My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“I did not like twentieth century books because I did not like the twentieth century,” says the narrator of Anna Burns’s Milkman, the 2018 winner of the Man Booker prize. In one of the novel’s many knowing ironies, the joke is that she inhabits what is in many ways a quintessentially 20th-century novel, not only due to its nameless but discernible historical setting—a Catholic enclave in Belfast during the Troubles—but also in its form and theme.
None of which is to say that Milkman is not a 21st-century masterpiece: it very much is, the best contemporary novel I’ve read in years, a book I read not only with admiration but with gratitude. But since the problems of the 20th century are still with us, their literary solutions remain relevant.
Some critics don’t think so, however. Claire Armitstead frets in the Guardian that the Man Booker panel’s selection of so “boldly experimental” a novel will displease booksellers hoping for some lighter holiday fare, while Dwight Garner in the New York Times says the novel “slogs.”
Granted, such failures of reading are foretold by Milkman‘s literate heroine, called middle sister in this novel without names (more of which later). She describes the malicious gossip about her that circulates in what she calls “our totalitarian enclave” as “fast becoming a best-seller,” making an association between sensationalistic and easy-to-read fiction with viciousness in public life, whereas she incites the neighborhood’s talk by reading the classics as she walks.
In a late scene, the citizenry conspire to deny the reality of a quiet fistfight going on in their midst:
Being a conventional audience, however, used to chronological and traditional realism, the majority began to doubt that those men, indeed, were fighting at all.
Earlier, middle sister’s French class revolts against its assigned reading, because the text describes sky as something other than simply bleu. When the teacher leads the students to the window to show them all the myriad colors of the sunset, middle sister explains their objection to such poetic perception of reality’s complexity, granularity, and beauty:
It was the convention not to admit it, not to accept detail for this type of detail would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility?
This is “the subversiveness of a sunset”: a diurnal announcement of the world’s multifariousness and our duty to acknowledge it, if only to protect ourselves from the threats we see from the corner of our eye. Choice and responsibility are key to the novel, two elements that make it both timely and untimely.
Timely for #metoo reasons, as most reviewers observe: the novel’s plot concerns the teenaged heroine’s stalking by a middle-aged paramilitary nicknamed “Milkman” (because he drives a white van). Milkman never lays a hand on middle sister and never threatens her outright; he ruins her life, however, by his insinuations and his hovering presence, and by the gossip he inspires in the community, which comes to see her as at once loose-moralled and dangerously allied in what she calls her “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.”
Milkman is given over as much to middle sister’s reflections on what happened to her as on what happened itself. The text is a dense weave of first, second, and third thoughts crossing and re-crossing each other in a learned but vernacular voice; what emerges from this neomodernist discursiveness is the narrator’s objection to the paranoid and patriarchal community’s denial that a kind of spiritual menace, a vampiric sucking of the soul, takes place via men’s encroachments on women, even or especially when these encroachments are not physical or visible.
She mocks male authority late in the novel for understanding only “rape” and “not rape,” whereas so much of what men do to women—the heroine is affronted not only by Milkman but also by another stalker she calls Somebody McSomebody and by her own brother-in-law—is no less an affront for not being cut-and-dried violent sexual coercion.
One reason, then, that we shouldn’t shirk our responsibilities to pay attention to the complexity of reality or of literature is that if we do we will miss subtle but devastating signs of domination and suffering. At times, the narrator even speaks a New Age language of “fixated energy,” or describes her feeling in Milkman’s presence as “the underside of an orgasm”: we cannot simply ignore what is unquantifiable. The narrator’s own journey is an inner one: she overcomes what she calls her own “jamais vu” to take responsibility for her own perceptions, just as she takes responsibility for her own complicity in the enclave’s small-mindedness.
This insistence on personal responsibility in the Troubles-era setting adds complexity—and untimeliness—to this narrative of attempted victimization and attempted resistance-through-perception. Middle sister’s enclave is totalitarian in the name of collective political struggle, and this fact casts doubt on collective political struggle as a solution to the very real problems of everyday life.
Middle sister grants that this resistance came about for undeniably valid reasons of “historical injustice” and that she too often feels the need for a buffer between her community and the British government; yet the anti-imperialist struggle has been degraded, she quotes her mother as saying, into an affair of “‘the hoodlum, the worldling, the careerist and the personal agenda,'” into mere gangsterism. Can problems caused by men with guns be solved by more men with guns?
The remedy for imperialist injustice cannot be swaggering brutal strong men and the women who love them, Burns suggests. The latter brings me to another untimely feature of Milkman: its its extension of responsibility for the political situation to women as well as men. Middle sister suggests that the cocky and often violent entitlement of what we call “toxic masculinity” is upheld in part by the moralism and backbiting of what we do not call “toxic femininity.” The novel’s satirical portrait of the paramilitaries’ female “groupies” as well as of the gossiping, hypocritical, judgmental “pious women” of the neighborhood is key to this theme.
Furthermore, when middle sister displays collective female agency in her narrative, she lauds it for its localism and aestheticism rather than for its ideological militancy. The totalitarian enclave’s small feminist group earns middle sister’s praise for their behavior during a demonstration, when they do not “harp on in a broad encyclopaedic fashion about injustice towards and trespasses against women, not just in the present day but all through the ages, using terminology such as ‘terminology,'” but rather speak “of homespun, personal, ordinary things.” Likewise, when middle sister is rescued by a phalanx of aggrieved women from the outright violence of Somebody McSomebody at the novel’s climax, she attributes their anger less to a politicized sense of female solidarity than to the fact that the violent predatory man “had no manners basically.”
