Burns begins her novel with an utter spoiler of a sentence that pretty much states the case:
The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man.
Fleshed out, this means that the novel follows a parallel between the events that befall the narrator as she is sexually stalked by a reputed IRA honcho and the events that have befallen Belfast itself in the years of the “troubles”, especially in her Ardoyne neighborhood in Belfast, which is Catholic and working class. But here I run into a wee problem, because even if I could sum up the book like this, I would have to admit the fact that nowhere does the book mention Belfast or Northern Ireland or the British or the IRA. All those names are blocked, all those names are not here. Somebody McSomebody is here, but his name is not here. The milkman is here, but his name, at least so far as the narrator knows at this point, is not here. As we will soon discover, the narrator’s name is not here either. This is not a minor detail, this is not something we can read over, if we want to read. So our first order of business to ask the question: why have the names fallen off the map of the territory covered in this novel? Why does Burns give herself the difficult task of creating a story out of a seeming bonfire of proper names?
To answer this question in part, back up for a moment – consider the role of the proper name in all histories, sacred or profane. The proper name seems to be unique to human communication, although who knows what goes on among dolphins. Presumably at some point they were invented, just as making fire was invented. One could even say the human comes about with the proper name. Tarzan, even, seems to have a sense of proper names – because if he didn’t, the whole me Tarzan – you Jane schtick wouldn’t make sense. You might be able to train your dog to respond to the sound of its name, but your dog is never going to use or mention your name, or even in the cells of its poochy consciousness think of you with relation to your proper name. All of which makes proper names fascinating to the philosopher, because what is going on here? Why do we need names?
Anna Burns narrator is called variously “middle sister”, “maybe-girlfriend,” “daughter”, etc. Her friends and relatives are similarly dubbed by what Bertrand Russell called “denoting phrases” – and even those with proper names, we quickly learn, don’t bear real proper names, but names denoting the fact that they seem like the type of person who might bear a particular kind of proper name – for example, something very English sounding. Except that, to continue with this and show what semantic quicksand lies within the story of Burns’s novel so that the reader, as well as the characters within the novel, never know whether the next step is going to completely suck them down, Britain and England are not dubbed with their proper names either – they are invariably “over the water” or “the state”. And even Ireland or Northern Ireland or Belfast is not dubbed with its proper name, so that it becomes a linguistic shift – a “here”, a “there”, a “this side of the street”, a “region”, an “our community” and “their community”, gaining its semantic sense from the speakers position within a semantic web (which is technically known in linguistics as a shifter). So for instance when we read that a couple who lives near the narrator’s “maybe-boyfriend” is named Nigel and Jason, we are not to think that they are “really” named Nigel and Jason. The reason that they are named Nigel and Jason is that they have been collecting, for anthropological reasons, names that were “banned” in the “community” – itself unnamed, but obviously the Catholic side of Northern Ireland – which is such a peculiar thing to do that it seems like the kind of thing people over the water might do, and over the water, as is well known, Nigel and Jason are common first names. Maybe-girlfriend raps out a list of illegitimate names:
The banned names were: Nigel, Jason, Jasper, Lance, Percival, Wilbur, Wilfred, Peregrine, Norman, Alf, Reginald, Cedric, Ernest, George, Harvey, Arnold, Wilberine, Tristram, Clive, Eustace, Auberon, Felix, Peverill, Winston, Godfrey, Hector, with Hubert, a cousin of Hector, also not allowed. Nor was Lambert or Lawrence or Howard or the other Laurence or Lionel or Randolph because Randolph was like Cyril which was like Lamont which was like Meredith, Harold, Algernon and Beverley. Myles too, was not allowed. Nor was Evelyn, or Ivor, or Mortimer, or Keith, or Rodney or Roger or Earl of Rupert or Willard or Simon or Sir Mary or Zebedee or Quentin, though maybe now Quentin owing to the filmmaker making good in America that time. Or Albert. Or Troy. Or Barclay. Or Eric. Or Marcus. Or Sefton. Or Marmaduke. Or Greville. Or Edgar because all those names were not allowed. Clifford was another name not allowed. Lesley wasn’t either. Peverill was banned twice.
