Anna Burns’s novel Milkman recounts car bombs, suicides, poisonings, guns-in-chests, piles of dead dogs and decapitated cats, but Burns’s main preoccupation is with the slippery violence of euphemism. Our narrator’s community is so muted, so censored and policed, that every word, or lack thereof, is loaded with meaning and risk. Though it is never explicitly stated, the backdrop of the novel seems to be a neighborhood in 1970s Belfast where the Troubles—a violent conflict that became a revolutionary effort to free Northern Ireland from British rule—led to divisiveness, suppression and conformity. In this setting, says our narrator, known only as middle sister, “Everybody read minds—had to, otherwise things got complicated. Just as most people here chose not to say what they meant in order to protect themselves, they could also … learn to present their topmost mental level to those who were reading it.”
In middle sister’s world, subtext, implication and innuendo serve as the primary forms of communication. Reflecting this, the novel is stylistically dense and circuitous; it inverts the maxim “show don’t tell” by telling and telling and telling. What it tells of is a world that is built out of idioms and the musical repetition of Irish speech. Its stylistic choices include a lack of character names (middle sister’s best friend is “longest friend from primary school”), a stilted, formal vocabulary and long litanies of descriptive words which seem to circle their point forever, inching infinitesimally closer to a true and accurate description. Middle sister is less a narrator than a translator, explaining to the reader what each innuendo, metaphor and symbol is really meant to convey.
The critical response to Milkman has been notoriously mixed: in a New York Times review Dwight Garner called the novel “interminable” and “redundant,” saying he “would not recommend it to anyone [he] liked.” James Marriott said in the Times that “this could all have been said much more snappily.” Meanwhile, those who have praised the novel have tended to focus on its subject matter: a positive Washington Post review dubbed the novel “a #MeToo testimony in the context of a civil war.” But this means that the most daring thing about Milkman—its distinctive use of language—has too often been either overlooked or written off as a stylistic failure. To this extent, even the book’s enthusiastic supporters have remained on what middle sister would call the text’s “topmost” layer.
Take the treatment of the names. Most critics have understood the absence of proper names in the novel in one of three ways: as demonstrating how a political crisis can strip individuals of their identities; as emphasizing the generalized character of the conflict in Milkman, as if it could be set in any civil war; or as responding to the straightforward threat that comes with being singled out as an individual in this community. While all of these may be plausible, they neglect how the displacement of proper names can also function as a subversively intimate way of expressing identity. Referring to someone in terms of their relationship to oneself—“maybe-boyfriend”—is more descriptive, precise and immediate than simply referring to that person by their proper, given name (a name that has to conform to societal standards and cannot seem British or Protestant). Informed by the censorship of the Troubles—along with the censorship imposed by the Catholic church and the restrictions of a patriarchal society—middle sister emphasizes a different kind of identity, a contextual identity, as an alternative to conventions that have grown oppressive. But this is only the most obvious way in which Burns shows how necessity can be transformed into art, and vice versa.
The menace of implication is most dramatically embodied by the haunting presence of a man called the milkman, a Northern Irish paramilitary “renouncer” of British rule who takes an interest in our narrator. The milkman’s presence in middle sister’s life is unnerving, but not explicitly sexual or violent; he never touches her and hardly ever looks at her. As she explains: “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?” Placed in the first few pages of the novel, these questions announce to the reader that both middle sister and Burns are interested in what goes unsaid—that this is a novel in which the subtextual and the figurative become the most potent forms of violence.
In middle sister’s narrative, the act of silencing actually makes the silenced thing more obvious, more explicit, and more present. When her mother, “ma,” finds her sick in the middle of the night, she assumes that middle sister is pregnant, and delivers the following soliloquy: “Have you been fecundated by him … imbued by him? … Engendered in. Breeded in. Fertilised, vexed, embarrassed, sprinkled, caused to feel regret, wished not to have happened—dear God, child, do I have to spell it out?” At which point middle sister thinks “Well, why didn’t she spell it out? Why couldn’t she just say pregnant?”
But hasn’t her ma just said “pregnant”? Hasn’t she just said it ten different ways? Ma is trying to censor herself—she doesn’t want to say the awful thing aloud—but by attempting to censor herself, she says it all the more clearly, harshly, and repeatedly; that is the joke at play here. An additional layer of complexity is added by the fact that it is unclear whether the soliloquy is an actual transcription of ma’s comments, or an interpretation by middle sister, who may have found some of those extravagant, outdated words in the nineteenth-century novels she reads. But whether the words belong to middle sister’s mother or to middle sister herself, they exemplify Milkman’s notably untraditional and specific vocabulary. Ma will not say the most direct word (“pregnant”) but the words chosen here are nonetheless explicit. In the Nation, Erin Schwartz calls the language of Milkman “an adamant, stilted version of the colonizer’s tongue.” By warping English into something “stilted,” middle sister and her family make it their own; the language that they speak, especially at its most uncanny, is an Irish English. A censored and policed language, Burns argues, can be repurposed as a tool for communicating within the confines of censorship.
In investigating the valences of silence, the narrative becomes a frenzied attempt to say everything, especially what seems to be tacit, unsayable or unheard; the novel is built out of translations, explanations and contextualizing. This can be seen in middle sister’s tendency to translate her community’s euphemisms into more and more direct language. She describes the milkman’s political position in the following way: “His involvement, and by ‘involvement’ I mean connected, and by ‘connected’ I mean active rebellion and by ‘active rebellion’ I mean state-enemy renouncer owing to the political problems that existed in this place.” Understanding middle sister as a translator explains the voice of Milkman, the winding, circular, repetitive voice (the voice that made Garner observe impatiently that the novel “circles and circles its subject matter, like a dog about to sit.”) It also explains what can sometimes look like a hostility—unusual in a novel—to the literary as a mode of communication.
