SALLY ROONEY’S NORMAL PEOPLE: A TECHNICAL BOOK REVIEW (UPDATED)

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I’m happy to report that I didn’t pay a cent to read Sally Rooney’s Normal People. A proselytizing musician friend… a violinist, appropriately…  pressed it on me.  She said you have to read this,  it is so good. Okay, I said. I’ll read it and give it right back in a week or so. (I gave it back the next day).

Well, it’s my problem. I’m a grownup who becomes, irrevocably, more grownup every second. It’s hard for me to read things for children if I’m not reading to children. It’s also hard to watch other grownups reading things for children as if they were children, or as if the books were for grownups.

What’s wrong with you, I wanted to say, when Harry Potter was huge.

Then the Harry Potter craze subsided and I discovered that it had not really subsided but had learned to camouflage itself,  like an indefatigable virus,  and come back as many different books by many different writers winning endless accolades along the way.

A drummer (a real idiot but I gave him credit for being Italian, reading English-language books) begged me to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I read it half-way through in one evening and asked him, at our next rehearsal, not to give me books meant for children. He was offended (thinking the book a masterpiece) but I fired him later that year, anyway. Which failed to fix the larger problem. Which being…

“… it is now aspirational to be the kind of person who has read Sally Rooney. She is a signifier of a certain kind of literary chic: If you read Sally Rooney, the thinking seems to go, you’re smart, but you’re also fun — and you’re also cool enough to be suspicious of both “smart” and “fun” as general concepts.” (Vox, “The Cult of Sally Rooney”)

What if you’re smart enough to be suspicious of shit that is marketed to people who are “smart enough” to be marketed to?

I was irritated quite early in the reading of Normal People. I detected blatant evidence that this was a literary effort conceived in the crucible of workshopping’s art-killing obsession with maximum audience penetration. Rooney’s style is not her own, it’s the over-refined result of decades of Cultural Devolution… otherwise known as the alarming rise of no-nonsense professionalism in the Arts (picture Rock Stars in fanny packs receiving oral through condoms after confirming permission to insert)…  it is leased from among the pre-approved templates that all the best crypto-YA lit-workers use these days.  Hip hop industry-plants use tried-and-true third-party “beats” and young “literary fiction” stars use these pre-approved style templates. Telling one such stylist from another could be an unusually difficult Millennial drinking game. Rooney picked a template that is dizzy with nostalgia for the early 2000s, as she opted for the Hardboiled Entitled Present Continuous pack pioneered by marketing expert Tao Lin in 2007.

“Andrew talks to Steve on the phone then drives to Domino’s. “You’re late,” Matt says. “You’re fired. Get your shit and get the fuck out of here.” There are two managers and one is Matt. The other manager is the sad manager.

Andrew grins. “Okay,” he says.

Matt stares at Andrew. “I don’t want to see you again, Andrew.” Matt is twenty-five, singer and guitarist of his own band, and Andrew is making a shiteating grin at him. Andrew goes to the back, feels tired of life, and logs in.”

That’s the opener from Tao Lin’s Stephen Mitchelmore-trumpeted Eeeee Eee Eeee (I counted the E’s in that title to get it right, lest I be accused of unseriousness). Here’s the opener for Sally Rooney’s Normal People:

“Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell. She’s still wearing her school uniform, but she’s taken off the sweater, so it’s just the blouse and skirt, and she has no shoes on, only tights.

Oh, hey, he says.

Come on in.

She turns and walks down the hall. He follows her, closing the door behind him. Down a few steps in the kitchen, his mother Lorraine is peeling off a pair of rubber gloves. Marianne hops onto the countertop and picks up an open jar of chocolate spread, in which she has left a teaspoon.”

 

(Full disclosure: on first reading that opener, I pictured Marianne hopping onto the countertop… as the text directed me to… and sort of standing on it, or perhaps prancing there, and I thought:  “Aha, this Marianne is a quirky type, eh? Should be interesting…” But, no. Rooney meant to write, I guess:  “Marianne sits on the countertop…” )

As you can see, the template has evolved somewhat, since Tao Lin’s campaign of 2007, in that Rooney eschews the use of inverted commas to indicate reported speech, producing an even more hardboiled,  or flat-affect (“autistic”),  effect. Or perhaps the difference is just Yank/ Irish. Rooney’s stripping of the inverted commas edges her work closer to fellow countryman Samuel Beckett ‘s territory than to Tao Lin’s, yes?  (wink).

