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Why normal people love Sally Rooney They see their sad lives reflected in her stories

Anyone fancy cracking a joke? No? Ok then. Credit: IMDB.

Anyone fancy cracking a joke? No? Ok then. Credit: IMDB.


May 18, 2022   6 mins

I am suspicious of the Sally Rooney phenomenon. In particular, I suspect the claim, often made on behalf of the books, that they are an especially authentic or perspicuous representation of the experiences of young adults today.

Her novels — Normal People, Conversations with Friends and last summer’s Beautiful World, Where Are You — have helped to popularise a flat, affectless, prose. Novelists operating in this disenchanted style presuppose, like Rooney, that an unshakable feeling of worldly-alienation, together with an almost pathological degree of highly absorbed self-examination, constitutes the only fitting response to the conditions of millennial life and to the dilemmas forced on their protagonists by “late capitalism”. The temperament described — and probably shared — by these writers is one that veers unsettlingly between a familiar kind of cynicism about the social world (underpowered by any deep understanding of it) and embarrassing displays of earnestness.

The TV series (first Normal People in 2020, and now Conversations with Friends) are rather less annoying than the books. Because the alienated world-view is so much bound-up with prose style, it is difficult to reproduce on the screen. Both series are, needless to say, extremely handsome and expensively-produced. Everything — the shabby-chic interiors; the cute acoustic soundtrack; the long, stilted silences; the tiny corners of well-chosen novels allowed briefly to appear from between the protagonists’ hands; the carefully-choreographed sex between hairless Grecian bodies — all of it is just dreadfully, dreadfully tasteful.

More vividly than the books, the dramatisations indulge certain aspirational fantasies the viewer may have about her own life. They are also rather forgettable. Freed from Rooney’s reductive prose-style, the stories lose much of their distinctive atmosphere. First-personal detachment is difficult to convey in film; these series opt, sensibly, to be complacently beautiful rather than meet the challenge. One result is that the highly conventional quality of Rooney’s stories becomes more vivid to us: they are sentimental teenage romances, languidly extended over ten hours.

Still, in both Normal People and Conversations With Friends there are helpful clues that we remain in the Rooney-verse. Many scenes are given over to patience-testing depictions of the mundane business of the protagonists’ lives, which seem at moments to be unfolding before us in real time. (Characters brush their teeth, do the dishes, walk around… brush their teeth again). Rooney co-scripted Normal People, and in both series dialogue is often lifted directly from the books, which — when spoken aloud —reveals a strangely remedial quality, as if it is being translated from a foreign language off-the-cuff and by someone with a slightly limited vocabulary in English.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you’re feeling bad about this”, Connell’s mother tells him, profoundly. “I feel like our friendship would be a lot easier if certain things were different”, Connell later confesses to Marianne. ‘Nice’ is a near-universal term of approbation. Al dente pasta is ‘nice’; the university therapist is ‘nice’; doggystyle is ‘nice’; Christmas with grandma is ‘nice’. At times, the anti-naturalistic dialogue seems by its presence to reveal a nervousness about the actors’ abilities to communicate any unspoken feeling whatsoever to the viewer. “I want this so much’, Marianne is made to announce while she and Connell have sex. ‘It’s really nice to hear you say that’, he replies.

An underdiscussed fact about the books and their adaptations is how remarkably without humour they are. There is no hint in the books that the world might be a remotely funny place. Of course, we are given to understand that the characters themselves sometimes say funny things, more often than not of a cruel or misjudged sort  — that they occasionally cause one another physically to laugh — though we are not very often allowed to know what the funny thing at issue was. If they weren’t at least minimally funny, I suppose, the worry is we might start to question whether the characters were quite as attractive or intelligent as we are instructed to think they are.

For doubt to set in on that question would be fatal to the ideal on offer. The neurasthenic temperament, one exquisitely tuned to social nuance and psychic discomfort, is what admirers of Rooney’s work identify with and aspire to. They want to see themselves in this disfiguring generational portrait. Why? One ready explanation is that Rooney’s novels flatter the kind of reader already likely to be attracted to her work. They do this in one straightforward way by being sentimental fantasies of requited erotic love whose characters achieve their aims despite comparably little effort and much glamorous emotional anguish. The protagonists are everymen but also intensely special and distinctive. The stories are exercises in wish-fulfilment.

Beyond this, I think the explanation has to do with the connection Rooney makes between alienated self-awareness and moral virtue. In Rooney’s works, a state of highly-analysed self-awareness in itself has a kind of redemptive quality. Marianne and Francis exist in a state of troubled grace. A neurotic and conflicted attitude is presented as somehow appropriate to the conditions of the contemporary world, its injustices, and the impossible options it places before us as individuals. Not only is the alienated condition admirable, then, it is, given the state of the world, cognitively reliable. Rooney’s protagonists see the world more clearly than the rest of us do, and their psychic unease is a testament to this epistemic achievement.

