The Unnameable

The Booker Prize–winning Milkman grapples with the insufficiency of language to portray an oppressed people.

A girl with her nose in a book while soldiers fight behind her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Michael Brennan/Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

Earlier this year, when I learned that a book called Milkman had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and that its author was from Northern Ireland, and that her name was Anna Burns, I performed a kind of psychopolitical triangulation that might be peculiar to the small and violently bisected island of which both she and I are natives (she: north; I: south). I found myself more or less reflexively calculating the extent to which this novelist—with whom I’ll confess I, like most people from the Republic, was previously unfamiliar—could be claimed as an Irish writer, and I found myself doing so based on nothing more than her name. “Burns,” by my reckoning, had a distinctly Protestant ring to it; I myself had attended a Protestant secondary school and had known there a fair number of Burnses, and so in all likelihood, claims of this author’s Irishness would be complicated, and maybe even outright scuppered, by the matter of her religious heritage.

Anna Burns.
Anna Burns.
Eleni Stefanou

The foregoing is as irreducibly Irish as it is absurd, but I begin with it for the reason that this politicized business of names turns out to be central to Milkman itself. From the opening sentence—“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”—Burns’ narrator, herself unnamed, signals her obstinate refusal of proper nouns. Nobody in these pages gets a name: Her siblings are “first sister,” “second sister,” “third brother”; her love interest is “maybe-boyfriend,” while he refers to her as “maybe-girlfriend”; her best friend is “longest friend from primary school,” and so on. And although the book’s setting is clearly Northern Ireland in the 1970s, in a city that is probably but by no means unambiguously Belfast, the names of places (neighborhoods, streets, landmarks) are similarly withheld. Neither are there any references to the Republic of Ireland or the occupying power of Britain; there are only the countries “over the border” and “over the water.”

This might sound like a perverse strategy of willful obscurantism, but in fact Milkman’s formal strangeness proceeds naturally from the strangeness of the story it tells and the place in which it is set. In Northern Ireland during the worst years of the Troubles, proper nouns were like suspect devices: charged with violent potential, and to be treated with extreme caution. Everything you needed to know about a person could be extrapolated from their name, the school they went to, and the street they lived on. And what you needed to know, always, was whether the person was one of us or one of them. You might have been wrong—as I was about Anna Burns, who grew up in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, a nationalist stronghold surrounded by unionist neighborhoods—but the question nonetheless demanded an answer.

But in telling her story without names, Burns’ narrator heightens, rather than defuses, this violent political charge, and deepens the oppressive interiority of her narrative. Milkman deals in industrial-strength estrangement and depersonalization. And depersonalization is central to its plot—though really it’s less a plot than a setup whose foundations are obsessively deepened over the course of about 370 pages—which concerns a particularly insidious and creepy campaign of sexual harassment and its disastrous ramifications. The 18-year-old narrator is marked out in her community as an eccentric for her habit of walking everywhere with her face hidden in the pages of 19th-century novels. (“I did not like twentieth-century books, because I did not like the twentieth century,” she explains, not unreasonably.) Out of nowhere, like a human malediction, appears a paramilitary potentate known only as “the milkman,” who, though he is married and twice her age, takes a sexual interest in her that is both strangely indirect—he neither touches her nor looks directly at her while addressing her—and oppressively all-consuming. “At eighteen,” she says, “I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment. I had a feeling for them, an intuition, a sense of repugnance for some situations and some people, but 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.” But despite her resistance to his advances, the community becomes convinced that they are lovers, and she is subject to a strange kind of ostracism—both reviled as an adulterer and treated with a kind of arm’s-length obsequiousness as the lover of a leading paramilitary figure.

For all the simplicity of its setup, Milkman is a richly complex portrayal of a besieged community and its traumatized citizens, of lives lived within many concentric circles of oppression. There is, firstly, the outer circle of political oppression: the occupation of Northern Ireland by the “the country over the water.” Then there are the Republican paramilitaries—only ever referred to in the novel as “renouncers of the state,” as opposed to the “defenders of the state,” their Loyalist opposite numbers—whose righteous resistance to that occupation, and defense of the nationalist population against it, has degraded into a kind of protection racket, a tighter circle of oppression. Then there is the community, which acts as an informal surveillance apparatus, in which everyone is in a state of constant vigilance to the possible transgressions of everyone else. But at the very center of the novel’s diagram of concentric oppressions is the relentless force with which each of Burns’ characters police their own inner and outer lives. Language itself, specifically the English language, becomes an agent of collusion in this complex arrangement of oppression.

