No More Heroes: On "Normal People" by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney | Normal People | Hogarth | April 16, 2019 | 288 Pages
Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel opens on her protagonists Marianne and Connell as teenagers in the west of Ireland. Marianne lives in a mansion, is unpopular, aloof, intellectual; she reads Proust at lunch. Connell is well-liked, athletic, and lower-class; his mother is Marianne’s cleaning lady. After a chance encounter the two start to meet and begin having sex, a precocious, unlabeled relationship that parallels their lives at school and provides Connell with emotional respite and anxiety in equal measure: “If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over.” Rather, it wouldn’t, and one of the novel’s more affecting moments is a later flat revelation that most of their immediate peers basically knew, or at least suspected.
I believe this early section is the novel’s strongest, at times evincing the chilled, well-tempered restraint of Madame Bovary’s opening. Rarely is adolescence the object of literary fiction, and things seem fresh and strange and a little thrilling. There are a handful of charming scenes, including one vignette that has Connell and Marianne visit an abandoned housing development, a “ghost estate” where other teenagers have left cigarette butts and beer cans, a venereal mattress. It is a sensitive sketch of doe-eyed young love running up against doe-eyed non-comprehension of late capitalism’s stillborn excess:
“Just lying empty, no one using it, he said. Why don’t they give them away if they can’t sell them? I’m not being thick with you, I’m genuinely asking.
She shrugged. She didn’t actually understand why.
It’s something to do with Capitalism, she said.
Yeah. Everything is, that’s the problem, isn’t it?”
For a time they are together, or as together as Connell’s social compartmentalization will allow. Then he behaves too callously, inviting one Karen and not Marianne to the “Debs,” and scuttles things. But not before they imprint on one another, and, more materially, not before Marianne influences his decision to apply to Trinity, where they will meet again. Unfortunately, once it arrives at college, the novel is drawn back towards familiar territory, some of which feels already exhausted by Rooney’s recent, charming debut Conversations with Friends.
In Dublin their roles reverse. Marianne appears to have many friends and an easy, adult sociality, while, at least initially, Connell is the loner, to be found in the library reading Jane Austen at closing time: “He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of the novel like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with characters marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him.” After bumping into Marianne at a party, Connell is drawn again into her orbit, and thereby also made benefactor to the secondhand luxuries and nepotistic conveniences her affluent friends exude. Marianne has a boyfriend at first, but he fades away. Then she and Connell are kinda-sorta a thing again. And then aren’t. And then are, sort of, maybe. And but then aren’t again.
The bulk of the novel follows this dance of deferral, with much narrative energy expended more or less artificially machinating their separations. Things proceed elliptically, the passage of time conveyed at each chapter’s head (“Five Months Later”), the chapters themselves present-tense episodes into which flashback is neatly folded. Certainly, the novel proceeds at a brisk, readable pace. Still, I often couldn’t help but wonder whether this elliptical structure — the snappy, cinematic treatment of dialogue and characterization it privileges, the freedom it gives one to elide the complexity of events by simply slurring several months past them — is not simply a formal way of deferring a real engagement with her characters’ psychologies and motivations. But before too much critique, I would like to highlight what I think the novel does well, which is not inconsiderable.
Partway through the novel Connell and a few friends are backpacking through Europe. We are given a catalogue of his belongings: clothes, toiletries, travel medicines, and, along with an O’Hara collection, “a very beaten-up copy of a James Salter novel.” Given his overseas circumstances — and his virile youth — it’s most likely A Sport and a Pastime, Salter’s small, priceless gem of an erotic novel. It is a novel Rooney herself has said she loves, one with “a lot of rereading value,” and her work does share some similarities with Salter’s, not least of which is a deft treatment of sex that never shades purple.
At her best, Rooney has Salter’s decisiveness, a writerly confidence that lets simple, well-placed phrases ring truly and without excessive qualification. Salter favors terse, serrated declaratives in both his psychological and physical descriptions. When this unsparing method of description is combined with his often elegiac tone, the effect is to give everything a kind of tremulous, crepuscular vulnerability. His works feel suffused with a sense of contingency, his narratives often destabilized by intimations that all things could just as easily be otherwise (as, in reality, they always could be).
For instance, here is a moment towards the end of Sport, when the protagonist Philip experiences a fleeting existential crisis, the implications of his footloose, libertine ways invading his mind and inflecting his immediate experience of the world, of the young French woman before him with whom he has had so many serene erotic encounters:
“She’s wearing his cotton robe. When she stands near the bed she unties it. It opens, falls away. The sight of her fresh nakedness frightens him even more. Suddenly it is quite clear how acrobatic, how dangerous everything is. It seems not to be his own life he is living, but another, the life of some victim. It will all collapse. He will have to find work, pay rent, walk home every day for lunch. He is weak suddenly, he doesn’t believe in himself.”
