15 February, 2019 • • 39.4FictionLiterature

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A Long Troubling

John Phipps

Anna Burns

Faber & Faber
£8.99 (pbk)

Little Constructions
4th Estate
£8.99 (pbk)

No Bones
4th Estate
£8.99 (pbk)

In the spring of 2016, a woman was given a three-month suspended sentence at Belfast Crown Court for trying to terminate her pregnancy.

At the time, English law didn’t allow Northern Irish women to access abortions on the NHS. Northern Irish law didn’t—and still doesn’t—allow abortions under any but the most extreme medical circumstances. Neither rape nor incest victims are allowed to abort their foetuses. The woman in question was nineteen at the time and couldn’t afford to have the procedure done professionally. She bought drugs online that would induce miscarriage. And then she was arrested—not because of state cyber surveillance, but because her female housemate had called the police to report her.

It’s the last detail that made me think of Anna Burns. Burns writes about the way the world teaches us to wound each other. For eighteen years she has been writing novels, set amidst the public and private turmoil of the Troubles, about the ubiquity of trauma, the surveillance and degradation of women, and the self-perpetuating progress of violence. For seventeen of those years the world paid little attention. But in 2018 her themes, which had always been urgent, became abruptly ubiquitous and—as you may have heard by now—she was awarded the Booker Prize. You might also have heard about that novel’s acknowledgements section, in which Burns thanks various homelessness charities, food banks and the Department for Work and Pensions. It has been a long, flat road to this sudden and dizzying success—a success which, on the strength of these three novels, should have come to her sooner.

Her first novel, No Bones, was published in 2001. Spanning almost the entire duration of the Troubles, from 1969 to 1994, it follows the life of Amelia Lovett, a young girl who grows up in the fiercely Republican neighbourhood of Arodyne, Belfast. In 1969 she is a young girl, playing with her friends opposite the protestant chip shop, when a friend comes wheeling around the corner on a go-kart. ‘There’s going to be trouble’ says the girl. ‘It’s startin’ tonight. It’s already started in Derry. It’s going to be dangerous and it means something awful.’

The ‘trouble’ in question will be the riots of August 1969, which left 8 people dead and more than 750 injured. Over four hundred houses and business were burned, the vast majority Catholic, and around 1800 families—again, mostly Catholic—were forced to flee their homes. Young Amelia watches with her family from inside a barricaded house. Each morning she tallies the wreckage: ‘Amelia had counted thirteen houses from the top of one side of her street and nine houses from the top of the other that had been burnt in these Troubles so far.’ The adults arm themselves with makeshift weapons; Amelia and her sister try to divert themselves by imagining which buildings in town had been blown up. Amelia can’t think of any worth destroying but the school and the church—both of which she hates. But her sister excels at the game: ‘Lizzie, meanwhile, decimated every structure in Belfast, then suggested they start to guess, next, who had been shot.’

Characters in Burns’ novels—especially her children—often take a ghoulish delight in violence. Why should they not? It is the element in which they move. At the hated school, the children are asked to write a ‘peace poem’ by an elderly female teacher, who raps the table with a cane as she explains their task:

The poem—slap!—had to be the original work of the child—slap! It had to be done there and then—slap!—in the school—slap!—not to be taken home and finished by some adult on the sly. It had to be called ‘Peace’—slap!—start with the line ‘I wish for peace in my country’—slap!—and end with ‘But peace will come oh sometime soon/Yes, Peace will come sometime’—slap slap!

Later that day the class have their fingerprints taken by the police. The officials know that soon these children will be taking part in the violence, to which they are currently mere witnesses. ‘When it was time to go home they all got a sweet.’

Each titled chapter of No Bones takes place in a different year, and almost all of them follow the events of, at most, a single day. As a result, the novel feels less like a continuous account of a life and more like a series of snapshots. What’s remarkable is the cackling humour, the sheer brio with which these ultraviolent set pieces are carried off. In one chapter, ‘The Pragmatic Use of Arms’—Burns has a wonderful ear for the absurdities of official euphemism—the Lovett family are visited by the IRA. The Lovett family have been attracting the attention of the British Army, who have their barracks up the road, and the IRA don’t like this:

The drop of a pin, never mind the crunch of a sibling’s bone or familial crack of a head, was enough to saturate the area with troops and cause the budding Irish organisation great, but great inconvenience.