Bear with me (the inverted commas bracketing the following excerpt were provided by me)…

“Not only am I left here, but I am looked after! This is how it is done now. The door half opens, a hand puts a dish on the little table left there for that purpose, takes away the dish of the previous day, and the door closes again. This is done for me every day, at the same time probably. When I want to eat I hook the table with my stick and draw it to me. It is on castors, it comes squeaking and lurching towards me. When I need it no longer I send it back to its place by the door. It is soup. They must know I am toothless. I eat it one time out of two, out of three, on an average. When my chamber-pot is full I put it on the table, beside the dish. Then I go twenty-four hours without a pot. No, I have two pots. They have thought of everything. I am naked in the bed, in the blankets, whose number I increase and diminish as the seasons come and go. I am never hot, never cold. I don’t wash, but I don’t get dirty. If I get dirty somewhere I rub the part with my finger wet with spittle. What matters is to eat and excrete. Dish and pot, dish and pot, these are the poles. In the beginning it was different. The woman came right into the room, bustled about, enquired about my needs, my wants. I succeeded in the end in getting them into her head, my needs and my wants. It was not easy. She did not understand. Until the day I found the terms, the accents, that fitted her. All that must be half imagination. It was she who got me this long stick. It has a hook at one end. Thanks to it I can control the furthest recesses of my abode. How great is my debt to sticks! So great that I almost forget the blows they have transferred to me.”

That was from Beckett’s Malone Dies (published in English in 1956) and I cite it to illustrate the range of freedom a writer has,  even within the confines of what appears to be the same, or similar,  style template, to diverge. This Beckett passage, like Rooney’s book,  is written within the framing of the present continuous tense and it relies on short, plain, declarative sentences, like Rooney’s book. The objects and actions Beckett details are as banal as Rooney’s. Yet, the two examples of narrative (Beckett’s and Rooney’s) couldn’t be more laughably different.

I’m not comparing Rooney’s Artistic goals to Beckett’s, or the raw Humanity of one text to the other, nor even her talent to his. I’m comparing the rigor applied to each effort;  the respective seriousness of each attempt to create a set of special literary conditions. One of these two efforts fails on that level, wasting paper to tell us all about the needs and doubts of two hot young types*, clever and glazed with the lickable lubricant of sticky sweet, McEwanesque “class-conflict”.  Isn’t that precisely how TV’s moronic bilge is pitched and made? Selling us “the feels” in the Trojan horse of youth/beauty/bling? And done with just as little of the Literary, added, as is humanly possible?

With the added irony that old Beckett’s cited book  is often cruelly hilarious in its  prickling minutiae, while young Rooney’s is trivial,  smoothly humorless and essentially largely random, or stuffed, in all its minimalism, with filler. Its details are just tricks, MFA-teacher gimmicks. Like an aspirin is Rooney’s book, the bulk of which consists of inactive ingredients.  An aspirin that gives you a headache too dull to register as proper pain. A headache misinterpreted as the vague sense that one is wasting one’s time, maybe, or that someone else is. The headache of the page-turner whose pages can’t,  physically, turn fast enough.

Rooney’s Normal People reads like a no-nonsense treatment, for a blockbusting screenplay,  for busy producers to skim at lunch.  Readers who marvel that they “couldn’t put down” novels of this ilk are unaware (owing largely to their irremediable ahistoricity) that hacks have been using such simple narrative tricks,  to move literary product by the shovelful, for centuries. It’s amazing how “unputdownable” a book can feel when it never once requires you to pause and think or to re-read a passage with painstaking or gluttonous delectation. Suspense (Will they or will they not marry? Or die? Or inherit a fortune?) + simple language = page-turner. Just ask Georges Simenon or Jackie Susann.  It’s neither Rocket Science nor, properly, The Spooky Art: it’s fucking Entertainment. And I don’t like music or literature that works, primarily, to instrumentalize me as a consumer, no matter what is promised in exchange.

I would be a poor host if I hadn’t bothered to run out the door and down the street, to a friend’s, to pick up a paperback from which I could extract the obvious comparison to the above-cited 2017,  and 2007,  iterations of the Flat-Affect First Person Present Continuous YA Coming of Age TV-book: Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, which opens with:

“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that had splattered the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which had looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my gray argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue T-shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence. It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge rather than “I’m pretty sure Muriel is anorexic” or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else seems to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blair’s car. All it comes down to is that I’m a boy coming home for a month and meeting someone whom I haven’t seen for four months and people are afraid to merge.”

