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‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney

By Adam Rivett
This Booker Prize–longlisted examination of human nature is simply moving

A young man sits in a library, immersed in Jane Austen’s Emma. As his engagement deepens a distance grows – between himself and his classmates, between his response and theirs. “They were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read”. A strange feeling grows in him, a minor shame.

“He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him.”

A writer tasked with expressing their admiration for Sally Rooney’s exceptional second novel might find themselves pressed into a similarly hesitant admission. One can wring hot-take topicality from practically any cultural object these days, but a response to Normal People (Faber; $29.99) divested of emotion feels, to this reader at least, slightly dishonest. One could foreground the novel’s subtle handling of class, or the nascent political gestures of its young protagonists, Connell and Marianne, but human nature – broken, tender, unknowable to itself – is the book’s true subject. The scrounge for subtext will here not suffice.

The novel’s plot is simple. In the dying days of high school, a popular male athlete and a friendless girl begin a secret affair, which the boy ends a few weeks later due to his unease at the prospect of the relationship going public. Meeting a little later in college, it’s now the boy’s turn to feel the outcast, while the previously awkward girl – always intelligent, and now flush with confidence – thrives in her new surroundings. From this point on they circle each other, falling back into bed then out again, with others or alone, growing and learning, fighting and reconciling. Between them lies a bond they struggle to deny or fully comprehend.

What is pure cliché in synopsis comes to life thanks to Rooney’s adroit writing. Her ear is perfectly tuned to teenage ineloquence and emotional hesitancy, while her unceasing focus on her two protagonists – their every fear and moment of doubt – is endlessly compelling. This focus is crucial – nearly every other character in the book is, so to speak, “flat”, at best suggestive of dimensions otherwise unexplored, but mostly serving as figures passing in and out of the lives of Connell and Marianne, as the young occasional lovers sort their respective shit out.

Very little of Normal People is quotable in the traditional sense, but works instead through accumulation, and the utterly convincing characterisation that anchors the book. A comparison to Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends – which shares much of her new novel’s milieu – is telling. Take this short passage from the earlier book:

It was late August. In the airport Bobbi asked me: how long has that been going on for, between the two of you? And I told her. She shrugged like, okay. On the bus back from Dublin airport, we heard a news report about a woman who had died in hospital. It was a case I had been following some time ago and forgotten about. We were too tired to talk about it then anyway.

There is a blankness there, a weary affectlessness, that is nowhere to be found in Normal People. The shift in her new novel from the limits of first person to the flexibility of third is enormously freeing – the loss of a diaristic intensity is the gain of perspective, inflections of sorrow, and a mode of portraiture that never dips into narcissism. Again, compare the pair:

I was staring at my laptop screen until it went black. Things matter to me more than they do to normal people, I thought. I need to relax and let things go. I should experiment with drugs. These thoughts were not unusual for me. I put Astral Weeks on the stereo in the living room and slumped right onto the floor to listen.

Conversations with Friends

She sits at her dressing table looking at her face in the mirror. Her face lacks definition around the cheeks and jaw. It’s a face like a piece of technology, and her two eyes are cursors blinking. Or it’s reminiscent of the moon reflected in something, wobbly and oblique. It expresses everything all at once, which is the same as expressing nothing. – Normal People

The first passage has energy and immediacy, and perfectly captures the brittle attitudinising of youth (“things matter to me more than they do to normal people”) but comes with constraints the book struggles to shake as it proceeds. Frances’ self-regard and the limits of her youth can only be signalled by Rooney so many times, despite the comedy it often provides (“I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, though I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.”)

The shift in perspective between the first and second novel is crucial. We see Marianne as she sees herself, with language that likewise strives and fails for effect. With each line the familiar set-up – self-loathing teenager looks in the mirror – gains a gentle comedy. Marianne’s voice, the free indirect narcissism, is that of a teenager looking for a phrase, moving from something unsatisfactorily modern and tech, then trying its hand at a faux-poetic gesture (that “something” is crucial – the moon is looking for a line, for a striking moment, and failing) before expanding and contracting simultaneously. Everything and nothing indeed. It’s a voice capable of portraying youth’s narcissism without sinking under its weight.

It’s not all self-regard, of course. In fact, it’s what Rooney has discarded, what she refuses to cosset her characters with, that defines so much of the novel’s effect. Gone for the most part is the fizzy social comedy – the book-industry chat, the Netflix binges, the dinner party witticisms – of Friends. Early college scenes in People suggest a repeat (“On the way they listened to Vampire Weekend and Marianne drank from a silver flask of gin and talked about the Reagan administration”) but such sentences become increasingly rare as the novel proceeds. Rare for portrayals of this generation, no easy pop culture references or needle drops comfort her characters. As a result, Marianne and Connell feel like real and earned characters who grow and change, and more than crude compilations of quotes and attitudes held together by confidence of assertion.

There’s a simple if crucial irony in the novel’s title – Rooney’s characters are both very normal (that is, they occupy easily identifiable teen roles) and, in their own minds, far from it. They are still children, yet in most cases irreparably removed from both their families and friends. Their lives are archetypal to the reader, yet utterly unique and baffling to them. Normal is now a common sneer (or “Normie”, if you will) yet the novel’s unhurried investment in character, and its denial of melodrama, present an unembarrassed embrace of that most normal yet discredited of forms: realism.

It’s a loaded word, of course, and a supreme illusion either way. Rooney’s foregoing of an overt style is, of course, still a choice, and does falter when she attempts to end a scene on a moment of deeper implication, or strains for effect. “The exterior world looks like an old TV screen badly tuned” is just writing, a description belonging to no one, thought by no one, there only for “effect”. But at other times these moments of vividness feel lived, meaningfully tied to character. “Outside her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake.” For the most part the reader is left with a literary mode that seeks and achieves effacement, a language that rarely calls attention to itself, and a response frequently heard when faced with the beautiful uselessness of art: it moved me. There it is.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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