This article responds to debates about the “big, ambitious novel” and “hysterical realism” by challenging several prevailing scholarly orthodoxies about large‐scale fiction: that whole world‐building precludes the rendering of a single, feeling human; that mimesis and “hysterical” traits, like absurdity, are mutually exclusive; or that a whole‐world view requires third‐person narrative omniscience. The analysis centers on Anna Burns's Milkman (2018), a novel set in Troubles‐era Northern Ireland that connects a young woman's experience with gendered and sexual power to the behavior, prejudices, and tacit understandings that undergird a society locked in sectarian conflict. The article argues that the novel's form—a first‐person, past‐tense narration—lends the character‐narrator unique credibility as a teller because she has both firsthand experience and the critical distance of hindsight. To avoid postures of certainty and authority that come with both political power and narrative omniscience, the narrator uses irony and self‐consciousness to critique storyworld power dynamics and expectations of literary realism. Burns's big, ambitious novel reveals that conveying a whole world and portraying a single, feeling human are in fact mutually constitutive aims. Moreover, the digressive and often absurd narration is precisely what makes the storyworld a persuasively plausible, if not verisimilar, rendering of Troubles‐era Northern Ireland. By linking nationalism to problems of gender and sexual politics at the time, Burns's novel issues a warning about the reactionary postures and polarization in the contemporary moment surrounding Brexit, the #MeToo movement, and surging violence in Northern Ireland.
A “Hair-Trigger Society” and the Woman Who Felt Something in Anna Burns's Milkman
Siân White is associate professor of English at James Madison University in Virginia, where she specializes in modernism, narrative theory, and contemporary Irish women's writing. She is coeditor, with Maud Ellmann and Vicki Mahaffey, of The Edinburgh Companion to Irish Modernism (2021). She also coedited, with Pamela Thurschwell, a special issue of Textual Practice on Elizabeth Bowen (2013). Her published work has appeared in Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture, Woolf Studies Annual, Papers on Language and Literature, Journal of Narrative Theory, and elsewhere. Her current book project is on intimacy in British and Irish modernism.
Siân White; A “Hair-Trigger Society” and the Woman Who Felt Something in Anna Burns's Milkman. Genre 1 April 2021; 54 (1): 111–137. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-8911537
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