chicly dressed woman and tattoed barechested man leave a buildingBefore moving on to a topic other than the extraordinary novel Milkman by Anna Burns, I feel obliged to point out one of the quintessential aspects of her style in this masterwork.

And this is, Burns has a way of amusing me to a ridiculous degree . . . though never enough that I actually crack a smile. This novel is funny, funny, funny! . . . but in such a tragic and real way that it would feel sacrilegious to laugh.

Let me show you what I mean. Here is a passage from early on. Burns has already established, without using the words “Northern Ireland,” that this is where the novel takes place. And she has established that “over the water” means Great Britain. Our bookish female protagonist is witnessing a group of men talk about a car:

‘Extraordinary!’ someone then said—which meant it must have been for that was not a word ever to be used in our lexicon. . . . It was an emotional word, too much of a colorant, too high-flying, too posturing; basically it was of that quintessential ‘over the water’ language, with ‘quintessential’ being another of those words. Almost never were they used here without ruffling or embarrassing or frightening local people, so someone else said, ‘Fuck, who would have thought!’ which toned things down, being more in keeping with societal toleration here.”

If you’re at all like me, this passage makes you want to crack up! But you don’t. Because if you crack up, you may be somehow complicit in the intolerance expressed by the people “over the water.” In cracking up you may also reveal, to your detriment, that you are a bookish snob who clearly knows too much about language, and who should therefore shut the fuck up.

None of this is conscious. I don’t think about it; I just don’t smile—even while reading in my bedroom alone. But inwardly, I am laughing my head off. Because that passage is really, really funny.

It’s also sad, which is another reason why I don’t laugh aloud. It’s sad that sometimes we don’t feel empowered to express ourselves fully, for fear of being uncool, or overstepping our social class and being labelled prissy and elitist, or (especially if you’re male and straight) being targeted as weak.

Are you able to use language that’s expressive and cool, polished and laid back, all at the same time?

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