The Irish novelist Sally Rooney is a normal person. Or so she is always insisting, often with a trace of defensive desperation. Never mind that she published her debut novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), at the tender age of 26, or that her second novel, Normal People (2018), was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Never mind that she is the youngest-ever recipient of the Costa Book Prize. No, Rooney protests, her many accolades and immense popularity notwithstanding, she is just like everyone else. Here she is in Vanity Fair: “I do think it’s very possible I’ll look back on this period of my life when my books were being talked about on Twitter and think, ‘Wow, what a crazy thing to happen to a just totally average person.’” And in O, The Oprah Magazine: “I feel pretty much like everyone else.” And in the Belfast-based literary journal the Tangerine: “Everyone has a life. I haven’t had a particularly interesting one.”
Of course, genuinely normal people do not have the chance to advertise their normalcy in Vanity Fair or Oprah’s magazine. Would Rooney still be so eager to downplay her achievements if there were any risk that she would actually succeed in deflecting attention? I have to say, I hope not. My favorite Rooney, the rawest Rooney, or at least the rawest Rooney available for public consumption, surfaces briefly in her debut essay, “Even If You Beat Me,” which appeared in the Dublin Review in 2015. “Even If You Beat Me” is an unsentimental account of Rooney’s ascent to the elite status of top-ranked European debater. For the first several thousand words of the piece, Rooney stresses that debate is politically frivolous and that she was never really invested in doing well. But at the end, there are a few sentences in a hotter, fiercer register. For a moment, bloodthirst breaks through:
But I did it. I got everything I set out to get. I was the one delivering the offhanded refutation. It was me sipping water while I waited for the end of the applause. I still occasionally feel an impulse to attribute all my achievements that year to my perfect teammate, or worse, to good luck. But I’m not nineteen anymore; I don’t need to make people feel comfortable. In the end, it was me. It may not mean anything to anyone else, but it doesn’t have to—that’s the point. I was number one. Like Fast Eddie, I’m the best there is. And even if you beat me, I’m still the best.
I like Rooney when she gloats and strives, when she is limned with the angry light of ambition. But these days almost all of Rooney’s interviews contain some statement to the effect that we, too, could become commercially successful novelists whose works appear on British GQ’s “33 Fail-Safe Gifts for Her This Christmas” list.
I don’t know whether Rooney stands behind her exaggeratedly accessible self-presentation, at least in her private life. What I do know is that this person, or this persona, is at pains to convince us that she is someone any of us could become: that all you have to do to win is not really care about winning, that all you have to do to become a decorated writer is dash off a charming email. The narrator of Conversations with Friends sends her first-ever story to a powerful mentor “without even looking it over again for typos”—and it is picked up by a major literary magazine almost at once. She submits her college essays without reading them over, and when she receives feedback, “the notes in the margins always said things like ‘well argued’ and sometimes ‘brilliant.’” Connell, one of the two protagonists of Normal People, offhandedly sends his story to a college literary journal—and the editor begs him to let them publish it. Later, he gets into the first and only MFA program he applies to.
If you are a writer in a Rooney novel, you are sure to be discovered without going to any great lengths to promote yourself. You are sure to write beautifully without agonizing over your work (or even editing it). And if you are a woman in a Rooney novel, you will only ever become disheveled in a glamorous way. You might be too thin or too aloof, but you will never be too emotional or, God forbid, overweight. Ultimately, there is no chance that literary institutions will fail to appreciate your gifts, no chance that the market will fail to reward your talents and no chance at all that you are not, deep down, very special.
The fantasy Rooney fosters in her interviews no less than in her fiction is that you can be the best without being better than any of your rivals—that normalcy, elevated to a high art, amounts to a kind of distinction. That even if they beat you, you are still the best.
If Rooney makes writing seem as effortless as emailing, she makes reading even easier. Normal People and Conversations with Friends are addictive in the manner of a Twitter feed. Their pacing is brisk. Their dialogue is snappy. They contain no quotation marks (except the implied quotation marks of self-protective irony, which hover around much of what Rooney’s characters type to each other online). Rooney’s rhythm is staccato, and she favors choppy sentences sliced into even shorter clauses by comma splices: “The jacket was tight around his shoulders, he could feel it when he lifted his arms,” “I did say sorry, I said that several times.”
