Normal People by Sally Rooney

“He probably won’t come back, she thought. Or he will, differently. What they have now they can never have back again.”

Plot summary: on-and-off relationship (/friendship with benefits) between two nerdy and insecure young people struggling to be ‘normal people’.

[1] My favourite things about this novel are the astonishingly vivid similes. Try these:

  • “Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him.”
  • “He carried the secret around like something large and hot, like an overfull tray of hot drinks that he had to carry everywhere and never spill.”
  • “He kept thinking of himself saying to Marianne in bed: I love you. It was terrifying, like watching himself committing a terrible crime on CCTV.”
  • “Things happened to him, like the crying fits, the panic attacks, but they seemed to descend on him from outside … Internally he felt nothing. He was like a freezer item that had thawed too quickly on the inside and was melting everywhere, while the inside was still frozen solid.”

[2] There is a lot of sexual tension in this novel, and Rooney (as always, vide Conversations with friends) is so adept at portraying it:

  • “… the intensity of the privacy between them is very severe, pressing in on him with an almost physical pressure on his face and body.”
  • “She was microscopically attuned to the pressure of his body in a microscopic way, as if the ordinary motion of his breathing was powerful enough to make her ill.”
  • “Boldly she asked if he was going to kiss her again. He said: What do you think? This struck her as a highly cryptic and sophisticated thing to say.” *
  • “For a moment she just wants to lie here prolonging the intense silence and staring at the lampshade, enjoying the sensory quality of being here in this room again with him and making him talk to her, but time moves on.”

* I think the comic way this is phrased captures very perfectly the reckless, fragile quality of the moment that’s intoxicating to the point of being clumsy.

[3] I like how Rooney flashes out those mental episodes we can all relate to but are too embarrassed to ever talk about. So even though this is, as Rooney says in an interview with the Guardian, just a story about fake people, I feel like reading this has made me (re-)discover new things about me. (Same, btw, for Conversations with Friends.)

  • “She said he was nice, and that everyone liked him. He found himself thinking about that a lot. It was a pleasant thing to have in his thought. … To test himself he would try not thinking about it for a bit, and then go back and think about it again to see if it still made him feel good, and it did.”
  • “The barman looks frankly at her breasts while she’s talking. Marianne had no idea men really did such things outside of films and TV, and the experience gives her a little thrill of femininity.”
  • “Life is the thing you carry bring with you inside your own head. I might as well be lying here, breathing the vile dust of the carpet into my lungs, gradually feeling my right arm go numb under the weight of my body, because it’s essentially the same as every other possible experience.”

[4] Also, this description of confused drunk sex is amazing:

“As an experiment he tried to sit up, which confirmed he was in fact sitting up already, and the small red light which he thought might have been on the ceiling above him was just a standby light on the stereo system across the room.”

[5] And the following I found extremely insightful, so I’ll highlight in bold instead of italicising

“If people appeared to behave pointlessly in grief, it was only because human life was pointless, and this was the truth grief revealed.”

[6] The book is very much about how your relationship with another person can force you to confront things you didn’t (or didn’t want to) know about yourself, and you start to see this as you get to the second half of the book. But then you realise that Rooney has dropped clues earlier on

“He has a terrible sense all of sudden that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him. … He doesn’t know why he thought about it. Maybe he wants to do it. But it makes him feel sick.”

Connell (“he”) then takes practically the rest of the book to come to terms with his enjoyment of his power over Marianne (“her”), realising that

“He has never been able to reconcile himself to the idea of losing this hold over her, like a key to an empty property, left available for future use. In fact he has cultivated, and he knows he has.”

This could also be seen as testifying to the capacity of someone in a relationship with you to transform your personality. Marianne is later revealed to be a masochist. Could she have unknowingly introduced sadistic inclinations into Connell through her influence? Or perhaps Connell already had these inclinations he enjoyed being in power through popularity, after all – maybe he was the one who awakened the masochistic tendencies in Marianne? Probably both. They both reinforced the latent sadomasochistic tendencies in each other and helped make the other person more aware of them.

Rooney does not provide definitive answers to these questions. She leaves just enough space between the lines for us to speculate and scavenge for clues. This is a virtue. (Insert Oscar Wilde’s face.)

[7] This is probably pushing it a bit, but is the relationship between Marianne and Connell not a case study of Lacan’s famous slogan, “There is no such thing as a sexual relation”, that is, a perfectly harmonious and satisfying romantic relationship is not possible? Marianne and Connell keep going on and off because they can never completely fit inside each other’s fantasy frames. Marianne imagines Connell to be this citadel of power to which she is subject, who is nonetheless in her power insofar as he loves her. Connell likes to imagine Marianne to be a locus of familiarity about whom he knows everything there is to know, stripping her of all otherness. That’s why whenever Marianne realises she isn’t the only thing in his life, her jealousy makes her cold and distancing. That’s why whenever Marianne strays outside of what Connell has expected of her – by displaying her masochism, by not enthusiastically inviting him to live with her – he panics and turns away. It is no surprise, then, that when they finally make peace with each other at the end, it is by settling their gaze within their respective fantasies and choosing not to look further. Marianne says, “I never know with you” – thus putting herself at his mercy – whilst simultaneously believing he always loves her unquestionably at the end of the day: “she doesn’t wonder about that any more.” Connell settles for thinking, “What do I not know about you?” A sexual relation, then, is only possible in bad faith – isn’t Marianne’s position quite reminiscent of Sartre’s “evanescent” characterisation of bad faith?

[8] I like how Rooney makes a point of highlighting the way we unthinkingly project our insecurities onto our interpretations of people’s words. When Jamie says, “Fucking lowlife scum” this is automatically taken by Connell to mean himself, insecure about his working-class background. It is exchanges like this that haunt the relationship between Marianne and Connell, haunted in turn by their respective insecurities.

Verdict: The writing is brilliant, as I’ve hopefully shown, and there are interesting points to reflect on, but the storyline feels predictable doesn’t it? Nerdy girl gets with popular guy. Insecurities and social pressures sabotaging relationships. But then I guess that was the point. This is a book about ‘normal people’. Still, I must admit I kept missing the page-turning storyline in Conversation with Friends when reading this. I’ll put this down as Would Recommend.

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