Sally Rooney and the brilliance of Normal People (and the danger it poses to the novel form)

IMG_1583I wrote recently about my first exposure to Sally Rooney’s writing, and the dilemma I faced, or conjured, as to whether buy her then-Booker-longlisted novel Normal People in hardback or wait for it in paperback – a debate that wasn’t simply down to price. In the end I was saved my deliberations when a kind student lent me a proof copy of the book. I will certainly be buying it in paperback when it comes out, and I may well be putting it on the curriculum at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach.

The usefulness of Rooney to Creative Writing students – and teachers – is something I will discuss below (and this will involve a spoiler near the end: I’ll give you fair warning) but my general response to the novel is a solid continuation of my thoughts about the extract and early version story I had read in Granta and The White Review: this is a great book, that matches a warm, oblique narrative style to a pair of characters who, while immensely likeable (or ‘compelling’, if you quail at the L-word) are also intensely uncertain about the value or depth of their own qualities: the more time they spend poking and probing at their own selves, the further they get from any definite conclusion, and so they rely on each other – on their relationship with each other – to ground themselves, but seeing as they continually misstep, misspeak and misconstrue, they are always finding that solid ground shifting beneath them.

Thus the warm – we like them – and thus the oblique – they are continually struggling to find the perspective that Rooney offers the reader, from which they can be seen as genuinely likeable.

Again, the first thing to love about Normal People is the characters; the second thing to love is the cool narrative style, that dips into each character’s thought processes, and lets them be themselves, up close and personal, for the reader, but also steps away, and allows the reader to see them at an emotional distance. The mix of this is something Rooney gets absolutely right, and people have talked on Twitter about getting very closely involved in this couple as they read the book. I concur.

A brief introduction, then. The couple are Marianne and Connell, who as teenagers in small-town Ireland develop a secret and passionate friendship that crosses class divisions both in the town (Connell’s mother is Marianne’s family’s cleaner) and in school (where Connell is popular and Marianne is ostracised). The novel shifts locus but not focus when Connell follows Marianne to Dublin to study at Trinity, where they are both high-performing students. The novel is essentially one long on-off/will they?-won’t they? narrative as the two of them repeatedly grow close, sleep together, piss each other off, take other partners and then fall back into each other. The reasons for their separate and individual inability to commit, or trust – each other, and themselves – become clear as the novel progresses, but… Well, I’ll get to the but in a moment.

(If you want to get a sense of how cherished this book might become to future generations of romantically-inclined novel readers, there’s a lovely hint halfway through, when Connell is backpacking around Europe in the summer holidays. In his backpack is “a very beaten-up copy of a James Salter novel”. I think we know which James Salter novel that is, right, people? That’s right, it’s A Sport and a Pastime. People will love Normal People as much as people love that book: take my word for it.

So I love the characters, and the narrative style, but as I mentioned in my previous blog post, I also love Rooney’s brilliant evocation of the texture of contemporary life, both in its ritual gestures, however small and in her characters’ psychological attitude towards it.

The quote I used in my previous post was the kettle in its cradle.

The kettle clicks its switch and she lifts it out of the cradle.

This, for students of literature or creative writing, is Barthes’ “reality effect”: the superfluous detail that is there for no narrative, symbolic or character-defining purpose, but simply to convince the reader, through its sheer ordinariness, that what they are reading is “real” – because real life, too, is filled with superfluous detail. Likewise, when a writer is writing a scene, they will, consciously or unconsciously, add these details in, in a bid, first of all, to convince themselves – and only later the reader – of the “realness” of what they are writing.

Which is all well and good, but writers often reach for familiar details. How many kettles have been boiled in novels down the decades? But how has no one noticed that modern kettles are different from the ones in the houses we grew up in? Perhaps writers are too busy trying to integrate smartphones into their novels that don’t concentrate on these subtler, more granular indices of modern life.

That said, Rooney does also brilliantly integrate contemporary phone usage into her book. Take this passage:

Marianne is reading the back of a yoghurt pot in the supermarket. With her other hand she’s holding her phone, through which Joanna is telling an anecdote about her job. When Joanna gets into an anecdote she can really monologue at length, so Marianne isn’t worried about taking her attention off the conversation for a few seconds to read the yoghurt pot. It’s a warm day outside, she’s wearing a light blouse and skirt, and the chill of the freezer aisle raises goosebumps on her arm. She has no reason to be in the supermarket, except that she doesn’t want to be in her family home, and there aren’t many spaces in which a solitary person can be inconspicuous in Carricklea. Even the supermarket will exhaust its usefulness when people notice she’s not really buying groceries, or when she sees someone she knows and has to go through the motions of conversation.

