Monday, February 24, 2020

Life is the thing you bring with you inside your own head

At this moment she remembers leaving a flask in Connell's car the day they drove to Howth in April, and she never got the flask back. It might still be in his glovebox. She eyes the glovebox but doesn't feel she can open it, because he would ask what she was doing and she would have to bring up the trip to Howth. They went swimming in the sea that day and then parked his car somewhere out of sight and had sex in the back seat. It would be shameless to remind him of that day now that they're once again in the car together, even though she would really like her flask back, or maybe it's not about the flask, maybe she just wants to remind him he once fucked her in the back seat of the car they're now sitting in, she knows it would make him blush, and maybe she wants to force him to blush as a sadistic display of power, but that wouldn't be like her, so she says nothing.
It's a beautiful college romance, the kind I nostalgically wish I'd had. Only it's not. It's messy, even toxic. They're together for all the wrong reasons. But when they're together, it's the rightest reason, it doesn't make sense to not be together. Only when they're outside of it does it sometimes become clear that it's reinforcing a negative pattern, it's feeding negativity, corroding the self-worth that ironically they feel only when it's validated by the other.

Normal People, by Sally Rooney, is about normal people — people who think they're not normal, who aspire to be normal, but of course they already are.

Connell and Marianne's on-again, off-again relationship is all about power. Superficially there's a lot of social cachet they're individually getting from the relationship, in different ways and at different times. But both of them know they hold power of the other, while both are in thrall to the other.

(Can two people ever love each other equally? Does one person always love the other more? Which one has the power?)
She comes to sit down with him and he touches her cheek. He has a terrible sense all of a sudden that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him. The idea frightens him so badly that he pulls his chair back and stands up. His hands are shaking. He doesn't know why he thought about it. Maybe he wants to do it. But it makes him feel sick.
Connell's a bit of jerk really. And I don't feel good about the fact that I'm willing to let him get away with it. He's certainly a better man than many in the novel (or in life) and and on the whole he's "good" for Marianne, they're "good together." He uses her. Repeatedly.
Generally I find men are a lot more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than exercising personal freedom for themselves, says Marianne.
Maybe this is the thing that bothers me about the book. You're led to believe that Connell is good for Marianne.

Is she really the not normal one in this relationship? She's certainly damaged, with a dysfunctional family who has abused her. But she's also coping, exploring her selfhood and her boundaries. Normal.
Denise decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression toward Marianne as a way of expressing themselves. As a child Marianne resisted, but now she simply detaches, as if it isn't of any interest to her, which in a way it isn't. Denise considers this a symptom of her daughter's frigid and unlovable personality. She believes Marianne lacks "warmth," by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.
Does Connell hate her? At times.
Last night he spent an hour and a half lying on the floor of this room, because he was too tired to complete the journey from his en suite back to his bed. There was the en suite, behind him, and there was the bed, in front of him, both well within view, but somehow it was impossible to move either forward or backward, only downward, onto the floor, until his body was arranged motionless on the carpet. Well, here I am on the floor, he thought. Is life so much worse here than it would be on the bed, or even in a totally different location? No, life is exactly the same. Life is the thing you bring with you inside your own head. I might as well be lying here, breathing the vile dust of the carpet into my lungs, gradually feeling my right arm go numb under the weight of my body, because it's essentially the same as every other possible experience.
The death of a friend instigates a depressive episode for Connell. Normal. Loving family, financially disadvantaged (relative to the company he keeps), good looking, academically and athletically gifted. Aspires to little more than social acceptance, including having the right girlfriend, being a saviour. Normal? Certainly ordinary.
You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.
Normal People was bumped up my reading list because it's shortlisted for the 2020 Tournament of Books, and it's in the same bracket as one of the most powerful books I've read in recent memory, Fleishman Is in Trouble. I was worried for FleishmanNormal People is compellingly readable, and sweet and smart and romantic. But ultimately, I didn't find it realistic or relatable, which Fleishman is in spades. Normal People remains lovely, but Fleishman made me reexamine myself and my world and caused great psychological upheaval. So.

The Millions: Me, Myself, and You

January 2011
March 2011

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