In 2018 Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish writer to win the Man Booker Prize. For those unfamiliar, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a yearly literary award for the best original novel written in the English. It’s a big deal. Up until 2014 only novels written by Commonwealth, Irish, and South African citizens were eligible. Then, after a divisive decision, the award opened up to any English-language novel. To be long-listed is a huge deal; to be short-listed is an even bigger one. Winning, and being the first person in your respected country to do so is something that deserves a nod of respect from everyone both inside and outside of the literary world.
Milkman, Burns’s award winning novel, takes place in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The story follows middle-sister, a young woman trying to navigate her turbulent surroundings while remaining under the radar, playing down her relationship with maybe-boyfriend, and though it’s considered odd behavior, reading-while-walking.
“Often I would walk along reading books. I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.”
When a paramilitary individual referred to as milkman takes an interest in middle-sister, gossip and hearsay combat silence and reservation, and middle-sister finds herself in an unwanted spot. As he stalks and talks his way into her world, makes her believe he’ll murder maybe-boyfriend, middle-sister’s world starts to crack.
The novel is told through middle-sister’s perspective that often times borders stream of consciousness. Burns’s use of language and prose is remarkable. While I’ll confess, Milkman isn’t the easiest read, it is beyond rewarding.
“At first the explosion had puzzled everybody. What was the point? There was no point. Why plant a bomb, said all the parties, in a dead, creepy, grey place that everybody knew was a dead, creepy, grey place and about which nobody would care anyway if one day it was blown to kingdom come? The media suggested an accidental bomb, a premature bomb, perhaps a renouncer-of-the-state bomb in transit for the nearby police barracks; or maybe a defender-of-the-state bomb, intended for one of the opposite religion’s segregated drinking establishments situated not far from the barracks but going the other way.”
As in the example above, her narrative often uses repeated words or sections of sentences in close proximity to one another. However, surprisingly, this never detracted from the flow of the story. If anything it added to it. Take the passage above: the repetition of “… a dead, creepy, grey place that everybody knew was a dead, creepy, grey place…” hammers in the setting and location in a way that shows how oppressively awful the atmosphere around middle-sister really is.
While the pacing was executed well, and I had no trouble staying engaged with the novel, there were a few points, specifically surrounding middle-sister’s relationship with her mother, which I thought could have moved slightly faster. While a criticism, not one that takes away from the story in a large enough way for it to affect my rating of it.
Something else I’d like to mention is the timeliness of this novel. I understand that it’s a slightly historical novel. While it never comes right out and says it, the general understanding is that it takes place in Northern Ireland in the early nineteen-seventies. So figure almost fifty years ago. That’s nearing half of a century.
“…If I’d said, ‘He offered me a lift as I was walking along the interface road reading Ivanhoe,’ [response from friends or family] it would have been, ‘Why were you walking along that dangerous interface road and why were you reading Ivanhoe?’ If I’d said, ‘I was running in the parks & reservoirs and he appeared also running in the parks & reservoirs,’ it would have been, ‘What were you doing, running in such a dangerous, questionable place and were you doing choosing to run?’
Sound familiar? Ask anyone who’s ever been stalked or a victim of sexual harassment or assault.
“Males and mental hospitals went together far less than females and mental hospitals went together. In a man’s case, this equaled a gender falling-down in pursuance of his duties, totaling a failure above all to keep face.”
Little bit of stigma perhaps?
I highlight these two quotes (and there are many more throughout the novel that would fit) in order to raise a point: both of these negative things—victim blaming/mental health stigma—still exist and are prevalent in society, more so since the spark of the #MeToo movement. But will things get better? Have they gotten better? Or, as a collective human race do we really not grow and develop as much as we’d like to think?
Anyone can look at any news outlet and see alarming stories about white-nationalism, far-right politicians, and horrendous behavior across the globe when it comes to treatment of marginalized communities. As an American, I was taught in high school that a collected number of countries fought, destroyed, and eradicated Nazism. Well, fuck me if I don’t turn on the news and see rallies and speeches, promoting this behavior. Here’s a hint: just because you put the word ‘neo’ in front of it, doesn’t make you any less of a piece of garbage.
But I digress. A train of thought sparked by a piece of literature—seems like Milkman has done its job on all fronts. As a reader it was beyond enjoyable. As a person, it impacted me, as good books are meant to do. It raised the question as to whether timeliness in novels means they (the work themselves) are fitting into our narrative, or has our narrative not really changed? Don’t get me wrong, there have been remarkable advances in social justice and other fronts, but we still have a long way to go. But novels like Milkman, not only provide a tense, suspenseful narrative, but highlight the conflicts in our society and in ourselves.
Bravo Anna Burns. You deserve every reward this book gets.
I read for escapism. I also play video games, board games, and watch movies for the same thing but seeing as I’m a writer and this is a writing site. . . .
A few close people who are involved in mental health work or studying psychology tell me it’s probably not the best thing, and then I smile, nod, say probably not, and go right back to doing it. Escapism is defined as: the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy. Two points I want to make up front – first, I’d like to remove the word unpleasant from that definition. Life is good. There are bad days and there are good days. Great times and awful times. But overall I am fortunate enough to say that life is good. That doesn’t mean I don’t need a break every once and awhile.
The second thing is how I personally measure the escapism effectiveness of a book. It’s not by how engrossed or obsessed I am while reading it; it’s how difficult it is to let the world go once I’m done and the journey is over (there are television series I have procrastinated finishing because I can’t bear to say goodbye to them, but that’s for another therapist session). If my brain continually returns to the novel and the people and places that exist within its pages days, weeks, or even months in rare occasions, then it aces the Escapism Effectiveness test.
