Sally Rooney and the Millennial Novel of Manners

Sally Rooney and the Millennial Novel of Manners

Academic Scorers

Sally Rooney’s modern love story.


Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which spans four years and migrates from a Catholic high school in Carricklea, Ireland, to Trinity College Dublin, opens with the announcement of test results. It is a book that sets itself up as a campus novel, but almost as soon as Normal People begins, it veers from far from the excess of language and avenging disillusionment that has come to typify the genre. In recent works (Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, Lucy Ives’s Loudermilk), laminated library editions, chemically altered states, and grassy quadrangles may persist, but not in so few words. These are narratives that feed off competition and classification, heady academic flexing and fidgeting. If these books mock the established order, it’s in the service of building a stronger, sexier, more elaborate one. Their characters are melodramatic, not types exactly (because they are well written) but still familiar enough. They often satirize themselves, and they monologue constantly.

Except for the novel’s e-mail exchanges and Twitter jokes, Normal People moves in a very different direction. Rooney’s second novel—following her much-praised debut, Conversations With Friends—is quite unburdened, almost light, the obverse of the embellished brooding so characteristic of campus novels. When it begins, in the winter of 2011, the atmosphere is thin, and all the heat and heartache of life are primed to claim the scene.

Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan, the best academic scorers in their class, are in the final stretch of their high school years but on opposite social footing. Connell is handsome, popular, the center forward on the football team, sensitive but feeling the pressure not to show himself as such in school. Between the accolades and the alienating hookups, he’s experiencing the beginnings of class consciousness. Connell is the only child of a doting, delightful single mother, Lorraine, who works part-time cleaning the home of Marianne’s family. Connell sometimes picks his mother up or drops her off from her job at the Sheridan house, and it’s through these circumstances of labor and birth that he and Marianne find themselves discussing their exam results in the refuge of domestic privacy. Their conversation is disarming and stimulating to them both, and Connell starts coming by more often. He recommends that Marianne read The Communist Manifesto and offers to write down the name of the book for her. She replies with faint mockery, according to his needs.

There is little other opportunity for such intimacies: At school, Marianne is the subject of gossip for her defiant friendlessness. Her classmates fear and ridicule her, while she privately scoffs at the “ladder” of scholastic ascension upon which “everyone has to pretend not to notice that their social lives are arranged hierarchically.” But there’s no relief from the ladder to be found at home, either, where Marianne’s mother and older brother openly resent her for reasons similar to her peers’—the implication being that she’s too smart, spirited, and uncompromising to fit in with those who chiefly desire to practice their authority upon her.

Power is so transparent in high school, and everyone so young and dependent, that any refusal to accept the established hierarchy leads to social death. Meanwhile, Marianne’s encounters with Connell at her house quickly lead to sex and friendship, both of which, at his cowardly request, remain secret, at least for a while. The two tell each other that they’ve fallen in love.

Normal People’s plot structure and themes, can, at times, be almost archetypal. A fourth of the way through the novel, after they graduate from high school, Marianne and Connell arrive at Trinity, and the power disparity between them changes drastically: For a time, it’s Marianne who gets noticed and thrives. In college, she finds that the intellectual signaling that’s legible to the upper class helps her navigate the campus’s social dynamics. It also is a form of capital. As the pages turn easily, a novel about love emerges that, unlike most stories of jocks and nerds or professors and their jobs, is not infatuated with romantic destiny. But it is very serious about what it would mean to be “normal.”

This search for normalness finds its expression in Marianne’s and Connell’s interest in how one’s personality is constituted by others. It’s a question that will permeate Normal People and that they arrive at only once they’ve come together. Connell, from the top rungs of the ladder: “If anything, his personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others, rather than anything he individually did or produced.” Marianne, from the vantage point of social exclusion: “She usually felt confined inside one single personality, which was always the same regardless of what she did or said…. If she was different with Connell, the difference was not happening inside herself, in her personhood, but in between them, in the dynamic.”