That was 1985’s idea of a Flat-Affect Page-Turner.  What’s the first thing you notice about it? It’s too full of information; it’s too Literary. You’d need a PhD (calibrated at contemporary  standards, I mean) to zip through such material page-turningly, though I can remember thinking that this read like a comic book when I first tried (the first fourth of) it. So you can see how the Market just ruthlessly whittled it all down, all the unnecessary stuff, all the “unjustified” Intellectual bother, expense and protuberances, all the fancy arty bulk and baroque… until  the “modern novel” became perfectly streamlined to the fit of the howling demands of the Dum-dum Wind Tunnel of contemporary discourse.

Bringing us neatly back to the Present and the paper-thin book at hand…

About a third of the way through Normal People I started skipping ahead. I reasoned that in a  “coming of  age”  (YA) novel  like this, there’s always a Death,  and the Death comes about 3/4ths of the way through it,  to either catalyze or demarcate the commencement of the (vague and vaunted) Age the young protags are meant to Come Of. Skipping ahead I saw this was so. Normal People then took miraculous flight across the room, knocking over a Normal cluster of empty deposit bottles.

Want a  larger sample from Normal People?

Well okay… (take note, in the excerpt below,  of the throwaway detail of the pen piercing the paper, the MFA-ish thing Rooney often resorts to: couldn’t there have been a Verisimilitudinous subtlety designed to add to the cumulative effect of the character’s reported substance, instead? That detail makes it feel “real” but it could have happened to anyone, adding nothing deeper to the scene):

“In the waiting room he has to fill out a questionnaire. The seats are brightly coloured, arranged around a coffee table with a children’s abacus toy on it. The coffee table is much too low for him to lean forward and fill out the pages on its surface, so he arranges them awkwardly in his lap instead. On the very first question he pierces the page with his ballpoint pen and leaves a tiny tear in the paper. He looks up at the receptionist who provided him with the form but she’s not watching, so he looks back down again. The second question is headed ‘Pessimism’. He has to circle the number beside one of the following statements:

0 I am not discouraged about my future

1 I feel more discouraged about my future than I used to be

2 I do not expect things to work out for me

3 I feel my future is hopeless and will only get worse”

Now imagine filling out a similar questionnaire regarding your feelings about the prospects for Lit.

 

 

 

 

*I have a problem with any Literary artifact that cheats by hooking the reader’s interest by making the protag(s) hot, young, extremely clever, (predestined to be) successful and born (as with Normal People’s female lead) wealthy. That’s also my essential problem with Christianity (substitute “born the Son of god” for “born wealthy”). Now, had “Jesus” started as a poor fucking slob with no connections, so-so looks and only his wit and intelligence to one day become the most famous guy, on the planet,  to die on a cross…

 

ADDENDUM:  

After writing, above, “That’s the opener from Tao Lin’s Stephen Mitchelmore-trumpeted Eeeee Eee Eeee (I counted the E’s in that title to get it right, lest I be accused of unseriousness)” I did some Googling to make sure that Mitchelmore is, in fact,  still trumpeting Tao Lin’s G-mail fueled efforts at monetizing self-promotion and found that Mitchelmore, like so many before him (hurry kids, before the publishers wise up), seems to have turned his not-bad, sometimes insightful, relentlessly po-faced Blog into a not-to-be-taken-too-seriously book.  Turning a Blog into a book is a little like turning a soccer match into a feature-length film and Mitchelmore, in at least one chapter of his Blog-Book, magnifies the error by sinking to the critical self-abuse of committing his naked score-settling to durable print, à la John Simon. Worse (worse!) the score-settling gets off to a very poor start with a campy flash of sesquipedalian foil-flexing.  Straight from that to the sophomore-debater’s default of presuming one’s enemies to be bed-wetters; if only we could be sure that that’s a fixed feature of Existence (for the half of us who are always right). That is, Stephen (along with a few million YouTubers) ought to know that one cannot infer the quality or direction of some co-Flamer’s actual Life via the degree to which the co-Flamer’s Literary pronouncements skew from one’s own. As you can read in the following screenshot (and surely, Stephen, you see the unintentional and histrionic self-satire of suggesting that any reader/critic, of the opinion that Tao Lin was never an actual Talent, suffers from living a “desolate” or “sundered” life?):

Bitchelmore's Revenge

I have no idea who rubbed Mitch the wrong way by thumbs-downing (or upping) Montano’s Malady, but I know quite well that Ed Champion was the prolific malapropter who took an ignorant shot at Littell’s The Kindly Ones, irritating me as well as Mitch and earning himself, years later,  this thinly-veiled mention in the novelty item of Mitchelmore’s  THIS SPACE BLOOK. Ed Champion is a poor illustration of my point, obviously, because he was very public with his “desolate” and “sundered” Life, but Champion could just as easily have been living well and gracefully,  in bliss, and tendered the same wanky judgement on The Kindly Ones.  We are only able to infer from that judgment that Champion was/is probably shit at reading complex material, or has a sagging middlebrow ceiling crushing down on his taste-range in Art.