Names, as one can see, that are all male: over and above the politics of the right name and the wrong name are the politics that decrees that women’s names don’t or at least shouldn’t have such power because women themselves shouldn’t have such power, that is, political power.
“The banned names were understood to have become infused with the energy, the power of history, the age-old conflict, enjoinments and resisted impositions as laid down long ago in this county by that country, with the original nationality of the name not now in the running at all.”
We are only really beginning with the politics of the name, however, when we enumerate which names are and are not allowed, and which gender’s names are politically charged and which one’s are not, for the levels of non-naming are multifold and the the quicksand is deep. It is not simply in the “community” that the name has become a fatal object of conflict: even in the narrator’s own family, names have been stripped off, torn out, left unvocalized. The process was started, paradoxically, by the paterfamilias, the usual legal guardian and carrier of the name, the male namer whose family name is carried by the son and the daughter, who in this case – as in so many in his domestic life – flips the role, becoming the unnamer even as he is, himself, unnamed, abandoning our primogenitor Adam’s perogative in the name business. Which is the point at which we hit our own family unnames, such as Mom and Dad, which are the ultimate psychoanalytically charged shifters since my correct use of “Mom”, for instance, is directed towards a woman who bears another, legal name, and can’t be arbitrarily transferred to other women who have not either borne me or exist as my step-mother. Except in cases where for one reason or another a woman has become a “Mom” to people outside of the legal and/or biological relationship of motherhood, which is an exception that proves the rule that the rules all have exceptions in a language, as language is, among other things, a huge swap meet.
But to return to middle sister’s Da:
He saw me though, even if unsure which daughter I was. That, of course, could have had nothing to do with dying, because da, when he’d lived, always had been in a state of distraction, spending overlong hours reading papers, watching the news, ears to radios, out in the street, taking in, then talking out, the latest political strife with likeminded neighbours. He was that type, the type who let nothing in except it had to be the political problems. If not the political problems – then any war, anywhere, any predator, any victim. He’d spend lots of time too, with these neighbours who were of the exact fixation and boxed-off aberration as him. As for the names of us offspring, never could he remember them, not without running through a chronological list in his head. While doing this, he’d include his sons’ names even if searching for the name of a daughter. And vice versa. Sooner or later, by running through, he’d hit on the correct one at last. Even that though, became too much and so, after a bit, he dropped the mental catalogue, opting instead for ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ which was easier. And he was right. It was easier which was how the rest of us came to substitute ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and so on ourselves.
This primal scene of unnaming, this negation of the mythic impulse (an impulse that depends so crucially on naming that one mythographic theory in ancient times was that myths were created to explain names), gives us our orienting disorienting points to make it across a narrative that expands in all directions like some crazy banyan tree. So if, instead of substituting names for denoting phrases as if I knew, beforehand, where all this was happening and who it was happening to, the story in its own terms would go something like this:
Middle sister, who seems to be 18, comes from a functionally dysfunctional family in an unnamed community where the social forces in conflict consist broadly of the renouncers of the state and their forces versus the defenders of the state and their forces, with the defenders of the state coming from outside the community – the paramilitaries from the other side of the street – or over the water – the soldiers and spies and hit squads – plus the police, and the renouncers consisting of paramilitaries, gangsters, the community opinion at large, and the spies and killers and rapists which may or may not be operating on their own or in connection with others. Being functionally dysfunctional in this neighborhood means taking a certain number of casualties – a renouncer son shot and killed, another disappeared, a daughter who the renouncers have threatened to kill if she ever comes back to the community (sister’s crime is to have married an enemy). Middle sister’s survival technique consists of keeping her head down, or in a book – she reads nineteenth century novels while walking to work. Keeping a book up as a shield allows her, she thinks, to