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May the revolution be swift and brutal – class and left politics in Normal People by Sally Rooney May 7, 2020

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.
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Many thanks to Joe for the following guest review:

I haven’t got a degree in English (it’s on the list) but I’ll try anyway. First up, Normal People is class. I love it. Just finished it last weekend and I am grieving since. I miss it so much. It is haunting me. I think I feel about this book like the teeny boppers used to feel about the Bay City Rollers when I was fourteen. I liked it so much that I am so far refusing to watch the tv version which is on our screens at present. No matter how good, it can’t be as good. Impossible.

Sally Rooney, the author, has been described as a lifelong Marxist in an interview she did with the New Yorker magazine. She’s 29 and from Mayo. This reviewer has aspired to be a Marxist all his adult life but has never managed to actually finish the Communist Manifesto (it’s on the list too). So, long Marxist life to Ms Rooney and long live Mayo Marxism.

The book is first and foremost a love story. The best speech I ever heard at a WP conference was given by Martin Lynch, the Belfast playwright, on a Sunday morning in the late eighties. Martin was trying to get us, I think, to move on from our obsessive hatred of the Provos. He was in good stead in making this argument because in his introduction, one of the things he said, and I quote, was “Indeed, they came to my house to kill me.” But in his speech he said that socialism was fundamentally about love. I agree. But I don’t think Marx would or did. I’m struggling, really struggling, through Marx and Marxism by Gregory Claeys at the moment and one thing I’ve picked up is that Marx’s thought was always developing, always (hopefully) advancing. I think Marx did address love in some way in his earlier stuff. Hopefully I’ll get to more about love in later Marx too.

But back to Normal People. The lovers are Connell and Marianne. They’re in sixth year. He lives with his mammy Lorraine. He’s eighteen, his ma is thirty five, she raised him on her own, the biological da never in the picture, don’t think Connell even knows who his da is. Lorraine works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house for Marianne’s mammy, a rich widowed-young solicitor. Marianne’s family is seriously dysfunctional – she tells Connell her late da used to beat her ma, and beat her (Marianne) too. Her brother is an evil, mean and nasty f***er to his sister. So, class politics – Connell is classically working-class, Marianne classically middle-class. But it’s based somewhere in rural Sligo so they go to the same school (there’s a point there, is there? –kids from different classes in rural towns are more likely to go to the one school whereas in the cities schools are more likely to be less mixed, class-wise). Anyway they’re both really smart and clever, academically. Really smart and clever, mostly in good ways.

Look I won’t synopsise it. Read this book! But the story goes from school in Sligo to college in Trinity in Dublin. And it’s intense and it’s on again, off again. And one of the things that leads to it being off just when it appears to be as blissfully good as it could ever get, is a failure of communication – Connell can’t afford to pay rent for his place for a summer in Dublin and somehow can’t ask Marianne can he stay in hers, even though they have effectively been living together there for months at that stage. So, in the background all the time, and sometimes threatening to come into the foreground, is their different class backgrounds. And that difference clearly weighs on him but he’s not the best at saying out whatever is weighing on him.

Even though back in Sligo she was the outsider in school and he was one of the lads and lasses, in Trinners she fits in more easily. He struggles socially. There’s some good stuff on both their takes on the Dublin middle-class set who predominate in their student milieu.

Marianne then spends quite a bit of time in a relationship with a bloke who’s da ‘not figuratively, but actually’ was one of those who caused the financial crash of 2008. And she let’s him beat her up while they’re having sex. And she asks him to in the first place. It’s only occurring to me now – is this a metaphor? Could be!

