Normal People, digital capitalism, and the anxiety of mortality

Izzy Dann argues that Will Self’s aversion to normal stuff shows a lot more about neoliberalism (and himself) than it does about the things we like to criticize.

The mania surrounding Sally Rooney’s Normal People has been ubiquitous over the past few months – selling out in shops across the UK and Ireland, it’s been on every book club’s reading list while doing the rounds on literary podcasts. Now, it’s just been publishedin the US. Set mostly in Dublin, the title traces the curious friendship between two characters, Connell and Marianne, over several years in the shadows of late capitalism and concurrent class constraints.

The story begins at Marianne’s house while both are still in school, where Connell’s mother is working as a cleaner. Eventually, both attend Trinity College Dublin, after some initial hesitation from Connell, who mocks the prospect of his new bourgeois life: “He would start going to dinner parties and having conversations about the Greek bailout. He could fuck some weird-looking girls who turn out to be bisexual.” Later, when both Marianne and Connell win fully funded university scholarships, Connell grapples with his guilt over being waited on by his fellow students in Trinity’s fancy dining halls during formal dinners.

As ever, alongside the fervour has come criticism – but this particular criticism is notable for stemming largely from select baby boomer-types. Will Self, for instance,  disparaged the novel in an interview with James Marriott in The Times, despite admitting to having read only “a few pages”.[1]Self probably didn’t read enough of the book to realise, but he proved himself to be a prime example of the pseudo-literary and capitalism-complicit subject condemned in Rooney’s novel:

All Connell’s classmates have identical accents and carry the same size MacBook under their arms […] He did gradually start to wonder why all their classroom discussions were so abstract and lacking in textual detail, and eventually he realised that most people were not actually doing the reading. They were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read. He understands now that his classmates are not like him. It’s easy for them to have opinions, and to express them with confidence. They don’t worry about appearing ignorant or conceited.

Self refuses even to name Normal People, instead referring to it only as “the Sally Rooney book”, and then continues: “It may say things that millennials want to hear reflected back at them, but it’s very simple stuff with no literary ambition that I can see.” The implication is clear: for Self, the writing of those pesky “millennials” from the internet shouldn’t merit the label “literary”.

Beyond the generational divide, Self implies that literature is for the few, not the many, which echoes Connell’s observation of his contemporaries at Trinity:

He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.

The final farce comes at the end of the interview, when it emerges that Self is promoting his latest literary pièce de résistance: menu-writing at the prohibitively expensive Hakkasan, which boasts “world-class mixology” as exclusive as Self’s perception of literature.

On Self’s omission of the title of Normal People, it’s worth examining Jacques Derrida’s questions about human limits and colonialism in “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)”. Here, Derrida highlights the relationship between naming and ownership when he asks: “Who was born first, before the names? […] Who will have been the first occupant, and thus the master? Who the subject?”. For Derrida, rather than being “born first”, it is the ability to name first that makes a “master”, the ability to control language.

Consequently, Self’s refusal to call Normal Peopleby its name reads as entirely anxious about this novel. According to Sigmund Freud in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, “‘Anxiety’ describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one” – thereby differing from fear, which is of a fixed object.[2] But what exactly about Rooney’s world makes Self so anxious – and why does it matter?

He reveals the answer himself: “I was already well known when social media came along […] I don’t engage in social media. But I was slightly annoyed with a recent interview because the writer said, ‘What’s happened to him?’ Well, I have published, like, 1,500 f***ing pages of serious fiction in the past 7 years”. Unlike the work of “simple” millennial authors, Self’s novels are “serious” – even if nobody reads them (blame Twitter or something).

And Self’s not alone in his generation-centric dismissal of Rooney’s work: in the March 2019 edition of Literary Review, D. J. Taylor referred to a positive write-up of Normal People, also written by Marriott for The Times, as follows: “But Marriott is still in sight of his twenty-seventh birthday. Most of the readers on the wrong side of fifty whose opinions I canvassed thought that Rooney was certainly a talented writer, but it was a pity she concentrated on the minor interactions of a generational group whose lives are not only governed by social media but trivialised by it.”[3]This begs the question: what makes anyone’s life trivial? More importantly, who gets to decide this? How did they get that power – and how can it be mitigated?

Across the world, the fragmented geopolitical landscape has illuminated that those who ignore anyone’s experience do so at their peril. In the UK, for example, diminishing the indentities of Leave voters to “a bunch of racist idiots in Sunderland or Stoke” won’t win a People’s Vote for Remain. In criticising Rooney for focusing on “the minor interactions of a generational group”, would Taylor do the same for James Joyce’s Ulysses, which also revolves around the “minor interactions” of its characters? Infamously, Ulyssesfocuses on the encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on one single ordinary day.

