Monday 4 May 2020

The Normal People Phenomenon (Part 1?)

So, I’ve just read Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, in about three sittings, so as not to be talking out of my arse when discussing it. I hope an old white male is permitted to have an opinion on the work of a young white female. It wasn’t top of the To Read pile, because I’d previously read her debut Conversations With Friends when it came out, and really didn’t like it at all, and so didn’t want more of the same. (Why didn’t I like it? In short: a traditional social-realist novel, full of characters I didn’t care about (especially the middle-aged couple) dealing with problems that aren’t really problems, in dull if efficient prose with no bright lights in the use of language – in short, as the title implies, like one of those godawful, talky Hampstead novels, full of middle class wankers who would be greatly improved by being pummelled around the head, face and neck with a wet fish. ‘Maeve Binchy for millennials’, as I described it at the time. Not my tazza di tè.) I’m happy to report that I think Normal Peopleis better, although I still wouldn’t go a bundle on it. As this is not a standard book review (of which I have written more than a few), I’ll be keeping this reaction piece to snappy, somewhat scattergun points. 

I should have said that I think the last third of NP is better than CWF. For the most part, however, I thought NP suffered from many of the same faults as CWF. I found the dialogue stilted and the characters’ behaviour affectless, and there wasn’t much going on with the prose style. Connell’s inarticulacy (that always reliable badge of – mostly male – authenticity) irritated me. I mean, he’s a scholarship winning English Literature student, for Christsakes, who mostly communicates – when he does communicate – in terse, clipped sentences. Okay, so writers don’t necessarily have to be great talkers, and I get that most of this reserve might be attributable to his anxiety, but still. I guess the whole paradox of the novel is the miscommunication between two intelligent people who love each other, but boy does it take its time spinning it out.

They also take themselves awfully seriously, don’t they, for young folks – especially students? Sure, they go to parties, but where are the japes, where is the Trinity Ball, where are the GIGS, godammit? 

I also think a lot of the mechanics and plot devices of both of her novels are quite clunky. One of the grossest omissions in CWF, which pretty much spoilt the whole central relationship for me, was that there was absolutely no reference to or explanation of how Frances and Bobbi, former lovers who are now friends, negotiated their break up. Or are the whys and wherefors and arrangements made just not relevant anymore? In NP: 

·      Connell finds it difficult to meet people in Trinity. Why couldn’t he just join the college soccer team? They do play soccer in Trinners, don’t they? Or is that still too plebeian? If he’s such a shit hot centre forward in Carricklea, why does he just stop playing?

·      It would have been handy if we had had access to both protagonists’ childhood memories, especially Marianne’s. What exactly was her deceased father like? And what exactly did he do to her? Which, in turn, might have thrown some light on why her underwritten mother (and brother) were so, genuinely, weird.  

·      Why was Marianne in the S&M relationship with Lukas in Sweden in the first place? How did it start? And why did she choose that particular day to walk out on it?

·      If her compromising photos were never online in the first place, why was everyone talking about how ‘weird’ she was, or saying they were? Or was all that opprobrium just based on what Jamie was saying about her? And why would everyone (except Joanna) side with Jamie, including the girls, when he’s such an obvious prick? Because of class solidarity rather than gender solidarity? But some people transcend their class origins. It’s all left too vague for me.

·      Why would Marianne come all the way back from Sweden to a place she hates for the funeral of a minor character no one cares about school acquaintance who she really didn’t know or like? Just because the plot mechanics required she should meet up with Connell again? Did she return to Sweden afterwards? And, if you’re going to have a minor character top himself as a major plot device, maybe it might be worth exploring why he took this course of action. 

·      I also thought the ending was weak. Is Marianne cured of her low self-esteem masochism? (‘You can do anything you want with me.’) What’s to stop her going to New York with Connell? We are not told. It’s also worth mentioning that sexual masochism is not always and ever a signifier of self-loathing or lack or self-worth.

So why did I say above that I think the last third of NP is better than the first two-thirds, and better than CWF? Because I think she does depression very well. Connell’s session with the counsellor was, ironically, one of the few times he starts putting a few coherent sentences together. The exploration of his inner thoughts also gives rise to some of Rooney’s most lyrical and insightful writing. There were glimpses of something she could run with there, a bit like the endometriosis episode in CWF. In fact, it’s because she can occasionally be very good in places that the long stretches of ordinariness irritate so.

‘I mean everyone here (Trinity) just goes around comparing how much money their parents make. Like I’m being literal with that, I’ve seen that happen.’ (p. 217). Really? Maybe he should have gone to UCD instead, where there are a lot more First Year English students, so it’s easier to hide, or else just stick with your own crowd and damn the rest of them. I was an undergrad and first-time postgrad in UCD in the ’80s, and rarely if ever came across that level of snobbery. Sure, every so often some coterie decides they are the centre of the universe, and imagine themselves the jeuenese d’or, but everyone else knows they’re not, and ultimately, who cares? I did a year postgrad in Trinity much later as a mature student, and wouldn’t have really come across it either, although admittedly I wasn’t taking that much interest in the social scene then. Everyone was predominantly and terribly middle-class in both places, of course, which can be alienating for someone from a working class background, but my attitude was it’s their problem, not mine. My experience of embarking on PhD later still in UCD was less happy. Partly because I quickly came to realise that The Clinton Institute where I was studying was just there as an excuse to push American soft power abroad, but mostly because I found the younger postgraduate students just so dull and conformist and obviously just patently careerist. Maybe they thought it was weird having this middle-aged guy around the place studying, but they weren’t very friendly, and it was difficult to get any change out of them. But, enough about me.

Still, even if I’ve been through the university system, the ubiquitous campus novel is a subgenre portraying a milieu I have little interest in – unless you’re going to go the full nostalgic hog and do a costume drama Brideshead Revisited. To write one coming-of-age campus novel is perhaps tolerable; to get away with writing two seems to be pushing it. 

I do get the impression that Rooney is a much cleverer person and probably a much better writer than she’s been letting on in either of her novels. In fact, part of my disappointment with Conversations With Friends stemmed from having read pre-publication publicity interviews with her, where she pressed all the right buttons, at least politically, which stirred my interest in reading the book. Despite her critique of how literature is marketed (Normal People, p. 221), I think it’s obvious that these texts have been written with the intention of garnering a large mainstream audience in mind. But for now, for me, condescending as it may sound, my final verdict is still ‘Not bad, for a kid.’

So now to sample the TV series. It’s only six hours long, so should be amenable to binge viewing. But, if I’m not feeling it after a couple of episodes, I’m bailing out.

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