Sally Rooney’s growing pains: watching a novelist mature

Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel “Normal People” is soft, stingy with lyricism, psychologically wispy, and not altogether gripping. I like it (I do!), but it isn’t an essential read, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the drooly commotion surrounding its recent arrival. I’d give it an ambivalent B.

Rooney wrote this and her prior, similarly vaunted novel “Conversations with Friends” before she was 28, and both books betray the Irish author’s — here the grizzled elder clears his throat — youth and callow inexperience in love and literature. 

In the latter instance I mean she is a plain, safe, lukewarm stylist, who, while honing a palpable personal voice, lacks the assertive confidence, the prosey musculature of a more seasoned writer. Rachel Cusk she is not.

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Yet the author’s inexperience in tracing the contours of youthful relationships, both romantic and platonic, has also proven her strength, even her selling point. She understands her young characters, their collegiate insecurities and romantic gamesmanship. It has earned Rooney the title of the “first great millennial novelist” from a magazine that should know better.  

“Great” is too strong a descriptive. Rooney’s feathery comedies are decidedly not great. They are good, quite good. Greatness isn’t hers yet. As one publication said of “Normal People,” it is “in some ways like the slightly less impressive follow-up album by a beloved band.” Another called it a rush job.

Still, the sycophantic likes of Vanity Fair imbibe the buzz: “The Church of Sally Rooney started to form around the release of her first novel, ‘Conversations with Friends,’ in 2017. Heralded by everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Zadie Smith, Rooney immediately became Someone You Need to Know About.”

It’s the hype-machine in clanking action, unctuous celebrity journalism at its finger-licking gooiest. (Church? Sarah Jessica Parker? “Someone You Need to Know About” in Gen Y caps? Certified bull-bunk.) Elsewhere, some genius crowned Rooney “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.” We can never unsee that.

“Conversations with Friends” and its hasty follow-up “Normal People” are sharp-eyed comedies of manners set in and around Dublin, lightly plotted stories about struggling twentysomethings looking for love, college scholarships, jobs and purpose. Also coming into vigorous play: literature, class frictions, social jockeying and plentiful sex. 

Her dialogue is naturalistic, stripped down, never fiery or memorable, cutting or discernibly clever. The books are light on their feet, fitfully sparking to life with taut passages and startling scenes of social discomfort.  

They are breezy and easy books, eons from the thorny ruminations of Philip Roth or plush poetics and thematic heft of Toni Morrison. They’re more like Anne Tyler lite. 

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Amid stubbornly lean prose, literary beauty is scarce. Two passages in “Normal People” poked me in the eye for their uncharacteristic flair: “The sky was extremely blue that day, delirious, like flavored ice,” Rooney almost effuses.

Only 12 pages later, she again swoons over the amazing azure of the heavens: “The sky is a thrilling chlorine-blue, stretched taut and featureless like silk.”

But she’s just playin’. Her allergy to the florid is concrete. Typical sentences, surgically removed of metaphor, run more like this: “Lorraine covers her mouth with her hand, so he can’t make out her expression: she might be surprised, or concerned, or she might be about to get sick.” That, reader, is on the more colorful end of the Rooney spectrum. 

Last week “Normal People” crashed the NYT bestseller list at No. 3. Maybe it deserves it. I enjoyed it for all my nitpicking. Yet I wonder who reads Rooney with the avidity of Sarah Jessica Parker or Zadie Smith (who at Rooney’s age was already a true literary giant). 

Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking, in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature. I give her a B, for now. Though the promise she shows tells me that grade may rise with each new book. We read and watch. And hope.

Going down darkly with Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson — novelist, poet, playwright — wrote mad sentences. The author of the swooning novella “Train Dreams,” harrowing Vietnam War epic “Tree of Smoke” and, most famously, the indelible stories in “Jesus’ Son,” left behind a pageant of ravishing prose, much of it festooning the darkly lyrical stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” released last year after his death in 2017 at age 67.

I was reminded of his genius when I saw that this last book is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, whose winner will be announced next month.

I ran across a couple of brief, bleakly reverberating quotes from “Sea Maiden” that I’d scribbled in my journal. If Johnson could be grim, his poetics were reliably heartrending.

I’m getting depressed … you forgot to say prepare to fall down through a trap door in the bottom of your soul.”

Yeah boy he dragged me down to his jamboree. Dragged me down through the toilet formerly known as my life. Down through this nest of talking spiders known as my head. Down through the bottom of my grave with my name spelled wrong on the stone.”

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A few things revving me up

I’m having a tricky time getting jazzed about too much lately — only Socrates rivals my sage discernment and penetrating taste — yet I am alive, blood sluices through my veins. Some things I’m digging:

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Richard Serra sculptures at Dia: Beacon, New York

Caustically hilarious British TV series “Fleabag”; Sigrid Nunez’s quietly affecting novel “The Friend”; the reliably stirring Dia: Beacon museum, so serenely cluttered with minimalist and sculptural masterworks; poetic Polish romance (and Oscar nominee) “Cold War”; and Weezer’s “Teal Album,” featuring frighteningly faithful covers of Toto’s “Africa” to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It’s a gas.

Mostly this entry is a sequel to my December year-end inventory of now-time enthusiasms, stuff getting my juices flowing. These are the current tops:

  • Jade Bird

Strumming an acoustic guitar, her long hair swinging, she sings in a hushed girlish voice before belting like a banshee, loosing a squall of blazing catharsis. She has pipes that purr, then roar, then come back. You sway to twangy folk, then rock with giddy fury. 