disappear, instead of being thought bananas or in some way so marginalized that she became a matter of unease for those in the community. As well, she has a maybe-boyfriend in another region that she has not told her mother about, or her sisters or brothers-in-law. So this is the state of play of Middle Sister’s life in the community and way of keeping alive and unmolested in the community with its overt downgrading of women and frank thrusting of second class citizenship, if that, upon women when the Milkman, driving a large white van (from which, it is Middle Sister’s theory, his nickname Milkman came from) stops and offers her a ride. In offering her a ride and making a few remarks that show that he knows where she lives, he knows her habits, he knows her routes, he makes it obvious that he has been stalking her and, by the very fact of stalking, claiming her, which reflects on his position in the community as both a respected paramilitary boss and a gangster like figure who seizes what he wants. That simple, sinister offer starts off a general rumor and unraveling of Middle Sister’s life. On the one hand, it is obvious that the sinister Milkman is pursuing her for sexual reasons, even grooming her to become his whore, in spite of the fact that he is married, older, and a paramilitary of high and mighty violence; and on the other hand, the rumor mill starts that she has indeed accepted his offer and become his whore, as though the offer itself was irresistible, a conclusion that is agreed to by the rumor that her mother, her mother’s friends, and even the girl gang girlfriends of other paramilitaries have decided to believe about middle sister. To fight this rumor means, however, expressing to other people the facts of the rumor, which might have sinister consequences for, if not middle sister, then maybe-boyfriend, since making it too clear that she is refusing the Milkman would make all too clear what she suspects about the Milkman and his kind, an opinion that is both bound to bring down sexist contempt as well as the suspicion that middle sister is, like her first sister, the one who has fled, an enemy of the community. The social rules here are as complex, and take as much tact, as the rules in a Henry James novel, with the difference that if the community’s way of doing things had been applied by Milly Theale in Wings of the Dove, she would have simply blasted Kate Croy and Merton Densher in the face with a throw-away .38 snub-nose before the end of it.
The forward flow of the action here is marked, then, by the meetings with the Milkman, meetings that eerily never flesh out the Milkman, who is very fleshly while remaining very shadowy. He does nothing in the book that is more overtly violent than to show up, open his van door, and invite Middle Sister in. Show up again and again in the narrator’s path. Show up again and again in the community’s judgement that she is involved with the Milkman, that she is having sex with the Milkman, that she is the girlfriend of the Milkman, that she is the whore of the Milkman, that she is so connected to the Milkman that it might be dangerous for people to be in line before her at, say, a chip shop, or dangerous to take her money for food, which puts her in situations she so resents that sometimes she wishes she were really the girlfriend of the Milkman and that he would kill these people who think she is the girlfriend of the Milkman. It is enough that somehow, because of his desire for her, she is marked as his in the community’s mind, with all the bad mojo that this transfers to her and her every act. No denial on her part lifts the spell that is never spelled out by anyone, since to actually talk about the killings committed by a presumed renouncer boss in the community is to betray, on some obscure level, the community, and thus bring down on oneself the wrath of the renouncers in their various degrees and forms, who are semi-legitimately defending the community from the murderous soldiers and the murderous friends of the soldiers and the State. Around each event in going forward in this terrible progress through the somewhat impalpable medium of a community perception that transforms as nothing else does the narrator’s subjective being into a symbolic object determined by others, there arise explanations and side stories that go backwards and forwards in time, all of which abut in or spring forward from various forms of grotesque violence.
Burns has as strong a sense of the grotesque as that which marked Flannery O’Connor’s work, even though they work from different premises towards their conclusions. It is interesting to compare them.
O’Connor founded her misfit vision on Pauline grounds: we see now, but as in a mirror, darkly.
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.
The Christ ravaged and violently racist South of O’Connor’s experience and art, (along with its coeval New South of businesses and Babbitry), was seen through the lens of her marginality as a Catholic; however, she never doubted that she was part of the whole.
