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In the first 100 (well, 102) pages of Milkman we trace the development of the nameless narrator in this nameless world and her early interactions with the ‘milkman’ himself. We also take a quick look at what the tenets of deploying this style of narration has on the novel.
I was reading in the London Review of Books, about the impact of western culture that slowly started to bleed into the post-Stalinist, Soviet Union. Sheila Fitzpatrick writes of how:
“Soviet readers devoured Scott, Hugo, Dickens, Dumas, Balzac, Twain and Remarque. Encouraged by Russian and Soviet tradition to ‘live’ a work of literature and model themselves on fictional protagonists, they entered those literary worlds with enthusiasm…”
One can perhaps see a few parallels in our narrator of Anna Burns’ Milkman. The female narrator of this novel walks the streets of a heavily, militarised city (presumably, in Northern Ireland) preferring, whatever the weather, and whatever the form of siege to keep her head down in a book. Unlike in the Soviet Union though, she’s not being encouraged to read these books. There’s certainly a sense of refuge however in reading nineteenth century literature (‘she did not like the twentieth century’) in this extraordinary, political territory.
We’ll have an opportunity to explore the significance of this at a later time, but for now, let’s take a look at our narrator and the world in which she’s inhabiting. Noticeably, she is narrating a time when she was eighteen years old, rather than when she is. She’s also apparently embarking on an affair with the mysterious and eponymous ‘milkman.’ This milkman we already know, by the novel’s very first sentence, will die ‘[t]he day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me…’ The significance of being a cat, we’ve yet to find out, but by the fact that we know the milkman is not actually a milkman, and instead a forty-one year old senior paramilitary who drives a range of vehicles, we know that these names, or labels, are not just hazy recollections and lapses in memory. Indeed, there seems to be a beautiful irony steadily building that a person with a name like ‘Somebody McSomebody’ might be a very important person after all.
Of course, research might be able to give you some context to these names but for now, names, or the lack thereof, is a device employed throughout by Burns. It means we’ve been introduced to key characters like ‘maybe-boyfriend,’ ‘third-brother-in-law’ and of course, ‘milkman.’ There are a host of others we’ve encountered: more briefly, her sisters and their husbands for example, but then we’ve also met ‘ma’ and ‘da.’ I’ll give coverage to her mother shortly, but her da we know, was interred at mental institutions because of his propensity to be ‘brooding, obsessive and overhung with cliffs, crags, ravens, crow and skeletons…’ It is though the narrator’s interactions with maybe-boyfriend that has provided a slight axis to which the events of the novel are pivoting so far, and has importantly, given us a better understanding of the environment these characters live in.
You’ll remember the ‘supercharger’ scene no doubt where, in a car auction, the ‘bits’ of a Bentley have been sold and auctioned off. With the supercharger sitting in maybe-boyfriend’s living room, men and neighbours who are even more excited than maybe-boyfriend about the auction, have an ‘unbrookable’ fervour, ‘more intense than ours’ says the narrator. The excitement curdles however when someone realises that the ‘bit with the flag on’ must have been bought by somebody. Does maybe-boyfriend have ‘the bit with the flag on’? It would be rather treacherous to bring this symbol into the house, let alone the community, as commodities and names from ‘over the water,’ are ‘infused with the energy, the power of history, the age old conflict…enjoinments and resisted impositions laid down long ago into this country by that country,’ we’re told. ‘Over the water,’ it’s rather clear, designates England.
By the help of maybe-boyfriend’s friend though, chef (one of the characters that Burns is able display her mastery of both misery and comedy here) avoids a lynching. It is however, compelling to see this narrator’s mind and narration hingeing the novel in a moment like this. Nobody realises, for instance, the narrator’s even present as the men instead leer at the supercharger. As our lens to this environment then, she’s also the lens to the other characters. Because later, when she’s speaking to her ma, when she’s being berated about her ‘affair’ with the milkman, which, at that time, only amounts to a couple of meetings in which the milkman has approached and walked beside her, we get a creeping sense that the narration and recalling of events is being impacted by something or someone.
It remains to be seen whether this is the case, but as A.N. Devers put it in the Los Angeles Times ‘everyone else is deeply involved in side-taking, judgment and policing each other’s behaviour.’ Although the ‘psychological enlightenment’ might have come by the time the narrator’s had the opportunity to narrate this – and after the milkman has been shot – it’s as though names and events are being redacted, ‘hoarded’ in a part of her mind we’ve not been given access to yet:
“I’d asked no questions, answered no questions, gave no confirmation, no refutation. That way I said, I’d hoped to maintain a border to keep my mind separate. That way, I said, I’d hoped to ground and protect myself.”
This is rather heartbreaking when we consider that she’s saying this in a conversation with her mother and there’s a sense that this violent, poisonously masculine society has also infected the way female relationships play out as well. Doesn’t this sound like a ‘hoarding’ of a kind though, similar to that which she sees on a television show that reminds her of maybe-boyfriend? But if this is about her ‘lens,’ and the way she perceives the world, we’ve had a couple of moments in and following that french class that directly see the narrator questioning her perception of this environment. The rather surreal moment with the dog slaughter – which conjoins with an earlier reference to Hitchcock’s film Rear Window – gives us that direct image of a perceiver, incapacitated in some way, trying to construct a vision with so limited information.
Perhaps I’ll proved to be wrong. But for now, we know that the affair with the milkman is being stoked by rumour and speculation and speculation is all that we as readers, with the novel poised at their third meeting, have at this stage as well.
Here’s some articles that you might find interesting and useful after this first week of reading Milkman
A review of the book To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture by Eleanor Gilburd (Harvard University Press: 458 pp.; £28.95 rrp.) that I mentioned in the opening of this post in the London Review of Books (paywalled but you should get 4 articles free per month if you register – worth it).
A.N. Dever’s LA Times discussion of Milkman as a ‘difficult’ book
This discussion of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s use of first-person narration in his novel, The Great Gatsby in The Rumpus