Thus, in Salter’s fiction one’s experience of the world and one’s psychological state are necessarily imbricated, and the prose itself acts this out. In like manner, here is Rooney’s description of Connell’s experiences overseas, after having been awarded a generous scholarship from Trinity:
“Suddenly he can spend an afternoon in Vienna looking at Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, and it’s hot outside, and if he wants he can buy himself a cheap cold glass of beer afterwards. It’s like something he assumed was just a painted backdrop all his life has revealed itself to be real: foreign cities are real, and famous artworks, and underground railway systems, and remnants of the Berlin Wall. That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.”
This whole passage strikes me as very Salter-esque: its brusque forward motion, its interweaving of psychology and simple yet deliberate descriptions, and perhaps most of all the final sentence’s willingness to just let “corrupt” and “sexy” sound off one another, ambiguously, paradoxically, compellingly.
And there is fine writing throughout. Rooney is particularly accomplished at sharply observing the small nuances of social behavior: “Elaine is telling them about Niall’s antics and Marianne is laughing in a generous way, not because the stories are so funny but to make Elaine welcome.” This sentence is absent any real physical detail and yet it is eminently visual because we ourselves have seen polite persons laugh in this generous, polite way at parties and events. She can neatly capture the curious phenomenology of certain emotional states (“Their secret weighed inside her body pleasurably, pressing down on her pelvic bone when she moved.”), and just as skillfully articulate those contradictory, multivalent mental states which necessarily frustrate expression: “Guiltily, she squeezes Jamie’s wrist, as if she can perform the following impossible act of communication: to Jamie, that Connell is injured and regrettably requires her attention, while to Connell that she would rather not be touching Jamie at all.”
So then, the writing is often admirable and the book goes down smoothly and overall the reading experience was more or less a pleasant one. Why then, having finished it, is there this lingering feeling of disappointment, this sense like: That’s it? To be fair, the selfsame disappointment has dogged me after closing a number of recent, “millennial” novels: Andrew Martin’s Early Work, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, etc. Perhaps at this point I feel I’ve been burned too many times by “literary” fiction at a time when literary seems to have come to connote insufferable, uninteresting characters and not much plot. Perhaps, and perhaps unfairly, I wished that these “literary” books — ostensibly about religion, art, the craft of writing — were actually about their subjects in the way that, say, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is exhaustively and knowledgeably and esoterically about classical music.
I believe I single out Rooney among her peers for the promise she more often than not displays. What I would like to contend is that what other reviewers have tentatively critiqued as a rushed quality in her latest work — and an easier capitulation to narrative cliché than in her debut — is a more serious flaw literarily. That throughout Normal People, a novel that seems to want at once to capture a certain modern disaffection and provide the comforts of a classical love story, Rooney displays what I found to be a kind of cold, artistic indifference towards her characters and their world, and the potential for either to be more interesting than they are immediately. That there is a pervasively “cursory” attitude towards the world that frustrates the novel’s attempts at providing any real artistic succor — which attempts rarely rise above a kind of unearned, and often cliché-ridden, lip service paid to the power of the arts. (e.g., “Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt the old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.”) That is, that overwhelmingly the novel chooses to refer to the power of literature rather than perform the immeasurably more difficult task of doing what literature should, what the late David Foster Wallace described as the author’s prerogative to locate and apply “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”
We are given some sense that our protagonists are afflicted by our time’s darkness. Intermittently, the text reminds us that Marianne believes herself in some fundamental way unworthy of love. As our access to characters’ interior lives is spare, we are left to conjecture. Most likely, we are to attribute this psychological hang-up to her home life; her mother, mostly absent from the novel, is cartoonishly evil, as is her brother. It manifests, blandly enough, as bedroom masochism, first with her boyfriend Jamie, an upper-crust caricature whose father “literally” helped perpetrate the financial crisis, and then again when she goes abroad to Sweden and meets an artist. She serves his art as a model and his libido as the docile body in a BDSM ritual he refers to as “the Game.” The interminable nature of this damaged-goods schtick — instrumental to the plot-as-such, yet never really explored psychologically — is, well, actually interminable: very late in the novel, Connell and Marianne finally seem to be consummating something when, in the heat of passion, she asks him to “hit her.” This has the effect of a bucket of ice water on Connell; Marianne flees back to her home; her brother insults her and then sort-of-accidentally breaks her nose; she calls Connell to the rescue; there is a soap-operatic encounter between the males; and the reader, attempting to keep up with this sequence of actions at once emotionally inscrutable and clearly plot-mechanistic, suffers some form or other of whiplash.
