NORMAL PEOPLE (Faber and Faber 2018)
While Sally Rooney’s novel is in no way derivative, she appears to have fashioned her style from Irish literature–in particular Tana French’s immaculate attention to the small gesture, the lighting of a cigarette, and non-vocal exchange; Samuel Beckett’s focus on the minutiae of the environment, the setting of a table and the slight shift of plates or knives; and James Joyce in the stylistic absence of speech marks. And, possibly, non-Irish, the competing levels of secrecy that remind me of Gilllian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
Main Characters: Connell, poor and illegitimate, and Marianne, rich and despised, are intelligent and emotionally wounded college-bound students in NW Ireland.
Minor Characters and Antagonists:
Basically neutral: a slew of students both in Carricklea’s comp school and Trinity College, Dublin.
Connell’s easy-going mother Lorraine and various relatively insignifcant girlfriends, though Helen briefly lifts “the heavy lid of his emotional life.”
Marianne is an island of derision saddled with an inexplicably hostile mother and brother; her boyfriends Jamie and Lukas beat and humilitate her, though not without her permission. At one point, Connell understands that he can hurt her too, and it makes him sick.
Plot: The character arcs developed from the annals of Connell’s and Marianne’s periods of sexual or platonic relationship create the entire plot. Perhaps it would be proper to characterize the story’s trajectory as two intertwined bildungsromans building to the point of mutal trust.
Theme: Dominance and subjection; the shaping influence of one person on another and vice versa, in a stunning exactitude of self-knowledge: Example: “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 it, and he knows he has.”
Mood and Scene Go-tos: Bars, parties, orgiastic drinking, music, foreign vacations, car rides, soccer, phones, emails, academic competition.
Emblems: Beds, blood, wine, cigarettes, sex, romance, weather, self-destruction, ambition, the state of the world.
Craft: I consider this story a form of narrative pointillism–perhaps a deliberate articulation, as odious Lukas would put it, that “All life is an artistic technique.”
Rooney’s detail is finely-honed and possibly faultless in the shaping of character, which is, essentially, the plot.
The story proceeds in alternating chapters told from Connell’s and Marianne’s point of view, with a substantial degree of dialogue balanced by internal musings. There is hardly any big or startling action. Perhaps the novel’s fatal flaw?
Though the points-of-view are essentially solid, there are occasionally slips–as if one has power over the other’s perspective. I found jarring the unnecessary adverbs; Marianne’s reaching into her pocket for “a crushed box of matches” as if crushed were her choice; and her habit of re-shaping events only to carve her wounds deeper.
What is truly marvellous is Rooney’s figurative language:
–possibility is “a vast cruise ship that sailed out of nowhere,”
–guilt is “breath and snow–a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake,”
–Marianne’s mother’s gesture of contempt is a cardless gift of 500 Christmas Euros in “one of the small brown–paper envelopes she used for [the cleaner’s] wages.”