Celtic Junction Arts Review
Waiting for Intimacy: Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”
Mary McCormick and Patrick O’Donnell
“All of life is a preparation for something that never happens,” commented William Butler Yeats in a weary aside towards the end of his life. Following the success of her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), internationally celebrated Irish novelist Sally Rooney (1991-) possesses an imagination that unfolds within the irony of Yeats’s aphorism. Her second work, Normal People (2018), featuring the intellectual loner Marianne and the athletic star student Connell in a small town in the West of Ireland, has been another magnificent success. It has harvested many further awards (the British Book Award; the Costa Book Award; the An Post Irish Novel of the Year) and rave reviews (“Sally Rooney is a master of the literary page-turner”; “absolutely engrossing and surprisingly heartbreaking”).
Her theme is an intensely focused and obsessive observation of the surfaces of relationships. This is also her paradoxical appeal: deep attention to opaque surfaces. With meticulous craftsmanship and brilliant skill, we are offered instantaneous surface intimacy as Marianne and Connell fall for each other without much preamble in high school, then oscillate in and out of each other’s lives. The reader is hooked and the pages blur past. This is also the frustration at the heart of her work. The intimacy is a mirage. It is superficial. Transactional. Enigmatic. It is literally and figuratively only epidermis deep. As the words of Yeats suggest, there is an enormous emotional void at the core of her characters. Her fiction is like an actor playing a role theatrically from the exterior, from the circumference, from only the performative mode. Her characters live with no emotional core, no reality, no power, no authenticity, no center. They are preparing constantly to achieve a core, a reality, a power, an authenticity, a center – but it seems to never happen. Authenticity is sought, but like Beckett’s Godot, it never arrives. In this then, they are “normal people.”
Marianne and Connell frantically and continuously scan each other as if they are screens in human form. Yet they never really know each other. Everybody glances at everybody, but does anybody see anybody? Despite the reader being given access to large swaths of inner monologue and hyper-subjectivity, the characters never seem to really know themselves. They never – most surprising of all – really know the Ireland in which they live almost as an afterthought. Yet the pursuit of this illusory emotional depth creates massively enthralling and compelling fiction. Fiction operates to educate the emotions and to deepen insight into our humanity. But Rooney has challenged this view in interviews, saying “But novels don’t necessarily foster empathy, whatever that is. It’s easy to oversell literature as an agent of social change.” In an unreal world of surfaces and screens, can real relationships form? We participate in the very existential conundrum of modern relationships. We seem to know these characters yet they are distant and unknowable. They are up close yet impossibly far away. They display a flat affect, a sign of mental distress, and we miss the playful wit so evident in most Irish fiction. The potential of Marianne and Connell’s relationship is never reached.
Sally Rooney seems ambivalent about the purpose of her art. She has said that she was always writing through her childhood and teen years to make sense of the world. Never an extremely social person, she writes to understand people, and to learn about herself by putting characters through various events and stressors. Her stated aim is to observe people’s intimate lives in close detail. An avowed Marxist, she stated she doesn’t know how to write a Marxist novel, although she sees class as the structuring principle of our social life and her writing examines the transactional frameworks for relationships in a capitalist society. Her stated mission for Normal People was to show that people can change one another.
Working in the tradition of autobiographical content transmuted into fiction, Rooney follows the precedent of James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922) and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy. However, those authors had the British Empire and the Catholic Church to rebel against. Rooney lacks those foils. She has only mentioned non-Irish authors as influences. She loves Jane Austen and her construction of The Marriage Plot, and has cited George Eliot and Henry James. Her spare, modern style is reminiscent of Joan Didion. But Normal People’s structure is not balanced among Character, Plot, and Container (broader setting). Characters are over-weighted. The plot is subdued and sometimes lacks plausibility. Marianne, a social pariah in secondary school, becomes a popular socialite overnight at Trinity College; events are driven by trivial misunderstandings between Marianne and Connell. Container descriptions are limited to one sentence, leaving the reader longing for the lush descriptions of Edna O’Brien, which draw the reader in and underscore emotion.
Still, hints of themes from past Irish novels can be traced, mostly around class distinctions and conflict. The Big House theme—the reference point of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy property owners—leaves a faint mark. Marianne lives in her wealthy parents’ Big House; at Trinity College, she lives in her grandmother’s Dublin apartment in a nice neighborhood; later, she hosts her friends at an Italian villa that belonged to her father. This appears to be a commentary on late-stage capitalism, where the few with capital have a huge lead over the rest. In the character of Marianne, Rooney implies that such advantage leads to emotional poverty and abuse.
Just as Joyce and O’Brien asserted a critical and detached intelligence through the viewpoints of their protagonists, Rooney also observes the vagaries of her generation. This “voice of her generation” accolade has generated much adulation and loyalty amongst readers of her age and younger. Older readers are more skeptical. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote for the “youth of today” in such novels as This Side of Paradise, she offers a window into the pressures on young people in our contemporary world.
Her Ireland is postmodernist, post-nationalist, post-Catholic. It is a diluted globalized Facebook-using Ireland. One cultural commentator has termed this milieu “after Ireland” as the usual signifiers of Irishness (the church, nationalism, the Irish language, and Hiberno-English idioms and coinages) seem to have melted into a faded wallpaper faintly imperceptible and negligible in the background. We could be anywhere when reading Rooney. We could be in any anonymous uprooted globalized consumerist shopping mall-strewn placeless place vaguely located in a Westernized English-speaking setting. Part of the wonder of reading Rooney, is waiting for bits of Irishness to surface in her work, and wondering if she will spin the Irish Novel in a new direction.
For another take on Sally Rooney’s writing, see Review and Reflections of the Works of Sally Rooney by Lily O’Donnell.