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Sally Rooney's 'Normal People': an excavation of modern love

Jan. 23, 2019
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I like to write love letters to books. A certain surge of love must vine up and around my heart, must cling like a constellation mapping the jumbled sky of my brain, must become elemental to what and who I become. Those books merit love letters more impassioned than I could ever write to a person. Susan Sontag once referred to the “book-drunk life.” Exactly: books intoxicate and unravel us as alcohol does; they pry open floodgates of all kinds. So let me say that I’ve found a book I cannot ever unknow, a novel that I’d like to write a letter to, a heart-eyed scrawl of devotion of my own: Sally Rooney’s Normal People

The novel, set in Ireland in the earlier 2000s, focuses on Marianne and Connell. At the beginning, they are still in high school, and Connell’s mother is Marianne’s mother’s housekeeper. Marianne and Connell seemingly have very little in common besides this fact, but it is this one entanglement of their lives that births all the others. Connell embodies effortless (and not quite humble) affability, beloved by all at school and evidently kinder than his friends. Marianne, though, seemingly exists in opposition to his every quality: bookish, strange, a little supercilious, quiet, and friendless, with a razor-gilded intellect. She unsettles his foundations and vice-versa. They engage in one conversation in Marianne’s kitchen and a lifelong entanglement, as I’d call it, begins. Over time, tentative intimacy forms, first through a grey not-quite-friendship-not-quite-relationship, and eventually they begin to have sex regularly and in secret. Their lives meld together as they graduate high school and move on to the same university, Trinity College Dublin, and then some, incessantly changing, evolving, regrowing, shattering. We think we know what we’re getting ourselves into with these two, but the ground shifts out from under us and they slip into that ceaseless process of becoming.

My favorite of Tennessee Williams’ plays is Summer and Smoke. It is lesser-known than A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but simmers with a steaming, sharper eye to human connection; it excavates a relationship in all the mangled beauty and slowness, all the impossibility and knottiness. Normal People reminds me of Summer and Smoke because both concentrate on people trying to penetrate the unspoken, trying to find the source of the itch that has burned at them for their whole lives, and scratch it. Those strange things between people—how you can need someone and also be unable to fulfill that need. How you cannot function without someone and not function with them, either. Those things between people we cannot articulate. What looks like surface differences, what looks fixable, treads into that callused territory of fundamental incompatibility.  

Those threads between people. They span and define our entire lives, and Rooney never tiptoes or seesaws. She writes with that connection grasped in her brain and draws it from herself with a fine-toothed needle. Marianne and Connell can’t cut that thread, no matter how frayed or slippery it gets. It only complicates with time, changing colors and spreading across greater distances, sometimes contracting when their closeness amplifies. Like a balloon tied to the wrist of some ornery child, the string squeezes around their wrists, too tight, scarlet lines marking their skin. The balloon above them, high off the ground, but not bobbing away, not detached from its string. 

Connell and Marianne’s relationship brims with nuance: a teenaged Connell initially keeps it a secret, out of embarrassment for being with her. Gender: a stifling. Marianne is throttled by its limitations and its needling, impatient codes, and so is Connell. Rooney presses her characters inwards so that even if they are aware of the irrationality and fear inherent in such social mores, they nevertheless feel obligated to follow them. The hyperawareness of gender suffocation does not exactly lessen their need to tolerate its breathlessness. Marianne in her bare being defies expectations of girls, of sociability, gentleness, easygoing acquiescence, affability, comprehensibility. Rooney carves out a young woman finding herself innately irreconcilable with these expectations, and Marianne feels startlingly, achingly real because of it. Of her, in one passage, Rooney writes: “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn't know if she would ever find out where it was or become part of it.” Longing for a self unencumbered by the choked, measly environment of our hometowns, of our circumstances; longing for a self somehow unapologetic and reconcilable with contentedness. 

Connell too lives in the narrowness of masculinity as it is defined by their small-town community, tries to grip his way through it but does so feebly at first. Over time Marianne and Connell’s respective gender identities flux. How can anyone entirely unlearn such rules, such adherences to binaries? How can we fully dismantle what defines a frame of our identity? These difficulties linger everywhere, but what strikes me most about Normal People lies in its unsentimental hopefulness. It’s not an oxymoron, this book has instructed me. 

Normal People, like Summer and Smoke, is in a way like a casserole. Perhaps an odd analogy but really: layers confounded upon layers, selves peeled back to reveal new, different-tasting selves underneath, all variations of texture somehow harmonizing as one seamless whole. Rooney asks if any of these layers can be completely removed, or if any new ones can be melodically added. She doesn’t answer for us; Marianne and Connell writhe in this question for maybe their whole lives. The narrative structure of the novel is in itself a casserole, too: it ricochets back and forth between years, days, sometimes hours or minutes. You skip forward and just as abruptly, you skip back—but never does anything feel unstable; it’s more true to life than any linear structure, I’d say.

