Thursday, 25 October 2018

The Milkman Always Rings Twice, or Gogol Goes to Belfast

"You're a wit, sir, you really are. Nothing escapes your notice! Such a playful mind, sir! And such a gift for winkling out comedy... heh-heh! They say that Gogol, among the writers, had that knack, do they not?" says Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, with his usual coruscating irony (he can't resist teasing his suspect one more time: despite knowing perfectly well that Gogol is the writer in question, his rhetorical question forces Raskolnikov to confirm it. Never relax around a rhetorical detective).*

As a dinosaur, I don't normally venture into the hyper-contemporary playground of major literary awards; I usually hide somewhere to watch the fallout (also my strategy for surviving the Cretaceous extinction event 66 million years ago). For example, I wouldn't want to stand too close to Tim Parks since he just published an excellent, thought-provoking but unabashedly cycad-shaking feature Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny in the NYRB (he may have rather heavily implied that there are too many awards for translators). But I digress. I have left my cave to discuss Anna Burns' novel Milkman, which, as you probably know even if you do live in a cave, has just won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. This is the fifth year in which American authors have been eligible for the prize, and only the third time since they became eligible in which an American author has not won it. It is also the first time the prize has been won by a Northern Irish writer.  What's more, the author herself, despite having won prizes and acclaim for her previous two novels, has experienced health problems and financial hardship; Milkman's acknowledgements include a food bank and a charity. Hence the allocation of the prize to Anna Burns has become a novel in its own right, a tale that can be interpreted in as many ways as there are literary critics (or indeed, journalists).

The Guardian headlines the story of Burns' success as 'more than a fairytale - it's a lesson', while another article reminds us that the book is considered 'challenging' (which is apparently bad), before explaining why it is not actually challenging, before returning with relief to the more interesting story of its author. A senior Telegraph columnist - and I apologize in advance for not having read the whole article, because, for some reason, I don't subscribe to the Telegraph - on the other hand, calls Milkman  ''not the best book on the [Man Booker] shortlist [...] not even the best book on the longlist" (impressive that the columnist took the time to read all 11 longlisted books). The 'oddest, most impenetrable' Milkman won the prize, she theorizes, for political reasons - as a way of pre-empting accusations that the Man Booker is being reverse-colonized by US novelists. I wonder whether Anna Burns finds it more irritating to be feted for her life story by people who love her book without reading it, or to have her win dismissed as a cheap geopolitical fix by people who read her book and hated it. I'm not going to defend the excellent Milkman here, because others can do that. The New Statesman praises a 'brilliantly realized extended metaphor for a totalitarian state [...] a work of timely universality, it is also a distinctly Irish novel, a darkly mirthful satire with a twist of Beckettian melancholy and an anarchic touch of Swift'.  Christopher Tayler in the LRB does a very good job of justifying Milkman's success. Not only has he read Burns' two previous books as well, he finds Milkman's strengths: 'the density and tightness of the plotting behind the narrator's apparently rambling performance', its combination of 'wild sentences and [...] immense writerly discipline', its 'optimistic ending'.

Enough on Swift and Beckett: not one critic I have seen recognizes Milkman's homage to Gogol. Tayler comes close when he describes one of the novel's standout devices: never using names for individual characters, places, religions, political parties, or even countries. The setting is clearly 1970s Belfast, but it isn't (as Tayler agrees) 'a Russian novel-style town of B___'; it is merely 'town' with coded topographies of 'dot dot dot places' where young people get up to mischief, the 'red-light street', where unmarried couples cohabit,  the 'ten-minute area' with its three empty churches, abandoned shops, and unattended bus stop, and 'the usual place' (or graveyard). Milkman's narrator is a nineteen-year-old girl from a Catholic family whose marked eccentricity is 'reading-while-walking'; everywhere she goes, to work, to French lessons, to the chip shop, even crossing the wasteland of the ten-minute zone, she reads her way through nineteenth-century novels ("because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century"). Reading-while-walking is the first trait the narrator is enjoined to abandon by her would-be seducer, a fortyish paramilitary hard man; soon she realizes this habit is making her an outsider within her own community. She is becoming "beyond-the-pale". Her friends and family consider reading-while walking "unfathomable", "unyielding and confounding" (says the character called maybe-boyfriend), "not safe, not natural, not dutiful to self", "creepy, perverse, obstinately determined", and - according to her best friend - therefore worse than the socially normalized behaviour of handling Semtex. The narrator insists right back that reading-while-walking is not neglect of self, nor even a rejection of her community, as it might seem: it is "vigilance not to be vigilant", a kind of informed non-alignment with the heavily coded public interactions of her fellow citizens. The narrator realizes that,