So, the spectrum. Keep in mind that this isn’t a whole look at the quality of a book or short story that I’ve read. It is only one factor adding to how I felt about a piece. A novel could be on the bottom end of escapism spectrum but still be an amazing book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
2. Bare-minimum escapism achieved. No afterthought once the piece was finished.
3. The world was absorbent. The few hours after finishing it, I still thought about a character or two, a particular setting, or something that happened.
5. Following the final page turn comes a momentary reflection. The empty wall stare while everything falls into place and your brain continues to process. Characters exist for a few days after and, if it’s a standalone piece, there exists a desire to return despite not being able to.
7. Questions linger. For days, weeks, or even longer. The world punctured your skull and seeped into the crevices deep inside your brain. The desire to know more, become more embedded in the story burns. Character’s still exist long after the book is finished. The final setting is engraved in your psyche and you wish more than anything you were still there for just a little longer. You miss your friends. Escapism achieved.
It’s been several days, and I still feel the mystery behind famed director Stanislas Cordova—who he is, the truth behind his films, and what was the real cause behind the death of his daughter Ashley.
These are fictional characters that exist inside the world of Night Film, a novel by Marisha Pessl. Escapism achieved. I was recommended the book almost a year ago. Actually, it might be a little over a year at his point. And I finally picked it up and read it. The recommendation was well justified.
Night Film follows Scott McGrath, a disgraced reporter who, after learning of Ashley Cordova’s death, is drawn back into the world of her father. A mysterious director whose films have a cult following that would make Tyler Durden envious. Using mock webpages and news articles strategically inserted into parts of the book, Pessl brings each reader that much further into the investigation, and that much further into the Cordova obsession. God I wish I was still with McGrath. Existing in that world with those characters and the mystery they are attempting to solve.
Night Film, congratulations. You’re a 7 on the Escapism Spectrum. Thank you for one hell of a ride.
Wow does time fly by. It seems like I was just here doing this exact same thing! Well, regardless, this week's short story choice was Gray Wings by Karl Bunker. Taking place at some point between the not-so-distant and still-kind-of-far-away future, Gray Wings follows a flyer competing in an aerial race. Think wing suits but surgically attached and connected.
While competing in this qualifying race, she gets caught in the draft of a plane and crashes down on an impoverished nation that is the stark opposite from the place she grew up. *Side note - I read this story prior to the "shit-hole nations" tweet that was spoken with such class and sophist--ugh, I can't even be sarcastic about this stuff anymore. Anyway, now that I'm revisiting this story after that incident, it's relevance has been renewed and it goes to show that good quality science fiction (and fiction in general) illustrates aspects of our lives and the world that we may not see all the time.
So, in the story, our flyer crashes down and befriends a son and his mother who live on a struggling farm. Repeated offers of money in exchange for assistance go unanswered, illustrating the noble, yet sometimes harmful characteristic of pride. And while that is one side of the coin, the other side that the reader can take away from these interactions is the very real barrier (though invisible) between people from different cultures, backgrounds, and lives. Things one person takes for granted could be something another individual scratches and claws for.
Though first being published almost half a decade ago, Gray Wings is still so relevant it could have been written and published yesterday. It was a great short story that captured and illustrated a side of humanity that still needs so much work. I strongly recommend people read it for the timeliness. Clarkesworld Magazine reprinted the story in 2016 and it can be read (or listened to) for free here: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/bunker_03_16_reprint/
And that's it for this week's short story reflection (review?) I'm still trying to figure out what I want to call this endeavor. Maybe I'll have it figured out next week when I talk about Lynn Coady's short story Play the Monster Blind out of The Penguin Book of Contemporary Canadian Women's Short Stories which I picked up in Halifax either last year or the year before. Taking a break from the science fiction and fantasy side of things, this short story was extracted from Lynn Coady's 2000 collection of the same name. See you all next week!
Well! Week one and I've successfully completed my New Year's resolution. Now there's only 51 more to go. But, if the rest of the stories are half as good as the first selection then this is going to be an awesome year. I picked Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8) by Caitlín R. Kiernan because of my love for her novella Agents of Dreamland. And this short story just re-infused my love for her writing.
Interstate Love Song is the story of our great nation's crimson soaked streets. Weaved through an interesting structure, this narrative follows our two main characters as something devastating unravels. And when something devastating unravels, so do people's lives. They flash before their eyes and in those seconds that stretch on like hours, all of the good and the bad shit they've done. In the case of Murder Ballad No. 8 it's, well, probably worse than you or I have. . . Maybe? God, I hope so.
Regardless of the actions or the motives, Kiernan glides us along this morbid love story with prose that literally sings. And with our twisted narrator. . . "We are moving along between the monotonous, barbarous, topography and the overcast sky, overcast at sunset the sky looked dead, and now, well past midnight, there is still no sign of moon nor stars to guide me, and I have only the road signs and the tattered atlas lying open beside me as I weave and wend through the Indian ghosts of Ozark Bluff Dwellers, stalkers of shambling mastodon and mammoth phantoms along these crude asphalt corridors."
Kiernan's mastery of lyrical language continues throughout the entire piece as she brings us deeper into the depths of this duos misfortunate and redemption. It's a dark tale. A morbid tale. And one that I would definitely recommend and read again.
So, Short Story Sunday #1 has set the bar high for the remainder of the year. The selection for Short Story Sunday #2 was done randomly (flipping through an anthology until I just decided to stop) and will lead us farther into my New Year's resolutions. For those keeping score, this week's story is Gray Wings by Karl Bunker. It's featured in The Year's Best Science Fiction Thirty-First Annual Collection. It was reprinted in this best-of after being originally published in the April/May 2013 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.
Till next Sunday folks. Stay safe, happy, healthy, and don't forget to praise the sun.