Milkman by Anna Burns

Anna Burns pic
British writer from Northern Ireland, Anna Burns.

The very first line begins,

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to by breast …

and it made me feel I was in safe hands; a safe writer’s hands. She could’ve used the simple word, somebody, but the capital letters and the Mc told me where she was and also her attitude to this person, it could’ve been one of many people from the place she comes from. Guns are rife. Even if you hadn’t read the Booker Prize announcement or the publicity it generated, or the back of the book itself and discovered Anna Burns is from Northern Ireland and always writes about the Troubles you could work it out: the use of Mc tells you it’s either Scotland or Ireland but the prevalence of guns tells you it’s probably Northern Ireland given it’s history which any reader must remember.

When one uses an article in front of a noun it gives information about that noun; “a success” means something different from “the success”: the former means success in general, the success of anything; the latter means  a particular success, the one we’re talking about. If there is no article the meaning is different again; it means the quality of success, success-ness. Anna Burns omits the article of the noun, brother-in-law; as in …

there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law,

… which suggests there is such a thing as brother-in-law-ness. The insinuation is that she has a lot of experience with brother-in-law-ness since this one is just the first one. It’s like a job – all plumbers are the same type, just like all brother-in-laws. And she doesn’t like them.

No one is named, but they have names. She calls her mother ma,  her name is ma; ma calls her middle daughter, she calls him maybe-boyfriend, and him, third brother-in-law, and her brothers, thingy, thingy, and thingy; she calls him, milkman. Not the milkman, just milkman; no article, so no name but with a name, milkman. Even though he has nothing to do with milk, not even its distribution, he has milkman-ness: he knows where everybody lives, especially daughters, and what they have for breakfast. Ah, but this is not to be confused with real milkman. This is a man of a rare kind.

The stream of consciousness can be daunting: each page is densely packed with words; direct speech, brief though it is, is imbedded in the paragraph, there is little page-space. It gives the impression of dense weight.

Yes, there is a narrative in the traditional sense. Let’s call this the plot. But the plot is sparse. The narrative is really inside her head; this young innocent girl trying to live a life in a war zone, but a war that isn’t an official war, but therefore it’s much more dangerous, because even the language is full of weapons, bullets, and grenades.

As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and at ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community’ and ‘their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes which could hail from ‘over the water’ or from ‘over the border’ yet be watched by everyone ‘this side of the road’ as well as ‘that side of the road’ without causing disloyalty in either community. Then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side. There were television licence inspectors, census collectors, civilians working in non-civilian environments and public servants, all tolerated in one community whilst shot to death if putting a toe into the other community. There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to. What prayers you said. What hymns you sang. How you pronounced your ‘haitch’ or ‘aitch’. Where you went to work. And of course there were bus-stops.

The narrative inside her head, which the above quote gives you a taste of, is relentless – as thoughts are – and in the midst of all this danger – 80% of the book is this danger –  there is the simple plot: a much older man, milkman, is stalking her, and even if she doesn’t reply and just stands there letting him talk, even with her arms folded, not engaging with him, wishing he would go away, she doesn’t like him – she likes maybe-boyfriend – but he won’t go away – and when do does go away it’s as secretly and silently as he arrived – but he’s there long enough for them to be seen together. That is enough for chins to wag and tongues to spit. They were seen together so she, daughter, must be having an affair with milkman, and it must be true because Mrs Someone and Mrs Thingymabob said.  Even ma doesn’t believe her. What’s a girl to do?

Did I enjoy this novel? To start with, yes; but as it progressed it felt repetitive and over-written. The Man-Booker judges have, in recent years, favoured the experimental voice to the detriment, I believe, of story-telling and therefore of their readership. Although a stream-of-consciousness novel, James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late won in 1994 the past four years have seen more experimental novels taking the prize. New writing doesn’t necessarily mean better writing.

Here is a very short video of Anna Burns after winning the Man-Booker and talking briefly about the writing of her novel. She seems overwhelmed by the media attention, which given it’s intensity is understandable. I apologise for the god-awful and too loud backing music.

You can by the kindle version here.

Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee

Coetzee pic
South African born writer, John Maxwell Coetzee, relocated to Adelaide, South Australia in 2002 and became an Australian citizen in 2006. 

J. M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Life & Times of Michael K is a short novel in three untitled chapters: a long one, a short one, and an even shorter one. It is literary, not in the writing, which is simple, stark, and unadorned, but in its ideas.