This combination of views accounts for much that irritates in the books. It explains for instance how the protagonists’ posturing and dogmatic political beliefs are combined by Rooney in such an apparently seamless way with a strangely smug quietism about politics itself. All that is required for personal absolution is to be painfully aware of one’s own horribly compromised position.

Early on in Conversations with Friends we watch Bobbi upbraiding Nick, an actor, for playing a gay role when he is a straight man. “Well, as long as you’re self-flagellating and having an awful time!” Bobbi reassures him, archly. It is a truer expression of the work’s political outlook than can have been intentional. “May the revolution be swift and brutal”, Marianne proclaims in Normal People — a mad prescription, issued to no one in particular, with no expectation that it should take effect.

Marianne and Francis, merely in virtue of being fascinated by their deficiencies of character – the gap between their lofty ideals and their shameful desires, their acts of unthinking selfishness – are shown not only to be better than people who do not have such perceptions about themselves, but also to understand the world more truthfully. The chief alternative to being an intelligent hypocrite in Rooney’s world is not, say, to be well-balanced or temperamentally sane, but to be stupid.

Rooney – a “lifelong Marxist” – thinks of her protagonists as having achieved a double-vision of the social reality of which they are a part. They see bourgeois social norms and sexual conventions for what they are. Unable to escape the analytical habit, Rooney’s protagonists also see through other people, even the ones they profess to love, and eventually, with no object remaining to detach themselves from, they see right through themselves.

“I feel like I’m walking around trying on a hundred different versions of myself”, Connell tells us in Normal People. Aware that their preternatural intelligence allows them to justify, by casuistical lines of argument, any particular reading of the world they care to alight on, a kind of global alienation sets in, where the feeling of detachment itself is the only remaining fixed-point in psychological space, with little sense even of what it is detachment from. The result is the strangely Cartesian quality of Rooney’s picture of the agent — an internal ghost assailed by a stream of suspicious data from a hostile world.

Like Normal People, the adaptation of Conversations with Friends is over-long and emotionally laborious. For one thing, each of the show’s four lead characters attaches enormous importance to the question of whether each one of the other characters is feeling alright, and, at higher conversational iterations, whether they would tell them if they weren’t feeling alright. Such enquiries are pursued with limitless patience, and often whole episodes pass with little else discussed. Despite their indefatigable efforts to relate to one another, the characters misunderstand each other all the same, and cry themselves into dehydration. By the time the sans-serif credits began to crawl across the ending of the twelfth episode — reminding me of the names of the men and women responsible for doing this to me — I felt as if I would never be alright again.

Why is Rooney’s work so highly regarded as generation-defining commentary? Why do people think it definitively skewering of our social age and atmosphere? Rooney herself, by explicit allusion, encourages a comparison with Jane Austen within the pages of Normal People. (Reading Emma in the university library one night, Connell is put into “a state of strange emotional agitation” and concludes that “literature moves him”, indeed that it touches him in a way that is “not completely asexual”). As with Austen, Rooney’s novels do not adapt to the screen in a way that successfully preserves their character; in Austen’s case this is to the decided detriment of the dramatisations, in Rooney’s case less obviously so.

The allusion to Austen is strangely ill-advised. The picture of the world Rooney gives the reader is one entirely mediated by the protagonists’ neuroses and hang-ups. Austen relies on precise, puncturing ironies. The comparison also runs the risk —  hardly sensible under the circumstances — of reminding the reader that instead of watching Conversations with Friends or Normal People, she could be reading Emma.


John Maier is an UnHerd columnist and PhD student at the University of Oxford

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Pamplemousse LaCroix
Pamplemousse LaCroix
2 years ago

Have always hated Rooney’s books since I read one for a book club, but the arguments against them have never been so well articulated! Fantastic article.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Rather disappointing that this writer failed to put the context of her Marxism, when she censored her books for Jews, preventing them being read in Hebrew. This shouldn’t be forgotten in any discussion about her views.

While people can debate the definition of anti semitism endlessly, a writer stopping a book in the particular language of Jews, is pretty blatant anti semitism – particularly when she hasn’t stopped her book being translated into other languages, where state oppression is far, far worse.

On the other hand, for any Jewish readers, you ain’t missing anything.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Was it for Jews or for Israel? The Jewish novelist Michael Chabon said that “as a proudly Jewish writer who wants Israel to survive and thrive, and (and therefore) supports the Palestinian people in their struggle for equality, justice and human rights, I say yasher koach (Hebrew for ‘Good job’ or ‘More power to you’) to Rooney.” I suppose you will explain that Mr. Chabon is not as all-seeing as you lol

Paul MacDonnell
Paul MacDonnell
3 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

This is not true. She refused to allow them to be printed in Israel (a BDS thing) but she has never said they should not be translated and published in Hebrew.

Adam Young
Adam Young
2 years ago

‘Flat’ is the word. Flat writing, flat characters, flat sex, flat worldview. It is funny how her characters, as in her stand-ins, are perfect beings without fault. It is perfect for people who want to be reassured.