The IRA bang on the door and start threatening Mr. and Mrs. Lovett. So Mr. Lovett pulverises one of the doorknockers and Mrs. Lovett cracks a poker over the head of the other, and in the confusion their neighbour Mr. Duffy’s car is badly damaged. But of course by the time the British Army come round the corner to see what all the noise is about, they find blood all over the floor and the car smashed in, but the street is deserted. Everyone has fled indoors. The army knock on the door of the Mr. Duffy who owns the car, to show him what’s happened. But Mr. Duffy is less than pleased to find the British Army on his doorstep: ‘“Oh!” he said. “Has something happened to my car? I didn’t hear. Thank you for letting me know. Goodbye.”’ It’s all funny enough the first time. Then the scene repeats itself on escalated terms when the IRA come back, with more fighters and more people injured. So when the British Army come pounding round the corner to see what’s happened all they find is an empty, silent street—there might as well be tumbleweed—a few fresh pools of blood, and Mr. Duffy’s car in an awful state…

History repeats itself: first as sinister comedy, then as ultraviolent farce. Burns is a true black comedian, one who gets funnier as her subject matter gets darker. She can do one-liners, but she prefers to riff, to choose a theme and escalate gleefully through a set of increasingly baroque variations. Consider the two rules for fighting that Amelia’s mother gives her:

Rule Number One: (a) Don’t start fights. (b) If someone else starts them, get stuck in, for you’ve got to save face no matter what. (c) If you’re not in safe territory, fight in unsafe territory, for you’ve got to save face no matter what. (d) If one person alone starts the fight, use bare hands and feet unless the other person has a weapon in which case—(e) use as many weapons as you like.

And on it goes, possibilities ramifying across an increasingly hopeless decision tree, until we get to (i):

If really limited—no weapons, loads of people comin’ at you, not much time, go for the most dangerous and go for one thing—go for the eyes. Yes, ma nodded, it may not be much but when you’ve been murdered, and you will be, you’ll at least have done your best and you won’t have run away. Rule Number Two: Never run away.

Murmurings in reviews for Milkman suggested there was a touch of Beckett to Anna Burns’ writing. Maybe so. But passages like this felt like prose in the postmodern, hyperreal tradition of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. The keynote of the style, in terms of plot and characterisation, is exaggeration, and a hyperintelligent, analytical voice that talks to the reader, one that moreover remains conversational enough to make it seem like the whole thing was half-improvised.

When Amelia grows up, the cost of all this has to be reckoned. As a child there was violence and tragedy in the groundwater; by the time she is a grown woman so much has seeped in that she suffers a breakdown, she becomes an anorexic and an alcoholic to boot. These pages can be painful to read and they feel—there’s no other way to say it—deeply personal. When a ray of hope shines in towards the end (and a ray of hope always must), we are nervously hopeful that somehow, things might improve. But Burns does not leave us certain.

Burns’ narrative voice in No Burns is so assured and fully-formed that it’s hard to believe that you’re reading a debut novel. In its 2008 follow-up, Little Constructions, Burns cranks things up another notch. Here are the novel’s opening lines:

There are no differences between men and women. No differences. Except one. Men want to know what sort of gun it is. Women just want the gun.

This one, as they say, goes to eleven. As Little Constructions begins Jetty Doe bursts into the best gunshop in the small, fictional town of Tiptoe Floorboard, and a few seconds later she leaves in a taxi, with an assault rifle under her arm and murder in her heart. From here the book explodes across a series of digressions and flashbacks, a dizzying cascade of embedded explanations through which the reader is slowly acquainted with the history of the Doe crime family, all of whose names begin with J. The capo of the local crime family is called John Doe—the name that the police give to unidentified male bodies. It’s a sinister allusion, but by the time I’d met not just Jetty, Janet and Jennie, but Johnjoe and Judas and JanineJuliaJoshuatine, it was clear that Burns was having a bit of fun with the thing.

That, in fact, is Little Constructions’ MO: to take the most gruesome subject matter imaginable and have as much fun with it as possible. John Doe himself is a dark creation: a creature of pure violence, who extorts, tortures, murders and rapes according to his own fiat—all while praising the sainted memory of his blessed mother. This is difficult for John, because he’s not sure if his mother actually is his mother. It’s possible that his mother’s sister is his mother, his father having bedded both women. One character, feeling threatened, gets tied in knots trying to appease him:

“Your Aunt was a lovely and a great woman, Johnny. And so was your mother. I always thought they were brilliant—towers of the feminine, queens assumed into Heaven, blessed, revered, wise and merciful. Your mothers were the most total virgins of all.”

Doe sighs and relents. “You’re right”, he says, “Those two women were perfections of the universe.” John himself has slept with two sisters—one of whom was the woman who stole the gun—and passed the confusion and sadness on to the next generation.

Little Constructions is narrated by an omniscient and very chatty first-person spirit, a voice from the fourth dimension who’s just popped in for a chinwag. This figure allows the reader into the fragmented consciousnesses of the novel’s traumatised characters, many of whom suffer from the Spatial Fragmentation Hallucination Syndrome—Burns’ fictional approximation of PTSD. The owner of the gunshop, Tom, has got SFHS on account of a violent assault he experienced. Most of the characters in the novel suffer from some form of psychosis, even if it’s not on account of one incident in particular. The narrator explains:

Do you know this syndrome? Do you have it? I’ll tell you. You’re having a hard time, say, because something not very nice once happened to you. It was a big thing, and although it’s supposed to be over, in your body and in your head and from the way you look out on the world, it’s not bloody over, it’s still bloody going on. Or maybe it wasn’t a big thing. Maybe it was a series of little things, most of them below the level of police CAD reference number material, but if you add them together, plus feather the timescale, they amount to one hell of a cumulative assault.