There is no doubt that at 28 Rooney has breezed past many of her elders. It is not easy to write fiction that is so compulsively easy to read. And although Normal People and Conversations are largely unadorned, they are also sprinkled with a number of quietly perfect lines, most often about the weather and the natural world. Rain in Dublin is “silver as loose change in the glare of traffic,” and the spring sky is “delirious, like flavored ice.” Cherries droop from trees “like earrings.” Snow looks like “an old TV screen badly tuned.” A bee “cast a comma of shadow” on the wall, and maggots wriggle “like boiling rice” in an untended trash can.
But these stylistic embellishments notwithstanding, Rooney is right to note that she authors essentially normal novels. Conversations with Friends, she told the Tangerine, is “conventional in its structure.” So is Normal People. Both have romantic plotlines and uplifting endings. Both are populated by well-educated, financially comfortable millennials, students at Trinity College whom Rooney describes over and over again as “brilliant” and “gifted.” In Conversations with Friends, the resident genius is Frances, an aspiring writer who embarks on an ill-advised affair with an older married actor named Nick. Frances’s best friend, Bobbi, is also her ex-girlfriend, and the pair spends the book trying to work out if they are still in love. (The ultimate verdict is: sort of, but is love even possible under capitalism?) The wunderkinder of Normal People are Marianne and Connell, who recommend books to one another and miscommunicate about their mutual passion, first in high school and then in university.
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.
Rooney’s true subject is not the wide-scale evil of global capitalism but the dyads and triads of claustrophobic romantic entanglements. Much of Conversations is set in an isolated beach house where six characters take a vacation from the demands of the outside world. The only significant characters in Normal People are Connell and Marianne, who spend most of their time alone together or writing each other emails. These are not political novels but novels with characters who are lightly politicized, the way that people in Rooney’s milieu (which is also mine) really are.
Of course, a novel is not under any obligation to double as a treatise. That it is a stretch to describe Conversations and Normal People as Marxist polemics is not necessarily a strike against them. Indeed, one of the books’ greatest strengths is that they capture, perhaps despite Rooney’s intentions, the impotence and hypocrisy that abound in the fashionably leftist communities she describes. When Connell tells Marianne that he was late to coffee because there was a protest about “the household tax or something,” Marianne replies, “Well, best of luck to them. May the revolution be swift and brutal.” Then she and Connell get back to their convoluted relationship and their cappuccinos.
All this makes for salable if insubstantial reading. But much less innocuous than Rooney’s politically anodyne writing is her inflated reception. When she is not being likened to James Joyce, she is enjoying by-now obligatory comparisons to Jane Austen, acknowledged master of the marriage plot and subtly savage social critic. Presumably the point of contact is supposed to be that Rooney, too, is a woman concerned to trace (and trouble) the long arc of vexed romances. But if Austen makes a convincing drama of the drawing room, it is because her fictions shudder with serious suspense: there is no guarantee that talents will be recognized or loves requited, and the shimmering surface of polite encounter is creased with real dangers. In contrast, Rooney’s books are riskless and conciliatory. In the fairy-tale worlds they sketch, everybody who bothers to compete is already assured of winning.
If Rooney’s books have true precursors, they are not Austen’s tense novels of manners but commercial romances that specialize in a certain sort of fantasy fulfillment. Like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, Conversations with Friends and Normal People offer up heroines who are, paradoxically, both extraordinary and extraordinarily normal.
On the one hand, the protagonists of books like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight are emphatic that they, like Rooney herself, are essentially normal people who happen to have stumbled into enviable lives. When the editor of the high school paper requests an interview with Twilight’s taciturn Bella, she protests that she is not newsworthy. (The New Yorker journalist tasked with profiling Rooney reports that the novelist interrupted the interview to ask why she merited an article, a detail disclosed with fawning flourishes in the resultant piece.) When Fifty Shades’s suave Christian Grey tells unremarkable Anastasia Steele that he wants to marry her, she speaks for all of us when she replies, “Why?”