The story unfolds as a test of the limits between two lovers who cannot stay apart. Over the course of the novel, their relationship is intermittently sexual, and sometimes they lose themselves in talk. They talk about whether they’ve changed; they question subtext, authority, and authenticity (“are they agreeing not to find each other attractive anymore?”); they discuss the injustices of capitalism. Sometimes their respective contributions to the dialogue seem interchangeable, sometimes not. The talking, fucking, e-mailing, recollecting, and observing perishes the boundaries between the two, effecting changes in both. For instance, the conversations that follow sex are described in an early college scene as:

gratifying for Connell, often taking unexpected turns and prompting him to express ideas he had never consciously formulated before…. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her. Knowing that they’ll probably have sex again before they sleep probably makes the talking more pleasurable, and he suspects that the intimacy of their discussions, often moving back and forth from the conceptual to the personal, also makes the sex feel better.

This passage is indicative of Rooney’s prose style, which is elegant and clipped. She writes of psychological pressures with gentle precision and leaves her sentences largely unadorned. A combination of simple plotting from above plus subversive attachment from below (both in terms of the protagonists’ breaking of social rank and the private intensities of their relationship) holds the reader close. I especially love Rooney’s conjurings of inclement weather. (“Outside her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake.”) Normal People is full of gray matter shaded with rain, snow, air, and the momentary despair of gelid youth.

Several critics have rightly pointed out that Normal People bears some resemblance to the great 19th century romantic novel of manners, especially those of Jane Austen, whom Rooney has cited as an influence. “Think Pride and Prejudice with hangovers and finals thrown in,” raves The Guardian, and British Vogue calls it “a classic coming-of-age love story; a highly relatable, highly literary ‘will they won’t they’ tale.” A 2018 profile of Rooney, also in The Guardian, opines, “If Jane Austen could construct worlds on ‘two inches of ivory’ Rooney has built them on a wafer of silicon.” The observation is correct, but Rooney fills the form with her own ideas. As with any great novel of manners, Normal People’s politics—which emphasizes relationships as the site of interpersonal transformation rather than the individual’s capacity to change society or themselves by their own will—manifests itself in the building of characters, not the rhetorical proving wrought through individual conversations. This social jockeying tells us about political desire, but not literally, and it isn’t as compelling or direct as the moments in which the characters are speaking in a more abstract and self-consciously personal vein.

The novel always returns to how normal the characters feel and what this feeling, in its idealized and imperfectly realized form, could be. In Rooney’s fiction, though, normality is a way of saying that something very personal is actually being experienced among us (or among her characters). Our capacity to grasp and act on these intuitions depends on one another. “I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people,” Marianne tells Connell in a moment of personal anguish. “I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.” Here “normal” is associated with her desire to be cared for and an impossible plea not to be existentially alone or to imagine herself as such. That so many of us feel this way is the least trivial thing about this feeling. But in her fiction, as in her own life, Rooney has been coy about what is to be done with it.

Last year, three months after Irish voters repealed—by an overwhelming margin—the national abortion ban that had been in place since the early 1980s, Rooney, then 27, was asked to comment on the historic measure. Her reaction was buoyant. “I felt incredibly happy to feel normal…. It was like, ‘Oh, this is amazing. I feel so at home, walking down the street, seeing people who probably agree with my opinion,’” she told The New York Times.

Rooney’s political commitments likely began at an early age: She was born in Castlebar and was raised by a pair of Marxists. While she was growing up, her mom worked as a math and science teacher and her dad as a technician for the state-owned telecom company. Like the protagonists of Normal People, she attended Trinity College Dublin, and in her second year she earned a scholarship that allowed her to pursue a master’s degree in American studies.

Rooney’s novels are conditioned by thinking about conformity and care in academic settings, material that hews closely to her experience at Trinity. Upon her induction into the college’s debating society, she later recalled, she was exposed to a “kind of social landscape [that] was different from anything [she’d] encountered before.” Its rules and principles were inseparable from the process of deliberating on and handing out prizes for performing excellence, she noted, and its “structure was very clear. Popularity was not a mysterious arrangement of personal loyalties within a social code I didn’t understand: it was essentially just the same thing as success. Successful people were popular.”