Should literature be mere reassurance?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Young

The characters sound like overly-polished FB/Instagram profiles made (literary) flesh. Rather less reassurance than a presentation of what happens when life becomes social media and vice versa.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Technically I am a millennial (a geriatric millennial, if you please). I am also a voracious reader and will read pretty much anything. And yet I cannot bring myself to read a full Rooney book. I’ll think “oh I should try one and see what the fuss is about”, pick one up in the book shop and do my standard “shall I buy it?” test of reading page 69. And every time, I can just feel the highly-styled depression lifting off the page and think: no. Another time.
Current read: Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs, a book I picked up from my local public bookshelf. You see – I really will read anything.

Richard 0
Richard 0
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Don’t bother, Katherine. I read Normal People and was extremely underwhelmed. Everything that the author writes in this very perceptive piece is right. I have no urge to read any more of her work. I would only add that Rodney’s work is distinctly unchallenging, absolutely nothing to get one’s teeth into. Like you, I read a lot – just finished Grey Bees by Andrei Kurkov and loved it’s off centre quirkiness. It will stay with me a lot longer than …what were those teenagers called…?

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

If you have never read Stefan Zweig ‘Beware of Pity’ – recommend.It covers adolescent love a 100 years ago but an unusual storyline and is a classic .

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

I live in Vienna so I know Stefan Zweig well. In fact, I used to work in the house he was born in. I’m a fan of the Schachnovella.

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I must re-read that – it was brilliant.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

This was my experience after being told I should read Dan Brown several years ago, albeit I only made it to page 2.

Brooke Walford
Brooke Walford
2 years ago

I’m 69, almost 70, and female, and I never if I can help it, watch a tv dramatisation of a book I have enjoyed. I read Conversations with friends when it first came out, and I was hugely impressed. It’s literary style, as in the use of online communications etc, was a really contemporary device which I found fresh and exciting – though I can see the format could age quite quickly. It was bold. At times it took my breath away. The ending was unexpected but worthy of applause. Every one here seems so pissed off with the book, I felt compelled to redress the imbalance.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

almost pathological degree of highly absorbed self-examination

This is why I couldn’t finish Normal People and couldn’t watch the TV drama either. But she is not alone in this, it appears that any novel, these days, about young people (especially, and I hate to say this, by young women) has this excruciating level of navel gazing, without any actual insight. The characters are so unlikable that if they all expired in a massive explosion … well at least it would end the novel.

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago

Overrated-because-Irish is the new overrated-because-black. Talentless bores get to make a lot of money whingeing about how “oppressed” they are.

Michael 0
Michael 0
2 years ago

Without even reading page or watching a minute of her novels I find her grating. From hearing girls I know speak of her books and general descriptions of her TV shows it does just seem like boring romance novels as this writer alludes to. I’m glad there seems to be a backlash against Rooney now from all the undeserved praise that at one point led to her being called the ‘JD Sallinger of her generation’. Perhaps the person who said that had never read any of his books but I know I don’t need to read hers to know that that comparison is far from true.

Richard 0
Richard 0
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael 0

The comparison with Salinger is ridiculous (and insulting to Salinger). I think Rooney should be recategorised as Young Adult fiction – it had far greater appeal to my teenage daughter. Rooney doesn’t allow her books to be sold in Israel as it practices apartheid policies. How juvenile.The Israelis are not missing anything.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard 0

Salinger wrote 1 seminal book which was obviously auto biographical.Noone would read his few other published books if they did not have the Salinger name.It will not be difficult for Rooney to deliver a greater body of work than Salinger

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard 0

Exactly when I first read Catcher in the Rye (set as a school text) it gave this English adolescent female an insight into the thinking of an American adolescent male. A rather strange male, admittedly, but it allowed some empathy, which is what a good novel should do, and what Ms Rooney’s books do not do.

Kencathedrus
Kencathedrus
2 years ago

My wife and I watched the first two episodes of Normal People and couldn’t summon the willpower to watch any more. The characters were supposed to be school children yet looked and talked like they were in their early thirties. They were even driving cars which is highly unlikely for GCSE level students. The dialogue sounded painfully American albeit with an Irish accent. I felt like I was experiencing an Apple TV show in that it seemed to tick a lot of boxes, but I wasn’t sure whose.

Frances Killian
Frances Killian
2 years ago

Frances not Francis. Not a pedant, just a Frances. Even my O level certificates (age give away) are wrong. Spent years saying ‘with an e not an i’.

Frances Killian
Frances Killian
2 years ago

Frances not Francis. Not a pedant, just a Frances. Even my O level certificates (age give away) are wrong. Spent years saying ‘with an e not an i’.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago

Not read the books but have seen the 2 televised series and the acting could not be any better.Long time since i was 19 but they really make alive young arty students or the ones who stay in that mindest well into their 20’s

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Me too. Not read the novels but enjoyed the TV series as well acted entertainment without any great social message.