Milkman, by Anna Burns

The Oscars just passed. I didn’t watch, although I love the movies. That being said, I’m usually behind in my screenings, so let’s tie this in to the Oscars two years ago. Bright side: I’m talking about an extremely current book. You win some, you lose some.

I love the movie La La Land, and I will make no apologies for that. I know there was a bit of a fuss during 2017’s Oscars season (and not just because Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty awkwardly announced – incorrectly – that it had won Best Picture) because there were so many more “meaningful” pictures that required attention. I’m a big fan of “meaningful movies,” so I understand the impetus toward criticism of this seemingly fluffy film. But I feel like there was a big component of La La Land that people weren’t acknowledging: The entire thing was cleverly framed as a Hollywood fantasy however you chose to interpret the story. (Hello, people are dancing on air in the Griffith Observatory.) Meanwhile, the other “best picture” contenders were powerful and gritty views of real-life issues.


blue art
Another age-old question: Can art just be blue? (Yes.)

So here’s the age-old question: Does art have to be realistic? Or as Rudyard Kipling famously quipped: “It’s pretty, but is it art?” Can art present some big, weighty themes without obviously naming them? What if there’s sometimes art that acts as an open slate and allows us to slot ourselves in however we see fit, with whatever emotion (turmoil or joy) that we’re feeling at the time?


The 2018 Man Booker Award-winning novel is Milkman, by Northern Ireland native Anna Burns. The book is dense and serious (and Burns’ stream-of-consciousness-esque prose is often compared to Virginia Woolf’s), but there are moments of humor as well. Here’s the deal: The novel is “dystopian” in the sense that Burns never, ever names a location. In fact, Copy of casting call (1)she never names much of anything. Our protagonist is ‘middle sister,’ who somehow finds herself in a “relationship” with ‘milkman’ who, once the reader learns more about him, gets upgraded to capital-M Milkman. All characters are non-named with monikers such as ‘maybe-boyfriend’ and ‘Somebody McSomebody.’ The setting is not named, although we know it’s somewhere rife with tribal and sectarian conflict – and where “over the water” and “over the border” are mentioned as bastions of “bad.” Burns plays with this idea of casting people into anonymous roles as she describes familiar and accepted life paths: “Marry anybody therefore. He’ll do. Yer man there will do. Or she’ll do. Pick yer woman” Similarly, there is, in fact, a list of “acceptable names” in this unnamed town: “The couple who kept the list of names that weren’t allowed in our district didn’t decide themselves on these names. It was the spirit of the community going back in time that deemed which names were allowed and which were not.”

derry girls by jack barnes
P.S. For a ‘light-hearted’ look at The Troubles, check out Derry Girls on US Netflix. © Jack Barnes for The Guardian.

Truthfully, though, we do know that Burns is writing about Northern Ireland – probably her native Belfast – during The Troubles. She writes about flags, about guns buried behind houses, and about violence against people from other “groups.” As Claire Kilroy points out in her review of Milkman in The Guardian, “Although the novel is set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, it prompts thoughts of other regimes and their impact: Stalinist Russia, the Taliban. Medieval witchhunts, the Skirpal poisoning and the #MeToo movement also sprang to mind while reading it.”

I suppose that’s true…

So take your pick: Which conflict speaks to your life at the moment? Because we’re all presumably adults reading this, we know that real, tangible events can have subtle effects on our emotions. One of my favorite parts of Milkman is when ‘middle sister,’ aka our protagonist, tries to discuss current events with ‘brother-in-law’ and he replies: “What political problems? …Are you referring to the sorrows, the losses, the troubles, the sadnesses?’” I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that a deep-seated Irish conflict is simply deemed The Troubles, as if people are talking about a quaint disagreement or stomach issues – even this historical period’s “official” name connotes something more general and universal. In other words, it’s a fairly open-ended way to explicitly detail the overarching mood and theme of a tiny island.

What Burns has done for readers – whether or not this was her intention – is allow us to take the feeling of conflict and “political problems, which included bombs and guns and death and maiming, [where] ordinary people said ‘their side did it’ or ‘our side did it’, or ‘their religion did it’ or ‘our religion did it’ or ‘they did it’ or ‘we did it’” and apply it to our own lives.

