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Grist for the Rumor Mill

Truth, lies, and trauma in the novels of Anna Burns

Little Constructions by Anna Burns. Graywolf, 312 pages.

Milkman, Anna Burns’s 2018 novel, has become known for its depiction of violence, but it is equally concerned with rumors. When Milkman, the titular paramilitary leader, starts stalking middle sister, the nameless narrator, he does not by this act alone secure her eventual acquiescence to his overtures. He gets an assist from false gossip, prompted by his habit of turning up beside her in public, that gives everyone in their community to understand that she is his illicit lover. Middle sister protests to her mother, and to her actual lover, that she is not with Milkman; such is the power of the rumor that even they do not believe her.

She doesn’t bother trying to convince others in her unnamed Northern Irish city who ply her for information about the alleged relationship. They pretend their questions are innocuous, but this pretense is revealed as such “by the very contaminated, off-kilter atmosphere” that surrounds them as they approach her. The disparity between felt reality and put-on appearance makes it easy for middle sister to ascertain that her questioners are “not, for whatever reason, coming from the truth.” But while its traffickers are false, the rumor becomes gradually less so. After hundreds of pages of mounting dread and strenuous resistance, middle sister voluntarily gets into Milkman’s white van.

The engine driving the novel’s drama is not the violent conflict that pervades it but the tension between what appears to be happening and what actually is.

The slippage of rumor into reality is a little more slapstick in Burns’s 2007 novel, Little Constructions, now released for the first time in the United States. Tiptoe Floorboard, the town where it takes place, has, for example, a Register of Births, Deaths, and Rumours That Are Probably True. The officializing use of title case for highly improbable, unofficial-sounding names is one of the book’s recurring jokes. In Milkman, the replacement of proper names with generic descriptors like “tablets girl” or “wee sisters” strips a measure of agency from the characters. Lower case, their names are not their own, but delineations of their relationship to others; it is part of Milkman’s power over middle sister that he is not the milkman and that she is not Middle Sister. Little Constructions depicts such power differentials, and the violence to which characters subject one another, with an irony that verges on jocularity. The murderous gang at the center of the novel is called the Community Centre Action Team. It is led by John Doe, whose proper yet generic name suggests victimhood as much as criminality.

By now you may suspect, correctly, that many of the Rumors That Are Probably True aren’t true at all (some of the Births and Deaths aren’t, either). As in Milkman, the engine driving the novel’s drama is not the violent conflict that pervades it but the tension between what appears to be happening and what actually is. This tension builds from the first chapter, in which Jetty Doe—John’s cousin and extramarital lover—barges into a gun shop, grabs a Kalashnikov, throws money across the counter, and storms out. Soon other members of the Doe clan start arriving at the shop to look for her. Hearsay materializes as if out of air. By the time he gets there, Johnjoe Doe—an honorary Doe (né Harrison) and John’s right-hand man—already knows Jetty has “been in to get a piece to hunt and shoot John Doe down with. That wasn’t a question.”

It is a question, though, even to Jetty. In the taxi she boards after leaving the shop, her arms hold the Kalashnikov as her mind pings between anger at John and anger at Janet, who is both John’s wife and Jetty’s sister. (While Milkman and Little Constructions are both implicitly set in the midst of the Troubles, everyday violence in the latter tends not to have the overtly political import it has in the former.) The narrator, a not-quite-omniscient spirit from the fourth dimension, is “confused and even suspicious” about what Jetty has in mind. Indeed, it starts to seem that Jetty has “no clear idea of this herself.” She fantasizes about John lying bloodied in her arms, but “incredibly, astonishingly,” finds that, despite the gun, she has “never had any intention of shooting him.”

This sequence of events, in which false gossip about Jetty mirrors her own fantasies, suggests that rumor is a collective correlate of private delusion. The rest of the novel affirms the connection: just as public life in Tiptoe Floorboard is governed by Rumours That Are Probably True (but often aren’t), the interior lives of the town’s inhabitants have a tenuous relationship to reality. Take Julie, John Doe’s daughter, one of the people who drop in to the gun shop looking for Jetty. Later on, Julie will hear a false report that Tom Spaders, the shop’s owner, is the real leader of the violent Doe gang from which she hails. And she’ll believe it, “simply because she couldn’t bear the direct chaos of knowing it was her father.”

Much of the novel’s plot is made from these alternative metaplots: confused explanations of reality that mushroom in the characters’ simultaneously “knowing and not-knowing” consciousnesses. Between short scenes that take us from Jetty’s acquisition of the Kalashnikov to her arrival at John Doe’s place later that day are much longer flashbacks and flash-forwards that trace the characters’ muddled psychological trajectories. The stories they tell themselves and one another are so much more powerful than the actual events of the novel that its ostensible denouement—the Doe gang’s arrest—feels like an anticlimax. It’s clear, even before the rumor mill starts spinning, that what happens will be less important than what people come to believe about it.

