time and an impending criminal trial; in the interim, Bina is beset by a motley group of hippie anarchists who have built a tent city on her property in an attempt to prevent the elderly woman’s incarceration.
Schofield’s anger is precisely calibrated and she strikes her targets mercilessly. Of the hippy-dippy “Crusties” arrayed on Bina’s lawn, the protagonist remarks, “They use words like privilege and resistance and this kind of head-bangy-arsy-varsy that takes a long time to cross the tongue and there’s always something on the cooker.” Of the general populace’s ontological malaise: “All over this country, there are people waking up day by day beside people they are disappointed to discover aren’t dead.” And of a particular kind of literary sexism: “Find me the woman in Dickens who is allowed to be utterly miserable. Find me her now while I put the kettle on.”
The humour in Bina is acerbic, though it drops off in the final third, as anger gives way to melancholy and mourning at the loss of a friend. There is irony here, too, in the complicated moral calculus involved in Bina’s calling and the fact that she has been brought up on charges for the one incident in which she insists she did not have a direct hand. This is typical of the author, whose subtlety is surpassing. Of the seductive civility of the Tall Man, Schofield writes, “This is what some fellas do to women. Don’t let yourself be one of them.” That second sentence, with its ambiguous point of reference – harking back to both women and “some fellas” – is a wonder.
Schofield locates herself in the vanguard of a group of strong women writers – Rachel Cusk, Eimear McBride, Valeria Luiselli, Anna Burns – who are radically revising the novel’s potential and pushing it forward as a form. She calls this book “a novel in warnings,” as if putting the reader on notice as to its singularity and calibrated strangeness. Her work is challenging and perturbing, sure. It is also, pace Marie Kondo, a source of much joy.