What We Are Reading: Normal03-04-2020
By Samantha Hill
Writing for The Point, Becca Rothfeld critiques the work of Irish novelist Sally Rooney. Rothfeld’s analysis reflects upon the distinction between Rooney’s public persona as a writer, and what her novels reveal about this political moment.
Despite the conventionality of the contents of her novels, Rooney is often casually characterized as something of a radical. The New York Times describes her as a “funny, cerebral Marxist,” and Alexandra Schwartz writes in the New Yorker that “capitalism is to Rooney’s young women what Catholicism was to Joyce’s young men, a rotten national faith to contend with.” But however funny, cerebral or Marxist Rooney may be in person, her fiction is about as politically radical as it is formally adventurous—which is to say, not very.
If anything, the watered-down Marxism that affluent millennials claim as a personal brand in both Normal People and Conversations is most conventional—and most normal—of all. Frances attempts to impress Nick by telling him that she wants “to destroy capitalism” and that she considers “masculinity personally oppressive,” and Bobbi introduces the duo by proclaiming, “I’m gay, and Frances is a communist.” Still, for all their posturing, Frances and Bobbi don’t make any good-faith efforts to improve the state of the world. They don’t so much as attend a protest.
In fact, Rooney tends to paper over the difficulties that attend real destitution. As Lauren Oyler observes in Bookforum, financial problems in Rooney’s books are “solved, or at least eased, by convenient contrivances.” Halfway through Normal People, Connell receives a scholarship that provides him with housing and food. Frances lives rent-free in a flat that her uncle owns. For a time, she simulates poverty, but only because she is too proud to tell her indulgent mother or her older lover that her alcoholic father forgot to pay her allowance. Before things get really dire, Nick discovers her secret and bails her out, bearing cash and expensive pastries.