I tweeted: ‘Cultural highlights of 2019 so far: Milkman and Into the Spiderverse. Milkman is excellent in many and various ways, but Spiderverse has more story. And more Spidermen.’
Glib, clearly. Milkman is the Booker Prize winning novel by Anna Burns, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is an animated movie about … well, it gets complicated. But the thing is, Milkman really is excellent, I’m a hundred pages in and loving it, but it also really is deficient in terms of narrative. It’s guilty of that accusation levelled at literary novels in general and Booker contenders in particular – it doesn’t seem to place much value on story. It's Swingtime (see below) all over again.
It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like a philistine, and bringing Spiderman into the discussion probably isn’t helping. The voice of Milkman is energetic, endearing, funny and discursive; it seamlessly conveys character and action, and it dives deep into gender and politics in an apparently effortless way. The novel is a machine for creating empathy – I read it and get a sense of what it was like for a young woman growing up in Belfast in the seventies. The stifling conventions and restrictions of the time are brilliantly illuminated.
And there is a sense of danger lurking. There’s a powerful, threatening guy who won’t go away, and I want to know how that situation will be resolved. But. But so far that sense of danger is just lightly sketched in. A hundred pages, and I’ve admired every one of them, I’ve admired almost every sentence, but when you see dense blocks of type, two pages with a single paragraph break, you feel a sense of bracing yourself as you wade in. I’ve never felt much urge to know what happens next. It’s an easy book to put down.
Whereas Spiderman… it revels in narrative, it takes time to develop character, it’s silly and funny, properly surprising and a little bit moving, and it races along, only stumbling really in the last fifteen minutes when people mostly just hit each other.
It’s a foolish comparison, but these two genuinely are my cultural highlights in the first week of 2019. I’m not saying Milkman would be improved by the addition of Spidermen, I just wish it cared a bit more about story.