The Story and the Truth

“It’s Amazing The Feelings That Are In You”: Anna Burns’s “Milkman”

In Books on October 10, 2018 at 4:47 pm

I can’t recall reading quite so magnetic a novel as Anna Burns’s Milkman in some time. In many ways, it resembles Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing: its first-person, controlled stream of consciousness lends the novel an air of immediacy and authenticity, and quickly builds its own syntax and grammar as a means of cuing the reader more clearly to its concerns and its protagonists’ character. In others, however, it’s quite different: Milkman is earthier and funnier; where McBride’s narrator, even in her novel’s most brutal moments, had so finely-wrought a voice that it could read other-worldly, Milkman is never anything less than fully embedded in its working-class Belfast mise en scene.

Milkman takes place some time during the 1970s depths of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and in the heart of a Catholic community entirely separated from the Protestant one it neighbours. The manners of elision that this situation encourages bring to mind China Miéville’s The City & the City – so unlikely do the circumlocutions of Burns’s characters seem that they occasionally present as fantastical. So, too, do the commonplaces of their day-to-day: the way bushes are taken to click, or individuals to disappear; the distance of any authority outside of the community, and the weirdness of their intermittent materialisations, which happen quickly and just as rapidly retreat. “All this … seemed normality which meant then, that part of normality here was this constant, unacknowledged struggle to see” (p. 89).

This is one of the most refreshing aspects of Milkman‘s considerable achievement: the way it recreates a world now oddly separated from our own, despite its proximity in terms of simple time. It also feels, in these days of Brexit and border wrangling, important to recall the distressing effects of division and demarcation in the province of Northern Ireland. The impossible pressures that the requirements of clan loyalty and gang solidarity place upon the people of Burns’s Belfast bend and twist them, taking them away from their own desires and goals and towards agendas and disputes not truly their own. They also demand of Burns’s characters destructive moral choices – or rather choices with no viable moral option available: “Do you stand strong? Do you bear witness, even if, in the process, you cause more suffering and prolonged humiliation for your son or your brother or your husband or your father? Or do you go away, back inside, abandoning your son ore your brother or your husband to these people?” (p. 95)

What is most impressive about Milkman, though, is that it correctly situates the political within the personal, as well as vice versa. The novel isn’t the story of hitmen and hardmen engaged in an underground war, but of women and communities living a life above and within that context. No character in Milkman is named – it is safer in this similarly unnamed Belfast to avoid looking too closely at, or choosing to label too decisively, anything or anyone – but its narrator is the middle sister of a family which has already lost two of its sons to the Troubles, and who now finds herself the target of the titular individual. No deliverer of milk, this man – rather, rumour has it, he is a leading figure in the paramilitaries (again, this word is never used) … and he has taken a jealous dislike to the lad whom middle sister insists on continuing to call her maybe-boyfriend. In a conflict that passes from one generation to the next, Milkman is also the inheritor of his soubriquet – an older, “real” milkman (that is, a real “milkman”), was once known to middle sister’s mother. The detail of all these overlaid relationships spools out, often orthogonally, throughout the novel.

As they do, we come to understand how the politics of the community doesn’t just drive its events but also becomes a sort of mask for them: “maybe-boyfriend was to be killed,” middle sister worries, “under the catch-all of the political problems even if, in reality, the milkman was going to kill him out of disguised sexual jealousy over me” (p. 115). In this context – in which women beaten by their husbands are told it is because of some depredation meted out to their man by a soldier from over the water, or in which every murder is understood as having a purpose or justification regardless of its depravity – middle sister comes to feel that “my inner world, it had seemed, had gone away” (p. 178). Likewise, she comes to see Milkman’s stalking of her as of a piece with the unspoken rules of her community: proceeding piecemeal and in metaphor, almost imperceptible but no less, and perhaps more, claustrophobic for all that. The intensity of all this is exhausting for all concerned; each character gives up much in order to survive within a space continually boasting less and less room for manoeuvre.

Perhaps this is why middle sister’s habit of walking the streets reading a book troubles so many of the people around her. In a community governed entirely by rumour – Burns is aware, no doubt, of the anthropological function of gossip in societies which seek self-policing unity – what comes to seem most dangerous is information, education. No one is encouraged to achieve this – boys are spirited away to the fight at an early age, or forced into make-do marriages or closeted homosexual isolation, whilst girls are encouraged to compete for the affections of gangsters and assassins – but middle sister is routinely caught with her nose in a novel.

