The Telling and the Tale
Daniel Green reviews Anna Burns’ Milkman
Since its publication in the UK in 2018, its capture of the Booker Prize, and its subsequent publication in the United States, Anna Burns’ Milkman has provoked sharply divergent responses. It has received numerous highly laudatory reviews, but also several high-profile negative reviews, most notably in The Times and the New York Times Book Review, the latter of which is negative indeed, accusing the novel of trying the reader’s patience with its needlessly diffuse and circuitous narration. Although this “problem” in Burns’ novel is framed by such critics as one of excessive “difficulty,” the criticism finally seems centred less on the formal and stylistic features of Milkman and directed more at the novel’s perceived failure to render its presumably weighty subjects — the Troubles in Northern Ireland, male dominance — in a suitably sober and straightforward way.
Milkman ultimately tells a story that is both cogent and eventful (although many of the events take place outside the narrator’s immediate awareness), but it is no doubt the narrator’s discursive manner of storytelling, full of circumlocutions and digressions, that most provokes these critics. Burns herself has speculated that some readers may have been bothered by the narrator’s practice of avoiding proper names, including her own — it is only as “Middle Sister” that we come to know her. But really this rhetorical habit seems reflective of the narrator’s more general wariness of immersing herself in her environment, which is not only inherently dangerous but characterised by the social pathologies to which such surroundings almost unavoidably give rise. This wariness is perhaps most obviously manifested in Middle Sister’s proclivity for reading while walking on the streets (only nineteenth century books, to take her even farther away from her immediate surroundings), although paradoxically this quirk makes her ultimately more vulnerable to these pathologies. Both her actions and her verbal strategies for representing those actions thus emphasise avoidance and indirection, qualities some critics clearly have not been able to appreciate.
However, readers familiar with Anna Burns’ first two novels, No Bones (2001) and Little Constructions (2007), would likely recognise that Milkman shares with them a foregrounding of verbal structure, an emphasis on telling as much as or more than tale, although this does not produce stories that lack a cumulative narrative power. No Bones especially acquires considerable dramatic impact over the course of its sequential chronicle of the Troubles and their influence on a particular Belfast neighbourhood. The formal structure of the novel is episodic, focusing on the maturation of its protagonist, Amelia, but its stark delineation of the damage done to Amelia, her family, and her neighbourhood registers with ever-intensifying force. The episodes are narrated from a variety of points of view and perspectives, although a majority are related in the third-person from Amelia’s gradually widening but ultimately benumbed viewpoint (literally benumbed, as she also becomes severely alcoholic). The final effect is created less through narrative tension (the novel tells a number of stories) than through a kind of chronological intensification of experiences (some incorporating moments of violence) that together create a compelling account of Amelia’s predicament.
Little Constructions is even more committed to an approach whereby the manner of the telling conditions the reader’s perception of the tale to such an extent that its mode of narration is almost as much the subject of the novel as the narrative itself. At first we are led to assume that the story is being told to us (in a very circuitous fashion) by a third-person narrator. Eventually, though, it seems that this narrator is either a citizen of the novel’s fictional town, Tiptoe Floorboard, who happens to be a bystander at most of the key moments portrayed (at the least an assiduous monitor of the community grapevine), or is a sort of composite character representing the town, a collective narrator as in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ (1930). Whatever the narrator’s ontological status, the narrative is related in an extremely recursive, elongated process that persistently calls attention to the act of representation itself, the narrator breaking the “fourth wall” to let us in on her narrative decisions:
Did you ever notice how people blend into the wallpaper? And drainpipes? Or how they hang, in anticipation — usually horrified — from twelve-storey buildings by the tips of their fingers? And just to be on the safe side, they do this from sometime around midnight up until midday the next day or more? That’s the sort of thing I notice. That girl was amazing. It must be a skill of many years standing to be able to mix yourself into all sorts of immiscible substances. I’d like to go on about Julie and her powers of disappearance but I think we should return, for it seemed Judas [Doe] had things relatively under control.
The novel chronicles the story of the Doe family, but it is a discontinuous chronicle to be sure, hardly a linear depiction of notable Doe deeds — or, more precisely, misdeeds. While the predominant focus is on John Doe, a career criminal, the narrator also follows many other members of the Doe family (all with “J” names — Judas, Jetty, Johnjoe, etc.), as well as a gun shop owner named Tom, ultimately depicting the undoing of the Doe family in a tale that is twisted in more ways than one. The narrative stops and starts, moves back and forth, seeming to progress according to the narrator’s associative habits of thought. It would not be altogether accurate to call Little Constructions a metafiction, but certainly the “constructions” of the title could include the narrator’s conspicuous construction of the narrative she is in the process of assembling.
