If you like reading, you have surely heard about Normal People. The novel has been acclaimed a ‘future classic’ by The Guardian and its Irish author, 28-year-old Sally Rooney, hailed as the voice of her generation. Hulu and the BBC have bought the screen rights and a television adaption is due to premiere next spring.
The enthusiastic reviews might lead you to expect a literary revelation: a portrait of reality seen through the eyes of the young who are just entering adulthood after the financial crisis of 2008; a landscape that incorporates both psychological subtleties and the restraints of the class system (Rooney is a self-described Marxist), spelt out in spare, transparent and poignant language. In fact, you are picking up an everyday read about the uncertainties, palpitations and conformism of 20-something love. The initial impression of technical skill slowly gives way to weariness: a relatively intriguing dramatic construction, in which every couple of weeks or months we see our heroes in a completely different stage of their relationship and where events are gradually revealed in retrospective. However, after the third mechanical repetition, this device becomes tiresomely predictable. The reasonably good writing loses its charm when it becomes clear that we will not be taken beyond a romantic novel in which everything boils down to the trembling hearts, the looks and touches, the misunderstandings and desires, the mutual humiliation and moments of intimacy between two people: Marianne, with her privileged upbringing, and Connell, the son of her family’s cleaner.
It is deeply disturbing that this novel has been lauded as a literary appraisal of society today. For here, the outside world is merely the backdrop to a love affair. Only the main characters are given the right to be multidimensional. All the other characters are developed only in as far as they are necessary to push the action forward, or to utter a remark that captures some class difference, or to depict society’s conformism, or to provide a dose of violence or support, necessary to complete the ‘psychological portrait’. All we know about Lorraine is that, despite her teenage pregnancy, single motherhood and lack of education, she is a supportive mother and a wise companion, who gives her son the space to develop; she is free of bitterness, neither overbearing nor resentful (Connell, despite his poverty, has had a good childhood). Of Denise, we know that she is cold and loathes her daughter, but accepts her persecution and that her late husband himself was violent (in spite of their wealth, Marianne has had a bad childhood). The same thing applies to their friends and acquaintances and their partners. Deprived of any complexity, they come and go like background details to this ‘very-deep-though-difficult-relationship’ (the despicable high-school ‘star’, the sadistic artist, the conformist ‘friend’ sleeping her way to success, etc.).
Similarly, it is the intelligence, accomplishments and exceptionalism of our heroes that allows the explosion of emotions to overcome the class barriers. The reader knows they are clever because they both got outstanding results in their exams, scholarships to the best Irish university; they read books and discuss things. The intellectual chemistry between them and their brilliance is spelt out to the reader, but we never really see this in action. The sex scenes are much more convincing. Connell is studying English; Marianne, history and political science. He is moved by the novels of Jane Austen. She shows off her opinions on global politics. Yet the way they conduct their own relationship remains almost undefiled by the discussions that today’s students should be immersed in, whether on the theory of social capital, a field of literature, psychoanalysis, feminism or psychotherapy.
Of course, they are aware of the difference in their social status (even if they try to ignore it), but this is more a source of fraught misunderstandings than any class conflict. The boy makes seemingly critical statements about capitalism and recommends the girl reads The Communist Manifesto, but, even as he hurts her, he doesn’t allow himself to regard her as one of the exploiters. She doesn’t have to take his phone calls, but she isn’t disgusted by his beaten-up trainers, which he wears everywhere – the equivalent of the overworked red hands of Wokulski (the aristocrat’s working-class lover from Bolesław Prus’s The Doll). Despite her masochistic tendencies and her political science studies, she is completely unaware of her privilege in her relationship with Connell; she experiences no shame or misplaced sense of superiority (and it never even occurs to her that her bullying mother might cut off her money). In principle, this book could end happily half-way through, if only the couple would abide by the therapeutic, middle-class revelation: that they should be more open with each other. (Here, in reality, lies the source of the absurd misunderstanding: the blindness of wealth on the one hand, and a poverty complex on the other.)
The unashamed hype surrounding Rooney’s novel is, however, very typical – this novel offers a very comfortable portrait of class. Sociologists have proven that the bedrock of inequality is that it shapes our deepest emotional structures and, from our earliest years, projects the future fate of each of us. Therefore, the very fact that Marianne and Connell make it to the same elite university is the exception and not the rule (it is, in any case, rather strange that they both go to the same high school). Moreover, the author takes care from the outset to ensure that Marianne’s financial and social advantages are offset in other areas. It is the son of the cleaner who is embarrassed that he’s going out with the daughter of his mother’s employer, because, by some mysterious coincidence, this rich, super-intelligent and pretty girl is beyond reach at school. She can lend him money, but it is he who will try to protect her from an abusive partner or her brother’s aggression. And finally, it is she who desires his dominance, while he – not entirely consistently – tries not to abuse this advantage. In other words, here neither class nor economic status determine the relationship between power and dependency.
Rooney’s work is closer to a romantic novel about a misalliance than to any sociological analysis. There’s nothing wrong with this, if we are reaching for a book to remind ourselves about the heightened emotions and clumsy fumblings of infatuation in our twenties. However, to regard this as a description of the mood of the precariat generation (and none of the characters here are part of the precariat!) or as an insight into the class system, would be like treating Cinderella as a critique of feudalism. Ultimately, both stories promise us that inequality is an illusory obstacle to ‘genuine’ feelings; in the end we are all ‘normal people’ capable of ‘changing one another’.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz
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