By Anna Burns
Why do certain relatives get “squashed explosively” in a person’s psyche? Over four works of fiction, Anna Burns has developed a singular prose style for simulating the internal explosion of familial voices in a character’s head. “Little Constructions” is her second novel, written before her widely acclaimed fourth book, “Milkman,” received the Man Booker Prize in 2018. Like “Milkman,” “Little Constructions” features a large cast of relatives in a criminal-run Irish town during the Troubles, all of them internally detonating in their respective ways.
“Aren’t breakdowns amazing in their versatility?” the narrator remarks in the opening pages. The question serves as a kind of humorous warning, since the novel that follows contains an astonishing range of breakdowns. Burns’s irreverent, omniscient narrator moves from the combusting mind of a gun-shop owner named Tom to various members of the homicidal Doe family, whose first names begin with an absurd fill-in-the-blank blur of J’s, ranging from Jetty to Jotty to JanineJuliaJoshuatine. Each Doe has been on the receiving or delivering end of more violence and sexual assault than any of them can acknowledge, even to themselves. “Thanks for being here with me,” the narrator says to the reader as the novel’s craziness reaches its tipping point. “I’d hate to be bystanding this on my own.”
In “Milkman,” Burns stays with the same first-person narrator throughout, a young woman trying to keep herself alive amid the senseless violence and asphyxiating misogyny nearly everyone around her accepts as inevitable. “Little Constructions” is a more meandering, rollicking novel, full of nutty lines that are, bewilderingly, horrible and hilarious at once. “Why can’t women be gun shops?” Tom remarks. “How much safer, how much simpler, how much more predictable going into them then, might be.”
In a similar collision of awfulness and humor, John Doe carries on about his dear mother as a way to dodge any internal acknowledgment of the woman whom he just assaulted. “Enough of the mother!” the narrator interjects. “We’ve all had mothers! What age are you? You’re not 3. Can’t you move on to another topic by now?”
There’s no predicting where the narrator may veer next, no warning of when Burns might pivot from the consolation of humor to a tender observation on despair. Each time the homicidal John Doe enters the family kitchen and begins to ramble, his children brace for any number of possibilities. “It was a case of ‘Phew!’” the narrator says of the son trying to guess whether his father might kill one of them. “It was a case of ‘Whoosh!’ It was a case of a look on his face of sheer unadulterated trauma.”
The genius of Burns’s prose is how boldly it goes for broke, in sync with the breakdowns occurring within the minds of her characters. Her cascading descriptions of internal turmoil spiral the way the mind does, and she often adds some odd shift in pronouns for extra flourish. In one passage, Jotty Doe, an adult woman silently reeling from the incest she experienced as a child, questions why she can’t stop her habit of “self-rubbishing, the negating, the sabotaging, the breaking of your own heart with your thoughts.” The odd, sudden invocation of a “you” in the ending clause feels true to the unpredictable turns of a psyche in distress.
Burns connects this luminous insight to the arrival of Jotty’s sisters at her door, intent on getting Jotty to go on pretending, as they do, that there’s no such thing as incest among the Does. Jotty tries to convince herself that her sisters come with good will. “They are your sisters,” Jotty tells herself. “They would not accuse you.”
And yet that’s exactly what the Doe sisters do, warning Jotty to stop falling apart and to stay away from any meddling therapists or authorities. The sisters form a collective chorus, their voices explosively, tragically squashing in Jotty’s mind. Amid all the absurdity and wicked humor of this novel, Burns has created a complex character study in how violence, paranoia and sexual assault can become normalized in a family, and often remain so. It is a rare novelist who can approach the unspeakable with restorative humor, but Burns has a gift for dismantling and reconstructing things on her own quixotic terms, as she suggests with the perfectly chosen title for this book.