Now, slight tangent here but here goes. The stuff I’ve heard and read about the tv series keeps saying that Connell is a GAA player. But he’s not, in the book. He plays soccer for the school team. He scores the goal in a 1-0 win. He has a poster of Steven Gerrard on his wall. And his teenage cousin follows United. The GAA isn’t mentioned once in the novel, that I can recall. They live in Sligo, okay south county Sligo apparently and the GAA is played there but, as we know on this site, in Sligo there’s only one red army and Dublin’s SRFC aren’t Rovers, they’re Shamrocks. So, anyway – danger here! I’m calling out the tv script as selling out on this point – the GAA is representative of safe, official, middle Ireland, soccer is very predominantly a traditional working-class game. Declan Lynch is good on this periodically in the Sindo – in terms of both playing and supporting, soccer is Ireland’s number one sport, but the bourgeois nationalist state loves the cross-class alliance GAA. End of tangent.
So back to class and politics. May the revolution be swift and brutal. That’s what one of them, I can’t remember which, says to the other when the other mentions that they’d been on an anti-austerity march. Great line. However, Rooney then misses the opportunity to set out in detail what the post-revolutionary Marxist-inspired society would look like. This is a fatal flaw in the novel. Only joking. If she did that, I’d be an aspiring Rooneyist instead of an aspiring Marxist. And the novel would be crap. But it’s a great line because it shows that they are leftists in thought and in action, some bit of action anyway. And later, former friends of Marianne from that aforementioned Dublin middle class milieu are heard to decry her tendency to be vocal and opinionated (and maybe domineering?) about issues like Palestine and stuff.

And patriarchy gets a mention too. And the Gospels. I probably know more about the latter than the former. We definitely need more women in the CLR commentariat. And more young people. Sorry, another tangent there.
So I’ll end this review like I started it. Gushing. Anyone who criticises Rooney’s work is in danger of getting cancelled by me. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends, is brilliant too. Again young women with some cool left-wing views. And another novel that I loved was One Day by David Nicholls. And guess what, the heroine in that one is a good progressive leftist too. There’s a pattern starting to emerge here, Joe. Anyway, Rooney is apparently working on her third novel. I can’t wait. She has set the bar so high. The phrase the difficult third album springs to mind. But, bring it on. All power to the Mayo Marxists.

Comments»

1. alanmyler - May 7, 2020

Lovely review Joe. I haven’t read the book, although herself did and loved it, as did the eldest daughter the nurse.

I’ve been watching the TV series, although I missed the 3rd and 4th episodes on Tuesday as there was something else going on at the time. I’ll have to suffer the RTE Player to catch up. Incidentally herself was telling me that 370,000 people watched the first episode, with the vast bulk of that on the Player. From which we can deduce that it’s mostly younger people watching it, because fogeys like us CLR commentators watch telly but younger folk don’t.

The TV drama is really well made, although I share your opinions about TV never coming close to a book. I felt the way you described above when I finished reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels last year, and have since watched the HBO dramatisation, which while it was quite good was nowhere near the book, but how could it be, two very different media.

Back to Normal People. Herself again, having read the book, was saying that the story is very much one of every country kid who goes up to college in the big smoke. It describes their transitions during that experience, from teenager to young adult, from innocent country kid to urban sophisticate, from big fish in the small pond of the local school to very small fish in a huge pond and how that affects their sense of self-confidence. Having had two of ours go through that process I can very much relate to the attraction of that as a theme for a novel or a TV drama. Our son, the engineer-in-waiting, was watching the show (on the RTE Player, see above) and he was saying that the depiction of second-level school in episodes 1 & 2 was completely accurate in every way. So Ms Rooney clearly knows her stuff and knows how to tell it.

All the better that she’s a Marxist.

As for studies in Marxism, I’ve come to the conclusion myself that the best Marxists haven’t actually read much of Marx himself, nor Lenin nor Trotsky or any of the others. Give me Billy Bragg, Elena Ferrante, or Sally Rooney instead.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - May 7, 2020

Great review. Your last point Alan really resonates with me. I had a friend in the early 1990s who was English Italian. He was a leftist, member of the BLP but he had a real love for the PCI festivals and how they brought people together (he particularly liked the food), but to me that was a very real Marxism, one of the lived place and people as distinct from the written word and certainly the sort of Marxism I’d strongly identify with as well.