The ancillary characters in Normal People tend to fall into the categories of oppressors and rebels. Marianne’s fakest college girlfriend, Peggy, bullies her without ever realizing it and in this way resembles Marianne’s distant mother, as well as Rachel, a mean girl in high school who crushes on Connell. They are distinct but contain notes of one another, family resemblances that express themselves as relations of power—the kind that manufacture lots of ex-boyfriends.

After her romance with Connell, Marianne becomes involved with a series of unhappy men, each fascistic in his own way. They act as a steadily tightening belt upon her sensorium, narrowing pleasure and self-esteem at once. Her first college boyfriend, Gareth, is a charismatic lunkhead from the debate team. Connell jokes that he has the politics of a “white moderate.” Then there’s Jamie, “somehow both boring and hostile at the same time.” The two experiment with inflicting pain during sex, all of it directed at Marianne. Later, she studies in Sweden and finds herself a graduated asshole, Lukas. He’s a photographer, and “sometimes when Marianne mentions a film she has recently watched, he waves his hands and says: it fails for me.” The control he exercises over her psyche and body is even more complete. His last desperate bid at getting Marianne to stay with him is to tell her in his permanently self-serious manner, “I think you are a very gifted writer.”

It’s an empty gesture, rendered even more so because the novel’s machinations have anointed Connell as the blossoming writer, a passion Marianne sees early on and wheedles out of him. So Connell and Marianne’s relationship is defined by power too, but theirs can give as well as take. Not only are they receptive and open to each other, but they are attentive; they remember. This interdependency doesn’t restore balance or prevent abuses from occurring, but it operates as an accountability model, or mantra, stitched throughout so many scenes. “It was in Connell’s power to make her happy,” Rooney writes. “It was something he could just give to her, like money or sex. With other people she seemed so independent and remote, but with Connell she was different, a different person.” And later, of Marianne: “She feels a certain power over him, a dangerous power.”

If the novel were a bit less convinced of its own dialectical materialism, I’d read these passages as oblique nods to conversations that Rooney had with herself during the writing process. But she omits herself from the equations that her characters toil to resolve.

What’s rare about Normal People is that it has something to say about literary ambition: that it might quietly instruct us in how to care for others. Even rarer is that it announces this earnestly. Take a scene in which Connell, lonely upon his arrival at college, seeks solace in the library. Rooney notes his strong reaction to Austen’s Emma, which leads to the observation that “the feeling provoked in Connell when Mr. Knightley kisses Emma’s hand is not completely asexual, though its relation to sexuality is indirect. It suggests to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.” Obviously, reading doesn’t necessarily make people nicer or generally more empathetic; the act of reading takes us away from others, and many read obsessively only to seek out themselves in the text until the novel becomes another ladder, a means of distinguishing oneself. By contrast, the idealized reading experience Rooney casts for her young writer is a magnetic mingling of literary minds that sharpens an intelligence capable not merely of imagining others but of imagining how to be close to them, even how to live with the responsibility of their happiness and dreams. How a writer pulls off such a feat is a mysterious arrangement between herself and each reader. Some novels are like suitors trying to dance with every person at a ball, while others condense the night to a single peak of rhythm.

Connell’s ecstatic literary encounter fits like a guileless shadow upon Vivian Gornick’s 1997 essay “The End of the Novel of Love,” in which she observes, “In great novels we always feel that the writer, at the time of the writing, knows as much as anyone around can know, and is struggling to make sense of what is perceived somewhere in the nerve endings if not yet in clarified consciousness…. To get to those nerve endings a metaphor must be exact, not approximate.” Gornick asserts that self-definition and discovery through love as metaphor used to reach such nerve endings 100 or even 50 years ago but no longer; a new form is required. For the power vested in the novel of love is “wholly dependent on the static quality of the world against which its characters are struggling.” Marriage, family, individuating romantic love—these don’t have the honey and stick they once did, but people still crave stories.

Rooney’s novel offers us a document from this changed world. But it still is a love story. It’s just that her version of it assists the reader in feeling the relief of being normal. Not in the sense of accepting conformity but in arousing a desire that transgresses against self-interest, is centered on others. It’s not a new idea, but in reading Normal People you find yourself recognizing, even wanting, a love that if fulfilled would change the world for each and every one of us. What could be more normal than that?

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