Normal People by Sally Rooney
Hogarth, 2018; 273 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
An avid reader of fiction might begin to get a little shell-shocked reading Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. Every chapter after the first one is a switch to flip; Rooney is providing a spoiler start, and then takes us into why that spoiler occurred. For philosophers among the readers, one might say she attempts to also do the work of the parable of the Zen master and the little boy; the reader starts to think of how this story is going to go, and then Rooney starts the next chapter off with “we’ll see.” The realism is painfully threatening, and yet the male and female “leads,” Connell and Marianne keep finding their way back to each other through the thick, prickly forest of society.
Rooney is said to be the first great Millennial fiction writer, although others have proven themselves in the generation. Normal People reaches into the cultural references of Millennials, however, without continuously throwing them into the foreground of the narrative; passing references are made to social media and smartphone use without branding the setting with specifics. There also exists a subtle commentary of the culture, in addition to documenting it; Rooney’s prose is nearly flat, but just rippled enough to give the most delicate of weight to the surface of her narrative. Even the commentary takes on a matter-of-fact quality that places the note in front of the reader like a gift that might be left at a door:
It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money…Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt the old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal…Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.
It’s not simply a belief system that Rooney’s characters are bucking (and both Marianne and Connell have to buck quite a few of them), but a fighting of environment as a living being of its own. Marianne and Connell have to find solitude without running a risk of self-assault, or even assault on their relationship. Marianne is following on physical and emotional abuse, stunned at Connell’s interest and devotion in spite of himself, and Connell is following on the precariousness of his social position in relation to Marianne’s, whatever she believes of his merit. Both characters are fighting a battle with merit in the end; Marianne’s lack of boundaries and Connell’s self-imposed limitations move against their relationship against the grain, and the breakdown of material surprises with every chapter. By the end of the novel the chapter spoilers no longer act as spoilers; they start to develop from a foundation of faith and “joy despite everything,” a view of trust, looking back from a future uncertainty.