Note: Mild spoilers are contained below, though this is not exactly a plot-driven novel
As an occasional, unpaid book reviewer, it is difficult to decide what to write about. My opinions are not of interest to many, if anyone, and of the books I have read recently, there are few upon which I could make original comments. There is already so much content on the Internet that it is not obvious why I should add to it.
However, a book like Sally Rooney’s Normal People attracts comment and inspires discussion. Longlisted for the Man Booker prize, it has been hailed by critics as an outstanding work by an emergent author, a novel set to become a classic. Perhaps the most astonishing comparison that I have seen was made by Anne Enright in her review for the Irish Times, wherein she drew parallels between Normal People and Eugene Onegin. Such a suggestion indicates either a lack of awareness of the colossal reputation of Pushkin in Russian culture, or a lack of any sense of proportion. Normal People is a novel that displays acute observations of human psychology, revealing things about everyday life that are well-known yet disturbing, and demonstrating the extent to which relationships are structured by interlocking patterns of dysfunction. Equally, however, it is a novel without a purpose, for those observations are not matched by effective commentary. Instead, Rooney offers an uncertain philosophy of interdependency, a way of thinking which, in my view, wholly fails to solve the problems raised by the narrative.
A summary of the novel’s plot suggests a superficial tale. It follows Marianne and Connell, two normal people from a small town in the west of Ireland, who begin an awkward friends-with-benefits relationship while teenagers in school, break things off, come up to Dublin for college, resume their relationship with different but nonetheless teeth-aching awkwardness, before things collapse in another bout of chronic miscommunication. They continue to circle one another even after this, however, to the discomfort of their subsequent boyfriends/girlfriends. As Rooney has said elsewhere, the book is not really about their individual characters, but rather the dynamic between them, and the ways in which they change one another. The story is told in an episodic manner, punctuated by intervals of time of varying length, as indicated in the chapter titles.
This sounds like a straightforward, perhaps tedious romance, and indeed in some ways, it is. In its depiction, however, Rooney raises a difficult question, one that is rarely spoken aloud in Ireland: how should one conduct one’s private life? Connell reflects on this problem, wishing “he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so that he could copy from example.” As it turns out, in Rooney’s world, no one has the answer, only more errors. The romance between Marianne and Connell repeatedly runs aground upon rocky miscommunication. On one occasion Marianne declares that he wanted to see different people, but when this scene is played out before us, we learn that he asked her if she wanted to see different people. Connell’s mother, though well-intentioned, offers little useful guidance other than explosive admonishments that he does not absorb, whilst the question of his paternity remains shrouded in awkward evasions. Still, his situation is better than Marianne’s, whose family is a wasteland of emotional and physical abuse, a dark history that Connell, with agonising slowness, does not comprehend until very late in the novel. It is not exactly a revelation to learn that people are bad at talking to one another, but Rooney’s alternating perspectives, between Marianne and Connell, and the unfolding of the tale across long stretches of time, reveals the failure to communicate in convincing detail.
As the title would suggest, Rooney is also concerned with the significance of everyday life, the powerful meanings found behind the banal. This manifests in various ways. The importance of little gestures and fidgets is emphasised, for instance as Connell’s discomfort is reflected in his painstaking removal of a label from a beer bottle, as he listens to Marianne’s friend Peggy talking about threesomes. This does, however. become irritating after a while. Lines like “She twists the little strip of wood with both hands and then releases it on one side so it recoils from her fingers” feel like belaboured attempts to display character emotion, not nuanced displays of writerly flair. One critic has praised Rooney’s abandonment of the “show, don’t tell” adage of fiction writing, yet some adages exist for a reason. Though detailed descriptions of characters’ every physical movement add somewhat to the sense of immersion, this book could be 30 pages shorter, and rather more effective, without this material.
Rooney is not merely concerned with the banal of the everyday, however, but also the strange things that are hidden behind normalcy. She primarily explores this through Marianne, whose “glamorous, formidable” college persona is in contrast to her arctic family life. Her struggle to reconcile these halves of her life brings her to confront her own desires, not least the wish to be submissive, which manifests in ways that Connell finds deeply perturbing. Rooney, in this way, raises a discomfiting question about sex: what functions does it really fulfil? And, in the quiet confines of private life, how can we know what is normal and what isn’t? Are all fantasies legitimate, and if so, how should they be satisfied?
