None of us know how we came to live in the era of the individual. One fine day, we all found ourselves in a world that pays close, desperate attention to who we are as people before we even figured it out ourselves; the fundamental project of humanity became, as Nietzsche put it, “to become oneself.” And since we took upon that task, since everything from my towel to my Facebook activity had to somehow reflect “me”, we have not taken seriously the idea that this whole individuality business might just be a hoax, or worse still, a frivolous distraction.
In Normal People, Sally Rooney presents to a generation too preoccupied with perfecting their Instagram aesthetic the radical idea that maybe what actually matters in all of this is not “me”. Maybe the world doesn’t have to be as lonely as that. Maybe the meaningfulness of life comes not from the inwardness of self, but the outwardness of love – a profound, intimate human connection.
Normal People is Rooney’s second novel, following her critically acclaimed debut Conversations with Friends, an insightful meditation on female friendships and intergroup conflict. This second book follows the lives of two teenagers, Marianne and Connell, who revolve around each other. They meet in high school, and find themselves crossing each other’s paths all the way till the end of college, and then, you find yourself really hoping, happily ever after.
A wild energy
Marianne comes from a materially affluent but emotionally abusive house where Connell’s mother works as a maid. One day, when Connell is at Marianne’s house to pick his mother up, Marianne tells him she likes him, and very slowly, very delicately, they start moulding a relationship. But Connell, a football playing jock in school, is too embarrassed to be seen with Marianne, widely considered to be a weirdo in his circles.
The tables turn when they go to college – Marianne belongs to a social group of affluent people, where Connell is considered the “culchie” (ie, from rural Ireland). Both Marianne and Connell battle the insecurities of their social realities, and they screw up a lot in the process, but they do all of it together.
If there is to be a protagonist in this novel, though, it is not either Marianne or Connell, but the wild energy that is created when the two are put together, or taken apart. To put it more simply, Normal People is a love story. But it’s anachronistic, mashing up millennial ficklemindedness and a 1950s “made for each other” romance, the strangeness of this mixture turning into a powerful commentary on modern times.
Our world of emotionless hookups and transactional intimacy has travelled quite far from the idea that two people could be made for each other, but Connell and Marianne are. Rooney is not ready to let go of that yet. She wants to lure a world struggling with an empty existence towards the charms of a meaningful coexistence.
The cultural depth of Rooney’s project is not the only attraction of Normal People. In telling the story, she displays a mastery of seductive writing. No sentence inside of a chapter is complete without the next one, making it feel like a unique kind of violence to stop reading at any point other than a chapter break. This magnetism, perhaps, lead Sarah Jessica Parker to write on Instagram, “This book. This book. I read it in one day. I hear I’m not alone.”
That is not to say, however, that no single sentence is worth pondering upon. Take, for example, Connell thinking that literary events “were attended only by the people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.” or Marianne feeling “like a soft piece of cloth that is wrung out and dripping.” Every once in a while, you will be hit with a sentence so refreshingly unique that you will pause and let it sink in.
The rhythmic flow of the sentences, enmeshed with the wavelike motions of the relationship between Marianne and Connell, creates a musical experience that leaves the reader emotionally untethered. We end up finding so profoundly meaningful what exists between them that we might even start taking seriously (and Rooney surely hopes we do) what exists between us.
Rooney has tapped into the desperate need of our generation – a lesson in caring a little less about ourselves, and a little more about each other. Normal People is a reflection in fiction on the richness of life beyond inward-looking individuality, and in that sense, Normal People is a true novel for our times.
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