CBR Bingo Square: Monster
Yes, my summer of Irish fiction continues. Though I’ve had Anna Burns’s Milkman on my shelf for…maybe
close to two years?…it’s a read I just kept putting off, and then I let my Instagram friends decide what novel I was gonna read next and this was the winner. Burns won the Booker Prize for this novel in 2018, and I can see why. (Sidebar: As much as I appreciate Margaret Atwood, the daring and deftness of what Burns accomplishes here really puts The Testaments to shame. It’s a fine novel, but it just can’t hold a candle to the ambition of this one.)
Reading modern Irish fiction means a good share of novels either about the revolutionary era from 1912-1922, or a good share of novels about the Troubles. I remember a professor I had in undergrad explaining the genre of “Troubles trash” to us to demarcate a line between crappy thrillers that exploited the real trauma of the Troubles versus novels that sought to actually examine the lives of those caught up in the time and place. And for a long time, fiction about the Troubles focused on the combatants, whether IRA or paras. Burns avoids the trap of simply exploiting the troubles by focusing on the experience of civilians like her unnamed protagonist (referred to by all as Middle Sister), an eighteen-year-old girl in an unnamed town (probably Belfast) who is desperately trying to be uninvolved in the spasms of violence around her, not realizing that she is hopelessly mired and denial in fact endangers her, rather than saving her. Her mother is widowed, and has no idea what to do with or make of her daughter who walks around town reading nineteenth century novels (only 19th century, because she hates the 20th century) and has a secret maybe-boyfriend, but has somehow caught the eye of a senior IRA man (or, as Burns calls them, “renouncers-of-the-state”) known as Milkman, who, despite being already married, stalks Middle Sister through the city, his mere attention and interest pulling her into the very maelstrom of conflict that she is desperately trying to avoid.
This is a distinctly postmodern novel in various ways: Burns’s play with terminology (renouncers vs defenders of the state, “beyond the pale” types, the “ten minute area”), the deliberate oddness of characters like Wee Sisters (too precocious by half, almost like the kids in DeLillo’s White Noise), refusal to name any of her characters (there’s a jilted suitor of Middle Sister’s own age who is called Somebody McSomebody) or even the setting, as well as the distinctly arch and metafictional tone that permeates Middle Sister’s narration keeps this novel just to the side of documentary reality. It’s also what enables our narrator to critically examine the situation without sounding false or off, and it captures the sheer unreality of growing up in a place like 1970s Northern Ireland. Most of all, Burns captures the way the violence of the time warped the lives of women and children, not just those of men, and how much this was neglected or ignored or simply accepted as part of the cost of waging war. (Sinead Fenton’s historical text The Good Friday Agreement has a whole chapter on how domestic/intimate partner violence in Northern Ireland exploded during this time period, and how often women were threatened with guns by partners.) As Middle Sister explains, trying to articulate why Milkman’s advances terrify her:
“At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled 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? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment.”
And Milkman is, undeniably, a monster, chasing after this teenager and making her feel unsafe everywhere she goes. But what’s also monstrous is how warped society is: how people’s perceptions of Middle Sister change, as when the girlfriends of other IRA men corner her in the bathroom at a club and instruct her in what she must do to be a good IRA girlfriend. (She can’t explain that she isn’t, because no one believes her: Milkman has set his sights on her and now her narrative of the situation simply no longer matters.)
Moreover, Burns captures the depth of this distortion not just in what happens to Middle Sister’s personal life, but in the attitudes of the whole community. When the teacher for her weekly French class makes her pupils describe the sky at sunset, they cannot: sky is either blue or, if clouded over, grey, and they cannot acknowledge, much less summon the words, for the yellows, pinks, and oranges before their vision. (The color of the book cover made perfect sense after this passage.) This is not a world that allows for nuance, much less beauty, and the impoverishing effect is profound. Middle Sister’s favorite brother-in-law is also considered a bit of a freak because he treats women with genuine consideration and respect, including Middle Sister: regarding a woman as fully human and sentient, rather than just a tool for a man to use, is the real weirdness in this place.
So shiny was bad and ‘too sad’ was bad, and ‘too joyous’ was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything; also not thinking, least not at the top level, which was why everybody kept their private thoughts safe and sound in those recesses underneath.
As things get worse, all Middle Sister can think to do is to try to numb herself and disconnect further, which turns out not to help at all: her blankness leaves her too easy to misinterpret, as well as simply too weird, but she is unable to change things. As she wonders: “how, when things are out of your hands, when things were never really in your hands, when things are stacked against you, does a person – the little person down here on the earth – be [careful]?”
Burns finds a way to resolve the events of the novel in ways that don’t wrap it all up too neatly or optimistically, and yet also avoid outright tragedy. Will Middle Sister be okay? Hard to say: there’s a lot of the Troubles still to go, though she starts to observe the possibility for other ways of being in people like the real milkman (the actual guy who delivers milk and is stubbornly decent), or her brother-in-law. But the possibility of tragedy is there too, as she proleptically narrates events like the funerals of people she knows who die as a result of their political convictions at some point after the novel’s end.
It’s a slow read, though never a slog: Burns has crafted something very perceptive and compelling in this one, and I’m glad I finally read it.