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alanmyler - May 7, 2020

WBS I suppose you could say that we’re Cultural Marxists. Pity the meaning of that that phrase has been hijacked by the Alt-Right. But gotta love the PCI, they really led the way in creating that mass politicisation through all those sorts of things. Yer man Gramsci, as interpreted and acted out by Togliatti, certainly knew his stuff.

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WorldbyStorm - May 7, 2020

And we believe in class politics! Marx was spot on in that regards and that’s why I’d still consider myself a Marxist (not that anyone cares 😦 ). The PCI, what an amazing party and what a sad way for it to disintegrate. Still, a lot of positive lessons in there for the future.

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2. sonofstan - May 7, 2020

Brilliant – I fell totally for her when I read that piece in the New Yorker, but haven’t acutally read the book because I’m scared of being disappointed – but I will now. I also loved the bit in the interview where she straightforwardly called out Yeats for being a fascist.
On the soccer thing: there’s a great bit in Eamonn Sweeney’s One red Army where he talks about some lads who’ve been kicking a football around at work, decide to get serious, and put together a GAA team – despite having being playing the other code informally (something like that anyway – the book is elsewhere)

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Fergal - May 7, 2020

I thought the book was alright, nothing special, I did like the references to class and Declan Bree… but I don’t know what the song and dance is all about…
I’ve read Sara Baume… I reckon she’s got it… her prose sparkles and she’s insightful… Rooney is good but I found her writing flat and never gave me any ‘wow’ moments!
Sorry!

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Joe - May 7, 2020

No need to apologise Fergal. Different strokes. I’ll put Sara Baume on my list.

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sonofstan - May 7, 2020

+1 on Baume

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3. alanmyler - May 7, 2020
4. Alibaba - May 7, 2020

I read Normal People when first published and was pleased to see the class dimension, thinking this most unusual from a very young and gifted author. It so happens the television adaptation was reviewed on Joe Duffy radio and we got the obligatory young commentator who didn’t believe in sex before marriage, as well as women who said this was realistic. No surprises then the BBC show it around 9pm and not 10.15pm on RTE!

I read somewhere the series is innovative because it rolls out 12 episodes in 30 minutes each as distinct from the more traditional six episodes in 60 minutes. Why then are two episodes piggybacked on one another? I don’t quite get it. I do think the series benefits from being scripted by Rooney who says the challenge was to convey the inner thoughts of the main characters on TV. And Lenny Abrahamson does his directorial stuff so well with his characteristic sensitivity to body movements. 

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Michael Carley - May 7, 2020

I think I read somewhere that it was originally going to be shown on BBC 3, which is online only, so it was produced as 12 half hours, but in the present circumstances, with a shortage of material, t was shifted to fill a one hour slot on BBC 1.

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Alibaba - May 7, 2020

Perhaps a shortage of material resulted in the same thing on RTE1 too.

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5. NFB - May 7, 2020

Only saw the third episode, about Connell going to college for the first time, and was very struck by it. Not to sound too dramatic, but it could have been about me in a lot of ways, such were the similarities – living away from home for the first time, homesickness, struggles to find a place to live, awkward interactions with new housemates, struggling in-class, going from thinking yourself an expert in your subject to being surrounded by experts, loneliness, using drink as a crutch when socialising, the weird pressure coming from people back home insisting you should be partying and sleeping around – and then of course I remembered that every other young man going to college has that experience. It’s beautifully captured. Haven’t had a chance to catch any other part of it, but will do so.

On the GAA/football differences between novel and series, I admit I’m surprised, especially since it’s a BBC/Hulu production with British writers involved, so you’d think keeping Connell a football player, such a seemingly minor detail, would remain unaltered. Perhaps a (misguided) effort to make it more “authentically” Irish?

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Joe - May 7, 2020

GAA/football differences. I love that NFB! There needs to be a sociolinguistic study done around the country on the word football. Geographic and class considerations. Who uses the word football to mean ‘Gaa’ and who uses the word football to mean ‘soccer’.

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sonofstan - May 7, 2020

It’s easy Joe: those of us who follow football use football to mean football.

