Reading Anna Burns novel, Milkman is like encountering all the hopes dreams and fears you have at seven, eight, nine and ten formulated by your big, eighteen year old sister under the perpetual shadow of pieties, punishment and violence. It’s gripping and liberating, creating a sense of care, of love, of strategy and affirmation.
A classic work in fiction that compares to Ralph Ellison’s account of Faulkner’s work (I’d look at Faulkner’s Sound and Fury and Light In August) because it’s not the preoccupation with the troubles that you’re left with but the whole sense of people fully drawn but rubbed out by the system of work, life and culture they have adapted to.
So they’re full but pencilled in without names, not fully realised because they’re disenfranchised.
Ireland is at once a place of boundaries and no boundaries: fixed and fluid: Anna Burns divines the flow of things under everyone’s feet; a flow, a process but a sense of uncertainty, of shifting, moving ground, so you get the sense of energy, energies, drained, draining away, energy that is metered, controlled and contained.
The writing leaves space for sounds and images, so you can fill the space. Remember this is just a novel.
To me I thought of a couple of powerful images from the film of Heart of Darkness, or the Ipcress file where the film opens to sound of the state (helicopter) and hallucinogenic rhythms, or the sounds of torture (brainwashing). Like Heart of Darkness, middle sister has the role of Harlequin: war is an internal and external nightmare and the art is in keeping the balance, the lid on.
But remember this is a novel, so the writer is there and not there.
It’s when a piece of work of any kind opens up a space that noone knew was there before that you can say makes you want to know about the people, to look again at the taken for granted: see in the detail how things became like that. Not only that: wanting to help change them.
When you’re in you’re part of an aspiration to see, to travel, to understand, to resolve. Your relation with this novel means you’re creating, manufacturing something missing: a dialectical speculation on how are we, who are we, how did we get here?
Anna Burns Milkman can only stop to wonder, to ask about how life could go on, how life is stopped, how light shines because the preparation, the care, the time has been taken to understand, detail, re-present the whole canvas, the whole theatre from myriad perspectives. Like Faulkner who “used the south to seek out human nature, so we turn to him for that continuity of moral purpose which made for the greatness of our classics.” Ralph Ellison
It’s art, an art that shows how individuals like wee sisters, middle sister, third brother, nearly boyfriend, Chef, Ma, Da and Real Milkman, Nuclear Boy, Tablets Girl, grow up and away and are cut down, contained: swaying, blooms, weeds, wildflowers, the juxtaposition of interiors and exteriors giving the sense of the connection between witnessing, surveillance life questioning, always questioning what is inside/what is outside. Half choked, half dead, yet getting on with it: whatever it is and it’s as if the biggest secret is that they all want to live.
They all want to value, re-value and evaluate. People managed by an accidental design suddenly grow up and appear: respecting and challenging whichever Word is supposed to be explaining the layers of life in an Irish community during the troubles, speaking the paradox of truth found in recycling the obvious, always widening the reach of the falcon and the falconer.
Like page after page of a compelling comic that you might read as a child that might split you in two as you walk along, reading, knowing, like middle sister narrator walking while reading Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott: like wee sisters you don’t care what you’re reading you just concretely ‘act’ the reading and anything else that has drama in it.
The sense of a right to know in the book dressed up in the wee sisters dressing up to something. It’s in middle sister’s reading while walking and in the slowed down sense of normality in their absurd play.
It’s the very play itself, revelling in hidden motive and alibi in everything that you’re keen to know, to experience for yourself as shamed detective because you know from experience that very self possession, that authenticity is not permitted, has been deferred in you into an obedience, a ‘something’ that you start by acting ‘as if’.
You have no idea what it is you might be called to be, being or for.
Milkman reveals the sinister complicity and routine of self and other in art: growing up, learning, living, being educated, educating yourself citizen of the world and in the small world you really inhabit presented to you as you, as him, as them, as us. It is very good. Read it and listen to the author reading the book. It’s art but not as we’re used to.
(Never Lift a Finger To a Woman should be Third brother In Law’s T shirt). Or a man.