Accidentally Complementary, or when the universe hands you a literary gift

Listening to: Garbage, Garbage. Drinking: Red table wine

Sometimes chance gives you a cluster of works (books, songs, shows, movies, podcast) that create an intriguing juxtaposition or a complementary meshing. I first noticed this phenomenon in college, when classes chosen for schedule (or the texts assigned in them) created an unexpected, unintended harmony.

When such a thing happens it almost feels like the universe has curated these works just for you and you should pay attention.

The accidental mixture began with Emma Cline’s The Girls (2016), a fictionalized re-creation of the Manson family, told by a narrator who tenuously participates in the “family.” But it’s really an exploration of how girls are socialized out of self-actualization, which makes them manipulable. 

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves. —Emma Cline, The Girls

The girls of the novel constantly search for themselves in someone else’s eyes. When they see themselves reflected, the results can be deadly. The Girls increases its relevance and resonance by having the narrator tell her story from the vantage of middle age, underscoring the lifelong repercussions of what can happen as a girl and how slowl things are to change in any meaningful way.

Then came The Castle of Llyr (1966), by Lloyd Alexander. Seeking a bit of literary comfort food I turned to a series beloved in my childhood but long unread, the Prydain Chronicles, themselves a reimagining of Welsh legends and fairy tales. To my relief, I found nothing in the first two books to nix the series from recommendation—nits to pick, sure, but no overt racism or xenophobia, and only run-of-the-mill mild sexism.

The third book however, The Castle of Llyr, ostensibly focuses on the single female protagonist of the series, the princess Eilonwy. But her story serves merely as a device for the men who want to claim her to become themselves. In this tale, Eilonwy’s two suitors become men whilst the two female characters—Eilonwy and the evil enchantress Achren—lose their literal powers.

In losing their powers, both Eilonwy and Achren make way for the male characters to triumph and to therefore own the story. The novel couches Eilonwy’s loss in the language of sacrifice for the collective, in contrast to Achren who is overtly represented as evil. In juxtaposing Eilonwy’s unstable, nascent powers with Achren’s evil, the novel tacitly suggests that female power is inherently evil and to be contained if not entirely snuffed.

This is feminism 101 but it occurred to me with The Girls rattling around in my head that the patriarchy tells its own tale of heroic self-aggrandizement. In so doing, boys learn that they can be heroes and girls learn that the only way to be part of the story at all is by functioning in support of male becoming, which necessitates sacrificing parts, if not all, of your self.

And then we come to Anna Burns’s Milkman (2018), set in 1970s Belfast during the peak of the Troubles. Told in the already-notorious, unique voice of a 17-year-old girl,* the protagonist, known only as “middle-sister,” tells of her experience being stalked and essentially worn down by a middle-aged revolutionary known as the Milkman. Because it’s the 1970s and because she is young and because the world is topsy-turvy, middle-sister lacks language to explain what Milkan is doing to her—to herself or to anyone else.

But we discover over the course of the novel that the community allows Milkman’s predations because middle-sister has become “beyond-the-pale,” a designation that indicates those who fail to fit in with accepted social norms. (The novel features multiple “beyond-the-pales” indicating, well, a lot, but also the difficulty of remaining within acceptable bounds when the world itself is mad.) In middle-sister’s case her infractions include running and not giving the gossips something to chew on through her reserve.

But her biggest crime is “reading-while-walking,” which is not a thing that anyone else in her area would want to do so why should she be allowed to do so? One wonders if middle-sister exclusively reads 19th century novels not only because she “did not like twentieth-century books because [she] did not like the twentieth century” but also because those are the books that first source femaleness as a cultural problem to be pondered and solved.

“You’d better be careful then,” said friend, which was what everybody said. People always said you’d better be careful. Though how, when things are out of your hands, when things were never really in your hands, when things are stacked against you, does a person—the little person down here on the earth—do that? —Anna Burns, Milkman

Ultimately, the Milkman’s unwanted attentions represent a symptom (or intended cure?) of the community’s assessment of middle-sister’s dis-ease.

One could write a dissertation alone on the names in Milkman, the way that no one has a proper name, names are rarely capitalized, and they are almost all representative of relationships (maybe-boyfriend, third brother-in-law, longest friend). I also want to read the Continuing Adventure of Wee Sisters, who seemingly represent the hope for the future since those little nuts seem poised to rule the world.

Like The Girls, Milkman explores the effects on actual humans wrought by stories such as The Castle of Llyr and their ilk (from ancient legends to the Avengers). Perhaps the hope represented in the wee sisters is also a caution. How soon will they learn to moderate, to guard, to limit themselves, to fit in?

To bring it around. I was a girl. Who loved the Prydain Chronicles. I was too chicken to ever join a Manson family and who knows why I never drew the eye of a Milkman. But nevertheless I have to wonder and acknowledge what effects such narratives had on me. Getting these three novels all in a clump feels like, I don’t know, at least an interesting mental exercise but also maybe an alarm. Perhaps a call to not let shallow stories of girl power detract from the deeply embedded over-stories. Perhaps an invitation to not be too hard on oneself because cultural pressures are real. Perhaps a first step—what seems like an eternal, repetitive, never-ceasing first step—in throwing off these restraints, in rethinking what it means to be a person.

*Note: Despite what you may have heard, Milkman is not really a stream-of-consciousness novel. The narrator tells her story in her voice, yes, but it is not crafted as a representation of lived mental experience. It feels somewhat closer to a meshing of Virginia Woolf’s omniscient roaming narrator with Jane Austen’s free indirect discourse, filtered through the voice of 17-year-old Northern Irish young woman from the 1970s who is in love with nineteenth-century novels. Call it “hard” all you want but that is a unique and interesting thing.

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