Blog about Anna Burns’s maybe-horror/maybe-comedy novel Milkman

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Anna Burns’s third novel Milkman won the 2018 Man Booker Prize and was reviewed in a number of prominent publications. It hardly needs my recommendation at this point, but I do recommend it: It’s artful, horrific, endearing, and troubling, a claustrophobic, unrelenting depiction of terror and paranoia. It’s also really funny.

Scattershot snippets I’d heard about Milkman indicated that the novel was “difficult” and even “confusing” or “challenging,” in large part because of the novel’s major stylistic trope—the first-person narrator refuses to ascribe clear, “stable” names to the characters in the book.

Our narrator, an eighteen-year-old woman in Northern Ireland, is referred to variously as “daughter,” “middle sister,” and “maybe-girlfriend” (among other titles) depending on whom she is interacting with. Similarly, most other characters are referred to in such terms: “oldest friend,” “third brother-in-law,” or simply “neighbour,” a nebulous catchall. (There are “named’ characters of a sort though: “chef,” “tablets girl,” “nuclear boy,” “real milkman,” and, of course, the horrific titular character “milkman.”) This narrative device might disarm some readers initially, but I found it easy to sink into our first-person narrator’s distinctive, brave, funny voice, a voice that emerges into new states of knowing and new states of consciousness as the novel unfolds.

Naming, or rather not naming is especially rhetorically significant given the setting and context of Milkman. It is the late 1970s, and the strange hot cold silent loud civil war in Northern Ireland has been going on for the entirety of our narrator’s lifetime. It has fully colonized her consciousness, shaped her language. Significantly, the conflict itself cannot be named except obliquely, nebulously. When our narrator tries to describe this zeitgeist, she employs the vague term “political problems”; her third brother-in-law replies, “Are you referring to the sorrows, the losses, the troubles, the sadnesses?”

Similarly, phrases like Protestant or Catholic are never employed, let alone anything as specific as the British army and the IRA, or unionists and nationalists. There’s just “their side” and “our side.” The sides don’t ultimately matter in Milkman. Rather this is a novel about what a constant state of their side-our side does to a person.

Our narrator, bound since birth in this state of their side-our side, has difficulty clearly communicating the central conflict of Milkman. She finds herself the strange victim of the milkman, an older married man who is a top level operative of the renouncers, anti-government paramilitaries who essentially run her district. (To be clear, he is not a real milkman. There is a real milkman though, and he’s a good guy.) Milkman stalks the narrator, creeping up next to her in his white van as she walks home reading 19th-century novels (a habit that marks her as “beyond the pale,” an outsider in her community) or waylaying her as she runs in the park. He’s a nightmare force of patriarchal ideology, a creeper at the edge, but utterly empowered.

Milkman isn’t the narrator’s only stalker. No, there’s also Somebody McSomebody, who we meet, sort of, in the novel’s astonishing opening sentence: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” Somebody McSomebody is a poseur though. He’s a pretend renouncer, a would-be hardman also inscribed in the violent ideology of the the Troubles. The narrator calls him her “amateur stalker.”

The narrator uses variations of the word “stalk” in Milkman, but this word is meant to convey meaning to us, to a readership that might now better understand the term. (This effect of an older voice imposing its wisdom on a younger perceiver persists in Milkman.) What’s clear though is that nobody, or at least nobody in authority, can help the narrator from her stalkers:

That was the way it worked. Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors. He could have meant what I thought he’d meant, but equally, he might not have meant anything.

Our narrator lives in a constant state of maybe, a trope underscored by her relationship with “maybe-boyfriend” (himself something of an oddball). Maybe-boyfriend is a compelling character in Milkman, and perhaps something of tragic-absurd one as well. (One of the strangest details in the novel: maybe-boyfriend and his brothers are abandoned by his parents so that they can become world champion ballroom dancers—which they do (become world champion ballroom dancers, that is.)) In a particularly strong section of the book, maybe-boyfriend, a mechanic and car enthusiast, brings home the supercharger of a Bentley and shows it off to his neighbors. The jovial atmosphere slowly slides into a tense then paranoid exchange—Bentleys are English after all—which eventually erupts into violence. It’s a remarkably controlled episode that describes the ideology of the Troubles in a way that a historical textbook never could.

Even though our narrator lives in a perpetual maybe, she still understands her community and can describe it for us. She is intelligent and perceptive, and much of the humor in Milkman evinces from moments where she gets on a rhetorical roll, as when she describes her home as “our intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.” Horror and comedy conjoin in her absurd description of a run-in with the milkman as “talking to a sinister man while holding the head of a cat that had been bombed to death by Nazis.”