Connell too is prey to more or less obscure psychological forces, but in his case their nature is more easily dispatched with. It is with roughly three-quarters of the novel gone that we learn Connell is not simply awkward or reserved or overly self-conscious (“sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” as a certain Dane once put it) or any number of other descriptors whereby characters have been made known to us in humanist literature for centuries — rather, he just has anxiety: “His anxiety, which was previously chronic and low-level, serving as a kind of all-purpose inhibiting impulse, has become severe.” We live in a culture where this is commonplace. Perhaps a friend acts a bit odd at a party and then the next day says to us something like: “Yeah, sorry about last night’s weirdness. I was just feeling super anxious for some reason.” But that’s not exactly the “psychology” I come to literature for.
Which is not any one kind of psychology. From The Book of Disquiet to No Longer Human to Infinite Jest, anxiety and depression have been the legitimate objects of literary investigation and variously treated. Since at least Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, authors — themselves often writing in the shadow of Schopenhauer’s circling buzzard — have essayed at the protean, malevolent something that seems to slide with a savage incivility across a spectrum marked at one end “metaphysical,” the other “neurochemical.” Here, though, as with Marianne’s trauma, Connell’s anxiety — which becomes a form of depression when a tertiary character is dragged out of the wings and made to provide the bathos of the small-town-suicide-event — is not really investigated beyond its function as plot contrivance. It just fades away when it has served its purpose, proving that the truism holds: chapter breaks heal all wounds.
Moreover, here we see a way in which the “hasty” nature of the novel’s plotting becomes, to me at least, unforgivable. I say this because I was struck by the retroactive nature of that nesting clause: “which was previously chronic and low-level, serving as a kind of all-purpose inhibiting impulse” (emphasis mine). I took this to suggest that I as a reader had hitherto erred in drawing my own conclusions about Connell’s behavior: had I known about his condition, his behavior would have been clearly symptomatic as such. Perhaps I read too much into this. Still, it is worrying to see diagnosis supplant characterization in fiction, which should make us think more and not less deeply about psychological causality. In fact, to my mind, the effect is paradoxically to render the text primitive in some fundamental way: otherwise so modern, the novel comes to resemble in its treatment of psychology one of those fancifully dire 15th century maps, where continental swathes of hitherto unexplored territory were dismissed as climes of unbearable heat, or simply labeled FOG.
And indeed, upon critical reflection, the novel’s territory comes to seem like more fog than not. Which is to say: it’s a novel about university life, but without collegiate descriptions or interactions with professors or references to intellectual histories or texts; about growing up, but without any adults (Connell’s mother is the only one who appears for more than a few pages: she is thirty-five, Connell himself calls her “Lorraine,” and their conversations generally take the form of a barely asymmetrical banter); about Ireland, but without any sense of place, national history, or even physical description (if Joyce wrote Ulysses in order that Dublin might be reconstructed brick by brick, you’d be hard pressed to even break ground using Normal People); about Connell becoming a writer, but without any meaningful access to his interior development, or any sense conveyed of how his creative “passion” inflects his life; and, finally, about Marianne and Connell’s intertwined fate where we are only intermittently given access to sustained moments of intimacy. Indeed, just as she did with Connell’s anxiety, Rooney slips a half-hearted, retroactive summary into the final chapter: “He took care of her when she was sick, he read drafts of her college essays, he sat and listened while she talked about her ideas, disagreeing with herself out loud and changing her mind.” It would have been nice to spend some time with them during these moments.
To my mind, this has a certain leveling effect: that Connell’s mother works for Marianne’s, that Connell is a writer, that Connell gets depressed, that Marianne is writing her dissertation on Irish carceral institutions after Independence, that she appears to seek some kind of ego-death in violent sex, that the half-realized character Rob kills himself, that Marianne believes in the end that Connell’s attentions have “redeemed” her — because they are treated with the same perfunctory attention, these all become in a curious way equivalent things, atomic facts about an artificial universe that Rooney has arranged and described just enough to reach the elliptical beat of each chapter’s end. In a sense, it as if literature has been reduced to reportage, with the world and its characters left more or less in the drab state they are found in. Perhaps my disappointment is so vague and inchoate because the novel’s complacency raises the equally vague question of what exactly a novel is supposed to do. Is it obligated to make the world a more interesting place?
