Fiction: Milkman by Anna Burns
–Words by Celia Jenkins
There’s always a bit of a buzz when the Man Booker Prize shortlist is announced, and this year the list was one of the more controversial years in recent memory. The books picked by the judges were said to reflect the dark times in which we are living; Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black explores the life of an 11-year-old slave, and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room tackles gender, class, and poverty. Robin Robertson’s book is written in verse, and Daisy Johnson, at 27-years-old, became the youngest person ever to be shortlisted for the prize. But what of the winner, Anna Burns, and her book Milkman?
Set in Northern Island during the Troubles, Milkman centres on a young woman who is forced into a relationship with an older, predatory man. However, the subject of the novel has received far less attention than the unusual stylistic choices made by the author.
For starters, there are very few paragraph breaks – the first page of the book is one big block of text. Throughout the book, you will typically see one break per page – sometimes none. This stream-of-consciousness style is even more apparent when you start reading, as the sentences often go on, and on, and on, with numerous clauses, and numerous commas – I picked a sentence at random on the first page and found no less than eight commas in one sentence.
Confusingly, the characters don’t have names – they’re referred to by profession (Chef, Teacher, Milkman, The Milkman – and yes, there’s a difference between those final two) or placement in the community or the protagonist’s family (second sister, maybe-boyfriend, first brother-in-law, Somebody McSomebody). Finally, there is almost no dialogue at all.
So it’s easy to see why Milkman has been dubbed a challenging read. It’s not the kind of book you can sit and read for hours at a time – it will frazzle your brain and your eyes. My personal opinion is that it would work well as an audiobook – a dramatic female reader, keyed into the stream-of-consciousness style, would bring this book alive.
A final tricky factor is that you can’t drop your guard for a minute. Burns has the habit of talking about one thing, perhaps for pages and pages, to the point of boredom, and then suddenly, without warning, throwing a curveball. For example, she might describe a character for what seems like forever, and without warning throw in the fact that the character has suddenly died.
If you can bear the assault on your eyes, if you can keep up with the colloquial monologue style, if you can remember who’s who in a sea of sisters and brothers-in-law, then it is certainly a worthy challenge. Milkman is a concise, in-depth telling of a chapter of Northern Ireland’s history, told through the eyes of a fascinating protagonist, with a whole host of believable and extravagant characters to boot. It’s hard work, but in terms of modern fiction, it’s absolutely a game changer. Take a deep breath… and try.
Milkman by Anna Burns, Faber & Faber, 368pp, £8.99
Non-Fiction: How to Be Right… In a World Gone Wrong by James O’Brien
–Words by Mark Tucker
It seems inevitable that every time I walk into a greasy spoon, get in an Uber, or go anywhere that happens to still use radio, there’s one voice that still seems to come up. In a voice so mild that it is almost impossible to describe, James O’Brien begrudgingly spars with his opponents, swatting at them lazily like a cat before signing off and picking up the next caller, who will doubtlessly go through the same experience.
So in a move that surprised absolutely no one, O’Brien released his second book, (in)appropriately titled How to Be Right… In a World Gone Wrong earlier this month. Perhaps next he will try skywriting or will attempt to resurrect his television career in order to get his message across.
How to Be Right feels less like a book and more like an updated review of O’Brien’s perspective for his fans. His discusses all of the political buzzwords of the day; Islam, Brexit, LGBT, Brexit again, and, of course, Trump, for the sake of his listeners to read and then mirror for the chance of their own condescending moment of righteous glory when they too can stand tall and argue at dinner parties or on buses, or just by themselves in the shower when they suddenly remember the point that would have, without any doubt in the world, have clinched them the discussion.
His targets in How to Be Right can’t really be a surprise, ranging from Boris Johnson and Theresa May to Trump and, the focus of all his ire, The Daily Mail. In his view, it is not the fault of the people that they do stupid things like hold slightly right-wing views or vote to leave the EU. Instead, it is the fault of the media (which he is a part of), which feels a lot like the idea that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
It is important to note that I agree with almost 90% of his ideas and views. But it feels that O’Brien is aiming to be the Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson of the left, a loud person who will soon have video playlists on YouTube titled “One hour of O’Brien SCHOOLING snowflakes” and legions of adoring fans going to his talks.
The response of liberal pundits to the Jordan Peterson phenomenon cannot be to simply shout louder and write more disjointed books. It cannot be to further divide; rather, it must be to educate, something O’Brien fails to do.
How to Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong by James O’Brien, Ebury, £12.99