As I often say in barely different words, I believe that novels are to literature what dogs are to pets. I.e. broadly they’re popular, the vast majority are inoffensive but fine, a handful are so bad they deserve incineration but when you find one that’s great there’s nothing better. Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the my dog of contemporary novels.
I bought Normal People on a whim before leaving England due to its voluminous praise, but it slithered down my pile of unread books after I visited Detroit in late January and went to a warehouse-sized second hand book store. Eventually, though, the time came for me to pick it up, but mere hours before I’d psychologically scheduled some Rooney reading time, I found out Rooney’s age (significantly younger than me) and so entered into the book feeling a bit bleakly comparative.
Rooney is having the literary career that naive Scott Hadley (pre Scott Manley Hadley) had always dreamed of for himself. Myself. Thankfully – and significantly – Rooney is so fucking good that I couldn’t be annoyed by how good she is. Rooney treads all the topics and themes I’ve ever wanted to write about in prose, but she does them better than I ever could when I tried and better than I can imagine myself learning to do, especially as I haven’t written anything but poems, hot takes, rushed blog posts and underwhelming book reviews for several years now. (Tbf to myself, some of my poems are good, as even Lewis Parker’s character assassination-y review conceded.)
Rooney has the literary gift, whatever I fucking mean by that. Talent, like: this books oozes good fucking writing.
Rooney’s prose and her characterisation is fucking sharp and deeply moving. Rooney writes about money and class and sex and kink and social media and social politics and travel and youth and growing up and behaving badly and behaving well with a pounding insight and intelligence. The internet is in Rooney’s novel in a real way (finally finally finally): it’s there but it’s not treated as a stylistic gimmick. The internet isn’t a gimmick any more, is it? The internet is everywhere. Like, imagine if it was exceptional to believably write about chairs in fiction. It’s madness that shit depictions of the internet still get published.
Normal People is a novel about desire and shame and ambition and arrogance and entitlement and depression. It is about not liking who you want and it’s about wanting who you don’t like. It’s about the knots people tie themselves into trying to project an image of normalcy and the myriad ways in which others try and pull us the fuck down because our ideas of normalcy don’t match theirs. People are pricks, like.
The writing and the characters of Normal People capture, for me, what it’s like, being alive. Yes, most of us do bad things (in a “real” way, not like murder etc, but social betrayal, bullying, lying, infidelity etc: indiscretions rather than crimes) but that doesn’t mean we’re all fucking irredeemable. Far from it, of course. Is this an ideology rooted in the cultural Catholicism of Rooney’s native Ireland, or in a more benign sense of Western morality? Not every sin is unforgivable, but some are some are some are…
Like Rooney’s characters, I too have dated across massive class gulfs, not known how to interact in different groups of people, and I’ve suffered from deep depression. I’ve done things I regretted then bragged about them as if I didn’t in a false attempt to gain ownership of the event. I have been bullied and I have bullied. I have been in terrible personal relationships (both social and otherwise) where a war of psychological attrition is more the vibe rather than an atmosphere of support. It’s all normal, isn’t it? I’ve begged people I hated to hurt me, I’ve struggled to know what to do with life (I still fucking do), I’ve felt (and still feel, kinda) that my experiences and my background are incompatible, and I’ve felt like the future is unknowable to the point of terror. I quit one of my multiple jobs last week because it was making me unhappy. Should I be like normal people and get one main job? Or should I continue being a weird millennial type who sometimes works 70 hour weeks and sometimes spends whole weekdays binge-watching HBO shows?
I’m not in a great place right now (psychologically, the weather’s improving and Canada feels a lot less hostile because of this), and Normal People is a novel about people in bad places that are like the bad places I have been to. I have been around people whose idea of normal is different to mine, I have had problematic ideas of normalcy based, again, on my experiences and my background, and though I think I’m pretty grounded and wise[r] these days, I’m still on an epiphany-a-month rollercoaster like I have been for years. That’s probably not a sign that indicates any long-term psychological peace, is it? Tee he.
Life is hard, in lots of different ways. Rooney writes about most of them here. It’s a gorgeous, perfect, fucking novel and if you haven’t read it then you definitely should. Close to emotionally overwhelming for me, but that’s its point: I feel there will be elements that resonate with every millennial with a degree and some bad memories. We’re all normal. Being miserable is normal. Being happy is normal. Being alive is normal. Normal People, though, is exceptional.
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