The answer, it turns out, is precisely that she is so abnormally normal. “In this strange moment that I’m having with the rich, powerful, awesomely off-the-charts attractive control freak Grey, it’s great to talk to someone who’s normal,” Anastasia thinks when she leaves off flirting with Christian to chat with a consolingly average coworker. In Normal People, Marianne has a similar thought after Connell intervenes in a climactic family psychodrama and proclaims his love for her. When she returns to college after the incident, she is relieved to find that she is “neither admired nor reviled anymore. People have forgotten about her. She’s a normal person now. She walks by and no one looks up.”
In Rooney’s novels, as in Fifty Shades, normalcy is normative: it is not only a boon but a virtue. To be normal is to be healed, and Normal People is in many ways the story of Marianne’s spiritual and sexual convalescence. At first she is broken, but then she is rehabilitated by the corrective force of Connell’s vanilla love. When Marianne is with the sadist she briefly dates in Sweden, “she experiences a depression so deep it is tranquilizing, she eats whatever he tells her to eat, she experiences no more ownership over her own body than if it were a piece of litter.” Her erstwhile college boyfriend, Jamie, “is somehow both boring and hostile at the same time.”
It is painfully predictable that Connell, in contrast, refuses to hit Marianne during sex. “He’s wholesome like a big baby tooth,” Marianne thinks. “Probably never in his life has he thought about inflicting pain on someone for sexual purposes. He’s a good person.” Likewise, Frances asks Nick to hit her when she feels that she is “a damaged person,” and Nick, upstanding mensch that he is, declines. The message is not subtle: when Marianne dashes out of her Swedish torturer’s apartment, she wonders: “Could he really do the gruesome things he does to her and believe at the same time that he’s acting out of love? Is the world such an evil place, that love should be indistinguishable from the basest and most abusive forms of violence?” Rooney eschews political didacticism, but she does not shy away from flat-footed moral sanctimony.
The redemption narrative she pushes in both of her novels is strikingly similar to the story at the core of Fifty Shades, which, despite its provocative trappings, is prudish at heart. In the movie adaptation of the best-selling series, the phrase “normal people” recurs over and over. Christian, who is traumatized by the most boilerplate childhood abuse, initially rejects the conventions of romantic relationships. He doesn’t “make love,” he tells Anastasia, he “fucks.” He doesn’t have girlfriends, just submissives who sleep in the room down the hall. From the first, Anastasia devises to fix him: she yells that the pair should talk like “normal people,” that they should share a bed “like normal people.” If sadomasochism is a running theme in Normal People, Conversations with Friends and Fifty Shades of Grey, it is not because any of these novels evince the slightest interest in the transformative potential of subversive sex but rather because sexual quirks are readily legible as a form of deviance in want of normalization. We know that Christian has recovered as soon as he proposes to Anastasia and thereby catapults into a respectable, bourgeois marriage. Ah, the domesticating comforts of missionary sex with the lights on! Ah, normalcy, wholesome as a baby tooth!
Yet even as Rooney’s fiction valorizes the normalcy of its heroines, it also positions them as possessing extraordinary powers. In Fifty Shades, Anastasia is the only one who can soften the tyrannical tycoon’s hardened heart. In Twilight, Edward, the brooding vampire of everyone’s dreams, tells Bella her blood is uniquely delicious. For her part, Marianne is the “smartest person in school”; what Connell is blessed to share with her is “something he could never have with anyone else.” And Marianne and Anastasia are not only irresistible to their lovers but also to everyone else they meet. Every male character in the universe of Fifty Shades is inexplicably fascinated by Anastasia: her male friend lusts after her, her employer’s son asks her on dates whenever he’s back in town, and her boss commits a #MeToo-adjacent transgression when he confesses his adoration a little too forcefully. Marianne, too, is universally admired, and Rooney is not shy about emphasizing how much everyone in Normal People yearns for her. Connell often reflects that Marianne “is very popular and a lot of other men want to sleep with her.” She “has a lot of other romantic options, as everyone knows.” At one point, Connell tells her, “guys are constantly falling in love with you.”
