When details of the Avital Ronell scandal broke this August – in which the NYU professor was accused of sexual harassment by a male student and later suspended by the university for this academic year – what felt so simultaneously insidious and glaringly obvious was how sexual harassment can often operate through attrition. The 56-page lawsuit, filed by the accuser against Ronell and NYU, detailed an overwhelming volume of phone calls, saccharine emails, unannounced visits, the hyperbolic cooing, the haranguing demands placed on one person, by another, without one’s permission or desire for such. This particular sort of harassment is non-spectacular, monotonous even, and in the case of Ronell, the Title IX complaint reads like a list of slow, disorientating blows.
Whilst Ronell’s case happened in real time and not in an unnamed city in the 1970s that might or might not be Belfast, Anna Burns’s novel Milkman (Faber & Faber, 2018), which recently won this year’s Man Booker Prize, follows Middle Sister, who is doggedly pursued, stalked, and sexually harassed by Milkman, a suspected IRA member. The narrative is unrelenting, staging the remorseless forms of ‘pursuing and importuning’ that aren’t necessarily physical, those that are ‘hard to define’ because they are so ‘piecemeal’. As such, Middle Sister relies upon a painful but seemingly necessary bifurcation of mind over body. Regardless of the ‘spine shivers, those scrabblings, the scuttlings, all that shuddery-shudderiness’ (so affecting that the word for goosebumps seems to slip from the narrator’s grasp) that the body produces as a shield against danger, Middle Sister architects borders of the mind, methods to silence herself, ways to not-name her shame. She keeps her mind preoccupied, in a separate time and outside of her body, poring over books from the 19th century. Whilst Middle Sister gives ‘no confirmation, no refutation’ of what is happening to her, silenced, she tells us, by ‘the fabrication of words’ and ‘the twisting of words that went on in this place’, the agonizing weight of sexual harassment beds itself in, parasitically burying itself within the text, within the reader.
Simultaneously, the seemingly oblique operations of sexual harassment in the novel are mapped onto the socio-political stakes of the Troubles. Geographical borders become a metaphor that make the fear of unwanted bodily and sexual transgression more thinkable. Middle Sister lives in a world where religious, social, political and economic status is read through names and ‘tribal identifiers’. These ‘banned’ names from ‘over the water’ are the best way to describe the ‘unspoken rules and regulations’ of who is allowed where in the city and where you are free to roam in safety. In the world of the novel names signify everything, but within the formal logic of Burns’s prose, the slipperiness of language demonstrates the confusion and loss of harassment, where safety is impossible because someone might be following you or watching you at any moment: you are not safe because you cannot presume safety; you cannot know because you cannot name. Much of the language used in the novel functions through deferral and supplementary presence – a constant feeling of ‘jamais vu’ where depression is ‘a long face’, and people unaffected by depression are ‘shiny people’. This seems to riff upon the notion that it is often difficult to name our fears, or as soon we name them, they have taken other forms, other shapes, always slipping just beyond reach.
Throughout the novel, Milkman forces Middle Sister into a position where, ultimately, she ‘refuse[s] to be evoked, to be drawn out, shocked into revelation. Instead I minimalised, withheld, subverted thinking’, that is, Middle Sister refuses to be represented by the harassment she endured. Like characters and places in the novel – wee sisters, maybe-boyfriend, Milkman, Somebody McSomebody, ‘over the water’ – harassment is something that we struggle to see signified, something that we can’t necessarily answer to. Naming what we fear is often reliant upon knowing the safety of reception, how our confidence will be received, and in the case of Middle Sister, much of Milkman operates through coded gossip (her supposed ‘intimate dot dot dots’ with the Milkman for example), where inside this unnamed city its inhabitants wallow in phatic conversation, in hearsay that ripples and reverberates, from one district to the next. In a world without any names, one in which your name itself can betray you, speak against you, when heard by the wrong set of ears, there is, Burns seems to suggest, not very much you can rely on ‘knowing’ at all.
There has been a lot of talk about Burns’s book feeling ‘baffling’, ‘tough’, with The Guardian’s Clare Armistead even describing it as ‘brain-kneading’ – perhaps spurred on by Kwame Anthony Appiah, chair of the judges, calling the novel ‘challenging’ when announcing its win. In one particularly damning review, Allison Pearson in The Telegraph called it ‘impenetrable’. It is important to acknowledge that Milkman is not impenetrable. Yes, Milkman requires tools of interpretation. At the level of semantic play, much crucial information is ciphered along the lines of idiom and dialect. Certainly, Milkman is experimental, rhythmic, saturated in fearful, breathy, beautiful syntax (and white men have been winning the Man Booker and other prizes for this same reason for years now), however isn’t this the nature of forms of (non-spectacular) sexual violence, that it isn’t simply easy to represent, it doesn’t trickle onto the page in easily consumable soundbites? And what is perhaps more interesting is why a whole host of journalists are dubbing ‘odd’ and ‘impenetrable’ a novel which draws out the complex terrain of sexual harassment, couched within the violent landscape of 1970s Northern Ireland. It seems like such journalists are themselves more trained in the Burns-ian method than they think. Indeed, words like ‘impenetrable’ and ‘brain-kneading’ themselves appear to read as code. An outlet for the white, middle- and upper-class media to vent their disgust when they are suddenly confronted with dialect, with language which resists formal and canonical convention. Indeed, might it be so unreadable and baffling because the author, a working-class Northern Irish woman, who was relying on food banks, benefits and suffered excruciating physical pain whilst writing her novel, could win a prize that is normally won by men who are lauded for their experimental prose, without any of those circumstances to contend with? Perhaps then, a reading in inference which Milkman offers so deftly: a reading in de-coding, and the specificity of what we really mean when we talk and whisper, is particularly generative when nefarious, classist slights are couched within them.
Main image: Anna Burns, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images, WPA Pool; photograph: Frank Augstein
Bryony White is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, where she is writing about performance and the law. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, and she has written for frieze, LA Review of Books, Artmonthly and the TLS. She co-edits the Tinyletter, close.