Meanwhile, this is also a novel that contains a sentence all but forbidden today on forward-thinking social media: “Not all boys and men, though, were like that.” Burns goes out of her way to depict good men as well as bad women, and to depict men and women in states of moral flux, implicitly rejecting our own neo-totalitarian insistence that social structures and group identities determine or obviate individual moral choice.
In fact, the titular Milkman is juxtaposed in the novel with “real milkman,” who genuinely delivers the goods; while Milkman’s alibi for predation is that he protects the collective, for which violent ministrations he is celebrated as well as feared, real milkman’s actual everyday kindness is interpreted as eccentric lovelessness by the unobservant community. (Granted, though, the trope of milk links kindness and care, whether betrayed or genuine, with maternity and femininity.)
Milkman calls on men and women alike to refuse a life of physical and metaphysical violence. “[N]o one has the same personal history even if they have the same communal history,” middle sister observes, privileging individual experience over collective judgment. Without denying the reality of female or Irish Catholic oppression, the novel nevertheless stages a struggle that is less between men and women or between religions and nations, but between those who want to shut down individual human complexity (“my irreconcilables,” middle sister calls this inner condition) and those who do not.
All of the above is why I call Milkman a quintessential 20th-century novel. Just as I suggested that last year’s Man Booker winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, can be profitably read in the tradition of the American novel going back to Charlotte and Wieland, so we might see Milkman in the light of classic Irish fiction, from its high-spirited Joycean satire on all deadening social structures and forms of thought to the linguistic and narrative problems of telling one’s own life story as tragicomically disclosed by Beckett.
But we might see Milkman, with its stylistic defamiliarizations and its interior monologue, in the context of modernism more broadly: of Woolf’s plea to rescue the inner life from crudely materialistic fiction, of Lawrence’s claim that only the novelist (and not the philosopher or scientist or priest) can understand the human being in the round. Even more than this, Milkman reminds me of the late-20th-century novels the Booker used to short-list or award before it went populist and American, global-local novels that were fractured allegories against all forms of oppression by writers like Lessing, Gordimer, Coetzee, Ishiguro, and Atwood, novels that are, in Kundera’s words, “investigation[s] of human life in the trap the world has become.”
Why doesn’t Anna Burns label her setting or give any of her characters names? Because names and labels calcify meaning. They are the primordial form of “sky-is-blue” common sense that allows quotidian malignancy to go unnoticed and unchecked (“‘Semtex is normal,'” a complacent character tells middle sister, revealing how evil the normal may be). Names, labels, concepts, and preconceptions may prevent us from seeing ourselves and each other as we truly are: full of desires and irreconcilables that both the state and its renouncers find too unruly to accept.
A quintessential 20th-century literary theory holds that the purpose of art is to restore experience in its fullness to us:
And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. (Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”)
More than just defamiliarizing, middle sister is also consistently hilarious despite or because of the novel’s painful themes. Throughout Milkman, I literally LOLed time and again, as, just to give one instance, when middle-sister relays the telephonic customs of her paranoid and overly sensitive community:
Therefore, owing to phone etiquette, there was lots of ‘Bye’, ‘Bye’, ‘Good-bye, son-in-law’, ‘Good-bye, mother-in-law’, ‘Good-bye’, ‘Good-bye’, ‘Bye’, ‘Bye’ with each person’s ear still at the earpiece as they bent their body over, inching the receiver ever and ever closer on each goodbye to the rest of the phone. Eventually it would end up back on its hook with the human ear physically removed from it. There might be further insurance goodbyes even at this stage…
Her understated one-liners are good too: “‘Why?’ I accused.” The deadpan style of the novel, with its verbal and syntactical register both stylized and vernacular, gives a comic tone to the whole performance. Another quintessentially 20th-century literary theory holds that the novel is an inherently comic form destined to dissolve in laughter all the epic -isms:
The world of the epic is the national heroic past: it is a world of “beginnings” and “peak times” in the national history, a world of fathers and of founders of families, a world of “firsts” and bests. […] Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it. (Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel”)
That theorist also argues that novels are intrinsically dialogic: they dramatize ideological conflict without resolving it into propaganda. So it is in Milkman: middle sister at one point walks in on her exaggeratedly brilliant “wee sisters” (whose unlikely erudition is one of the novel’s comic glories) as they read English newspapers. Middle sister admonishes them for activities that may bring suspicion on the family, but the little girls reprove her in the name of the dialogic imagination: “‘Hush, older sisters,’ they said. ‘We’re busy. We’re trying to understand their point of view.'”
Totalitarianism, this novel’s named enemy, is not itself an ideology but a way of holding any ideology; whereas novelistic perception, especially that conveyed by experimental-comical fiction that makes us think and think again, induces contemplativeness and curiosity rather than closed-minded brutality. Think of Orwell quoting Chesterton on Dickens: “What he is out against is not this or that institution, but…’an expression on the human face.'”
Like such aforementioned practitioners as Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, and Lessing before her, Anna Burns has performed one of those periodic miraculous resuscitations of narrative prose, that perennially moribund art form. Under her hands, the novel—that “one bright book of life”—lives again.