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Milkman, by Anna Burns

I finished 2018 Man Booker Prize winner Milkman by Anna Burns and I have three thoughts.

It is the listiest novel I’ve ever read. The lists become expected and rhythmical. I bet there are more “alsos” in this book than any other recent novel.

Also, no one living has a name in this book, which I understand to be about the ways we are roles and relationships in our lives, often misnamed or underconsidered ones. The title character is not even a milkman, so there is another character named “Real Milkman.” I found it striking that in a book of characters named by the roles, the title character is not. In fact, the role becomes more of a nickname for him in a way that the narrator disallows for everyone else. Somebody McSomebody might be the closest someone else comes to having a name that is more of a nickname. And really, that was my favorite way of naming someone that seemed to perfectly capture their role and yet also to be about making the name a placeholder. At first, it wasn’t clear whether this referred to a specific person or just to any old somebody who did a thing that any old somebody would do. But later it becomes clear that this person is a particular person to whom particular actions are ascribed. And it also seems notable that this person is one of the most personally aggressive and violent to the narrator.

Also, and related to the lack of names for people, was that the novel leaves places unnamed. It’s clearly about Ireland in the 70s–it’s about tensions between supporters and renouncers of the state, and the place “over the water” is that against which the characters define their place. But at the same time, leaving the places unnamed invites us to think about the ways that the novel is universal in its themes. I was struck in particular by the idea that even those “on our side” are prone to police tactics, that fascism breeds fascism, that we take suspicion of wayward sympathies as evidence thereof.

I used to get letters from Grandmother that were full of parentheticals. She would remind herself of another thought by the sentence she began to write and have to insert that thought in the middle and then return to the first thought after the parenthetical. This novel is written like that. She starts a point and then pages later having explained some particular point of narrative history returns to why the thing currently happening in front of her is happening. Sometimes when the narrator returns I had completely forgotten the original scene that provoked the long tangent. But the author does this often, and I think this pattern, alongside the lists and the roles for names, creates a rhythm of life. We live in this interrupted way. Our stories are starts and then diversions of connections back to earlier events that make this story now mean something more or otherwise than just the events on the surface would show. The novel ends in a way that feels like it is just continuing. The events of the novel will become another diversion in the narrator’s future story.

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