Speaking of reading things in a way that makes sense to our own situations: I posted this passage from Milkman on Facebook because I found it so intriguing:

“There was no getting away from views and of course, the problem was these views between the areas, between one side and the other, were not just not the same. It was that each was intolerant of the other to the extent that highly volatile, built-up contentions periodically would result from them; the reason why too, if you didn’t want to get into that explosive upsurge despite your view which you couldn’t help having, you had to have manners and exercise politeness to overcome, or at any rate balance out, the violence, the hatred and the blaming – for how to live otherwise? This was not schizophrenia. This was living otherwise. This was underneath the trauma and the darkness a normality trying to happen. Observing the niceties therefore, not the antipathies, was crucial to co-existence and an example of that would be our French class, a mixed class, where it was okay to run down France, say, or more to the point, French metaphorical writers, but where absolutely it was not okay, not for one second, in respect of the proprieties, to demand someone declare themselves or make reference to their view or to your view at all.”

This story applies to me!

And, no surprise, someone chimed in with thoughts about how this applied to a situation she found herself in here in the US. Same situation, different players.

la la land
© 20th Century Fox

Back to La La Land: There was a lot of criticism that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were sloppy dancers and unprofessional singers. But wasn’t that kind of the point? (Although let’s not kid ourselves – they were kind of above average in those two regards.) These were two normal people with big aspirations who wobbled through the moments of feeling like they were in a Broadway show. And although their characters had names (Mia and Sebastian), a lot of the movie had sort of a timeless, nameless quality to it – much like, in some weird way, Milkman. Mia and Sebastian had dreams – she to become a professional actor, he to revive jazz (yeah, that got some criticism too), but couldn’t we slot ourselves in to Mia and Sebastian’s roles with our own hopes, dreams, and goals? Mia and Sebastian were somewhat generic characters because, in my opinion, they could represent anyone. Again: Same situation, different players.

The difference, of course, is that I think a lot of people wouldn’t mind inserting themselves into La La Land, but would take a hard pass on Milkman. Do we want to be the star of our own Hollywood-worthy screenplay? For sure. Do we want to visualize ourselves in dark and gloomy conflict? Most likely not.

There is one funny and clever plot point in Milkman that, to me, stands out. Maybe-boyfriend’s parents up and abandon their many children, while leaving the family home to them, to tour the world as ballroom dancers because they just can’t take “it” – “it” meaning a large number of children, the ins and outs of raising them, and (I would suspect) the depressing community that they find themselves living in. Basically, they’re looking to star in their own La La Land; they want to be “shiny.” However, they are more than an anomaly; they are seen as somewhat offensive to some:

shiny happy people
Shiny Happy People. (aka a caption just waiting to happen.)

“And that was the trouble with the shiny people. Take a whole group of individuals who weren’t shiny, maybe a whole community, a whole nation, or maybe just a statelet immersed long-term on the physical and energetic planes in the dark mental energies; conditioned too, through years of personal and communal suffering, to be overladen with heaviness and grief and fear and anger – well, these people could not, not at the drop of a hat, be open to any bright shining button of a person stepping into their environment and shining upon them just like that.”

Even though most people may want their “shiny” La La Land story, there are times when it just makes more sense to act in their own personal Milkman. This seemed to be what a lot of the public was saying during Oscar season 2017: Life is more complex than a Hollywood story. (Although may I point out that Mia and Sebastian do not get the Hollywood ending that we’re conditioned to believe in?)

Burns drops in a quick humorous tidbit, however, when she writes about a PR man from the downtown arts council who comes to install a plaque on maybe-boyfriend’s house, formerly owned by his parents, the international ballroom dancing couple. He says, “It would make the area a bit more normal…to have this plaque up, showing that it’s not all doom and gloom and war in our little bit of the world, that we’re not always just about shooting and bombing but that also we’re about the arts and famous people and glamour.”

Normal? Or glamour? Or maybe conflict? That’s a casting call constantly in flux.


lights camera action
Starring in Life. (Shiny version.)


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