Sally Rooney Strips the Novel for Parts

Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

Who talks like this, I found myself thinking as I read Sally Rooney’s second novel. Especially, and I say this at the risk of revealing my utter lack of teenaged sophistication, someone this young. Her characters’ casually brilliant dialogue might be a trick of writing and revising, but if you’ve ever heard Rooney speak, in an interview for a podcast, say, one might, hypothetically of course, stand slack-jawed before the laundry one was folding, wondering how anyone can speak so fluently and intelligently off the cuff, sounding, as she did, like a character in a Sally Rooney novel.

You could describe Normal People in a few different ways, depending on whom you’re trying to sell it to. It’s the story of two teenagers who are both the smartest kids in any room, and how that does or doesn’t save them. One is the son of the other one’s house cleaner, so it’s a social novel. They fuck (it’s deeply horny). They are together-but-not, on again and off again. Basically, it’s a very neurotic romance novel. It’s a story of the influence people have over each other, especially while young. The story of our current post-recession moment, a keenly observed moment in time.

That there isn’t any one way to say what the book is “about” could be a considered a flaw of this novel, though it never felt like one to me. There’s no big quest in Normal People. The plot feels incidental, a not-so-elaborate setup to let the Rooney interpersonal-insight machine shine. I suspect I could give Rooney writing prompts, however boring or clichéd (and her plots, taken as such, could be called both), and she would disappear for a few months then return bearing a book that would reduce me to a skull emoji, filled with melancholy longing.

Nevertheless, here we are: The book opens with high-school classmates Connell and Marianne in the latter’s kitchen, making awkward, tentative conversation while Connell’s mother Lorraine finishes cleaning Marianne’s very large home. Connell is a popular, well-liked kid at the top of his class, though from what Marianne knows to be a “bad family” (read: working class, single mother). Marianne is right up at the top with Connell academically, but a social outcast from a dysfunctional wealthy family. Both kids take genuine solace in reading and learning and talking and escaping their current circumstances.

As such, Connell and Marianne are improbably but thrillingly deft at analyzing themselves and each other. Casually sharp interpersonal insights seem to roll offhand through their conversations as well as their consciousnesses, dazzling the reader (me):

The other night Marianne told him that she though he’d turned out well as a person. She said he was nice, and that everyone liked him. He found himself thinking about that a lot. It was a pleasant thing to have in his thoughts. You’re a nice person and everyone likes you. To test himself he would try not thinking about it for a bit, and then go back and think about it again to see if it still made him feel good, and it did.

Both of Rooney’s books, Normal People and Conversations With Friends before it, stuck with me, but more as moods than events or images. While the physical appearance of Marianne and Connell never fully cohered in my brain, I felt such a mind meld with their interpersonal dynamic that this felt appropriate, the way you aren’t aware of the appearance of your own face moving through the world, but you are aware of how it feels. Your ears turning red, your heart beating faster.

Dwelling on the sight of Connell’s face always gives Marianne a certain pleasure, which can be inflected with any number of feelings depending on the minute interval of conversation and mood. His appearance is like a favorite piece of music to her, sounding a little different each time she hears it.

Even if we can’t picture them, the characters are wildly, freakishly attuned to every sensation they experience, surveilling their emotional and physical reactions and analyzing the gestures and comments of everyone they encounter.

In fact, there is so little external physical description that when it comes along it functions as a mental speed bump, drawing attention to the artifice. The spell of the book is broken, temporarily, as if Rooney has remembered to insert some description of rain “silver as loose change in the glare of traffic,” or cherries hanging from trees and “gleaming like so many spectral planets.”

Gleaming cherries are nice, but in context they only underscore how well-tuned Rooney’s writing is otherwise. Stop looking at the snow falling out the window and get back to analyzing some intimate gestures, goddamnit, I kept urging. Do the witty repartee!

You get greedy, reading her. If Rachel Cusk has gut renovated the novel, Sally Rooney has stripped it for parts. Why can’t all books be like this, I started thinking midway through, just 280 pages of pure human relationship? All I want is palpable sexual tension and interpersonal conflict in the present tense, with a roving close-third narrator, baby.

But whereas Cusk in her Transit trilogy eliminated traditional character development, with an eye toward eliminating the gut-twisting dread and its counterpart desire, Rooney luxuriates in the opposite. Normal People is almost purely character development. Cusk’s recent writing exists in a post-marriage-plot universe of pure intellect, where dread and desire are muted into something more like unease and detached curiosity. Rooney’s characters are still horny and confused young people, burning brightly. If they are detached, it is a protective instinct, and a posture. They still have the capacity to be surprised, and to be hurt. Full of youthful desire and its attendant dread, they are malleable, and infinitely influenced by other people.

Connell and Marianne’s fates may be partially determined by their social class (“A lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing,” Rooney told Lauren Collins of The New Yorker) and the shitty economy, but they are also shaped (if not saved) by each other and their shared dynamic. People can change, for better or worse, Rooney argues in this book, especially young people. In the end, it’s the very influence that Connell and Marianne have over each other that gives each of their lives too much momentum for the traditional marriage plot. Or maybe this is the marriage plot made current: two star-crossed lovers, trading emails over oceans while one of them gets their MFA.

Sally Rooney Strips the Novel for Parts