In 2019 we all know what’s being discussed here. The therapeutic models developed to deal with PTSD have permeated political discourse: microaggressions, triggers, dissociation. That Burns has been treating these topics since the very start of her career (there is a chapter in No Bones called ‘Triggers’) is a reminder of how many contemporary feminist terms have their roots in therapeutic technique. That Burns has managed to write the hell out of this material, without ever feeling over-earnest or pious, is nothing short of a miracle.

Milkman tells the story of a young woman, in a nameless city, who likes to read while walking. This small quirk is enough to get her noticed by Milkman, a local paramilitary leader. He slows his van, rolls his window down and talks to the narrator. He appears to know almost everything about her, although they have never met. He invites her to get in the van. She declines, he shrugs, rolls up his window and drives away. It’s distinctly creepy, if quite not CAD-reference-number stuff. But it’s noticed and logged by a pair of eyes somewhere, and the story spreads. And since the army is watching the paramilitaries, and the paramilitaries are watching the neighbourhood, and the neighbourhood are watching each other, and mothers are watching their daughters to make sure they don’t catch the attention of the neighbourhood or the paramilitaries or the army—since everyone is watching everyone—it’s soon an accepted fact that the narrator and Milkman are seeing each other.

About the name: ‘He wasn’t our Milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. There was no milk about him.’ Milkman is a name he has been given. Unusual or remarkable people are named for their black-sheep tendencies. Nuclear Boy, Poison Tablets Girl, The Man Who Didn’t Love Anybody. Somebody McSomebody. Who you think you are—or who you in fact happen to be—doesn’t matter as much as what people think of you. Similarly, the city in which events take place isn’t named. That’s not to say that this isn’t a Republican neighbourhood in Belfast during the Troubles. It’s simply that ‘us’ and ‘them’ are more incisive terms than ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’.

Her mother pleads with her to stop seeing Milkman. She’s seen too many girls go down the ‘paramilitary groupie’ road before. The paramilitaries are suddenly interested in her: they hear she’s Milkman’s new girl. The police know who she is. Her friends turn against her. A man who’d bothered her is murdered, and the community assumes that she ordered the hit. The room goes silent when she walks in. Meanwhile, she’s talked to Milkman less than five times. And in a world at war with the state, no official institution can be trusted, and the ‘renouncers’ are the only help available.

…in our community, on ‘our side of the road’, the government here was the enemy, and the police here was the enemy, and the government ‘over there’ were the enemy and, by extension […] the hospital, the electricity board, the gas board, the water board, the school board, the telephone people and anybody wearing a uniform also were the enemy, and where we were viewed in our turn by our enemies as the enemy—in those dark days, which were the extreme of days, if we hadn’t had the renouncers as our underground buffer between us and this overwhelming and combined enemy, who else, in all the world, would we have had?

‘In those dark days’—here, as on almost every page of the novel, we’re reminded that this was years ago, another lifetime, one that’s almost hard to access. The distant past is being called up and questioned in punchy clauses that branch outwards into long, almost over-comprehensive sentences. It’s this quality, rather than anything to do with the novel’s plot or its nameless characters, that accounts for the small kerfuffle that took place in the broadsheet literary pages, as to whether Milk­man was a ‘difficult’ novel. It’s not difficult. But it’s not urgent. The narrator is trying to get through to the root of the rot, making sure you understand exactly how things were as she goes. Sometimes we feel that she is only just controlling her anger. Throughout, Burns is playing the social seismograph, registering the tremor of every conversation in outsize strokes so the reader doesn’t miss anything. As a result, there are moments when Milkman feels a little dilatory. For the same reason, as a work of social diagnosis, it’s deeply impressive. And it’s funny.

There is a question that emerges in all three of these novels. What do you do when the world has wounded you? If it has made you into a shattered, self-denying, suspicious, pathologically lonely, guarded, traumatised person, how can you even begin to engage in the projects that will allow you to stop being that person, when the very instinct that would lead to, say, going to therapy, would have to spring from some untouched inner reserve of wholeness, self-respect, trust, sociability and healthiness? Even if you come to the realisation that this was not your choice, what choice do you have now?

In the Republic of Ireland suicide rates have fallen 13% since 2013. In the same period, Northern Ireland’s suicide rate has risen by 18%. Since 1985, it has increased by 82%. It’s probable that austerity measures played some part, but for comparison, the equivalent period in England saw a 3% rise in suicide. Equally, very gradual secularisation has decreased the stigma around suicide, and it’s likely that many more deaths are now accurately reported as such. But I’m struck by the fact that the early 1980s were the years that the first generation who grew up during the Troubles came of age. It’s been 21 years since the Good Friday agreement. But the Troubles are far from over.

As for Burns? The outlook isn’t great. She may have won the Booker, but she still suffers from the chronic pain that has plagued her for most of the last decade, and which delayed the publication of Milkman by several years. After her win, Burns said publicly that she can now afford a private operation that may save her. She told The Independent, ‘If it’s successful, I’ll write again.’ It’s a bleak prospect. But I live in hope.


John Phipps is reading for a Masters in Early Modern Literature; he is the Editor of The Oxford Review of Books.