In the episode ‘Nausicaa’, Bloom suddenly smells Molly’s scent – “Wait. Hm. Hm. Yes. That’s her perfume” – and muses to himself: “Know her smell in a thousand. Bathwater too”. Later, in ‘Penelope’, Molly recalls her charged friendship with childhood friend Hester: “she kissed me six or seven times […] my lips were taittering when I said goodbye […] it got as dull as the devil after they went”. Later, she continues: “what else were we given all those desires for Id like to know I cant help it if Im young still can I its a wonder Im not a shrivelled hag before my time”. For Taylor, however, Joyce is permitted to write about such “minor interactions” – he has previously described Ulyssesas “a bridge which no self-respecting book-world titan could avoid having to cross”.[4]

So what’s the root of this discrepancy? According to Taylor, Rooney’s characters are “governed” by social media – but this seems like an excessive claim. Normal Peoplecontains a selection of emails and Twitter references, as to be expected of any novel set in current society. For Rooney’s fiction, it would be much more bizarre to pretend that contemporary communication doesn’t exist. Part of Connell and Marianne’s daily routines, social media plays a small yet necessary part in their mutual intimacy: “He wipes crumbs out from under the toaster and she reads him jokes from Twitter.”

Compare, for example, the proliferation of postal exchanges in the eighteenth century, bringing forth Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa,Pamela, and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereusesamong other epistolary volumes. Take Clarissa: the letters of Richardson’s novel reflect the medium in which they were discussed, in a manner akin to fanfiction – to the extent that some readers wrote alternative endings for the story.[5]Doubtless today we’d say the story went viral.

In Normal People, social media is a basic yet unavoidable part of the characters’ daily lives. When an ex-classmate dies by suicide, the reader is told: “What were these people doing, Marianne thought, writing on the Facebook wall of a dead person? What did these messages, these advertisements of loss, actually mean to anyone?” Then comes the caveat: “None of these people had done anything wrong. They were just grieving.” Rather than making social media the story, this is an interrogation of mortality itself – by which I mean not just the prospect of death, but also the uncontrollable (and therefore anxiety-inducing) passing of time.

Of course, death doesn’t have to be imminent to provoke anxiety; instead, the mortal nature of humans provokes anxiety due to the “unknown” aspect of death. It is this anxiety about mortality that underpins the strain of criticism towards Normal People that focuses reductively on millennial tropes  and social media. Ultimately, what Rooney’s critics and readers “on the wrong side of fifty”who dream of a fictitious world devoid of social media need to understand is that,  asrecent news stories such asthe Momo Challenge and the introduction of porn laws have emphasised, digital natives – including “millennials” – are vital in avoiding the damage that comes from failing to understand technology.

Taking ourselves back to the pre-digital age, in Eroticism, Georges Bataille observes: “Beyond the intoxication of youth, we achieve the power to look death in the face and to perceive in death the pathway into unknowable and incomprehensible continuity”.[6]The likes of Self and Taylor should bear this inmind. Rather than shying away from the reality of mortality – palpable in the scapegoating of millennials and technology – those “on the wrong side of fifty” should enrich the discourse of “continuity” by “fac[ing[” death head on, to render it less “unknowable” for all generations. After all, reducing the discourse by resisting Instagram as a concept will not uncover any fundamental truths about culture and progress – nor will it slow the passing of time.


[1]James Marriott, “What I’ve learnt: Will Self”, The Times, 2019: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/what-ive-learnt-will-self-wgkmlcd3q

[2]Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, ed. by Angela Richards, trans. by James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1991), pp. 275-338 (pp. 281-282)

[3]D. J. Taylor, “Dusting off the Crystal Ball”, Literary Review, 2019: https://literaryreview.co.uk/dusting-off-the-crystal-ball

[4]D. J. Taylor, “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses – review”, The Guardian, 2014: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/04/most-dangerous-james-joyces-ulysees-kevin-birmingham-review

[5]Peter Sabor, “Rewriting Clarissa: Alternative Endings by Lady Echlin, Lady Bradshaigh, and Samuel Richardson”, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Volume 29 Issue 2, Winter 2016-17, 131-150

[6]Georges Bataille, Eroticism, trans. by Mary Dalwood (London: Marion Boyars, 1987), p. 11


Isabelle Dann works in technology communications. She has helped to produce stories for the BBC, WIRED UK, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, City AM, and more. Prior to this, Isabelle worked at Nesta – the UK’s innovation charity – and studied for an MA in English Literature at The University of Manchester, graduating with a Distinction. Tweets @izzydann.

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