Books

'Milkman' Is a Rich Read about Violence and Silence

For a book so full of coded language, innuendoes, gossip, and rumors, Anna Burns' award-winning Milkman is perhaps really about silence.

Milkman
Anna Burns

Graywolf Press

Dec 2018

Other

Anna Burns' Milkman, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is not an easy read. There are few chapter breaks. Within the chapters, there are entire sections with no paragraph breaks. And within the paragraphs, there are sentences that can span many lines with little or no punctuation. With the exception of a dog and Somebody McSomebody, no characters have names. Burns identifies them instead by descriptions: "maybe-boyfriend", "real milkman", and, of course, the Milkman.

Groups and places likewise go by descriptions; Britain is "the country over the water", and the setting is not named either, although it is clearly the author's home of Belfast during the '70s. The unwieldy internal monologue of the narrator—"middle sister", an 18-year-old voracious reader and frequently hilarious observer of her own community—is at first a bit jarring, as she frequently dives into back-story that's often much longer and more detailed than the action it modifies. But from the first alarming sentence, Burns offers a riveting, breathless rhythm that she maintains throughout the book.

When the narrator breaks off from the sparse plot to offer deep background, the reader must painstakingly work her way through what might seem like a tangent, but is in fact key to understanding the action as it unfolds. The constant hum of tension felt by the reader during these asides, which take up more of the book than the actual plot, mirrors that felt by the narrator in her home community. While Burns' indeterminate, stream-of-consciousness style in the tradition of Faulkner and Joyce has clearly turned some reviewers off and puzzled others, this coming-of-age tale is original, timely, and ultimately rewarding.

Milkman is about a lot of things, but it is fundamentally a psychological novel. Burns explained in an interview that she "grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could." And so, at its most superficial level, Milkman is about the Troubles. The narrator comes of age in a peculiar "psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed", where "matters didn't stop at 'their names' and 'our names', at 'us' and 'them', at 'our community' and 'their community', at 'over the road', 'over the water', 'over the border.'" The divisions and rules are minute, pervasive, and well known to all: there's "the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal." Every act, then, became a "political statement"—"everywhere you went, and with everything you did, even if you didn't want to." There's a constant threat of violence, by the state and by the renouncers of the state, via car bombs, kangaroo courts, assassinations, and riots, so much so that there were no "ordinary deaths" in the city, "not anymore."

But despite the constant "click" of unseen state cameras documenting every move in the community, state violence is not the villain in this novel, nor does it comprise much of the plot.

Milkman is not really for those interested in the history of Northern Ireland, and indeed, if you are, you won't get much in the way of historical detail herein. This is also not a political novel, although Burns has discussed it in this context: "If by political you mean is writing concerned with organizational structures and power and how that power is achieved and exercised and how it impacts on and influences people and the relationships between people, then yes, I guess it is political. I feel that what I write about is absolutely and essentially interested in how power is used, both in a personal and in a societal sense." In this sense, then, the politics of Milkman are not simply the colonial and religious politics traditionally associated with the Troubles; they are also the politics of community, which both mirror and intensify those of the larger struggle.

To name the characters could be to implicate them with either the state forces or the local renouncers, each of whom police the area for idiosyncratically perceived transgressions. The narrator notes the violence of the occupying state against members of her community, yet her community also recognizes the violence enacted in its name by the renouncers themselves, which makes them "uneasy, no longer certain of the moral correctness of the means by which the custodians of our honour were fighting for the cause", although of course they cannot openly acknowledge this realization. She wants to be anywhere else, or invisible, or silent, as she deliberately refuses to engage with current politics, exercising "vigilance not to be vigilant".

The community notes her strange habit of running, of reading while walking ( Ivanhoe, or Madame Bovary—always the classics, because she "did not like the twentieth century"), and of taking French classes downtown, in a neutral area. Better, she thinks, to stay quiet, to "keep the lid on, buy old books, read old books, seriously consider those scrolls and clay tablets." It was a kind of shield, her "one bit of power in this disempowering world." But despite these attempts at escapism, she is unable to fully transcend, immersed as she is in the collective, ongoing, ever-present trauma of the Troubles: "And we didn't speak on this, didn't dwell on it, but of course, along with others we imbibed the day-by-day, the drip-by-drip, on-the-street effects of it."

The narrator's deliberate aloofness renders her silent, and the local politics of gender govern her speech. The Milkman is a renouncer, a 41-year-old married and mysterious senior paramilitary who is not even a milkman, and his obsession with the narrator becomes a metaphor for the dysfunctional rules of gender, "that official 'male' and 'female' territory, and what females could say and what they could never say." This is a community rife with open secrets and gossip that functions as fact; indeed, in this closed society, this "intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district", rumors drive the narrative tension just as surely as any of the characters or their actions. These failures of communication oppress the narrator as she struggles to avoid the Milkman, the titular paramilitary who is dangerous primarily because of patriarchal privileges rather than sectarian politics.