Reading Normal People, a novel in part about a burgeoning writer studying English at Trinity, written by a novelist who studied English at Trinity, I was reminded of Ben Lerner’s “auto-fictional” Leaving the Atocha Station, a novel about a burgeoning poet who attended Brown and finds himself on a Fulbright in Spain, written by a poet who attended Brown and received a Fulbright to Spain. Rooney has cited Lerner and his autofictionalist peer Sheila Heti as influences, and in part her novels do seem to be about grappling with the challenge of writing a certain kind of fiction these days. While I am not a huge fan of Lerner’s fiction, his project, which he developed in his follow-up novel 10:04, was at least consistent in its ironic tone, its humor, its reflections on the state of the academy, philosophy, the arts. In contradistinction, Normal People, to the extent that it incorporates Lerner-esque elements, seems confused.
That is, at times it wants to do the Lerner-thing where characters stand around and critically theorize in a half-despairing mode, as when Connell attends a literary reading and channels a cynical, anthropological view of late capitalistic arts consumption: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might feel superior to the uneducated people.” If this is free-indirect discourse (the channelling of narration through a specific character’s subjectivity) it suggests Connell — a fiction writer — is severely limited in his powers of empathy; surely at least one other person there is ingenuous in their attendance, even if they committed the unpardonable sin of being born affluent. Unleavened by anything like Lerner’s ironic wit, this characterization does nothing but make Connell, who hasn’t exactly bowled us over with his charms, seem like that glum wallflower who’s maybe unaware that his own fiction is, in fact, not quite God’s gift to mankind. If we are meant to read this as unmediated narration, it suggests the novel itself is taking a certain stance regarding the effect of academia on the arts — a stance contradicted by the fact that it also wants to be the kind of novel that can end on the unreflective high note of Connell’s acceptance to a creative writing MFA in New York. The result is what comes to seem like privileged cherry-picking, where things, like the insular nature of the credentialized arts, are bad until they can serve as narrative expedients, and then being accepted to an MFA becomes a happy ending in the way a marriage once was in the 18th century novel. (To be fair, it’s not clear that this is a unilaterally “happy” ending; still, at this point I couldn’t help but imagine a sort of M.C. Escher image of regression: Rooney’s novel containing Connell, who will go on to write his own novel with a similarly bland writer-proxy who attends literary readings and stands around moping about the impotence of the professionalized arts, before then going home to write his own fiction, wherein an even more attenuated and featureless character goes to literary readings, etc., etc.)
When I worked in a library I would occasionally encounter a certain kind of staid patron — you know, those types who only read naval histories of WWII — who wouldn’t read fiction because it’s just “made up.” The implication being that you can only learn about the world through a disinterested presentation of facts. Of course, while this immediately ignores the more obscure, “emotional” education that literature can perform, it also elides the fact that fiction, through taking an active interest in the world, can teach us about any number of things as deeply as it wants to take us: political and philosophical ideologies, the arts, historical events, the lived nature of vocations, etc. Moreover, the freedom fiction has to juxtapose and invent means that in certain ways it can teach us more, or at least differently, about these things (just to illustrate from texts I’ve already referred to: Infinite Jest’s sociological juxtapositions, Joyce’s historical and political references and the characterization he achieves thereby, Thomas Mann’s dialectic setting-off of various and conflicting philosophical perspectives throughout his oeuvre). So then, it is dispiriting that a certain kind of, for lack of better word, denatured contemporary literature, literature that seems simply uninterested in what it would mean to think more deeply or differently about the world and the infinite possible configurations of elements it contains, has planted in my head a certain conservative voice, one that asks: why am I reading these bland, made-up things?
After enjoying Conversations with Friends, I went into this one hoping to write a positive review. Despite my conflicted feelings I still look forward to reading more of Rooney’s work. She has a keener eye than most and her prose is often a joy to read. I just hope that she will do more in all respects, take more interest in the world and her characters, perhaps transcribe their intellectual exchanges and not just their inarticulate, halting ones. Now more than ever, I believe it to be imperative that novelists try to imagine a world more interesting, more articulate, than the one we get for free everyday. For when the aim of literature — one of the last bastions of idealism — is no more than to render a serviceable simulacrum of a world where more or less uninteresting people are unhappy in more or less inchoate ways until institutions deign to give them scholarships, it becomes, as Joyce once wrote of his ideologically conflicted Ireland, “the sow that eats its young.”