Alright y’all. Let’s talk about Anna Burns and Milkman. Let’s also talk about the arbitrary nature of art. I know this will come as a shock to all of you, but I have lots of feelings about both.
It’s a Saturday, I’m in an independent bookstore with my best friend. This is the beginning of so many Saturdays but on this particular day, I see a beautiful book cover and it says 2018 Man Booker Prize Winner on it. A book I still regularly think about, A Little Life, was on the Man Booker finalist so I said hmmm. I read the back of Milkman and got very little information, it’s one of those short vague blurbs. Then while I was debating the purchase, I’d already picked out several other reads, an employee walks by and says ‘that’s an excellent book.’ Well I know this ancient man has some good taste, he works at a bookstore, so I add Milkman it to my pile.
And now I say to the ancient man and the Man Booker judges, why. This book is the worst.
Ok, that’s too strong. It’s not the worst. I don’t agree, but I can see why some people say it’s ‘a triumph’ and ‘innovative.’ In the same way that some of my friends really loved Christopher Durang plays and I could see why, but they’ve never been my style.
For Milkman in particular, it wasn’t about the way it was written. It was that I didn’t want Burns to pull so many gimmicks. And the whole thing feels like one big stunt. Let me explain.
The Milkman is set in an unnamed city, during an unnamed time period in a world where people wear titles as their name. Our main character, middle sister, is living her life quietly when a local celebrity and thug, Milkman, decides he wants her. How she handles it causes quite a stir. And in a world where the police are corrupt, renouncers run around like gangs, and public opinion can doom you for life, you don’t want to stand out for any reason.
Now, I’ve seen many complaints about this book because of the way it was written. Yes, it was very stream of consciousness but no, it was not unreadable. That is a cop out for people who don’t want to put in effort. Or don’t think putting effort into reading is worth it. I don’t love Burns’ style, and the no names thing took some getting used to, but it is certainly readable. That wasn’t my problem.
No, my problem was that this story is about a woman living in a dangerous world, and how inaction can be it’s own form of action, but it was wrapped up in so much unnecessary extra junk that by the time we actually got anywhere, I didn’t care what was happening.
Which I feel bad about. I want to like this. I want to support Burns and champion Milkman for addressing the difficult life women can be subjected to. But I don’t. Because I’m still angry. That’s a lot of work to put in for what felt like such a small reward.
Which, brings up back to the arbitrary nature of art. I have two professional artists in my family so I know how art works. I have walked through many museum exhibits and debated if I liked a piece of art, if it was good. And if either of those things mattered. And ultimately, the answer is no. While books are their own mediums and that means they have their own set of boundaries, I’m having a similar conversation with myself about Milkman. I didn’t like this book and I was unimpressed with it, but does that matter? I’m not sure. Probably not.