And so Milkman is about sexual violence—or more specifically, it's about the kind of sexual violence that the narrator's community fails to recognize as violence. Burns explains: "Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were—if no physically violent touch is laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being leveled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn't there?" Indeed, the Milkman never touches the narrator and only looks at her directly once, in their final meeting, yet he and his associates follow her for over 300 pages; he materializes sporadically, suddenly, and briefly as she goes about her days, revealing that he knows her every move and threatening her mechanic maybe-boyfriend indirectly through stories of car bombs and unanticipated mishaps.

It's not clear why he chooses her to terrorize, just that he has, and she is worn down by the sinister uncertainty of his unwelcome appearances. The building tension throughout the novel is not, as one might expect, the prelude to rape; the sexual violence in Milkman is the demoralization of stalking, the dehumanization of silencing, and the objectification of victim-blaming. There is no one—not her mother, not her oldest friend, not maybe-boyfriend—to whom the narrator can turn or who would even believe her. The local group of feminists—the "issues women"—were deemed by the community to be "beyond-the-pales", "aborting homosexual insurrectionists" who courted danger from the renouncers themselves with their transgression of gender roles, and so they are no help. The trauma intensifies from stalking, to ostracization, and finally to resignation: "I'd been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man. Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion." She will become what he wants, and what the community has already decided that she is.

For a book so full of coded language, innuendoes, gossip, and rumors, Milkman is perhaps really about silence. The narrator has trained herself not to speak about the Troubles, and the community has conditioned her not to speak about the Milkman's singular terrorism, instead writing her narrative for her, so much so that when she does speak, she's not believed—which further conditions her to keep her mouth shut, and indeed pushes her into the soundlessly "shapeshifting" van of the Milkman.

This timely novel is about what happens when we multiply the traumas of sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault by simultaneously conditioning victims to remain silent, punishing them when they don't, and speaking for them by filling in imagined and cruel details about who they are, what they do, and why—all of which enhances men's abuses of power and facilitates the harrowing historical cycle that teaches that is perhaps best, safer, even more dignified not to speak at all. Yet in the end, as her "beribboned, besilked, bevelveted, behighheeled, bescratchy-petticoated" wee sisters dance around the neighborhood, as young boys play their imagined war games in the role of the Renouncer Hero Milkman at dusk, the narrator returns to herself. Despite the presumed setting with its very specific history , Milkman is a timeless and universal story, one that ends with a bit of light shining in—literally, as the narrator almost laughs when she sets off on a mind-clearing run, inhaling the setting sun.

9
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Film

The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.

Music

July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.

Music

With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.

Film

Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.

Music

MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.

Books

Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.

Film

Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.

Music

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Books

'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Film

It's a Helluva of a World in Alain Corneau's 'Série Noire'

Alain Corneau's Série Noire is like a documentary of squalid desperation, albeit a slightly heightened and sardonic one.

Music

The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2015

From the old guard reaffirming its status to upstarts asserting their prowess, personal tales voiced by true artists connected on an emotional level in the best Americana music of 2015.

Music

Dizzy's Katie Munshaw Keeps Home Fires Burning with 'The Sun and Her Scorch'

In a world turned upside down, it might be the perfect time to take a new album spin with Canadian dream-pop band Dizzy and lead singer-songwriter Katie Munshaw, who supplies enough emotional electricity to jump-start a broken heart.

Music

Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers Bring Summery Highlife to 'Ozobia Special'

Summery synths bring highlife of the 1980s on a reissue of Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers' innovative Ozobia Special.

Music

'The Upward Spiral' Is Nicolas Bougaïeff's Layered and Unique Approach to Techno

On his debut album for Mute, Berlin-based producer Nicolas Bougaïeff applies meticulous care and a deft, trained ear to each track, and the results are marvelous.

Music

How BTS Always Leave You Wanting More

K-pop boy band BTS are masterful at creating a separation between their public personas and their private lives. This mythology leaves a void that fans willingly fill.

Music

The Psychedelic Furs' 'Made of Rain' Is Their First Album in Nearly 30 Years

The first album in three decades from the Psychedelic Furs beats expectations just one track in with "The Boy That Invented Rock and Roll".

Music

Fontaines D.C. Abandon the Familiar on 'A Hero's Death'

Fontaines D.C.'s A Hero's Death is the follow-up to the acclaimed Dogrel, and it features some of their best work -- alongside some of their most generic.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.