Re: Tao Lin:  despite the fact that Steve is the wide-eyed youth between the two of us, I suspect he was always too old to get the fact that half The Internet had already written a thousand amorphously expanding,  unconsolidated “novels” like Tao Lins’ by the time Lin had started his own, with the exactly same skill, vocabulary, affect and syntax, and that Tao’s only talent was in thinking he could slap those uncrafted, open-source-sentences into marketable shapes and actually monetize them as “books” while many of his peers were monetizing cat pictures and amateur porn instead. Which is not entirely un-reminiscent of Ivy League Squares, in the Anthropology Departments,  who’d never heard of Benzedrine or Bebop,  thinking that The Beats had actually invented something Dangerous and New

Here’s a little of what Lin himself said (in 2008) about Eeeee Eee Eeee, the “book” that Stephen Mitchelmore had such high praise for:

“But with me I have little “fear” that Melville House will not like my next novel, and I don’t have anyone else I am showing it to, I have no literary agent. I feel free to write whatever I want to read and even to “ruin” my books like I did with Eeeee Eee Eeee by adding animals to it. It feels exciting to me to “ruin” a book in that way. I feel like it would be exciting to write a linear, realistic novel that has not been “ruined” in any way, which is what I want my next novel to be like I think. I also “ruined” Eeeee Eee Eeee by giving it certain things like cancer and terrorism (I think) and death to make it more “important” (I don’t want to do things like that anymore, currently). I’m not sure how much exactly I thought about those things but I know cancer is in the book. I am surprised I actually put cancer in the book. I feel like it has been a “joke” to me for at least five to seven years to “make a person have cancer in a book so the book will be more important” yet there is cancer in that book, I inserted cancer into that book, I’m not sure what the level of sarcasm of the cancer in that book is though, maybe I was “being sarcastic.”

A charmingly frank moment in which Tao admits he’s merely a young hustler, neither stupid nor brilliant, getting as much as he can out of being young while taking his older, tone-deaf, youth-hungry boosters for a distinctly non-Literary ride. Both Lin and his publishers, Melville House, understand that what “Tao Lin” is selling is Tao Lin and no particular arrangement of sentences. Who can blame him/them for milking it?  But who can take Mitchelmore’s self-parodyingly po-faced cheerleading of Eeeee Eee Eeee  (“We plunge into the breach that opens up between possibility and actuality. It is an exhilirating (sic) plunge. This experience alone sets Eeeee Eee Eeee apart from the lumpen literary scene”) even a little seriously after reading Lin’s unguarded confession? Any old Hackademic can rescue/ rehabilitate any (any) shitty, half-assed text,  knocked together by any baby-faced hustler,  with the same blusteringly unfalsifiable claims.

What I have always inferred from Mitchelmore’s writing, on Lit, is that he’s a clever, rather violently erudite guy whose wiring prevents him from apprehending the subtler values, and connections, driving the mysteriously chuckling motors of better-than-quotidian Lit. Regarding which I only trust the opinions of Critic-Practitioners like Kundera or Mr. Pritchett and (sometimes) Mr. Burgess (et al). Mitchelmore’s Salieri-defect is not unlike James Wood’s, so he’s in good company, but only a Critic-Practitioner (also unconstrained by the politics of Moneyed Publishing) can admit, for example, that Mitchelmore’s esteemed J. M. Coetzee  is an Existentially “good man,” and run-of-the-mill-philosopher… and equally-unremarkable novelist. Mitchelmore, Señor C and Wood himself are fatally humorless in print, which is probably a useful clue to the larger lack contributing to the shared inability to really Write (along with the morbid whiff of the Hermeneutic, in the most pious sense of the word, that clings to all three like a Victorian aftershave).  Lots of “Humorlessness” does not some “Seriousness” make: quite the opposite, in the Black-Hole Slapstick of this Universe. But as to how “sundered” or “desolate” or even, possibly, well-rounded, fun and/or twinkly they each might be In Real Life, I wouldn’t hazard a guess. Nor would I need to.

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