Even at the outer limits of absurdity and contradiction people will make up anything. Then they will believe and build on this anything. It was true that, given the time and place, I might have been scary, walking around, terrorising the neighbourhood with 'How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich', but it wasn't just me. In their own idiosyncratic ways, an awful lot of other people were pretty scary here as well.

On another occasion, she calls in on car-obsessed maybe-boyfriend to find him mooning over a remnant of a vintage racing car and difficult to distract:

I was unclear if he was still on 'car' or had moved his attention now to me. I suspected it was car but at some moments you can't stop to have an argument, so we kissed and he said he was getting turned on and was I not turned on and I said could he not look how I was looking, then he murmured what's this and I murmured what's what and he prodded something in my hand which I'd forgotten which turned out to be Gogol's 'The Overcoat' so he said he'd just set it there, meaning the table, which he did which was okay and we were about maybe to go to the carpet or to the settee or somewhere when there were voices. They were coming up the path and were followed by raps on his door. 

As these glimpses of The Overcoat as gooseberry and of the two quarrelling Ivans suggest, Gogol is something of a leitmotif in Milkman. For starters, he has the privilege of a name. Moreover, he, like other mentioned novelists, adds structure to the narrator's life: '"Where's my Gogol?"' she thinks, protectively, when maybe-boyfriend's house gets over-crowded with classic car enthusiasts. The entire novel is woven out of skaz, Gogol's infamous interpolation of colourful and idiosyncratic oral narrative. The narrator's tale, half-deposition, half-anecdote, winds in and out of the voices of her community, her parents, her charismatic French teacher, Milkman, 'real milkman', 'maybe-boyfriend', 'chef', 'third brother-in-law', 'wee sisters', and the rest of the surprisingly empathetic cast. This is satire, certainly, and most certainly Irish satire despite the carefully neutral labels of 'renouncers-of-the-state', 'over-the-way', 'the country over the water', but comparisons to Swift and Beckett are simply a different kind of cheap geopolitical fix. Burns' studied anonymization of a very specific community at a very specific (and troubled) historical epoch has the odd effect of creating an allegorical u-topia (in the literal sense of nowhere-land) which reminds me of Saramago's magical realism, those suspended plots where readers and characters adapt to an insane but internally coherent system, until a final shock or reversal, as in Blindness or The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Moments of absurd horror (a cat beheaded by an antique Nazi bomb, a pile of dead dogs in a residential street) do elevate Milkman momentarily into dark fantasy. Both absurdity and observation are united by Burns' gift for 'winkling out comedy' even in the middle of crisis and of personal and social disintegration, which according to that leading literary critic Porfiry Petrovich, quoted above, makes Milkman such a Gogolain book. No surprise to Nabokov, who felt that only an Irishman (or Irishwoman, one hopes) should translate the Russian author. Burns, who studied Russian at UCL in the late eighties, clearly spent time there under Gogol's Overcoat.

Anyone curious whether Milkman makes suitable reading for their daily commute will appreciate the diligence of the Daily Mail, which skips over the book's boring plot and Burns' uninteresting indigence to ask the Man Booker judges where you can safely peruse your copy.** 'Questioned on whether the work was too challenging for the average reader, [Kwame Anthony] Appiah defended the choice saying: “I have never thought that being readable on the Tube was an important feature of a novel.”'. So, best not to read Milkman on the train. But can you read-it-while-walking?

*As ever, I am citing Oliver Ready's 2014 translation of Crime and Punishment (Penguin Classics), p. 425.
**The Mail's journalist (who may have misread Burns' publishers' bio-note) entertainingly represents Milkman as her "fourth" novel, raising the possibility that there is a lost "Milkman Part I" out there in manuscript limbo, a kind of mirror image of the destroyed second half of Dead Souls...