A novel of its time

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By Deo Giga

Normal People
By Sally Rooney

Everyone has rained plaudits upon Sally Rooney. I think I’m alone in expressing ambivalence.

On one hand, there is nothing especially novel in the books she has written when it comes to plot/theme (a love affair threatening to ruin a friendship in Conversations with Friends, a “Langit ka, lupa ako” situation in Normal People). On the other, there are some new things in them: in the first, the love affair is actually a ménage à quatre involving a lesbian relationship.

Rooney’s hyperarticulate characters are wont to aver such pronouncements as, “No one who likes Yeats is capable of emotional intimacy” (Conversations with Friends), or “Time consists of physics, money is just a social construct” (Normal People). Her plots’ underlying impulse is from the 19th century — I half-expected someone to say something like “She was wont to aver such-and-such.”

But what is remarkable about “the great millennial novelist” is that she has performed the feat of bringing the way we currently write text messages and e-mails to the novel: her prose is terse and clear and uncomplicated and doesn’t aspire to poetic fancies. However, it manages at times to be simultaneously so ambiguous it’s as if, unaccompanied by an emoji, her characters’ declarations or opinions could be interpreted as either awestruck or mocking, serious or jocular. (You do not break up via SMS [obsolescent] or the myriad messaging platforms we now have. With or without an emoji.) One writer calls it the Internet Voice.

Normal People opens with the delineation between the classes to which our protagonists belong. Lorraine, Connell’s mother, is shown cleaning the mansion of Marianne, the rich but unpopular girl suspected to be mentally ill by her high-school classmates who bully her. Smart and well-read, she sees school as an “oppressive environment,” where a teacher calls her out for inattentiveness, to whom she snaps back, “Don’t delude yourself, I have nothing to learn from you.” (Digression: I know of someone in college who walked out on a dull professor, saying, “I am not growing in this class.” She became a professor herself.)

Equally smart and well-read, Connell belongs to that rare species in school: the nerdy jock. Unlike Marianne, he’s popular and seems well-adjusted. They awkwardly get together and become unavowed fuck buddies, not an official item. They ignore each other in school as if afternoons never see them exploring each other’s bodies with the savage lust of hormone-raging teenagers. They don’t define their relationship except that it should be kept under wraps. Connell doesn’t immediately disclose why he didn’t ask Marianne to the Debs (the Irish version of prom) but they will discuss it, however elliptically, years later. They break up for the first time. During college, Connell puts off presenting the idea of moving in together, eventually causing their umpteenth break-up by then. There are so many things unsaid in this novel and I suppose this is also why Rooney is celebrated. The silences are as much part of the novel as the expositions. I suppose this is also why she’s been compared with Jenny Offill (read between the lines) and Rachel Cusk (nothing outwardly happens but something somehow has).

Still later, tables turn. Marianne proves to be this cosmopolitan girl liked by many, lusted for by men, but unsure of what to do with her life. Privilege and adulation have made her oblivious to the fact that there’s life after college. Connell becomes the misfit, the outsider, whose relationships are vapid because of Marianne’s shadow. Then he gets medicated for depression.

Rooney peppers the book with protests (the war in Gaza, for instance, is casually mentioned) and other newsworthy events but never really commits to them. Maybe she merely wants to display her political leanings or to be perceived as au courant. Maybe she feels that her book’s sexual politics are too parochial and that world politics can make it less narcissistic. How people get labeled as “damaged” and yearn to be “normal” is somewhat disappointingly glossed over — there are conversations about childhood physical abuse, fraternal bullying, noncommittal sadomasochism, suicide, etc., but all this is eclipsed by the lovers’ weird chemistry. An early distasteful character vaguely matures and apologizes in the end but it feels a bit staged.

Both of Rooney’s novels are set in Trinity College, Dublin. If she sets her third book there once more, she should call them The Trinity Trilogy. (The Trinity Trinity?)

Recommended for people who want to know how depression diagnoses are started with a questionnaire.

(Side note: In a recent pedantic essay, Joseph Epstein wrote that contemporary novels have killed the art form because, among other, more supercilious reasons, they have stopped discovering “the inner lives of men and women in their engagement with the larger society in which they live out their days.” [Why this condescending homophobic bigot still has a publishing career is beyond me: I should stop getting deceived by clickbait.] Let me tell you, Mr. Stuck-Up-Who-Has-Cowardly-Denied-Comparing-Gayness-to-Committing-Murder: the novel is still alive and well and ambitious as ever. Ms. Rooney’s might not pass your ridiculously blinkered standards but it is a novel still, one that captures her generation’s dialect and zeitgeist, aiming to cross certain social categories and constructs.)