Radical horror, violence, and uncertainty percolate in Milkman. Paranoia rules on all levels, but by focusing primarily on the narrator’s being stalked by milkman, Burns offers a concrete portrait of a malevolent force that might otherwise be too sinister and abstract to properly convey in a fictional novel. At the same time, our narrator is able to extrapolate beyond her concrete circumstances to other injustices—

those big ones, the famous ones, the international ones – witch-burnings, footbindings, suttee, honour killings, female circumcision, rape, child marriages, retributions by stoning, female infanticide, gynaecological practices, maternal mortality, domestic servitude, treatment as chattels, as breeding stock, as possessions, girls going missing, girls being sold and all those other worldwide cultural, tribal and religious socialisations and scandalisations, also the warnings given against things throughout patriarchal history that were seen as uncommon for a woman to do or think or say.

Milkman is full of moments like this, rhetorical flights that help weave a richer picture of our narrator’s psychic state.

Milkman also shows us how that psychic state deteriorates. Our narrator was always an outsider, reading novels while walking or going on long runs as a way to tune out reality. Our narrator is aware of this tuning-out; indeed, it is her primary practice. However, as gossip and lies spread about her and the milkman, her consciousness begins to crumble–

Thing was though, before I’d gained the understanding of what was happening, my seemingly flattened approach to life became less a pretence and more and more real as time went on. At first an emotional numbness set in. Then my head, which initially had reassured with, ‘Excellent. Well done. Successfully am I fooling them in that they do not know who I am or what I’m thinking or what I’m feeling,’ now began itself to doubt I was even there. ‘Just a minute,’ it said. ‘Where is our reaction? We were having a privately expressed reaction but now we’re not having it. Where is it?’ Thus my feelings stopped expressing. Then they stopped existing. And now this numbance from nowhere had come so far on in its development that along with others in the area finding me inaccessible, I, too, came to find me inaccessible. My inner world, it seemed, had gone away.

This is a sad, remarkable, and genuinely horrifying passage. We get the horror of un-becoming, a kind of un-becoming that we might find in many other horror-tinged feminist works, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Anna Kavan’s Ice to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. 

Not only is our heroine emotionally and psychologically drained, she also finds herself physically exhausted by the duress of being stalked—stalked now not only by the milkman, but also by the whispering community. No longer able to take the walks and runs that replenished her, she languishes. The horror and absurdity culminates when she is poisoned, for no real reason, by tablets girl, “our district poisoner” and must recover without the aid of professional medical care. (Nobody in the district can go to the hospital without fear of being thought an informant.)

After a serious bout of purging, the narrator recovers. While recovering, her triumvirate of “wee sisters” asks her to read them a story. Tellingly, they purloin their ma’s copy of The Exorcist. Milkman is a novel of possession and purging, of being inscribed in a preexisting symbolic order and forging a consciousness strong enough to resist and endure that order.

Milkman is a maybe-horror, but also a maybe-comedy (it even ends in a maybe-laugh), and like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy (Kafka, BrazilThe King of Comedy, “Young Goodman Brown,” Twin Peaks, Goya, Bolaño, Get OutCandideCurb Your EnthusiasmFunny Games, etc.)—like many strong works that showcase the intense relationship between horror and comedy, Milkman exists in a weird maybe-space, a queasy wonderful freaky upsetting maybe-space that, in its finest moments, makes us look at something we thought we might have understood in a wholly new way.  Highly recommended.

Blog about a book acquired and a bit of recent reading

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The copy I ordered of Fernando A. Flores’ novel Tears of the Trufflepig arrived today and I finished the first three chapters before putting on the USA-ENG World Cup game—sort of a noir sci-fi tone so far (Flores’ novel, not the World Cup match).

I ordered the book after reading the first five paragraphs of J. David Gonzalez’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books a few days ago. I’ll read the rest of the review after I finish Trufflepig; these are the paragraphs I stopped with—

Now, about the plot. Drugs have been made legal, so the cartels have taken to trafficking “filtered” animals, bio-engineered exotics brought back from extinction and served at black market dinners for the incredibly rich and extraordinarily vacuous. The death (by filtered ostrich, no less) of El Gordo Pacheco, the leader of the world’s most powerful cartel, has led to a global turf war for control of the filtering syndicates. Australia, Helsinki, Tangiers, New Hampshire: They all want in. Enter Leone McMasters, the silver-mustached head of McM Imports, a shadowy multinational corporation. Think Pynchon’s Golden Fang. Think Monsanto.

Also, there is a thriving black market for the shrunken heads of the Aranaña Indians, a fictional tribe of indigenous people at the heart of Trufflepig’s mystery. Having been vanished for over 400 years, their sudden reappearance portends something. Perhaps it’s doom, but perhaps it’s nothing at all, simply the passing of time. Still, tokens of their existence have led to a Möbius strip of tragedy, “with Indians now killing other Indians for their heads, because they are left out on the margins of the modern world and have few recourses to feed their families.”

I finished Anna Kavan’s novel Ice a few days ago (I wrote about it herehere, and here). I realized after having written about Ice that I’d neglected to compare it favorably to a number of other novels and stories. By compare—well, what I want to say is that reading Ice feels a particular way; it’s disorienting, a bit upsetting, and truly strange. I had meant to compare it to Georg Büchner’s novella Lenz, the novels of João Gilberto Noll, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Village after Dark,” plenty of Poe, and the films of David Lynch.