Thus it is no surprise that in Milkman the narration calls attention to itself in a way that might distract from the narrative for readers expecting a more straightforwardly dramatic rendering of the Troubles and their immediate impact on the novel’s youthful protagonist (although she appears to be narrating the story from a longer perspective at some indefinite point after the events she describes). Burns’ novels surely demonstrate a deep-seated concern to reckon with the effects and repercussions of the Troubles for those survivors now attempting to live a semblance of a normal life, but, notwithstanding moments of brutality and other forms of dehumanising behaviour, she registers their difficulties not through direct depictions of violence or episodes of sectarian conflict, which can descend into melodrama and paradoxically impart a kind of overwrought sentimentality. Instead, Burns depicts her characters as people who do have lives, however warped by their stifling circumstances, and however horrifying the circumstances might seem to readers who have never borne them.
Middle Sister is somewhat more successful at achieving some integrity in her life than Amelia of No Bones, who ultimately succumbs to an extreme case of alcoholism and addiction bordering on psychosis after relocating to London in an attempt to escape her environment. She manages to maintain a relationship with “Almost Boyfriend” (together they have an agreement to not yet fully declare themselves to be boyfriend and girlfriend), who has successfully kept his distance from the sectarians on his “side” by obsessively involving himself in automobile repair and restoration. This relationship does come undone by the end of the novel, but not because either Middle Sister or Almost Boyfriend is drawn further into nationalist militancy or paramilitary violence: rather, Middle Sister discovers that Almost Boyfriend is gay. Middle Sister also has a closer connection to her family than does Amelia (whose family essentially disintegrates over the course of No Bones), even if she has a contentious relationship with her mother, who expects her to get married and raise a family in accustomed Irish fashion and bitterly rails against what Ma perceives as her daughter’s deliberate subversion of these wishes.
The primary object of Ma’s frustration is Middle Sister’s reported love affair with the titular Milkman — although, as it turns out, there are two men answering to the name. The one with whom Middle Sister is accused of consorting, nicknamed Milkman, is in fact a high-level IRA operative who does indeed take a fancy to Middle Sister but whose interest she does not return. The other is an actual milkman, a schoolmate of Ma’s, who will not defer to the authority of the “renouncers of the state” (the closest Middle Sister comes to naming the Provisional IRA) and suffers for it. To the extent that Milkman features a plot, it concerns Middle Sister’s attempts to forestall the moment she will have to either confront the former and spurn his intention to take her as his mistress — and face the unpleasant, perhaps deadly, consequences — or capitulate to him as an irresistible force. When ultimately she appears to have no alternative except to concede, it seems not a case of a strong-willed woman (which Middle Sister has certainly shown herself to be) losing her resolve, but an illustration of the way such oppressive social circumstances finally dissolve even a strong-willed woman’s self-possession and determination in the acid of the pervasive threat of mayhem and bloodshed.
Perhaps we can see Middle Sister’s narrative decisions — to stick with generic naming and to refrain from giving particular details about setting — as attempts to render her experience at this broader, more allegorical level as well, to avoid making her story too specifically about Northern Ireland’s anguish. (No Bones offers the specifics.) While of course few readers would fail to recognise the setting of Milkman as Belfast during the Troubles, the lack of particularised markers of both character and place lends the novel a more elemental quality, to an extent universalising Middle Sister’s story to one exposing the distorting pressures afflicting any distressed community. Similarly, the language practices exhibited by Middle Sister as narrator seem to impose a distance between her and the events related, but surely this could be both reflective of the real distance the actual narrator (an older Middle Sister) now has on the events herself, as well as her attempt to force some distance on readers all too willing to accept a sensationalised story of a young damsel in distress menaced by violent thugs.
Of course, the formal and stylistic qualities Burns has given her novel finally ask the reader to acknowledge that Milkman is first of all a literary work, not a disguised memoir or historical narrative, not a political thriller. It seems to me in fact that Milkman (as well as Burns’ previous novels) is an admirable model for writers who might attempt to treat an inescapably political subject — in this case one that transcends ordinary political differences — while refusing to sacrifice the potential aesthetic value of fiction. Few readers could finish Milkman without believing their appreciation of the fraught situation obtaining in Northern Ireland in the 1970s has been greatly enhanced, but at the same time the novel provides a memorable aesthetic experience: a formally intricate narrative that may seem rhetorically diffuse, yet whose discursive qualities both produce the mosaic-like formal structure and play the largest role in making Middle Sister a dynamic and compelling character.
One might wonder whether it is precisely Middle Sister’s dynamism and independence which, in the same way that they alienate many inhabitants of her own neighbourhood, also irritate some readers who want to see her as essentially a stand-in for the author, and Milkman itself as a book about the author’s experiences as a young woman in Belfast. Such a book ought to be direct in its emotional content and transparent in the language used to communicate it — oughtn’t it? But in the novels of Anna Burns emotional directness and rhetorical transparency would not be true to the way each of her characters understands their situation. To fully appreciate their predicament is to heed their perception and articulation of it, in all of their particularities, including the circumlocutions and digressions. In Milkman, Middle Sister responds to her situation not just by manifesting a degree of fearlessness — she persists in her habit of reading in the open, as if shutting out the world, even though she knows it makes others think her daft — but also by providing an account of her experiences on her own terms, in her own chosen voice. To reject that voice is literally to silence her.