Burns is as conversant with inversion and upside-downness as O’Connor, but she absolutely doubts that there such a thing as a whole man, or that the theological is anything more than a dodge, or that to be a part of a community will ever protect one from being a victim of the community. The fragile aids of literature, friendship, love, and family are not founded in any absolute. Maturity consists in understanding this, but maturity might not help you survive, which has a way of deflating the value of maturity in communities where survival is at a premium.
In her first book, No Bones, the sound track is up very loud and styling, and the names are all there, as are the dates, which are assigned to every chapter, going from 1969, the year of the first riots in Belfast, to 1994, the year of the cease fire. The novel traces, in short story-like chapters, the development of Amelia Lovett, from the time she was nine and collected her first lovely fat black rubber bullets as the British soldiers came to the Ardoyne neighborhood and shot them at rioters to her release from an English mental asylum and her decision to let her numerous dead bury their own dead in the last chapters of the book, a sadly typical trajectory of Irish exile in England. The book is chock-a-block with horrors: the year when Deerhunter made Russian roulette popular among Amelia’s boy classmates; the year her brother Mick and his wife Mena decided to rape Amelia; the year they killed Mick; the year she was actually raped by the Bronagh McCabe, a woman of such a monstrous and fascinating outline that she almost carries away the book. The novel is overwhelming, and, one feels, a little out of control, a debut effort that has so much to get rid of that we can sometimes feel a little left out as readers, as though this were the author’s own cathartic overload, a narrative bulimia.
Milkman is structured much more carefully, and does without the surrealist touches that blur the dividing line between fantasy and reality in No Bones; but it is as militantly grotesque. There are scenes in it that I want to tell other people about, the way I like to refer, in my mind, to certain of the scenes in O’Connor’s short stories – the Misfit who kills the Grandmother, the Bible Salesman who runs off with the artificial leg of the secular, spoiled daughter of a good Christian woman, etc. What Yeats called his Circus Animals – star attractions that transcend the scenes in which they have a logical place and point, acquiring an emblematic aura. When Burns turns to the grotesque, the trigger warnings come out, although they are weak tea when it comes to a place where real triggers are being squeezed without any warning at all. I think one of the central scenes that sums up not only of the community’s troubles in the novel but of the troubles of all the occupied, low intensity warfare places (Baghdad, Beirut, Ferguson Missouri, Belfast) is the mass canicide staged by the state soldiers. Like many things in Burns’ work, the event references a reality: the British army really did engage in a considerable amount of dog-murder, particularly in the Ballymurphy section of Belfast in the early 1970s, when dirty tricks undertaken by the British soldiers and their allies and their spies were at their height. The riff goes on for pages, beginning with a quote from the movie Rear Window from a woman who finds her dog poisoned:
‘Which one of you did it? … couldn’t imagine … so low you’d kill a little helpless friendly … only thing in this whole neighbourhood who liked anybody. Did you kill him because he liked you, just because he liked you?’
To the narrator, this explanation seems like the most natural one in the world. Of course, in the movie we find out that the dog’s poisoning is a clue to a murder, but the narrator has, by this time, witnessed dog murder on the mass scale.
As for myself, it seemed to me, at nine years old, that there were so many of these dogs that the district could never have contained the overrun of them, that the soldiers must have bussed in extra, but once the locals started to identify and to claim them, they claimed all of them, every single one. Also to my child eyes, and to those of third brother who was standing beside me, it seemed the heads of all these dogs, amidst this huge stack of dogs, were missing. We thought they’d been beheaded. ‘Mammy! The heads! They took the heads! Where are the heads?’ we cried. ‘Where’s Lassie, mammy? Where’s daddy? Have the brothers found Lassie? Where’s daddy? Where’s Lassie?’ And we tugged at her coat, then third brother began to cry. His crying set me off, then the both of us set off all the other children. Then the last surviving dog began to howl as well. There were many of us that day, many children, and we huddled and clung to our adults. So at first there was the silence, then there was our crying, then, at the sound of our crying, the adults galvanised themselves into action and set their shock aside. They began to deal with the massacre, with the males – young men, older men, renouncers, non-renouncers – beginning to wade through the slimy, pelty mass. They disentangled the heavy sogginess and the swampiness to differentiate one body from another body, passing each through and along the chain to whoever had come to claim it, was waiting for it, to bring it home on go-carts, in prams, in wheelbarrows, in supermarket trolleys or, more often, bundled up as something that used to be alive in their arms.