It’s the way you do it – reading book, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea besides you, essays being penned – your discourses, your lubrications. It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical  illusion. Not public spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why – with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pill together – would anyone want to call attention to themselves here? (p. 200)

This tension between the individual and the group, self-improvement and conformity, is not resolved by the novel’s end – cannot, in a society dominated by a recourse to, an insistence on, a herd identity, be resolved. But nor can the community be saved by a resort to the inward. Instead, increasingly recursive self-justifications are sought in order to protect the integrity of the corporation. Women, again, are the forefront of this, demanding more rights and greater equality, and so the men try to pay lip service to these demands “by coming up with the invention of rape with sub-sections – meaning that in our district there could now be full rape, three-quarter rape, half-rape or one-quarter rape” (p. 311). Such are the rationalisations to which middle sister and her contemporaries are subject. Only in her third brother-in-law, for whom rape is not “equivocations, rhetorical stunts, sly debater tricks or a quarter amount of something” (p. 346), is there a sign of hope – and only in the re-emergence of her mother’s true self from under a smothering blanket of theatrical piety is there a suggestion of escape.

Despite the fact that Milkman dwells on constriction, it is an expansive novel full of wisdom and not a little optimism. It perceives a dark time in recent history and seeks not just to understand but explicate it, and to hint and suggest how the way out of it was found. It does so through that incredible voice – humane and witty, difficult and characterful yet almost instantly accessible. There is little about this novel that doesn’t work beautifully – perhaps only in the weakness and occasional redundancy of its plot and central mysteries does it struggle to make something of its promises – and in its unnamed universality is, alas, of renewed relevance in our increasingly tribal times. Burns has here written something rather special, and the book not just deserves its place on this year’s Booker shortlist; it seems to me a frontrunner for the prize.


“The Prison of the Present Tense”: Rachel Kushner’s “The Mars Room”

In Books on October 9, 2018 at 9:10 am

I feel like I’m being unfair to The Mars Room. Its presence on this year’s Booker shortlist is refreshing and significant; its voice is memorable and consistent; its heart, reader, is in the right place. There are passages of quite impressive tension, and others of much humour and even – if this is not too hoary a noun (which, of course, it is) – ribaldry. It has something to say of perhaps even greater urgency now than when the novel was being written. You’ll remember it; it sticks.

And yet I can’t quite shake the idea that the novel doesn’t really work, or that it is weirdly derivative for a novel that wants to be taken so seriously.

The Mars Room begins some time around 2003, when Romy Hall, a single mother in her late twenties, is being ferried to Stanville, the prison where she is to start the first of two consecutive life sentences. The exact nature of her offence is kept hazy until very late in the novel, but we quickly intuit that, in one way or another, she killed a man who had begun to stalk her. She had first met him in her capacity as an adult dancer in the Mars Room of the title, a very low-rent establishment in her native San Francisco at which she had worked for some time. “I am still Kurt Kennedy’s victim,” Romy tells us very early on, “even though he’s dead” (p. 19).

“Low-rent” is the adjective to describe much of the milieu in which The Mars Room is set. Its San Francisco is not the sun-kissed city of postcards and romantic movies; it is a hard-scrabble, down-at-heel place which exists beneath, above, to one side of and in between the recommended hotspots, “immersed in beauty and barred from seeing it” (p. 11). Only the tourists call this place “San Fran”, Romy tells us, and only people from further east think of it as a beacon of the good life. For Romy, it is only the home foisted upon her, her tatty default state.

The characters in The Mars Room, then, are acutely aware of their own disenfranchisement. From the conspiracy theories of her inmate contemporaries – “I didn’t meet a single person in the county who wasn’t convinced that AIDS had been invented by the government to wipe out gays and addicts” (p. 15) – to their understanding of the job market – “White girls get all the best jobs … while us black and brown women pull used tampons from the septic tank” (p. 161) – they are not blind to the injustices around them, and which have defined their lives. Injustice is fully integrated with their daily experience, threaded through life like a shabby golden thread. “If I was a dude I’d be like I am right now,” one of the prisoners shrugs. “‘Cept not locked up” (p. 105).