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NFB - May 7, 2020

Pretty much. It’s the name of the sport. As I have said to others when the topic comes up, it’s FIFA, not FISA, FAI, not SAI, and gaelic football is the sport the GAA plays.

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Joe - May 7, 2020

:). Can we settle on fitba?.

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Pasionario - May 7, 2020

Rugby types often refer dismissively to football as soccer, as in Welsh referee Nigel Owens’s memorable put-down — “This is not soccer” — to a player who was trying to backchat him.

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6. ar scáth a chéile - May 7, 2020

The enthusiasm of Joes review makes me want to read it. But Ive no time for that Declan Lynch fellow In my book he’s a gaelophobe making a trade in sneering at the GAA and the Irish language, courting that seoinín Irish constituency vexed that we havent sufficiently modernised ( ie turned completely Anglo-American ) and that the conquest hasnt completely eradicated the gaelic tradition.Good review though.

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Joe - May 7, 2020

Please don’t let my digression into Declan Lynchism put you off reading the book, ar scáth. Give it a go.

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ar scáth a chéile - May 8, 2020

Will do Joe. i need to be able to sound off on it with authority when the pub opens in August.

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7. roddy - May 7, 2020

As someone who was a Man Utd fanatic in my younger days and had more Utd souvenirs than anybody I know (due to my Manchester relatives sending parcels),I have to say that anyone who says soccer is “Irelands no 1 sport” is talking bollocks.My local GAA club would have more players playing competively from very young children to seniors than those playing soccer in the entire South Derry area.And this in an area (S.Derry) where 1/3 of the population would have no affinity with the GAA at all.

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8. GearóidGaillimh - May 7, 2020

I enjoyed the book and look forward to watching the series. A friend mentioned that GAA was repeatedly referenced in the series and Conall has Sligo GAA and Sligo Rovers posters on his wall. I can’t remember what football code Conall played in the book but I remember the Stephen Gerrard poster and the two main characters watching the World Cup in 2014.

I wouldn’t pass too much remarks about it either way anyway, both Association and Gaelic football would have overlapping working-class followings in my small town east Galway experience. I’m just disappointed that the TV series doesn’t mention ‘the communist Declan Bree’. 😉

The snippy reviews towards the book in the UK press also make me like it more. This one in particular https://www.the-fence.com/issues/issue-2/conversations-with-friends-about-sally-rooney

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9. Gearóid Clár - May 7, 2020

Great book and great post.

The missus put me onto it in February and I ended up reading it over two sessions. Like NFB, there was a lot of resonance from me. I grew up in a west Ireland town and went away to university 2-3 years before Rooney. A lot of the same educational and class experiences – and thanks, Joe. Your review with the class-angle gives some explanation as to why I enjoyed it so much which I didn’t question myself at the time of reading.

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Michael Carley - May 7, 2020

The class at Trinity angle is one (the) reason I’m avoiding it all.

Liked by 1 person

10. Pasionario - May 7, 2020

Making the evil abusive boyfriend into the son of a Seanie Fitz type is a bit crude. Rooney might as well have manufactured a bumper sticker that reads: “economic violence = emotional violence”. In reality, people like Fitz are just as likely to be hail-fellow-well-met, why-don’t-you-let-me-buy-a-pint-there in manner.

And dismissing Yeats as a fascist isn’t a particularly bold or original insight.

On the whole, I found the novels to be pretty insightful about contemporary Ireland and class dynamics. But the claims made for their genius are over-the-top.

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Joe - May 7, 2020

Careful now 🙂

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EWI - May 7, 2020

And dismissing Yeats as a fascist isn’t a particularly bold or original insight.

Yeats’s involvement with fascism might come as quite the news to your average consumer of the Dublin media.

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11. gypsybhoy69 - May 21, 2020

I’ll have to come back and read this article as I’m guessing there’s spoilers. Haven’t read the book wasn’t aware of it but I’ve 4 more episodes of the series to read. I think the Conall character is great performance by the Kildare lad. Loved the direction by Lenny Abrahamson in the first six episodes.