The slaughtered dogs here are not simply symbols of a breakdown in human ties, but a questioning of whether symbols are enough, of whether, like proper names, at certain moments of violence and terror we simply dispense with them. Whether the old latin tag about “man being wolf to man’ fits for ‘man being wolf to wolves’ and finally for ‘man being wolf to dogs’. Whether, at the end of this deductive labyrinth, we will find any kindness left.
In 2010, Carolyn Dean wrote an article about styles of reporting or memorializing atrocity in the 20th century for History and Theory. Entitled Minimalism and Victim Testimony, it detected, in the first post-war generation of memoirs from Holocaust survivors, and historians of the Holocaust, a horror of excess, or emotion. Rather, to bear sufficient witness, one had to avoid all exhibitions of emotion, which would lead to the sort of kitsch that dishonors the victims. The bones of this aesthetic are laid down before the camps, in the great books about World War I, where all the rhetoric of Victorian moralizing seemed inadequate and somewhat criminal when applied to the trenches.
Minimalism in its varieties is a sophisticated style characterized by aesthetic and emotive restraint. It originated in the 1960s and was most prominent in visual art and sculpture that emphasized the sheer contingency of the art-object by reducing it to “what you see.” Eventually minimalism simply described any aesthetic form marked by anti-sentimental austerity, and it is this now generic usage of the term to which I refer. Minimalist narratives resist hyperbole in order to avoid the potential conversion of suffering into kitsch, voyeurism, or sublimity by following a dictum the writer W. G. Sebald attributes to Walter Benjamin: “I think Benjamin at one point says that there is no point in exaggerating the already horrific.” Even when not explicitly minimalist, some of the most nuanced Holocaust representation is anti-sentimental, refusing affective identification in order to undermine the restoration of the wholeness or “feel-good” qualities of redemptive narratives that often encourage sentimental over-identification with victims or the narcissistic appropriation of their experience. Experimental efforts by writers such as Charlotte Delbo and Aharon Appelfeld stress silence and use various devices to undercut affective over-identifications with victims. Delbo, for example, uses a lyrical but graphic account of the ever-incomplete effort to wash herself in Auschwitz, a passage whose elegance distances the reader sufficiently to render her experience imaginable and yet unsettling.
The minimalist style in testimony, as Dean also observes, has now become itself a historical object, one subject to criticism. Why, after all, is kitsch, the creation of emotional effects that are disproportionate to the quality of the representation, so much to be feared, when one of the casualties of atrocity is a full emotional response? As the stock of our atrocities accumulate, they seem to count against the results of emotional restraint as a stylistic choice, and the prestige of minimalism has declined to the point where it is not even, sometimes, recognized by the contemporary reader, who confuses it with minimalization. This is unfair, a judgment doled out by an ignorant posterity – but containing some grain of truth, perhaps, in as much as the minimalist response refuses to consider its own stylization. Burns approach to her subject matter, her embrace of a grotesque aesthetic even as she plays with identity-transforming language, shows that the dualism between minimalism and, for lack of a better word, melodrama now seems like a false narrowing of options. There are many lessons one can take from Milkman, all of them dark. As a novelist, however, she does show us one thing: there are more detours to get us to the heart of darkness than are dreamt of by realists, or by holders-of-the-line. And most likely we will have to go down all of them if we dream of “redeeming” the victim without endlessly recycling punishment and reprisal until climate change does us part.