Which isn’t to say that what people wrongly believe has no relationship to what actually happens. One of Burns’s most persistent and convincing insights is that the rumors and delusions have a way of catalyzing future facts. This doesn’t always mean that the false story must become literally true, as in Milkman; more often, the lie simply creates the conditions for what comes to pass. In Little Constructions, stories that deny real violence are generally what allow it to happen. During a particularly harrowing flashback passage, a klatch of old women waiting at a bus stop start loudly conversing with one another as a teenage John Doe beats up another woman. What they do is even worse than silent inaction would have been, for they not only pretend the violence isn’t happening but actively replace it with a parallel narrative. The whole situation reminds the woman under attack of her father’s long-ago attempts to deny the harm he’d done her. “Your auld da wouldn’t hurt you,” he would say, and this “enforced making-up” was “always worse than the rape.”

You could read Little Constructions as mimicking the violence of violence-denial. The lighthearted tone in which its narrator speaks belies the horror of the rape, murder, and incest they are constantly recounting. And the characters’ names, which almost all feature the last name Doe and a first name beginning with J, seem designed to sow confusion about who is doing what to whom. But Burns’s humor does not undercut the seriousness of violence as much as it undercuts the pathetic delusions of those who cannot see their own violence for what it is. As he assaults that woman at the bus stop, John Doe’s mind is full of self-justification. Rather than obscuring it, the novel’s hyperbolic comic filter reveals the dubiousness of his rationalizations. “Hormones take over where you suddenly realise that everybody owes you everything and that handing over everything they owe is the very least they can do,” the narrator deadpans. “This could be an apology, or their body, or all of their money.”  

Burns’s humor does not undercut the seriousness of violence as much as it undercuts the pathetic delusions of those who cannot see their own violence for what it is.

These moments of mockery do not deny but lighten the novel’s darkness: if you’re able to understand false rumors and delusions as such, then they can’t be totalizing. The spirit-narrator, whom readers have no choice but to trust at least a little, helps us sort through what is true and what is not. Toward the end of the novel, they start doing the same for some of the characters. They help Jotty, John Doe’s sister, to finally understand that the niece whose murder she’s investigating has never, in fact, existed. The narrator’s direct intervention makes literal the Burnsian idea that people have access to “spiritual unspokens, non-verbal communications, invisible energies and sense world beyond the material,” and that this helps us to understand reality.

Back in the gun shop, for example, Spaders relives a trauma that Jetty’s barge-in has resurfaced. A year ago (or was it four years ago, or was it six) he was mugged by teenagers (or were they preteens, or were they little kids), and he hasn’t been the same since. He wants to clear the air of all the versions of the story he’s put out there:

He knew it would appear trivial, especially after how he’d been presenting it, but he sensed also there was a horror and a darkness underneath the triviality, and this horror and darkness, so far, he’d been unable to haul up and pull out. The versions he’d told so far were his way of trying . . .

This is one of the novel’s more sympathetic explanations of its characters’ fabrications: that some of them are attempts to convey a felt but inarticulable reality. Surrounded by sectarian and domestic violence that they cannot register if they are to live with it, the characters repress its horror by bending their ability to perceive toward narrow, self-protective ends. Jetty Doe, for instance, “knew, and at the same time didn’t know, that her lover was a killer”; in her mind, “John could get a bit intense and into fierce discussion with other males sometimes. That was normal.” Pregnancy is so traumatic for John’s sisters, married to men they don’t love, that they refer only to a “long menstruation” after which babies somehow appear. These understandings of the world are similar to certain false rumors in that they arise from an inability to process difficult events. But not all rumors are false, and even the false ones often get at something real—something in the air. “Not-knowing yet knowing” can mean not only repressing what is clearly visible but also picking up on what is immaterial or hidden.

Spaders’s failed attempts to accurately recount his assault serve as an implicit allegory of Burns’s fiction. Like his versions, her novels try to get at reality by twisting it a bit. Little Constructions is pointedly absurd, and its disjunctions with the world that its readers occupy are precisely what immerse us in the violent confusion the book describes. Like incomprehensible horror, or overt denials of reality, its comic exaggerations and recourse to the fourth dimension make us ask: How could this be happening? Burns sacrifices recognizable details, in other words, to evoke recognizable moods and atmospheres. While Spaders fails in his effort to express what he senses, her narrators succeed in conjuring  “vibrations,” “psychic cords,” “critically changed . . . molecules,” and “little connecting patterns”—the “currents, subtleties and rhythms” of the people they know and the places where they live. Their medium is Burns’s prose. As middle sister says in Milkman, “My knowledge of the world consisted of fucking hell, fucking hell, fucking hell, which didn’t lend itself to detail, the detail really being those words themselves.” Which is to say, specific words and their particular arrangements may not offer full access to the truth, but they are nonetheless a kind of knowing.