One day, as an unnamed teenage girl is walking and reading in an unnamed city in Northern Ireland, Milkman pulls his car in front of her and offers her a lift. He is not a milkman as one understands a milkman, but goes by the name in a city rife with violence and distrust; and categorised with car bombs, hijackings and men in Halloween masks. The Milkman, a much older man, pursues her patiently, but relentlessly. This sparks a rumour of their affair — how ages 18 and 43 are disgusting together, and how all of it has to be the girl’s fault, naturally. The rumour assumes a more nefarious form when the community finds out the girl is seeing someone else too, her “maybe-boyfriend”. This means she is cheating on him and that the young man could be in trouble. It doesn’t help that all of this is happening in the 1970s, when muscular nationalism and sectarian divides have stoked paranoia and hatred, and hearsay is deployed as a potential tool to crush one’s self-worth.
This is, loosely put, the plot of Anna Burns’ Man Booker Award-winning novel, Milkman. The aforewritten summary could have easily been wrapped up in less than 50 words, as could have been the novel, whose whole plot should not have run beyond 20 pages. But then, we are inside the head of an 18-year-old whose watery over-analysis — of everything ranging from men, politics, society and life — leaves no room for breath, let alone coherent dialogue and action. The result is an occasionally moving, mainly distressing 350-page rant.
The great thing about Milkman is that it touches a timely territory — of stalking and harassment, of a divided community which uses shame as an agency to infiltrate its citizens’ psyche and diminish their faith in themselves, and, of hatred which is used to inflict physical and mental damage on others — and oneself. The problematic bit, however, is the stream of consciousness prose that loiters off into multiple, digressing tangents. Sometimes, it is in the same sentence, and is interrupted with comma after comma, dashes within dashes, abstract words, and even more abstract thoughts — ultimately failing to provide any clarity beyond a point. The reader can try, very hard, to force concentration, until everything becomes a dot and slips the net of the senses. Which it does.
In themselves, Milkman’s subjects are compelling and have all the potential to transcend the banal. Burns does manage to make the girl’s voice everybody’s — her present is our present and the anxieties of her world and time reverberate with yours and mine. When the milkman starts following her, she adopts silence, hoping to maintain a border to keep her mind separate, to protect herself.
Burns writes: “If somebody is not doing something, how can they be doing it — which meant how I could open my mouth and threaten widespread disintegration of status quo?” Over hundred pages apart, we have: “I have begun to lose my power of reason, my ability to see obvious connections and to retain even the most elementary sense of how to survive in this place.” And: “My inner world, it seemed, had gone away.” These moments are relatable and poignant. There is sporadic occurrence of more such moments — but it is only during these that the surreal cruelty of the world she (and we) are living in, can be felt. Everything in between is one enigmatic (and long) prose after another. All we know is that there are some (unexplained) troubles and killings brewing in the city, that the girl likes reading 19th century literature, the Milkman affair is the girl’s fault because she runs and reads and who does that, and the maybe-boyfriend could be killed by the milkman following which he would not remain a maybe-boyfriend. This feels like paying lip service to the aforesaid causes, which need to have been given more nuance, clarity and commitment.
Hatred, violence and discomfort are always lurking around, sure. But they are nearly impossible to catch hold of or feel. One can only blame the endless disruptions that Burns employs in the form of extra words, punctuation marks and repetitions. Milkman is (mildly) dark too, sure. But it never quite rattles. Finally, Burns’ prose starts to feel like that of Arundhati Roy’s — stunning for the first 50 pages, painfully tiring thereafter.