There’s probably a German word for the habit of urgently buying books you need right now and then waiting two or three years to read them… Anyway, this is how it was with Anna Burn’s tremendous novel, MILKMAN, which had been languishing on a shelf in my living room for some considerable time before I picked it up this week. I immediately wished I hadn’t waited so long for the sheer exhilarating effervescent brain-refreshment this book provided. I can’t remember when I last read a book that felt so new, that so charmed and delighted and reveled in its love of language.
Language in this book is a pure delight. The unnamed protagonist distracts herself from the traumatising troubles of her time by reading books, but only those written before the nineteenth century, so her narration and her rendition of others’ dialogue is a wonderfully original and enjoyable mix of working-class Northern Irish and extravagant, mildly-antiquated vocabulary and rhythms. In fact it does much that a nineteenth century novel does, in terms of the exposing of the ‘psychologicals’ of the characters. But it is resolutely, perfectly, acute and convincing in every revelation of the particular milieu in which it is set. It has much to say on gaslighting, gossip, how trauma is dealt with when it is an ongoing fact of life, and how a society shapes a mind and a body. I found it absolutely compelling.
Burns’ hilarious descriptions of the arcane and convoluted hierarchies of sectarian divisions, which extend to what television programmes, names, words, sports and hobbies one is allowed or otherwise to watch, speak, or partake in, somewhat put me in mind of Twitter and its increasingly strict and minute – yet largely unwritten – laws about what is and isn’t allowed, and what makes one ‘a community beyond-the-pale.’ It struck me quite forcefully that these divisions and politickings are sectarian in nature and go beyond any kind of logic to enforce a culture upon the ‘renouncers’ and the ‘supporters’; an authority which one is supposed to, and does, intimately adhere to without ever being instructed in its rules and ramifications. It is wrong, for example, to express a certain doubt, or doubt about a certain subject, or to support by way of a ‘like’ another person who expresses that same doubt or speaks on that subject. How demanding! How exacting is the standard! Some books and authors are acceptable, and some are not, and this seems to bear no relation to the actual words in their books or the ideas expressed by their authors; and no heed is to be paid to the fact of fiction at all, to the fact that authors make things up. Some are to be cancelled, and others to be celebrated, and it is all without sense or reason, though the self-appointed state forces will produce reams of highly intellectual writing on the supposed nuances and moral justifications of their cancellations of other authors, and like good little idiots, we all nod our heads and retweet their nonsense.
Well I have never lived in a war zone, or a sectarian community, or in conditions of unrelenting authoritarianism, and so maybe this comparison is trivial. Anyway, it strengthened my resolve to avoid Twitter more fastidiously than I have in the past.
I found in MILKMAN much to revel in, much to admire, much to laugh about, much to love. I read that, in addition to garnering awards and accolades and praise from luminous quarters, it also has sold now in excess of 500,000 copies. Quite something for a bold experimental literary novel. This fact alone has given me great hope. That so many can love a book like this gives me hope. That this wonderfully humane, joyous, perfect language can reach so many is an unequivocal good thing. Highly, highly recommended.