Anna Burns’ Milkman, the 2018 winner of the Man Booker prize, hooked me at first with its language: stilted and formal, hinting at a post-apocalyptic near future reminiscent of 1984, where everyone checks for bugs in their phones and is not surprised to be photographed while jogging in the park. Most characters are stripped of names and are known only by epithets, such as “the man who didn't love anybody” or “Somebody McSomebody” or “maybe-boyfriend.”
Middle sister, our nameless narrator, is being approached by the milkman. But he’s not really a milkman, he’s a renouncer of the state, and quite high up in the paramilitary pecking order. Anna Burns’ great achievement is recreating the psychological tension of the unwanted attention that without words or violence still constitutes harassment. See the progression in this string of quotes I highlighted from early in the book to almost the end:
“I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude … Why was he presuming I didn’t mind him beside me when I did mind him beside me? ... I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near … So shiny was bad, and ‘too sad’ was bad, and ‘too joyous’ was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything … I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man.”
The sad parallel that Burns draws is between the one-on-one intimidation of a woman by a man, and the similar constant harrying of a terrorist state (presumably Ireland in the 1970s), in which the citizens become used to unspoken rules, constant surveillance, and an ever-present threat of violence.
The comparison, and its conveyance through nameless characters in absurd situations, is brilliant. Nonetheless, the plot started to lag about halfway through, and I had to push through to the end.
Now I have read every single Man Booker prize winner since its inception fifty years ago in 1968. My future goal is to read the winner every year, and perhaps the shortlisted books as well. Next post: my personal Booker favorites.