Yet though Rooney is happy to raise questions, she offers very few answers. Existential problems are dismissed, glossed over, or accepted as insoluble. The most abrupt example of this is her treatment of Connell’s depression. In one chapter, he is in the reception area of a counsellor, filling in a questionnaire on such topics as whether or not he would kill himself if he had the chance. The next chapter, four months later, he is back at home, watching TV with Marianne, their friendship stable, and the only reference to the preceding episode is the remark that the “medication is doing its chemical work inside his brain now anyway, no matter what he does or says[…] life goes on.” This transition is a tremendous missed opportunity to contend with the question of male mental health in the millennial generation, a topic of demonstrable importance. Not only that, but Rooney’s wholesale acceptance of a medical model that assimilates mental health problems as something to be pharmaceutically managed, rather than psychologically resolved, is quite startling from a self-professed Marxist.
This acceptance is arguably symptomatic of her broader attitude to the dysfunction which she depicts. Though Rooney presents broken relationships, scarred psyches, and ingrained patterns of abuse, there is no indication that this is something which can be solved. Even at the end of the novel, Marianne’s insecurities do not appear to have been addressed to any notable extent, as she inexplicably inquires if Connell is in love with a woman whom he does not even like. The novel offers no stable centre, no source of values against which the characters’ failings and catastrophes can be reliably marked. Gradually, the reader realises that these are Rooney’s normal people: those who cannot see that they are in a maze, never mind the way out of it.
There is some truth to this. If we assume normal to mean prevalent, Rooney’s vision is probably an accurate snapshot of society. Yet for an author who claims to be following in the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, there is strikingly little commentary or analysis of the phenomena she depicts. Certainly, there are some nicely-phrased criticisms of those who enjoy their class privilege at Trinity, those who “see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured…all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols.” I would argue that the better question is, is the appearance of being cultured better or worse than the cultural illiteracy that predominates much of Irish society as a consequence of an inoperable educational system. Still, Rooney’s observations are engaging and acute.
Yet there is not enough of them to offer a clear viewpoint. She is content to play the parlour games of observation and discussion, without actually daring to suggest an alternative reality. A similar tendency can be observed in interviews, when she acknowledges the uncomfortable extent to which the novel has become commodified and incorporated into hegemonic market forces, yet does not evince any concern on the topic beyond an urbane academic disdain. Similarly, Rooney has talked about her decision to set an early scene in a ghost estate near Marianne and Connell’s town, in order to depict the geography of Ireland in the aftermath of the economic crash. She felt that this was a relevant piece of background but, she told an interviewer, did not have anything in particular to say about the issue of ghost estates itself. This is an astonishing demurral from any young Irish person, but especially an avowed Marxist.
The only attempt by Rooney to posit a solution comes in the final moments of the novel, when Marianne draws an existential philosophy from her consideration of a potted plant. Thinking of her relationship with Connell, she reflects that
…they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions. But in the end she has done something for him, she’s made a new life possible, and she can always feel good about that.
This passage exemplifies Rooney’s technique, drawing personal insight from seemingly banal details. Indeed, in interviews she has suggested that this is the central image of the novel, expressing the sort of interdependency that she conceives to be the solution for Connell’s and Marianne’s respective problems. This ties into her overarching view, that the world is tightly interdependent to the point that it is impossible to conceive of an independent individual, because we all rely on one another for food, supplies, shelter, and the overall functioning of the social system.
This argument has the attraction of being Marxist in a classically materialistic sense, dealing with the conditions of the world rather than becoming lost in the winds of idealistic cultural theory. If we are to have Marxism, let it be concrete. Nonetheless, Rooney’s perspective is unconvincing and ineffective. If the resolution to psychical problems and emotional trauma is only to be found in interdependency, where does responsibility and personal agency begin? After all, improvements in the lives of Marianne and Connell are guided by each other’s positive influence, but ultimately depend on their respective choices. She encourages him to apply to Trinity College Dublin instead of consigning himself to narrower ambitions, yet the choice to do this is his. Her final break with the violence of her broken family is facilitated by Connell, yet again, the decision is hers to make. We live and die in networks nested within networks, yet those structures are comprised of nodes connecting individual consciousnesses, which blink on and off in isolation, no matter how synchronised their oscillations may be.
Still, Rooney’s underlying philosophy does not prevent her from producing a convincing and detailed portrait of her characters’ interior lives, wreathed in foibles and misunderstandings that produce both smiles and tears. I decided to read this novel because I was curious as to why it became so popular. One reason is, no doubt, its emotional, intense, and frequent sex scenes. It can certainly be read as an engaging but throwaway love story. Perhaps the most important reason, though, is that people are drawn to those artworks that reflect back their self-image. If that is so, Rooney’s mirror presents a society mired in self-incomprehension and radical yet minute alienation. It is a memorable image; but it is disappointing that the author herself does not comprehend its implications.