Middle sister’s hesitancies about figures of speech seem to stem from the use of the literary in her world as a misogynistic weapon. The milkman’s persecution of her, she explains, is “hard to define … A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors.” These literary devices—symbolism, representation, metaphor—take on a sinister, male quality. Metaphors, which allow for a cloaking of meaning, can serve as innuendo, the same kind of innuendo or implicit communication that is the root of trauma in the novel.
Similarly, middle sister learns that one of her brothers-in-law—who has preyed upon her since she was a child—has been asking the local nuns questions about Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, hoping to force them to confront the statue’s masturbatory and orgiastic undertones. The famous sculpture becomes a tool by which he, in his perversions, can force a conversation about the sexual, while disguising it as a conversation about art. Art provides a veil for sexual encroachment; it enables implicit violence.
It makes sense then that, suffering from the violence of implication, middle sister’s distaste for literary devices becomes a crucial part of her project as a narrator, just as it is a crucial aspect of Burns’s project as a writer. Not only do metaphors and symbolism allow for violence against women, but the Troubles are based on both national and religious metaphors: what is a flag, after all, but a symbol?
At one point our narrator observes disdainfully that if she and her peers wanted “figures of speech and rhetorical flourishes, with one thing representing another thing when the represented thing could easily have been itself in the first place, then we’d have gone to English Literature with those weirdos down the hall.” The comment is partly a joke about the lack of imagination in middle sister’s community—her French class sees a colorful sunset and insists that the sky is only blue, chanting le ciel est bleu—and partly a joke about British (as opposed to Irish) literature. But it also expresses a value close to the novel’s heart: Burns shares middle sister’s skepticism about figures of speech. (Not that the class has the right idea either: in chanting le ciel est bleu they’re relying on cliché and hyperbole; saying that the sky is blue belongs to a form of art which believes in metaphors and half-truths—a literature that can bleed into propaganda.)
Middle sister’s suspicion of literary devices might seem to coexist awkwardly with the reputation we are told she has developed for reading nineteenth-century novels while walking. But the novel ultimately implies that this habit expresses a kind of blindness. The title she refers to reading most frequently is Ivanhoe, a romantic novel about medieval England that depicts, among other issues, a tension between Christians and Jews. Though middle sister wants to read only old novels in an attempt to escape the messiness of her own century, she is unwittingly reading a book about religious divisiveness in which, were it not masked in fanciful language, she might recognize her own community. The literature that middle sister reads as a teenager and the kind that she narrates as an adult are at odds; the latter is successful because it actively uses the restrictions of censorship to craft a text in which language is both illustrative and redemptive.
At the end of Milkman, we learn that the only character whose proper name is used in the novel is the milkman himself. For most of the novel, “the milkman” is assumed to be a pseudonym, like that of other characters who are known as “chef” or “tablets girl.” But after the milkman is shot, the community learns that his surname really is Milkman, just like some people are named Baker or Miller. Middle sister observes, about his name: “Once out of symbolism, however, once into the everyday, the banal, into any old Tom, Dick and Harryness, any respect it had garnered as the cognomen of a high-cadre paramilitary activist was undercut immediately.” It is as if, in having his name revealed, he no longer belongs to this world of pseudonyms, idioms and innuendo.
With this revelation, the line between the figures of speech that middle sister dislikes and the reality that she tries to capture becomes blurred; “the milkman,” whose vague epithet has always indicated his status as someone who operates at the subtextual level, now belongs both to the world of specificity and explanation (it being his real name) and to the world of figures of speech (“the milkman” being a pseudonym; he is not a real milkman). It seems like there was never really any difference between the two worlds after all: he has always existed in both. Middle sister’s project, then, to promote explanation over figurative language, is called into question—there can be no clear line between the two.
At this point, the novel undergoes a kind of genre shift: suddenly, there are young girls dancing in the street in colorful finery; couples reunite; a man sweeps a woman off her feet; middle sister is saved twice in the nick of time; ma is revitalized by a love interest. At once humorous and hopeful, Milkman stumbles awkwardly to its conclusion; as if, without fear, the novel itself doesn’t know how to behave. As middle sister and third brother-in-law (the good brother-in-law) are lacing up their sneakers to go running, something she hasn’t done since the milkman, middle sister says the word “Ach,” which means “but” in Irish. “Depending on the context,” middle sister then explains, “[ach] can mean anything at all.” Then middle sister stops translating, and her and her brother-in-law have the following almost-nonsense conversation:
‘Ach,’ I said. ‘Ach nothing,’ he said. ‘Ach sure,’ I said. ‘Ach sure, what?’ he said. ‘Ach sure, if that’s how you feel.’ ‘Ach sure, of course that’s how I feel.’ ‘Ach, all right then.’ ‘Ach,’ he said. ‘Ach,’ I said. ‘Ach,’ he said. ‘Ach,’ I said.
Here, for the first time in the novel, an exchange is left untranslated; middle sister does not explain or supply context. In this conversation, the last conversation in Milkman, the unsaid indicates intimacy—real, good, consensual intimacy—so that language takes on a symbolic nature and “ach” stands in for something meaningful. As middle sister and her brother-in-law hop the fence and begin their run, middle sister “exhaled this light and, for a moment, just a moment … almost nearly laughed.” In this surrender to subtext there is a relief for middle sister; having regained a kind of power, or at least been ridded of her oppressor, our narrator can finally look to the unexplained. Middle sister reclaims figurative language here—while speaking Irish as well as English—and, in doing so, she locates one final dimension of silence, one in which there is hope.