Are They Normal? Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”

Sally Rooney’s much-lauded novel, Normal People, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  And  perhaps this  beautifully-written but uneven novel is characteristic of erratic Booker trends.   Though the prize once promoted brilliant, complex novels by Ruth Prawer Jhabavala, Anita Brookner, Salman Rushdie, A. S. Byatt, and Ian McEwan, it now favors historical novels and Americans.  Rooney’s Irish Millennial novel may have been an afterthought in a longlist that included a graphic novel and a thriller.  (By the way, the Man Booker Prize just lost its sponsor.)

“Millennials are different.”  That’s what I keep hearing.  And the  Millennial novels I’ve read, among them Natasha Staggs’s  Surveys, Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, and Emma Cline’s The Girls, leave the impression of dangerous emptiness, passivity, and a sense of the absurd.

Normal People is about Marianne and Connell and their hooking up and splitting up and friendship and depression and hooking up again.  They’re rather like the characters in Girls, though less sympathetic than narcissistic Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her pals from Oberlin.

The protagonists grow up in the same town in Ireland.  Marianne is a loner from a wealthy family, and Connell, the maid’s son, is popular and athletic.  The two embark on a secret sexual relationship that improves Marianne’s self-esteem until Connell asks someone else to the prom.  And this is a typical situation in the lives of this unstable couple.

And then they go to Trinity, where their status is reversed: Marianne fits in with the rich, privileged students, while Connell is friendless and struggling.  Unsurprisingly, Marianne knows a lot of assholes.  She gets into an S/M relationship with Jamie, a thoroughly nasty rich student, while Connell finds a stable, happy young woman, Helen.  Still, Connell has a thing for Marianne and is protective.  And when Marianne goes to Sweden for a year, she is briefly involved with a sadistic photographer.  At least she gets out of that quickly.

But why is Marianne so unstable?  The psychology is a tad too simple–Marianne has both family and rich-girl problems–and Connell has class insecurity and a tendency to depression.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.

Her voice sounds oddly cool and distant, like a recording of her voice played after she herself has gone away or departed for somewhere else.

In what way? he says.

I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.

Lots of people love you, Marianne. Okay? Your family and friends love you.

For a few seconds she’s silent and then she says: You don’t know my family.

Rooney’s prose is graceful, and her description of depression is powerful.  Simple writing, often very strong, but what ever happened to strong heroines?    That’s the problem I have with Millennial novels.  Give me Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, Gloria Naylor, and Margaret Drabble.

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