Among Burns’ singular strengths as a writer is her ability to address the topics of trauma and tyranny with a playfulness that somehow never diminishes the sense of her absolute seriousness. One of the funniest and most pointedly satirical passages in the book concerns a couple who are charged with maintaining a list of proscribed names—names far too redolent of the country “over the water.” It doesn’t matter in the least, the narrator tells us, that many of these names didn’t actually originate in the despised land that is never named:

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 country by that country, with the original nationality of the name now not in the running at all. 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

—and so on. The longer the list goes on—and it goes on a whole lot longer than I’m in a position to block-quote here, sorely tempted though I am—the more intense the mood of hysterical exhaustiveness becomes. Like Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett, two writers with whom she has more than Irishness in common, Burns understands the rich comic potential of trying the reader’s patience, and of lists and enumerations as a means of illuminating the absurdity of logical rigor, of language itself. In grappling with the singularity of Burns’ style, I also found myself thinking of Angela Carter, and most of all of the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai—the relentless interiority of narration in Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, tragicomic portraits of communities in the latter stages of physical and moral disintegration. Burns’ portrayal of the insidious psychologies of political and sexual oppression—of what her narrator calls “the ways that constituted encroachment”—is reminiscent, too, of Krasznahorkai’s blackly comic treatment of life under totalitarianism.

I’m aware that such comparisons might make Milkman sound like a punishing reading experience. Certainly much of the discussion around its Booker victory centered on its supposed difficulty. A number of reviews, including Dwight Garner’s in the New York Times, have referred to it as a “stream-of-consciousness” novel. (Just to clear up a basic technical question, the narrative is voice-driven, but it no more employs the device of stream of consciousness than American Psycho or Pale Fire—or for that matter Dwight Garner’s review in the Times.) Garner also declared the book “willfully demanding and opaque,” claiming that literary modernism had given us “eyes for the poetry in a novel like ‘Milkman,’ but an attentive reader will spend days between stations while searching for it.” This conclusion echoed certain dismayed responses to Burns’ Booker victory in the U.K. press, such as a review in the London Times which concluded, of a representative passage, that “this could all have been said much more snappily.” When I read this particular complaint, I have to admit I laughed out loud, so perfectly did it seem to me to encapsulate a certain understanding of the critic as inconvenienced customer of literature. It bears noting that some of the most memorable passages in all of fiction— Borges’ exhilaratingly comprehensive attempt to describe his glimpsing of the universe in miniature in “The Aleph,” say, or Beckett’s description of Molloy’s insanely logical methodology for sucking 16 pebbles “in impeccable succession”—are also remarkably deficient in snap.

The book’s long sentences, its penchant for the exhaustive, can at times be challenging, and there were stretches where I found its uncanny energies stagnated for too long. But it also seems clear to me that these insistent strategies are in service of the book’s mood of total claustrophobia, and that they contribute to, rather than diminish, its overall effectiveness. As with so much of the national tradition from which she emerges—Synge, Joyce, Beckett, O’Brien, the whole collectible beer-mat set of the overwhelmingly male canon, few of whom get hassled for being insufficiently snappy—Burns seems to convey through her style a deep ambivalence about the English language itself. Because it would be strange, would it not, to write a book about a community for whom every conceivable aspect of the “country over the water” was an object of obsessive and justified suspicion, and to write it in the language violently imposed on one’s people by that colonizing nation, and yet to do so in a manner that did not convey that there was something uncanny, something essentially off, about that language as the community’s primary means of self-expression?

There is a pulsating menace at the heart of the book, of which the title character is an uncannily indeterminate avatar, but also a deep sadness at the human cost of conflict.  There is no shortage of physical violence, certainly—bombings, decapitations, shootings, stabbings, blindings, beatings, so forth—but what remains, after the final page, are the ways in which the nameless citizens of Burns’ nameless city prevent themselves from ever really living life, out of a certainty that what is loved will be ripped away and must therefore never be embraced. I lost count of the number of characters who have knowingly wound up with the wrong romantic partner as a means of forestalling this kind of loss. For similar reasons, there is an unofficial proscription against the appreciation of art, or the taking of pleasure in food, or in the world’s beauty. Sunsets are a central motif in the book, not for reasons of romance or aestheticism, but for something like their opposite: because the conspicuous enjoyment, or even acknowledgement, of such things opens one up to the world in a way that feels dangerous.

Here is Burns’ narrator, for instance, channeling the Greek chorus of the community, in its conviction that to live fully is to court the possibility of loss: “What if we accept these points of light, their translucence, their brightness; what if we let ourselves enjoy this, stop fearing it, get used to it; what if we come to believe in it, to expect it, to be impressed upon by it; what if we take hope and forgo our ancient heritage and instead, and infused, begin to entrain with it, with ourselves then to radiate it; what if we do that, get educated up to that, and then, just like that, the light goes off or is snatched away?” As with much of the rest of the book, I’m sure Burns could have put this more snappily, but I am grateful that she did not.

One of Milkman’s most affecting scenes involves the students of a night class in French turning their backs to the sunset, in a manner that is “instinctive and protective,” as their teacher insists that they turn to look at it. The teacher sees a sky ablaze with a lurid explosion of color, where the students see only blue, which they know for a fact to be one of only two possible colors of the sky (the other being black). It is, in its strange and oblique way, as powerful an illustration of the effect of violence and oppression on the life of a community as I have read. For all the darkness of the world it illuminates, Milkman is as strange and variegated and brilliant as a northern sunset. You just have to turn your face toward it, and give it your full attention.

Cover of the book Milkman.


By Anna Burns. Graywolf Press.