Reading Normal People, Marianne ensnared me most. Rooney’s fiction, as was the case in her earlier Conversations With Friends, reaches into the dense, prickly forest of womanhood without cutting down any of the trees. Without clearing away the thorniness. Marianne knows of her difficult; she “has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person.” Upon reading this sentence I went still, gnawed at my lip. Me neither. Like a flash flood, I came head to head with myself. That bone-deep nausea: why can’t I just be normal for once?! Why can’t I just be a normal person? High school was lived like this, a montage of the same thought, different faces. I wanted to feel like everyone else. I made myself believe that there was some elusive normalcy in which “everyone else” lived so comfortably, a sort of living for which I was not built. Living comes so easily to these people, I believed. Living doesn’t jar and confound these people as it does me; living is not a finicky bird to be pinned down, it is not elusive at all. What seemed so painless for my friends—social interaction, romance, sexuality—never came painlessly to me. Marianne gleams with the kind of intellect that unsettles people, and she doesn’t quite know how to wear it without disorienting everyone around her. Marianne aches at “stupid” things like everyone else, but she scoffs at herself for it, and so there is that strange catch-22: we say that we want to be normal, but once we feel even a little bit ordinary we belittle ourselves for it. Marianne believes herself to be a “difficult girl” and sometimes, fundamentally estranged from everyone else. This perhaps seems like arrogance until it’s not—it’s much more complex than that. This difficulty is what lets her excel and what disconnects her from other people, from whatever the fuck “easy” contentedness or living looks like. 

Here’s the big, unapproachable secret that Rooney seems to insinuate, kindly: there are no “normal people.” What an uncomplicated and yet totally indigestible truth. Rooney wedges out the pretenses of people with lyricism and a kind of compassionate cleverness, a wide-hearted irony, that reveals the little artifices and coping mechanisms everyone wields. 

Never have I encountered an author with such seething compassion toward her characters. Rooney never expects effortlessness of them. She expects their awfulness and their brilliance; she gives them to us even while it is clear they do not fully have themselves. She shows us the ickiness that comingles with radiance in every person, and thus we want to sink our teeth into these characters, want someone to write about us with such truth, such bare-boned, precise sincerity. 

Every ounce of dialogue stings with sincerity: a little stumbling, revealing too much or not enough, often evading the thing they really want to say. In a passage describing Connell and Marianne’s conversations, she says, “At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he's going to do it, he catches her.”

Rooney unwraps the varieties of privilege in which each person lives, and does so without negating the oppressions each person experiences. Her observations about people scathe and poke, certainly smirk at the idiosyncrasies of millennial culture at times. In one instance, she describes Connell’s reaction to the invite of a Neo-Nazi to speak on campus: “Connell hasn't commented on any of the Facebook threads, but has liked several comments calling for the invite to be rescinded, which is probably the most strident political action he has ever taken in his life.” She unweaves classism, race, sexuality, and gender with fluidness, with pinpoint fingers. Rooney focuses on millennials, and no one is exempt from that scalpel-like precision of hers, but still she holds us accountable without making us a capital-g Generation. No, we are capable of nuance, of self-interrogation, and she knows it. 

This is a love story without being a Love Story. It’s more so a story of how people affect one another, how our love stories are really about ourselves: even the ill-fated ones help define who we are, so that even the failed love story wedges itself into whatever substance forms our identities. It’s an amalgam of those people, like Joan Didion would say, of those “people we ought to keep on nodding terms with,” the “people we used to be.” Connell and Marianne know each other as well as anyone can know another person, but still, each brims with secret selves, with the unspeakable recesses of themselves. To write a love so complicated but not cynical is a whirlwind feat, but Rooney does it. The small tendernesses we are granted in life are sometimes enough, sometimes more than enough, or sometimes not anything close to fulfilling. All of it lives in this book. Like Marianne thinks near the end: “What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her.”

Normal People lives in my heart, always will, warm and sharp-edged. It’s the kind of book you want to write, or want to consume, to roam its depths again and again. Books like Normal People are why I want to write books myself, why I love literature, why I trust it at all. Rooney makes it known through her writing that there is nothing easy about personhood. Particularly for this generation—so ridiculed, lamented, and talked-down to—we are told that it has become too easy for us, too palatable. Yet I don’t believe personhood is ever going to be easy, or exactly amiable, not for anyone ever. Such gentleness of existence seems to defy the nature of being a human altogether, but the least we can do, Normal People expresses, is give a shit about one another. Even in our contradictory, difficult, straining selves. Marianne and Connell each try in their own ways to quiet their internal contradictions—but can’t. And thank goodness: what would literature be if we could? No, what would our lives be?