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gypsybhoy69 - May 21, 2020

Obviously I meant to say I hadn’t heard of it before the tv series.

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Joe - May 21, 2020

Read the book, my friend. And her other one.
I’m watching the tv version on and off and it’s great too.

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gypsybhoy69 - July 8, 2020

Finally remembered to go back and read this review. Really enjoyed reading it Joe. I’ll get the books too now that you said you were watching it. Mescal is some prospect as an actor. Some scenes just broke me!

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12. sonofstan - July 28, 2020

There’s a not unjaundiced piece by Lorrie Moore in the NYRB about Rooney. This bit had a ring of slightly unkind truth about it, and caught something about ‘young people today’
. To generalize sweepingly, and in a way that is not contradicted by Rooney’s work, some of the mutterings—I am only reporting—include the following: millennials seem wedded to ideas of status and conventional success, but they want to “infiltrate” plutocratic institutions as “Marxists” and prized guests; they will deride yet exploit all privilege; raised to be competitive, they find envy is not a form of hate but a legitimate aspect of success-culture and an expression of congratulations. Millennial coveting (cloaked in self-rebuke) is a natural aspect of late-stage capitalism—the cadging of mates and lodging from elders is politically justified filching and may or may not be “Bohemian,” a term few people have ever had a good grasp on.

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Joe - July 28, 2020

Janey. That takes a few reads. But much of it sounds like a lot of the plot or something from Conversations with Friends. If so, not only is Rooney all of that… but self-aware too!

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CL - July 28, 2020

“The storyline, then, is full of emotional boom and bust, having little more eventfulness than the Dan Hicks song “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away.”…
When one of them goes back to Carricklea, the other remains in Dublin. And vice versa. They are constantly leaving each other so the narrative can have them meet up again….

Both Mescal and Edgar-Jones know how to stare moodily out a window whether it has raindrops on it or not…..

Race is never mentioned in the novel, with the exception of one reference to a James Baldwin book and a deliciously caustic quip by Connell regarding a romantic rival: “Thank god for white moderates. As I believe Dr. King once wrote.” Neither of these references made it to the screen…
On screen, small roles are given to actors of color….
All of these peripheral characters have few lines and are largely impediments to the narrative progress of the central romance and so must all be rather quickly tossed aside. To not cast people of color at all may be a form of cinematic white flight but to cast them as discardable characters with no stories or reasons of their own is what Toni Morrison complains about in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), in which she calls for attention to be transferred from “racial object to racial subject.” What may have been thought of on the set as color-blind casting, in front of the screen, for the viewer, is certainly not.”
https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/07/15/the-balletic-millennial-bedtimes-of-normal-people/

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Fergal - July 29, 2020

Funny kind of criticism, and very American too… if Rooney had included meaningful black characters would the same critic have lambasted her for being unable to do a black voice? For cultural appropriation? A kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t…
How does this critic know when reading the book if Rooney’s main characters are white?

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sonofstan - July 28, 2020

Quotes didn’t work: to be clear from ‘to generalise…’ is Lorrie Moore, not me.

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WorldbyStorm - July 28, 2020

I worry about people using the term Marxist unless it’s backed up by some kind of active involvement, whether in unions or communities or campaigns or whatever and sustained. Otherwise it’s can be just a badge.

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CL - July 28, 2020

” I am not a Marxist”-Karl Marx.

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13. CL - July 29, 2020

“The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People has earned multiple nominations for the 2020 Emmy Awards, announced via a virtual ceremony July 28. Paul Mescal, for one, is nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series category, for his portrayal of the much-adored, chain-wearing Connell Waldron.
Sally Rooney herself has also been nominated, alongside collaborator Alice Birch, for the show’s writing, while Lenny Abrahamson has earned a nod for outstanding directing.”
https://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/49954/1/paul-mescal-sally-rooney-feature-emmy-nominees-normal-people-zendaya-euphoria

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