The Anxiety of Intimacy
Examining the television adaptation of Sally Rooney's steely-eyed novel, "Normal People."
Historically speaking I’ve never been good at binge watching. I don’t really have the attention span to sit in front of the television—or really anything—for hours at a time. I managed to get through the first few weeks of quarantine watching television at what I considered to be a healthy pace (it took me a week to watch Tiger King). Then there was Normal People, a twelve episode limited series adapted from the titular Sally Rooney novel.
I read both Normal People, and Rooney’s other equally good novel, Conversations With Friends, last year, more or less because I kept seeing people on the subway reading the two books and that is how I usually make literary decisions. (It’s called crowdsourcing! Trust thy neighbor!) I loved both books. Rooney is an incredibly lucid and gifted writer, her prose is steely-eyed, exact, and she writes characters that are subtle and complicated. When I saw that Normal People was going to be adapted into a show for the small screen, I hopped on it pretty quickly. By that I mean I watched the entire show over a period of 3 days, starting the day the show came out. It felt amazing to me how true the show was to the book. It also felt amazing watching the two protagonists, the very Irish Connell and Marianne, both figure their shit out right in front of my very tired eyes.
Normal People is about young people falling in love for the first time but it doesn’t feel trite. Connell and Marianne fuck up a lot. They hurt each other in ways that feel real. The show, and the book, revolves around a series of signal failures. Without giving too much away, the major problem Connell and Marianne have is that they have no idea how to communicate with one another. As they grow older, they get a little better at it, but not by much. There’s also the question of sex. To be blunt, there is an incredible amount of extremely realistic straight sex in this show. Connell and Marianne have sex pretty much constantly throughout the show. The sex they have is messy; it is the sex you have when you are in your late teens and are trying to figure out how it all works. Marianne asks for things that make Connell uncomfortable. Sometimes it seems like Connell comes really fast. There are impressionistic shots of the two of them in bed together post-coitus where you can very clearly see Connell’s flaccid penis. There's a scene where Marianne takes nudes while crying. This is all the point of the show, and also the book. Falling in love for the first time—in all senses—is uncomfortable and intense. It’s what makes the show good. It doesn’t leave anything up to the imagination of the viewer. We are forced to see literally everything, maybe to reckon with our own relationship to coming of age as people capable of love.
There is also, as Rooney is kind of famously a Marxist, plenty of subtle (and not-so-subtle) arguments about class and power. Connell and Marianne meet each other in high school in rural Ireland and then head off to college in Dublin. Connell’s mom cleans Marianne’s family house, which is a palatial mansion on the top of a hill. In College, Connell has to work to support himself to live in a dirty apartment where he shares a room with someone, while Marianne lives in a sprawling apartment that looks plucked from an Anthropologie catalog, courtesy of her aloof and wealthy mother. When Connell gets a scholarship halfway through college it literally changes his life. Marianne gets one, too—it’s just a feather in her cap. The show and book also examines power as it relates to trauma and sexuality. Marianne comes to terms with an abusive family life through seeking pain in sex. Much of the show involves Marianne grappling with the fact that she likes to be controlled. None of this feels simplistic. It feels frighteningly real.
I finished Normal People so quickly because I love Rooney’s writing very dearly, but also because the experiences of the two young people in this show felt like a pristine mirror image of learning how to love and feel secure. Watching Normal People felt like ripping off a Band-Aid over an almost-healed wound. It forces you to reckon with what it is like to be heartbroken. It doesn’t feel good but it does make you feel alive.