This structural injustice is featured on almost every page of The Mars Room, but is perhaps most clearly and concisely presented in Romy’s experience of the justice system. Bundled into a pen of other defendants, she first watches a man named Johnson endure a hearing, “as the facts of his life were exposed like pants pockets pulled inside out” (p. 61); she then finds herself assigned the same lawyer as Johnson, simply approached on the other side of the pen’s fencing by “an incompetent and overworked old man” (p. 63) going through the motions in a court which habitually dopes up defendants with liquid thorazine (“an invol by corrections offices [to make] their own job easier” [p. 62]). He refuses to let Romy testify, mostly out of a sort of programmatic caution (“No competent lawyer would put you on the stand” [p. 64]), and fails to work to build Romy’s trust sufficiently to persuade her to take a plea bargain. “What I didn’t realize, at the time,” she opines with the benefit hindsight, “was that most people took pleas because they did not want to spend their life in prison” (p. 65).

Romy blames her lawyer, then, for her predicament: as an avatar of a system interested primarily in processing people rather than understanding them, he comes to represent all that is inadequate and off-hand about the US court and penal system. Others, however, blame Romy: “Ms, Hall,” intones Stanville’s Lieutenant Jones, “I know it’s tough, but your situation is due one hundred per cent to choices you made and actions you took” (p. 157). The Mars Room is not ambiguous about the side it takes in this debate: it depicts Romy as never having had a meaningful choice to make from the day she was born, and also demonstrates the ways in which that helplessness is transmitted through the generations.

The novel throws this argument into higher, but not always as successful, relief through the medium of three competing perspectives. Interspersing Romy’s first-person narration, which makes up the vast majority of the novel, are intermittent chapters from male points of view: two written in the third person – one from the perspective of Gordon Hauser, the prison educator, and a man named Doc, a corrupt cop who was having an affair with one of Romy’s fellow inmates – and an even more intermittent, and frankly odd, set of first-person interpolations from the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski – a man who lives, like Hauser, in the woods and admires, like Hauser’s hero Thoreau, the “natural” world. The third-person emphasises that the novel doesn’t belong to these men, and their perspectives – Hauser’s sleazy obsession with “improving” the women in his classes without ever engaging with the truth of their existences (“They seemed afraid of the mountains, which surprised Gordon[:] ‘You got to fight bears up there'” (p. 187)], or the total lack of value Doc places on the lives of the people he in theory seeks to protect (“At the moment when the suspect’s hands go into the pockets, Doc fires at the face” [p. 198]) – serve to underscore the inevitability, if not the wisdom, of Romy’s fatalism. “Everything here is about choices, decisions, as if people are making them when they commit a crime” (p. 285), she observes cynically.

The Kaczynski stuff feels more out of place, and never quite coheres. It seems that Kushner is making a point about toxic masculinity, the Pyrrhic vacuum at the heart of the most destructive assumptions on offer in the novel; but since, rightly, the men in The Mars Room aren’t given space to take over the narrative, none of this is developed sufficiently to justify the weirdness of Kaczynski’s presence. The one exception to this rule is Romy’s stalker, Kurt Kennedy, who, in one of the book’s queasiest about-turns, develops around him an air of pathos in his final appearance: a man now on crutches, with clear mental health issues himself, bludgeoned to death with a crowbar. The Mars Room doesn’t make of Romy a Mary-Sue: she is prone to racism even as she also admits to “sometimes feeling sorry for bigots” (p. 166); for every bit of wisdom she imparts, she betrays, too, her limitations. Her contemporaries are not saints, or even likeable, “just people eager to see others fall under the hammer they suffered under themselves” (p. 78). This is a novel which wishes us to understand that we are all human – and that this means we are all often unlovely.

In achieving this, however, it is less successful than the book that casts a long and deep shadow over Kushner’s, Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black (2010). This shadow is made more indelible, in truth, by the Netflix TV series based on Kerman’s memoir, in which the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, consciously created a stage for minority stories and diverse experience: by using the story of the blonde, white, middle-class Piper Chapman as an entry-point for the audience, OitNB has succeeded like few other mainstream television series in showcasing female stories rarely seen by audiences. The show’s six seasons and flashback structure has enabled it to weave an extremely rich tapestry; The Mars Room, set just like OitNB in a women’s prison and, just like OitNB, in the mid-2000s and, just like OitNB, focused on advocacy and diversity, can occasionally read as redundant, like fan-fiction for a show which shares its difficult mix of politics and humour, whimsy and violence. I’d like to say this isn’t Kushner’s fault, and that the novel should be read outside of this context; but OitNB has been hard to avoid since its debut in 2013, and The Mars Room should have taken more readily its opportunity to offer something different.