The office is half-empty so nothing really gets done, Joanna is saying. But I’m getting paid so I don’t mind.

What a brilliant expose of the excruciating banality of loneliness in a modern, connected capitalist society. You can be on the phone to your friend halfway across the country while doing the shopping but being connected doesn’t actually bring you closer to them. We’re so inured to the benefits of technology that talking to a friend is something we do while reading the back of a yoghurt pot. And, look: she’s in the supermarket because it’s the only place she can go.

So, I love the narrative style, I love the characters, I love the detail. I gulped down the novel in greedy draughts. And as I was reading it, I was thinking: what a great novel to use on the undergraduate Creative and Professional Writing course I help teach! There are so many good lessons for fledgling writers to pick from it – on characterisation, dialogue, scene structure – and it’s so close to them, or to many of them, in its concerns and its worldview. They will love, and they will learn from it.

But. (And in a moment there’s going to be a spoiler, that, while I don’t think it will necessarily destroy someone’s experience of the book, I feel it would have spoiled mine, so I do suggest you stop reading now if you’re intending to read Normal People.)

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But… there is something about the structure of the novel that I don’t think is particularly useful for aspiring writers (though maybe it is) and that I also found mildly disappointing (though I also admire Rooney for it, in a way).

It’s that the on-off/will-they-won’t-they narrative just goes on and on, through four years of the two young people’s lives, and then it stops. There is no rising action. There is no real climax. There is no ending.

I mean, there is an ending of sorts, but it seems utterly random. You are left with no greater sense of whether Connell and Marianne will be able to settle down and help each other through life (which the reader is continually being seduced into believing they will, and can) than at the beginning.

Certainly, you can argue that this is to the book’s credit. Life does just goes on. Things don’t weave themselves into neat hillocks of action and denouement. Novels are a lie.

I was reminded of an interesting Twitter exchange from a few weeks ago, when Lara Pawson asked what was the point of novels, seeing as stories, essays and fragments more closely resemble the lived structure of our lives (Lara appears to have deleted her Twitter account, which if it means she is hard at work on her next book is right and proper) and the always intriguing and probably usually right @svejky replied:

Because the novel is part of a fantasy of disparate experiences being linked by a solid and transcendental unity… it’s part of the ideological support structure of the individualised, rational, rights bearing individual; though all the best novels undermine their own premise

I absolutely agree with this, but I also love novels for the lie they tell, that our lives might have meaning. It’s a natural lie, a human lie, or a lie that has become natural to us, and it is arguably a useful one. Perhaps even an essential one.

So Normal People is a great novel in that it disrupts our (my) expectations of what a novel should be, but then if all novels were as episodic and unresolved as Normal People  then the form would probably die away, precisely for the reason that we are addicted to the lie they tell, i.e. it’s bracing to read a novel like this once in a while, but if they were all like this, you’d tire of it.

(Another aside: This might be a reason why Normal People didn’t make it from the Man Booker longlist I’d read – Guy Gutaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City – is similarly brilliant at voice and character and place, but equally disappointing in terms of narrative structure. More on this, perhaps, in my Monthly Reading roundup.)

Look, I’ll be honest. I really, really hoped Normal People would end with Connell and Marianne going to New York together so that Connell could take up his MFA, or – gulp, I’m really exposing myself here – that he would ask her to marry him, or her to ask him. Which, you know, I’m not necessarily the biggest traditionalist in the world when it comes to these things, but it would have been a good ending to the novel precisely because it would have been so unexpected. And it would have been good for them, as characters. (See what I mean about getting involved?) Marriage is a commitment that would have operated on a level other than any the two of them had been able to achieve before. Marriage is not just a commitment, it is an expression of commitment.

Soppiness over. My final point goes back to whether Normal People will end up on the curriculum at St Mary’s next year. (First year Creative and Professional Writing undergraduates are currently set Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal precisely because, as well as being useful learning examples, they speak to the undergraduate experience, or age group, quite specifically.

But I don’t think I’ll set Normal People, or not the whole of it, because it doesn’t conform closely enough to the accepted idea of how a novel should treat narrative. Teaching through exceptions doesn’t help anyone. But I will absolutely be setting extracts of it. It’s a brilliantly written book. It’s a joy.

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  1. Pingback: Weekendnotes, September 29-30 – Splice

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