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Milkman: humour in a traumatised society

Critics have frequently commended the humour of Anna Burns’s Milkman (2018), but beyond descriptions of the novel as ‘charmingly wry’ (New Yorker) or ‘darkly comic’ (The Telegraph), there has been little real insight into the part humour plays. This critical disinterest in humour – particularly in literature-  is widespread, partly because comedy has long been seen as a mere add-on or a sweetener, and not in any way fundamental. However, Burns herself has suggested that humour is in fact both a crucial part of the book, and a crucial part of the experience of the Troubles. In interview she disagrees with the contention that levity wasn’t ‘something often associated with the Troubles’, saying that humour can be “a way of coping…[t]hat sounds very cliched and stereotypical, but I do think that is so.” Others have suggested the same: comedy producer Philip Morrow observed in an interview on the Moral Maze that ‘at the height of the Troubles we had the most ferocious and vicious jokes – humour was really necessary..[it gave the] pleasure of the release of saying the unsayable [and] it felt like the release of pressure valve.’ The processes by which humour can facilitate coping are of course complex, but we should take seriously the stress-moderating effect of humour within a traumatised society.

We might suggest that Burns models such effects within the novel. In the passage below, after an encounter with her stalker, the sinister Milkman, the narrator is left suddenly alone:
‘I was now alone and had started to walk the opposite way out of this ten-minute area, my thoughts on tacit no-running threats, tacit no-walking threats and especially that tacit carbomb murder threat. Plus there was that cat’s head I was holding in my hands’ (138).
Quoted out of context, the cat’s head loses some of its impact as an in-joke, or a comedy call-back, but we can still see how its incongruity after the list of escalating threats works as a punchline and offers a release of tension. ‘[M]y thoughts on’ and the intial ‘tacit’ promises a formal, sombre register – which accords with our expectation of a serious response to a deeply unpleasant encounter: the sombre processing of negative emotion. An expectation which is then upended by the absurdity of the subsequent repetitions, and the gaucheness of ‘especially’. Reverence towards emotion – especially negative emotion – tends to be the norm, but here we can see the cognitive distancing offered by humour. Psychological orthodoxy  has emphasized the importance of working through emotional pain, and has generally viewed the expression of humour ‘as an indication of denial and as an impediment to grief resolution’ (Keltner 689), but humorous dissociation from the experience of distress might, in fact, be a valid answer to traumatic circumstances.


Keltner, D ; Bonanno, G. ‘A study of laughter and dissociation: Distinct correlates of laughter and smiling during bereavement’
Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 73.4, 1997, pp.687-702


© Emma Sullivan, University of Edinburgh, 2019.

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