So is she normal, or isn’t she? The truth is, the book fulfills a ubiquitous romantic fantasy precisely because it can’t decide. Who wouldn’t like to succeed in romance without really trying? Who hasn’t sometimes wished that their normalcy were exceptional? And who among the overeducated leftist set has not dreamed of surpassing their opponents without compromising their egalitarian virtue? The commercial and critical success of Rooney’s books is no mystery, for they give the comforting impression that, whoever you are, you too could make out with a preternaturally beautiful vampire or get handcuffed to a torture machine by a magnate with washboard abs. You too could publish the story or seduce the entire school. You too are different—and that is what makes you the same!
It is diverting enough to read a book about people too beautiful to be jilted, too smart to stumble and too ill-defined to exclude the possibility that their success stories converge with yours. But it is another thing entirely to imagine, as many of Rooney’s admirers have, that such blatant escapism can be plausibly recast as an exercise in social critique. Rooney’s novels are too rosily reassuring to be truly harmless. Reading about Marianne and Frances ending up with the lovers they spent hundreds of pages pushing away, or about Connell and Frances getting published by the very literati they went out of their way to insult, I can’t help but recall the scene in Fifty Shades of Grey when Anastasia throws up on Christian’s shoes and he appears to love it.
The world Rooney depicts is charmed, which isn’t to say it is fair. It isn’t clear that the characters who populate it get what they “deserve,” because it isn’t clear that it is possible for anyone in Rooney’s universe to be undeserving. The question of how to compensate those who don’t measure up never arises, because everyone who wants to be a writer turns out to be great at writing. What about bad writers, who don’t merit plaudits? What about bad people, who don’t merit love?
At times, Rooney seems to deny that unlovable people exist. “To love someone under capitalism you have to love everyone,” Frances writes in a feverish email to Bobbi. Frances has been reading the Gospels, and she intends to appeal to something like the notion of agape—the kind of love that Jesus bears towards everyone and that he recommends we try to bear toward everyone too. Love of this kind is indifferent to merit and, in a certain sense, to individuality. It is indiscriminate by design. Rooney seems to suggest that a true egalitarian would try to love like this. Bobbi says as much to Frances over instant messenger:
Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon
Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system
Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness
Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality…
Before she can finish her thought, Frances interrupts her. But elsewhere Bobbi proposes that love that attaches to everyone in equal measure is one solution to the problem of proprietary romance. When the book ends, Frances seems to have taken Bobbi’s proposal on board: Bobbi and Frances have moved in together, and Frances is on the verge of rekindling her romance with Nick. Is this agape in action?
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of monogamy, but they need not lead us to the egalitarianism of the heart that Rooney’s novels repeatedly recommend. Romantic love could attach to more than one person, but it could not become a “social value system,” because it is inextricably bound up with favoritism. To love someone in all her glorious specificity is necessarily to rank the world’s inhabitants so that she comes out on top. Two or five people can come out on top, but if everyone comes out on top, no one does. Even Frances does not manage to love everyone: she just loves Nick and Bobbi.
At their most believable, Rooney’s characters come close to admitting that egalitarian love is both impossible and undesirable. When Nick is on vacation, he messages Frances to tell her that he misses her and Bobbi. “Equally?” Frances asks. We know that she would not be satisfied with an affirmative reply, but the best answer Nick can muster is “haha well maybe I miss you like, slightly more.” Rooney’s romances fall flat precisely because her characters are unable to accept that they see each other as exceptional. And although they spend almost all of the books conspiring to win the debate tournament or the literary prize, to receive the most competitive scholarship or the highest test score, they cannot accept that they want to be exceptional.
Rooney and her readers hope to bask in the self-congratulatory glow of their supposed egalitarianism without ceding any of their accolades—and without acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that, even if economic inequalities were eliminated, other hierarchies would persist. Some people would still be kinder than others. Some would be better at singing. Some art would be ugly, and some would be beautiful. And, irrational creatures that we are and no doubt would remain, we would not treat everything in accordance with its true value. Some of us would continue to prefer Rooney to Baldwin. Some of us would continue to love bad people more than we love the good ones. Even under socialism, I might opt for a violent Swedish boyfriend.
But this is as it should be. Absolute equality requires absolute identity. A world in which everyone loved everyone else equally would contain no love worth mentioning. All things considered, we are lucky that when they beat you, you cease to be the best.