Blasting Out the Past in Milkman: A Closer Look at JML 47.2

By Daniel R. Adler, author of “Making Visible the ‘Mental Wreckage’: A Historical Materialist Reading of Milkman,” Journal of Modern Literature 47.2 (Winter 2024), now on Project Muse, free for a limited time.

After Milkman won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, it inspired some pretty extreme reactions. Some disliked it for its long paragraphs, digressions, and unnamed narrator. Other readers found the text’s thematic focus on sexual harassment during Northern Ireland’s Troubles era complicated by such elements. Perhaps because of Milkman’s success as a #MeToo text, certain readers had expectations of transparency. If so, has the postmodern flattening of aesthetic tiers caused readers to consider a novel like Milkman either an oddity or a disappointment?

For me, Milkman skillfully balances affective and intellectual identification. While aesthetic valuation based primarily on affective identification takes precedence in the market-driven publishing industry, this text’s formal experimentation and difficulty create an opacity typically associated with smaller presses. And in a world where art is increasingly supposed to have a political valence and may not be supported without a broad audience or institutional backing, Milkman is a feminist tale that focalizes the damages of ideology even as it avoids making an overtly political statement.

Burns’s novel is about far more than a young woman being harassed in 1970s Belfast. Different levels of conflict simultaneously co-exist and interrelate in Milkman. Our narrator, middle sister, resists external pressures even as she becomes the vaunted object of her community’s hero—a terrorist who has barely held a conversation with her. That the novel is told retrospectively (we learn that only years later can middle sister reflect upon and critique her community’s past), suggests how deeply ideology permeates consciousness on a national, communal, and individual level.

Despite Milkman’s heavy subject matter, Burns’s writing is hilariously funny. Some of the story’s irony is based on there being two very different “Milkmen,” for example. The relative absence of proper names throughout the novel is fundamental to Burns’s point about the inability of language to fully capture reality. Moments of narrative self-consciousness draw attention to this disparity, such as when in the midst of middle sister’s reflection on her mother’s capacity for storytelling, “Ma interrupted my thoughts on her thoughts” (251). Middle sister’s own confessional tale exorcises the resonances that haunt language and inhere in mood and meaning across time.

No philosopher of the twentieth century has understood this process better than Walter Benjamin. By framing Milkman through passages from “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” I show the tripartite levels of ideology that exist in the world Burns presents, as well as how the trauma resulting from unnamed violence can only be purged through storytelling.

In the way that pieces of ideology register differently for individuals, communities, and nations, art too impacts different levels of consciousness. My hope is that this article will encourage discussion of such an interpretive strategy for other texts; generate more interdisciplinary critiques of literature through philosophical frames; offer perspective on how ideology and history intersect in individual lives; and of course, bring new readers to Anna Burns’s rich and powerful work. Upholding texts with affective and intellectual power, which can resonate for a variety of readers on various ideological levels, can renew conversation about the power of literature without invalidating certain types of aesthetic experiences. Milkman is exemplary for its power to get the conversation going.

Daniel R. Adler ([email protected]) is a doctoral student in English literature at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research focuses on reinvention and cultural change. His writing has recently appeared in CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 3:AM Magazine, and Arcadia. He also holds an MFA in fiction from the University of South Carolina.

Teenage Girl Feeling Intimidated As She Walks Home photo courtesy of Adobe Stock Images.