Irish author Sally Rooney tells a provocative story about young lovers in her award-winning new novel, Normal People.
Marianne is an odd duck in high school, but she and star athlete Connell develop an unusual friendship in spite of their differences. It’s a little weird that his mother is her mother’s housekeeper. It’s complicated that Connell is popular, and Marianne is not. How will their friendship play out, in high school and college and beyond? Things are different once they get to university in Dublin. Each of them is growing up, trying to find their place in the world, trying to fit in. You may not be 18 or 20 when you’re reading this book, but this novel feels relevant – I think – at any age. It asks hard questions about what we owe each other, and who we become, and why. Does anyone ever feel normal? Normal People is on bestseller lists in the US and the UK and won this year’s Costa Prize; Sally Rooney is the youngest author ever to win it.
Normal People aims to tell deep truths. Good thing it’s a novel, for – as Samuel Clemens says – “The man has yet to be born who could write the truth about himself.” Clemens (aka Mark Twain) is a cheerful, vigorous pessimist in this, as in many things:
What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself… His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world… and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden – it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written.
But what if – from the grave – you had to tell the story of your life? Could you be honest then? Would you be regretful? Proud? Grateful? Confused? Content?
In the cacophony of life, would there be a melody in yours?
In his Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters finds the tuneful – or dissonant – melodies in the lives of 212 souls in small town Illinois, as they speak from their graves. Some of the characters are based on real people, some are finely imagined, all are wholly believable. In Masters’ imagination, each person delivers a short poetic monologue accounting for his or her own life and death. We hear from doctors, lawyers, bankers, ministers; journalists, farmers, shopkeepers; husbands, wives, children; prostitutes, murderers. Published in 1915, Spoon River Anthology became a huge bestseller and catapulted Masters to fame for the rest of his life. A hundred and four years later, I couldn’t put it down. I loved reading about – normal people.
Toni Morrison also wrote about normal people. Normal black people. In years to come, she may be remembered as the 20th century’s Harriet Beecher Stowe. She’s not “the little woman who wrote the book that caused this great war” (as Lincoln is reported to have said to Stowe when he met her in 1862). But – upon her death – she is reported to have changed Literature.
Sam Sacks, fiction critic at The Wall Street Journal, wrote the most powerful appreciation I’ve read.
I’ll quote him at some length and – encouraged by him – will read Morrison’s second novel, Sula. I’ll report back at Bacon on September 15th. I hope so much that some of you might join me on this reading journey and share your thoughts in the comments!
Toni Morrison liked to note, when importunate interviewers wondered when she was going to write about something other than the African-American experience, that Tolstoy didn’t intend his books to be read by black girls from Ohio. Her point was that notion of universalism is fraudulent. To be a writer of any worth one must be a regionalist. Tolstoy’s subject and audience was the 19th-century Russian gentry, and the truths he mined from that niche have ensured “Anna Karenina” a place in every small-town library in the world. Morrison’s focus was on black Americans, from their place in the founding colonies to the present day. When she died on Monday at the age of 88 she was the most globally celebrated American writer since Ernest Hemingway and her books had remade the field of fiction.
…Morrison had influences, naturally. Joyce and Faulkner, two defiantly provincial writers whose modern mythologies teemed with symbols and wild, bespoke language, are the most interesting. But there really was no precedent for the sort of books she conceived. She was a single mother of two and a full-time editor at Random House when she wrote her first novel, “The Bluest Eye” (1970), about a black girl who judges herself by white standards of beauty. She was moved to write it, she said, because the story interested her and nobody had told it before. The same went for her graceful, intimate second work, “Sula” (1973)—this reader’s favorite—about a friendship between girls, a subject then so uncommon that the book was considered a curio. From the start, Morrison obliged readers to meet her on her own terms. “I’m gonna stay out here on the margin,” she told an interviewer, “and let the center look for me.”
… As Morrison’s cultural importance grew, her fiction became more erratic. (In this, too, she was not unlike Tolstoy.) “A Mercy” (2008), a brief, scythe-like novel set in the colonial period, is a work of startling force and empathy, whereas “Home” (2012) and “God Help the Child” (2015) are thin reprisals of earlier themes. But the later novels were largely overshadowed by Morrison’s role as a wise and unsparing elder stateswoman patiently accepting honors from a generation that felt in her debt. A penetrating nonfiction collection published earlier this year, “The Source of Self-Regard,” gives a sense of the range of her thinking as well as her calm, almost godlike authority.
… Even so, she never retired from the job of writing novels, as did some of her celebrated contemporaries. (Her publisher has confirmed that, at the time of her death, she had a book in progress.) Her work is afflicted by the past, haunted by it, enamored with it and inspired by it, but it wasn’t her style to resign herself to living there. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody,” Sethe’s dogged suitor Paul D tells her in “Beloved.” “We need some kind of tomorrow.” Perhaps Morrison’s greatest gift was her double-sightedness, her capacity to look as clearly at what was ahead of her as at what lay behind. We haven’t fully reckoned with what she hoped to show us, and writers will discover much more yet to guide them into the future.
* * *
Many thanks to Jack Barnwell for sharing the Samuel Clemens quote with me.
* * *