After Ice I read a bit of Anna Burns’ recent novel Milkman, but it didn’t stick for whatever reason—I’ll give it a proper effort soon though. I ended up pulling a collection of Angela Carter from the shelf and rereading some of the tales in The Bloody Chamber (specifically, Carter’s riffs on Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast). I think maybe it was the lingering Kavan flavors—the fable-making psychosexual thrust of it all—that prompted rereading a bit of Carter, which served as almost a palate cleanser. I’ll probably read a few more tales from it after I finish Trufflepig. But now back to the soccer match, which just tied up at 2-2.

Blog about some recently acquired books

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I have acquired a goodly amount of books in the last two weeks and failed to do any of these silly “books acquired” posts about them, having been busy with summer classes and occupying summer-bound children (and, admittedly spending too many free hours rewatching Deadwood so that I can watch the Deadwood film and doing a Brueghel puzzle, and not really writing).

I ordered Pierre Senges’ strange little book Geometry in the Dust. It’s new in English translation by Jacob Siefring from publisher Inside the Castle. (Siefring also translated Senges’ novel The Major Refutation, which I read a few years ago.) Geometry in the Dust is a rectangular novella that includes black and white illustrations by Patrice Killoffer. The text is set in two columns, with occasional inset notes set in a smaller font.

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I mention the size/shape, the inset notes, and the illustrations because, for whatever reason, these things make the reading experience even odder (although I can’t articulate why, and to be clear, I find the oddness compelling).

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Told in the articulate, observant, and often-funny first-person voice of the “sole faithful minister…advisor, chamberlain and…scapegoat” of a certain monarch—a “you” this minister addresses—like, you, the reader—told in this funny and strange voice, Geometry in the Dust is “about” (a term that we’d have to place under suspicion here) the planning, the mental construction of a great city. A sort of extended thought experiment, Senges’ novella captivated me for two quick afternoon reads, and I hope to go through it again in preparation for a proper review. For now, I’ll lazily compare it to Borges, Calvino, Perec, and Antoine Volodine—writers that Senges does not imitate, but seems to drink from the same imaginative well as.

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I went to my beloved used bookstore last Friday to browse, as is often my habit, and while I didn’t find any of the Joy Williams Vintage Contemporaries I was hoping to find, I did find a copy of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Kavan until I read Ann Quin’s fantastic novel Berg (which I reviewed recently on this blog). I subsequently read/heard Kavan’s name brought up in conversations concerning Quin. Ice is my next read.

I also spied a new copy of Anna Burns’ Milkman at half price and picked it up. I’d heard good things about the novel—that it’s weird, challenging; that a lot of folks hated it. And, like, look—Ann, Anna, Anna. Why not? Milkman after Ice?

I got home to three separate review copies in the mail, a bit of an overwhelming shock, really, as one is NYRB’s new edition of Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of my Brother Abel (translated by Joachim Neugroschel and revised by Marshall Yarbrough) b/w Cain: The Last Text (translated by David Dollenmayer). (The novel and its sequel have been published as Abel and Cain.) At nearly 900 pages it is a brick, or maybe a nice big hole to fall into soon.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Contra Mundum Press has published Iceberg Slim’s novel Night Train to Sugar Hill, which was never published in Slim’s (aka Robert Beck’s) lifetime. I’m not sure if this is the first publication of this late novel, but I think it is.

I had read some of Greg Gerke’s essays at LARB and 3:AM before getting See What I See (which is out later this year), and am generally impressed with what I’ve read so far. I admit that I skipped around almost immediately, reading (or rereading, in one case) pieces on William Gass and William Gaddis, before turning through pieces on Paul Thomas Anderson and Ingmar Bergman. An essay ostensibly on Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner is really about criticism itself, and contains this paragraph:

Critics have a job incompatible with their raw materials. They are to respond promptly and pithily to a work of art—the very life of which changes by different viewings, listenings, and readings, and at different times in one’s life. It is like being a bull rider—one being is not made to situate itself onto the other. Yet, our culture still respects some views and honors the guidance offered. In conjunction, it is no exaggeration to say we live in an era that disposes of language, including the etiolation of the sentence, punctuation, spelling, and grammar by the rush to judgment, and by the ego not caring what it’s form of thought is like, only that it’s owner’s name is lit up. Our species is changing—words, because they are not respected, boil more easily over into lies and exaggeration, disregarding the best humanistic advice possible, courtesy of Shakespeare: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Where once words were imbricated and limned to grasp at wisdom, we now have the sweet satisfactions of irony, the insulting tweet, and the ham-handed “article” on why this or that does or doesn’t meet one’s satisfaction.

Gerke’s essay reminded me that I had wanted to see Mr. Turner (admiring both Leigh and his subject). (And if Gerke is a namegoogler—I loved Boyhood.)