Milkman Read-Along

Week 2

Warning: You might see spoilers ahead.

What are we supposed to believe in this world of rumour, in this world where Somebody McSomebody is actually somebody of importance and where a milkman that isn’t a milkman stalks the characters when the real milkman is somebody seen as an outlier to this community. We’re getting a sense of, not so much of what this world looks like, but how the narrator inhabits and negotiates her way through it.

Welcome to Week Two. We’ve had our first extended interaction with milkman – and a pleasant mannered working milkman – and in this second section we see more of the play-off between the prior and Somebody McSomebody. Somebody McSomebody we find out has been rejected by the narrator several times. McSomebody retreats in fact knowing that milkman has a ‘far more menacing and stalking capability’ than he himself possesses in attaining the narrator’s affections. We find though that the milkman’s capacity to intrude upon her life also means that he knows more about her life than we’ve been let on to. He knows and witnesses for instance, maybe-boyfriend’s car auction, which leads the narrator to reflect:

  ‘And now, helped along by this milkman, it came the case that my own fearful fantasies and catastrophic thinking were predicting maybe-boyfriend’s violent death.’

Remarks such as these operate to continually embellish this confusing relationship with time that the novel has: we know that she is narrating the novel, but not necessarily framing it. We’re already aware of her fascination with the phenomena of ‘jamais vu’ but here, this tension of what she tells us and what she has seen also revolves around what we, as readers, are allowed to see (remember the lies she tries to tell the milkman about maybe-boyfriend’s ‘bit with the flag on’).  I think this though goes back to this idea of ‘reading’ we’ve seen which is important to the narrator and an act that sets her apart from other characters. What hinges this second act of the novel therefore, of all the eventualities in this world, is reading: by the end of the act we’ve seen her designated her as ‘beyond-the-pale’ because of her propensity to continually read. The following passage then correlates all these questions about time and how it might relate to this act of reading:

  ‘Of course, as regards living here a person could not help but have a view. Impossible it would be – in those days, those extreme awful crowd days, and on those streets too, which were the battlefield, which were the streets – to live here and not have a view about it. I myself spent most of my time with my back turned in the nineteenth century, even the eighteenth century, sometimes the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries, yet even then, I couldn’t stop having a view.’

Here, she’s clearly talking about the past (suddenly we’re in the past tense – ‘in those days,’ ‘even then’ )but also about the time we’re presently reading about. Our view on the world continues to be implicated by her view, which is as though turned backward into the past as she moves forward. Put simply, we are reading like she is reading. Walter Benjamin’s idea of the ‘Angel of History’ resonates here, or, take that reference to Rear Window we saw last time, which, the immobilised man constructing a blinkered view of the world, could act as a metaphor for this act of reading.

Not only though is this strange relationship with time being embellished but it also goes back to this sense of truth not being contingent on reality now. ‘My suspiciousness of questions had long existed before…the milkman’ she says, and like above, truth is not the heart of the matter. In this world built on rumour, where the rumours are leads and leaks are sources, it doesn’t instil a sense of the narrator necessarily being unreliable, but whether we as readers, can be trusted. Whether we are reliable readers:

 ‘Like third-brother-in law she didn’t gossip. Politically she kept her eyes and ears open. This was something she accused me deliberately of never doing, which I couldn’t deny because it was true.’

This is remarked during a meeting with a friend that ‘put word out’ she wanted to meet the narrator because of what she’d heard of the narrator’s liaisons with milkman. A community beyond-the-pale though seems to be the place for the outcasts, for people like the real milkman (there’s an interesting idea I think related to ‘mental health’ that we might explore next time). I’m not sure why being cast beyond the pale though, above anything else, is one of her gravest fears, but there’s a growing sense that with the narrator’s back turned on events as much as they can be, there’s also a growing sense that we might never gain her trust to understand what the reality is either and we might never have our questions answered.

Other Reading

Here are some articles that you might find interesting and useful after this second week of reading Milkman

  • Stuart Jeffries discusses Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee and the ‘Angel of History’ on the Verso blog.
  • Catherine Toal discusses the real locations that inspired Milkman on the Irish Times and what this term ‘milkman’ actually refers to. You might want to save this until you’ve finished the book though.
  • I think it would be unfair to call the narrator ‘unreliable.’ Certainly, her construction of the world is contingent to our reading of it. The Guardian selected their top-10 unreliable narrators. If you’ve read any of the novels, how do they stand-up to Milkman? If you haven’t what might you choose to read?
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