Every now and again, a novel, a movie or a television programme becomes a major conversational theme, enjoying a wave of fashion and acclaim.
Such a book is Sally Rooney’s Normal People – a contender for the prestigious Booker Prize, and the novel that is a “must-read” if you want to keep up with the smart folk at dinner parties.
The Guardian hailed it as an important oeuvre – it signified an Ireland in which “the Catholic church doesn’t matter”.
Yes, in this story about an on-off relationship between two young students, the Catholic Faith hardly figures at all, except as a distant (and negative) echo of provincial life. The male protagonist, Connell, son of a single mother in Co Sligo, has hardly ever been inside a church of any kind, except for funerals.
The female protagonist, Marianne, the daughter of a rich, but nasty mother and an abusive father, has had to succumb to an “enforced Mass trip on Sundays”.
Marianne’s mother – cold, materialistic, rejecting – is the only practising Catholic in the narrative, organising an “anniversary Mass” for her late husband – who was a nasty and violent father, leaving Marianne with emotional legacy problems.
Connell and Marianne embark on a sexual relationship while they are still at school, a teen activity seen as perfectly normal by everyone in Co Sligo, and elsewhere. Connell’s mother tells him that she doesn’t care what he does “as long as you’re using protection”. The sex scenes are explicit enough, but the author is skilful at depicting character, so the sexuality is candid, but also relevant to personality.
Connell is popular at school – being popular seems to be a big preoccupation with everyone – while Marianne is not.
Everyone in this world is vaguely left-wing, but in a shallow way: they attend protests about Gaza, and Connell has a copy of The Communist Manifesto, but nobody really seems to engage with ideas at a profounder level. These millennials are so narcissistically focused on themselves, would they have the time or inclination to do so?
Student life at Trinity College Dublin is a morally-free zone and much open to drugs, but strangely vapid. There are psychological problems, mental health issues and one suicide.
People who are ‘anti-abortion’ are regarded as beyond the pale, and yet, the subject is approached in an ambiguous and euphemistic way. Marianne speculates on what would happen if she became pregnant. “I admit I would have a slight temptation to keep it,” she says. “Keeping it’” is the euphemism for not having an abortion. “In a way,” she goes on, “I like the idea of something so dramatic happening to me. I would like to upset people’s expectations.”
However, Marianne, on account of having Catholic parents, is herself highly dysfunctional. She asks her boyfriend to hit her – she has masochistic desires.
Normal People should indeed be taken seriously as a novel which tunes into the spirit of the age. The highly-praised author, Sally Rooney, is only 27, and with accolades from the New Yorker and numerous literary prizes, she perhaps does speak for her generation – or, at least, a part of it.
But what strikes me about this work is that it isn’t really specifically Irish at all.
It takes place in Sligo and Dublin, but it could just as easily be located in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Manchester or Melbourne.
The music, the localities, the preoccupations could be anywhere.
Devoid of Catholicism, yes: also devoid of Irishness. Is there a connection?
If things don’t add up it could be dyscalculia!
‘Dyslexia’ is a disorder which makes it difficult to learn to read or interpret written symbols. Now a mathematical version of the condition has been discovered– ‘dyscalculia’, by a team of academics at Queen’s University, Belfast.
I wish to have a retrospective diagnosis of this affliction, since I always found it painfully difficult to learn any branch of Maths.
A special tutor was even provided for me at one point, but still, it was like wrestling with Albanian, without a dictionary or grammar. I still calculate using my fingers.
Mathematics is regarded as an accurate guide to general intelligence, which I don’t think is entirely fair. Some of us can be ‘dyscalculic’, yet we can manage to do reasonably well in other fields…