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Clair Wills on Anna Burns

In the latest issue of the NYRB, Clair Wills takes a fascinating look at Anna Burns’ Milkman, specifically her use of language that avoids the use of language:

Because of the amount of energy expended in avoiding naming things, middle sister’s world is an exhausting place to live. Increasingly cornered by the sinister Milkman, and increasingly the subject of gossip, she tries to deflect the community’s interest in her by turning herself into a blank, “an inert, vapid person,” another missing bit of the landscape. Her predicament, that of victims of abuse and violence everywhere, is that she begins to lose the sense of self she has been trying to protect by retreating from the world. … Burns writes with fearful intensity of the insidious effects of male abuse of power and control, as middle sister is rendered helpless, unable to explain what is happening to her, and — even if she could explain — unable to get anyone to listen.

The novel is carried by the extraordinary dynamism of middle sister’s voice, full of syntactically vertiginous constructions and new coinages such as “numbance” (for what happens to you when you were threatened sexually) or “earbashings” (of McSomebody’s verbal onslaughts). But all this verbal energy is a consequence of living in a time and a place that lacks a language of feeling.