our side of the road

There’s probably a German word for the habit of urgently buying books you need right now and then waiting two or three years to read them… Anyway, this is how it was with Anna Burn’s tremendous novel, MILKMAN, which had been languishing on a shelf in my living room for some considerable time before I picked it up this week. I immediately wished I hadn’t waited so long for the sheer exhilarating effervescent brain-refreshment this book provided. I can’t remember when I last read a book that felt so new, that so charmed and delighted and reveled in its love of language.

Language in this book is a pure delight. The unnamed protagonist distracts herself from the traumatising troubles of her time by reading books, but only those written before the nineteenth century, so her narration and her rendition of others’ dialogue is a wonderfully original and enjoyable mix of working-class Northern Irish and extravagant, mildly-antiquated vocabulary and rhythms. In fact it does much that a nineteenth century novel does, in terms of the exposing of the ‘psychologicals’ of the characters. But it is resolutely, perfectly, acute and convincing in every revelation of the particular milieu in which it is set. It has much to say on gaslighting, gossip, how trauma is dealt with when it is an ongoing fact of life, and how a society shapes a mind and a body. I found it absolutely compelling.

Burns’ hilarious descriptions of the arcane and convoluted hierarchies of sectarian divisions, which extend to what television programmes, names, words, sports and hobbies one is allowed or otherwise to watch, speak, or partake in, somewhat put me in mind of Twitter and its increasingly strict and minute – yet largely unwritten – laws about what is and isn’t allowed, and what makes one ‘a community beyond-the-pale.’ It struck me quite forcefully that these divisions and politickings are sectarian in nature and go beyond any kind of logic to enforce a culture upon the ‘renouncers’ and the ‘supporters’; an authority which one is supposed to, and does, intimately adhere to without ever being instructed in its rules and ramifications. It is wrong, for example, to express a certain doubt, or doubt about a certain subject, or to support by way of a ‘like’ another person who expresses that same doubt or speaks on that subject. How demanding! How exacting is the standard! Some books and authors are acceptable, and some are not, and this seems to bear no relation to the actual words in their books or the ideas expressed by their authors; and no heed is to be paid to the fact of fiction at all, to the fact that authors make things up. Some are to be cancelled, and others to be celebrated, and it is all without sense or reason, though the self-appointed state forces will produce reams of highly intellectual writing on the supposed nuances and moral justifications of their cancellations of other authors, and like good little idiots, we all nod our heads and retweet their nonsense.

Well I have never lived in a war zone, or a sectarian community, or in conditions of unrelenting authoritarianism, and so maybe this comparison is trivial. Anyway, it strengthened my resolve to avoid Twitter more fastidiously than I have in the past.

I found in MILKMAN much to revel in, much to admire, much to laugh about, much to love. I read that, in addition to garnering awards and accolades and praise from luminous quarters, it also has sold now in excess of 500,000 copies. Quite something for a bold experimental literary novel. This fact alone has given me great hope. That so many can love a book like this gives me hope. That this wonderfully humane, joyous, perfect language can reach so many is an unequivocal good thing. Highly, highly recommended.

the flame alphabet

The Flame Alphabet may be the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. The fact that it is beautifully written only adds to the nasty queasy feeling one is left with at the end. The sense of being made complicit in a series of cruel acts. I’ve never read a book which contains so much that is wrong and off and weird in the most unpleasant ways. Oh, but it is brilliant.

The subject of the novel is language. When language becomes toxic and lethally unspeakable, unhearable, and unreadable, all relationships fall apart, and love itself becomes impossible. Society breaks down, and the post-apocalyptic world is characterised by an inhuman desperation to re-connect with one another. That’s a very basic summary of the plot. The strangeness of the setting, the twisted Heath Robinson-esque contraptions deployed by the narrator in his efforts to cure himself of language illness, the secret cult of the Forest Jews who listen to sermons through flesh-like ‘listeners’ attached to cables underneath the earth, the scripts and signs that are also diseased – this all makes for a very odd novel full of thematic richness. But the most disturbing elements of the book are to do with parenthood, with fatherhood, to be precise. And in many ways, the novel is traditional – it has a protagonist and a plot, a beginning, middle and end. Yet there is something absolutely surreal and estranging about the writing that washes you up somewhere very far from home.

This novel made me feel slightly sick, if I’m honest. I appreciate that this is a meta-message – language is toxic – but mainly, I just feel a bit ill.

mind your language?

I was involved in a pub discussion the other night about whether certain extremely offensive words are okay to say and use, if you are not personally offended by those words or sitting next to someone who might be. One side of the argument claimed that words are neutral – if they hurt, it’s because of the speaker’s intention to hurt/the hearer’s allowing the words to hurt her. Another side was saying, words have power and meaning that they carry with them, regardless of who is speaking. A question was raised as to whether it’s possible to subvert the meaning of such words, or whether they should be unspoken and neglected until they fall out of usage.

My opinions don’t completely line up anywhere in this argument. Of course words have power of their own – some words carry a great deal of history and meaning with them. And we know that intentions aren’t all that matter – it’s the reader/listener who completes the meaning. So writers/speakers do have a responsibility to consider that the words they are using mean more, lots more, than they may want those words to mean. That’s why claiming the ‘right’ to use a word, just because it is a word in the language, isn’t as straightforward as it might be. People talk about freedom of speech – but what do you do when your freedom of speech forces another person/group of people into silence, or into inhabiting a marginalised position? I don’t know the answer to this.

On the other hand, powerful words derive their power from real social relations. There are highly unpleasant words used against women, for example, but getting rid of any of these words doesn’t eradicate misogyny. If there were no misogyny, there would be no hateful words used against women, and words which are now vile to us may persist but would no longer be vile.

There is also the question of context. Who is speaking, and when, and why? A group of women might use all sorts of language amongst themselves that would be offensive/threatening/nasty when used by a group of men, or called out in the street, or graffitied on a wall.

More convincing than any of this, for me, is the fact that I cannot speak some words without feeling faintly repulsed. The words themselves are toxic. You can see them having a physical effect on people who hear them, too. Something happens when these words are summoned into conversation. Something physically happens to people – they react bodily. That’s not a political argument, and more level-headed rationalists would probably dismiss it as twaddle of the worst kind. But it is true. A word aimed at you can make you shrink back, can make you cry, blush, fill you with adrenalin. Some words really hurt.

I’ve been reading ‘The Flame Alphabet’ by Ben Marcus, a novel in which the whole of language is toxic, where language can be used as a weapon to injure, sicken and kill. Children are immune to the toxicity of language, and it is they who hurt and kill their parents and others around them. Their motives are not really explored, and I suggest that this is because it’s motiveless to an extent. The children don’t make war on their parents for any rationalised reason. They do it because they can’t help it, because they must use language, must speak, and must say whatever they want to say. I’m interested in the idea that language has an existence of its own, like a virus that seeks to perpetuate itself by any means it can. If that is the case, our discussions about language are kind of pointless, except in that they keep reproducing language, which is only thing language itself cares about.