I hadn’t read any Sally Rooney until a couple of days ago when I was reminded on Twitter that there was a story in a back issue of The White Review that features the two characters – Marianne and Connell – from Normal People, Rooney’s Booker-longlisted and roundly lauded second novel. (Interestingly, this is from 2016, before the publication of her debut, Conversations with Friends.)
I read it, and loved it.
Then this morning I decided to take the latest Granta magazine (‘Generic Love Story’) into the bath with me for a lazy Sunday morning read, and there she was again, in the form of an actual extract from the book. (You can read it online.)
I read it, and loved it too, and finished with teary eyes.
Although this isn’t the main point of this post, I’ll say briefly that my reasons for loving it are more or less the same reasons other people have mentioned in reviews and online: that Rooney makes you care about the characters, which is perhaps an unfashionable thing; but also she seems utterly contemporary. This comes partly in the depiction of contemporary attitudes – to relationships, to sex – or rather of the contemporary ways of conceptualizing attitudes that themselves are probably as old as the hills; and also partly in the smooth integration of contemporary technology etc into the narrative, but also in the way the prose seems alive to the texture of life today.
One example: in the Granta extract, teenage Connell’s mother puts the kettle on, something that has happened countless times in realist prose fiction since the invention of kettles, or realism, whichever came first, but this time we get this: “She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch.” And I realise that’s the first time I’ve had a writer notice that that’s how kettles work these days. (Perhaps someone else has used it, but I missed it.) And if Rooney is noticing that, then what else is she noticing about modern life? The kettle moment is like a concrete token offered to reader that encourages them to believe that the more intangible things she’s noticing (do young people really think like that about sex?) are credible also.
Now as it happens I’m off out to my local bookshop shortly to buy a book as a present (in fact it may well be a copy of Conversations with Friends) and so I’m asking myself: should I get Normal People? I’m sure I’ll like it. There is also a definite thrill to buying a new book to read straightaway when I’m not exactly short of other books that I either want to read or feel I should.
But… here’s the thing: it’s hardback, and I don’t want to read Normal People in hardback. Nor do I want to have the hardback of Normal People on my shelves.
Why is this?
Well, there are bad and shallow reasons why I might feel this. She’s a female writer is the most obvious one, and I don’t want to accord her the status of hardback author. She’s a paperback writer, to quote George Harrison out of context. Do I think this? I hope not. Or rather: the status thing is true. Not everything is worth buying in hardback. But I hope that my measuring of her worth doesn’t involve sexism.
Let’s take a step back. Continue reading
To Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday night to hear and join a debate on ‘the purpose of the arts today’, based on Raymond Tallis’s book Summers of Discontent – essentially a careful selection of his previous writings by writer and gallerist Julian Spalding. This isn’t one of those socio-political treatises that tries to explain why we should go on pouring so many millions a year into the Royal Opera House, or why the Arts Council budget should be slashed or increased, but rather a philosophical discussion of what the art encounter, whether it be literature, music or theatre, can give us, as existential, post-religious human beings.
Tallis’s premise is that we as humans suffer a ‘wound’ in the present tense of our consciousness, such that we can never be fully present in our lives, but are always late to our own experiences. Art, he says, can help with this by showing how disparate formal elements can be integrated into one unified work; it offers both a model for how to do the same with our own scattered and disparate memories, thoughts, impulses and anticipations, and also a hypothetical space in which to do that work. It gives us a here and a now to be present in.
I was asked, along with philosopher Roger Scruton and classicist Stephen Johnson, to respond to Tallis and Spalding’s remarks, before the debate was opened to the floor – my ‘role’ being that of novelist, and of novelist about ‘the arts’. My no doubt disjointed comments amounted to some of what follows:
that I fully approved of the notion of the wound in the present tense, and of art’s ability to – partially, temporarily – heal or alleviate it, and of doing so by modelling and facilitating formal integration (where, as Tallis points out, ‘form’ is taken to mean the inside, rather than outside shape of things), but that this is surely an ideal, rather than a usual occurrence.
Tallis was starting from a position where he talked about “art when it is at its best and we are at our most connected” – when, to my mind, most of the time neither of those things is true. (In fact there’s a lovely description in his book of listening to a Haydn Mass “while the squeaky windscreen wipers are battling with rain adding its own percussion on the car roof” – and that is think is how we experience most art.)
As a novelist, I want my writing to be at its best, and my readership at its most connected, always, but as a novelist who writes particularly about the arts (the contemporary art world, in Randall, and the world of pop music in my new book), what I’m interested in is the ordinary failings of poorly connected people responding to less than great art – but who, crucially, are no less committed to that project of arriving at a place of integration and connectedness.
I gave the example of seeing Fleetwood Mac at the 02, a pretty good gig in a dismal setting by a band of which I’m not particularly a fan. (I love the album Tusk to bits, but can do without the rest of their stuff.) I responded variously to the music, leaping up at the songs I liked, nodding along to the rest, but what really got me was the response of the other audience members. There were men in the 60s, podgy and balding, as I’ll doubtless be at that age, standing there agog on the concrete steps, hundreds of metres away from their idols, faces slack and eyes streaming with tears. Continue reading
Close reading is one of the joys of academia. You have to read stuff over and over again, you can’t give it the benefit of the doubt, and let it just slide by you. Thus a multiple reading, among the chaos of a weekend when I probably should have been doing something familial, of David Means’ story The Gulch.
Short stories have such obvious pleasures, and yet are – for me – such hedged around with confusion and uncertainty, that I positively love it when someone instructs or encourages me to read one. One – out of so many.
Collections of short stories, it often seems to me, are quite the worst place to read short stories. The presence of so many others, equally good, a few pages to the left or the right, seem to make the piece you are reading embarrassingly contingent, at worst redundant, as if they’re somehow shrugging at their own existence.
It is the wonderful trick of the novel, the bossy, lazy, egotistical novel, to make you feel, as you are reading it, that it is somehow necessary, obvious, inescapable. That they are the only novel in your life. In between readings, if it’s a good one, the novel will percolate, stew, grow, run the laps of your synapses. It’s got stamina. It’s got the time and the space to include its own rereadings (repetitions). Stories, even those as good as The Gulch, demand rereadings – which is a risk: after all there are all those other stories right there waiting to be read.
The DeLillo jag (Point Omega, again, most of The Angel Esmerelda, Running Dog) was academia-related, too. Point Omega, on about the third reading, is increasingly brilliant. What I’m coming to admire most about DeLillo, once I get beyond the pacing and the dialogue (okay: the sentences – even the spaces between the words seem charged, the prose equivalent of the Pinter pause) is the insouciance with which he manages to bring tacky low-rent thrillerish elements into his ascetic, high-flown prose. In Point Omega he actually (okay: not actually at all) brings Norman Bates down off the screen in the plot of the novel. He’s got a serial killer in his book, for crying out loud. It shouldn’t work. It should be like having a clown tumble on stage in the middle of Swan Lake. But somehow he pulls it off. Continue reading