The first long chapter begins with a very short description of Michael K’s undistinguished birth and the subsequent disappointment of his mother because her baby has a cleft lip. It is told in the third person by an unnamed and omnipotent narrator. Michael K’s early life is uneventful and he works in a mediocre job as a gardener. It is clear that the novel is set in a very violent and war-torn South Africa with curfews, gangs, and uncertainty. It seems to be always raining. His mother is desperate to leave Cape-town and return to her hometown of Prince Albert many hundreds of miles to the north. Without money, or the necessary papers – unattainable for Kafkaesque reasons – he attempts to push his mother in a homemade pram all the way north to Prince Albert. His mother dies on the way but Michael K finally manages to arrive at what he believes to be the farm, now deserted, where his mother was born. He tries to live off the land; for his own security he learns to sleep in a hole during the day and to work in his garden at night. He grows pumpkins. He is discovered and abused, escapes to the mountains where he tries to live without leaving a trace. He is hijacked to work for a road-gang, is interned in a work-camp, escapes and is taken to a hospital where he sparks the interest of a doctor.

The second chapter is told in the first person by this unnamed doctor and we see how Michael K, now identified as CM (coloured male ?) but referred to as Michaels, is seen by others. He is an enigma. He refuses to eat, talk, or co-operate. The doctor is tormented with the urge to help him but to no avail. The doctor comes to think that Michaels may have the real answer to living in this particular country at this particular time: living in order not to exist. The doctor is eventually thwarted in his kindly efforts as Michael K escapes.

The last, and shortest chapter, is a return to the third person narrator. Michael K eventually returns to the building in the city where he and his mother used to live. He is befriended by a group of nomads; one of the women has sex with him and he thinks he might even like her, but he continues to reflect on his time in the wilderness; all he would need in the wilderness was his garden, a shaft in the ground, and a teaspoon and string with which he could gather water. Then, “he would say, one can live.”

A happy and fulfilled life need only be concerned with what it is you need to survive, and nothing else. Life isn’t so bad if all you are doing is marking time.

This book is bleak, fascinating, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding – if you stay with it   – but a very different book to the mainstream literary works of today.

Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”

J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus and Late Essays: 2006-2016 are now available from Viking.

Slam-Prose takes the Prize. Again.

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American writer, Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty is a 54 year old African American from Los Angeles and the first American to win the Man-Booker Prize (2016) since American writers were included in 2014. He has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. In 1990 he became the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe which garnered him a book deal. Two volumes of poetry Big Bank Take Little Bank (1991), Joker, Joker, Deuce (1994) and three novels , White Boy Suffle (1996), Tuff (2000), and Slumberland (2008) followed.  The Sellout was also awarded the 2015 National Book Critics Award for fiction.

Rappers and slam poets are never stuck for words

… And on hot 104-degree San Fernando Valley days, when we’re carrying their groceries to their cars or stuffing their mailboxes with bills, they turn and say, “Too many Mexicans,” a tacit agreement between aggrieved strangers that it’s neither the heat nor the humidity, but that the blame lies with our little brown brothers to the south and the north and next door, and at the Grove, and everywhere else in Califas;

they begin a collocated list and then subvert the last item

… Charisma flung back her long straight black hair from her face and took a hit that illuminated the mysteries of the internet, Ulysses, and the American fascination with cooking shows;

foster a slick line in similes

and comforts you like a lover making your bed while you’re still in it;

manufacture an artistic range of compound adjectives

My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, cafe-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yoghurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That’s why black literature sucks!;

add a touch of ethnic colour

… If I was lucky, I’d catch a glimpse of Marpessa, Charisma, and their homegirls holding court at the rear gate, sassy as a brass big band, hula-hooping their hips, chanting Ah beep beep, walking down street, ten times a week …”Ungawa! Ungawa!” That means black power! … I’m soul sister number nine, sock it to me one more time…;

and toss in a joke or ten

If New York is the City That Never Sleeps then Los Angeles is the City That’s Always Passed Out On The Couch. 

“I hate the act [of writing], definitely,” said Paul Beatty. “I mean, I don’t write much. One book every seven years or so. But it’s slow. When I’m doing it, it does give me a satisfaction. But it’s hard. It’s like how do you string together enough of these little moments where something is happening? That’s a pain in the a—.”

This is odd, or clever, because reading this book impels you to read it as fast as you can as if it was written while standing bare-foot on hot coals. But, then that, I suppose, is what slam-prose is all about.

In an age where a song lyric is suddenly, and some say at-long-last, recognised as literature – thanks to the Nobel Academy, The Sellout finally brings slam prose into the mainstream, and how? By out slam-prosing last year’s slam-prose Booker winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings by showing James how it’s really done. Where A Brief History … was a literary wank sprukin’ how boring seven pages of no-punctuation thought-stream can really be, The Sellout, o-n-l-y  j-u-s-t makes it over the literary line by having something to say. And no wonder publishing house after publishing house turned it down (What? A book about reinstating slavery? Are you kiddin’ me?!) until finally Farrar, Straus, & Giroux hyperventilated and agreed to take a punt.

If you like a novel to have ‘nice characters’ and a ‘good story’ stay away from The Sellout. If you like clever word-play, African-American street-speak, stand-up with balls, if you’re a book judge or a literary critic, or you like a book you can keep on the coffee table and dip in to when you’re feeling low you’ll lerve this one.

You can download the paper or ebook version here or from Amazon here.