Still, a novel’s similarity to another property does not negate the often crystal clarity of its prose style, or the many achievements of its, admittedly sometimes over-formal, voice. Structurally, it doesn’t always fit together as satisfyingly as it might have done; every now and then the reader feels a little too keenly the gravity of the novel’s concerns pulling it into certain shapes or in particular directions; few of the characters beyond Romy are really given room fully to breathe. But nearly 1% of all people in the United States are incarcerated, giving it the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world; 40% of this population is black, compared to just 13% in the general population; and between 1981 and 2001, the rate of female incarceration increased five-fold. This makes The Mars Room of acute contemporary relevance, as does its piercing focus on how women are policed and punished more generally within US society. At a time when the President of the United States is a self-confessed perpetrator of sexual assault, and the US Senate has become so politicised, and mired in such constitutional crisis, that a man of allegedly similar proclivities, and certainly of unexamined partisanship, can be elevated to the Supreme Court, The Mars Room is more urgent still. That it is an accessible, and yet lucidly written, novel makes it unusual amongst literary fiction – and means it deserves and is capable of a very wide readership. If for rather less important reasons it might be somewhat hobbled in the Booker stakes, we might want to place the significance of book prizes within that wider, and more critical, context.

Albums of the Year, 2018

In albums, music on December 31, 2017 at 7:21 pm

It’s probably not just for me that 2017 felt like a year that both whizzed by and ground on. I wasn’t at all sure, sitting down over the last week to consider what album might make my annual top five, that I’d listened to a great deal of candidates. As it turns out, I had: bubbling under this quintet are excellent records by Hurray for the Riff-Raff, Nerina Pallot, Joan Shelley and Iron&Wine, each of which include single tracks which might make a list of top songs.

Top albums, though, need in this parish to be both consistent and interesting enough to stand apart as a single thing. So here they are: my best listens of 2017.

Chicano Batman – Freedom is Free

The Los Angeles quartet have been branded “world-rock”, which is a truly hideous phrase and one I shall try never to type again. That said, what was so refreshing about this album, released earlier in 2017, was its polyphony: so many musical traditions are mixed here into a sound uniquely the band’s own, and applied to songs which never feel like gimmicks or vehicles. In other words, the band created something new and rather thrilling with this album (not their first, but certainly their best) – and did so unostentatiously and without any pretension. It’s been the album I’ve most often returned to throughout the year, and deserves in particular a spot on any car trip.

This is the Kit – Moonshine Freeze

Like Chicano Batman but more so, this is very far from This is the Kit’s first album – in reality they’ve been a going concern for some time now, bubbling away on the underground scene without ever quite breaking through. It’s not clear that Moonshine Freeze was anything like a tilt at mainstream success, but the album is certainly a really impressive bit of proper songwriting, shorn of all the navel-gazing or worthiness that phrase might suggest. With a sort of woozy acoustic feel, and an indie aesthetic if that isn’t too old-hat a term, Moonshine Freeze does exactly as its title suggests: it somehow simultaneously warms and cools, its atmosphere an unusual mix of doomy and searching. Which may make it a singularly perfect album for this of all years.

Willie Watson – Folksinger Vol 2

Produced by the fader-riding David Rawlings, Folksinger Vol 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, but with some added elements – vocal groups, broader instrumentation – to cast into further relief Watson’s remarkable powers of interpretation. Its refreshing to see an acoustic Americana folkie not feeling the pressure to write his own songs, and instead commit fully and without apology to old standards into which he breathes rare life. As punk a record as has been released this year, too. Bloomin’ glorious.

Fleet Foxes – The Crack-up

AKA the album I didn’t expect. I’d sort of assumed Fleet Foxes, officially or not, had broken up – and from the contents of this album it seems clear that at some points so did they. Their return, however, is triumphant: deliberately potted and fragmented, its authors set out to make an album which sounds occasionally as if it has been been scrambled and put back together in the wrong order. Somehow, though, it is also a more solid effort than they’ve ever previously managed: perhaps because of its over-arching approach it never falls into ‘first one thing, then another’ trap that particularly their undeniably beautiful debut album sometimes did. They were also excellent live in Wolverhampton in November, and I recommend them to you.


I wasn’t sure this one would make the list, if I’m honest: after her self-titled 2014 LP, MASSEDUCTION sometimes feels a little too keen to please, a little too happy with its vision of Annie Clark as some sort of twisted pop princess. The problem with that feeling is that, even so, it is still among the most sonically interested records I heard last year, like something Chvrches might put out if they had an ology. Yes, ‘New York’ might be my song of the year; but the album as a whole builds to and falls away from it so expertly, so magnetically, that you simply cannot dismiss it. Curse you, St Vincent, and your confounding ways (except long may they continue).

I’m off to Twitter now to ask people what I’ve missed.