Intimate and Velcro-sticky, Bird’s music, performed acoustically or with a small band, circles Americana, punk and soulful indie pop. Country fans are drawn by her evocations of rocky, star-crossed relationships, and there’s country crunch in those folk-rock vocals. Her galloping cover of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” is a jam-session joy.

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In this 21-year-old Brit, the Dixie Chicks are at their fiercest, alongside a banging Liz Phair, Courtney Barnett, PJ Harvey and other steely indie royalty. Bird’s lyrics pop and sear. In the unreasonably rousing “I Get No Joy,” Bird sings with such speedy agility, she’s almost rapping:

“Psychotic, hypnotic, erotic, which box is your thing?/How many days a week, do you feel/Electric, connected, unexpectedly/Affected, what do you need?”

It’s a kind of sublime whiplash.

(Watch her HERE.)


  • “Capernaum”

His hair is a fluffy fiasco, a brown brushfire, his splotched face the seasoned mug of a gang member. He’s filthy and swears like a sailor. He’s homeless. He’s 12. 

In Nadine Labaki’s Beirut-set stunner, a nominee for the best foreign language Oscar, the boy, Zain, is a resourceful renegade in the scrappy mold of Huck Finn and Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows.” Fed up with his struggling parents and their feckless care of their many children, Zain takes them to court, accusing them of the crime of giving him life. It’s a preposterous idea, a satirical glance at the Lebanese judicial system.

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Zain (the extraordinary Zain al Rafeea) fast becomes a tough street urchin who finds a gig babysitting the gurgling infant of an illegal Ethiopian refugee, played by Yordanos Shiferaw. (The film’s devastating cast of non-professionals play versions of themselves.) When the young mother is arrested, Zain is stuck taking care of the baby on his own. In this harrowing situation — the movie is a tart indictment of Beirut’s corrupt state of child welfare — the fathomless despair can be unbearable to watch.

“Capernaum” — the title means “chaos” — owes much to the children-centric neorealism of ‘80s and ‘90s Iranian cinema, from “The White Balloon” to “The Color of Paradise” — heart-renders told in raw, wrenching lyricism that aren’t without political undercurrents. It’s a street tale alive with miscreants and thieves and few kind gestures. It’s so gritty and grubby the camera lens almost seems smudged. Redemption, however, is in the air.

(Trailer HERE.)


  •  “Asymmetry”

Beautifully written, radiantly spun and shot through with smashing intelligence, Lisa Halliday’s first novel “Asymmetry” bristles with humanity as it mingles conventional and unorthodox structures. It’s a literary feat kneading the fictional form like Play-Doh.

I’m only a third of the way through its brisk 271 pages, but I’m sold. (Being part-way in a book you’re relishing is where you want to be; there’s more on the way to savor.)

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The novel is chopped into three sections. I finished the first section, “Folly,” which traces the May-December romance between Alice, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, and Ezra Blazer, a famous author 40 years her senior. (If he rather resembles Philip Roth, it’s not chance: Halliday had a relationship with Roth while in her twenties.)

And so we get an old-fashioned affair of unpushy comedy and sweet asides set amidst Upper West Side means, with tender banter and the not uncomplicated theme of apprenticeship, much like a Woody Allen movie, without the deep-dish neuroses.

Alice has career issues, Ezra has health issues, and brewing in the background is the launch of the Iraq War. (The war plays a prominent role in the next section, “Madness.”) In this, one of The New York Times’ 10 best books of 2018 (and a favorite of Barack Obama), Halliday doesn’t flinch from the vagaries of love, including the sort, like Woody’s, peppered with literary chatter and throbbing with aching uncertainty.

The dialogue is unfailingly smart, wry, just right. Alice and Ezra conduct short, gem-cut conversations that bring a knowing grin:

“Is this relationship a little bit heartbreaking?” he said.

The glare off the harbor hurt her eyes. “I don’t think so. Maybe around the edges.”


  • “United Skates” 

In urban roller rinks across the country thousands of African-American roller-skaters are lacing up and getting down. Beneath rays of twirling disco balls an underground roller renaissance thrives among a force of skate buffs who throw after-dark rink parties and commit kinetic art on waxed wood floors: backflips and break-dances, tag-team acrobatics, backwards trains and other daredevilry. Many revelers simply trace ovoid loops in a kind of roller-boogie bliss.

With new and archival footage, much of it contagiously groovy, “United Skates” directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown chronicle the hip-hop-fueled scene with at once bracing and brooding electricity. They hopscotch the nation — Los Angeles to Baltimore — and capture the community-building soul of skating as well as the heartrending gentrification that’s swiftly shutting down classic rinks, dinosaurs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Few will survive.

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Next to dwindling skate spaces, the film locates other troubles: the apparent profiling of black skaters at certain rinks that ban rap and the skinny wheels many black skaters prefer. When skaters organize “adult nights” — “Code for ‘black night,’” says one — police fill the parking lots and security is thick. No such hysterics are apparent on a typical “white” night. It’s a familiar microcosm of current race relations.

Yet the party rolls on. The subculture retains a die-hard exuberance not easily snuffed. The film’s final scenes are far from elegiac; against all odds they are tonically celebratory.

(Starting Feb. 18 on HBOTrailer HERE.)

‘When writing is fun, it’s not very good.’

I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good. If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light.”

— Russell Baker, journalist and two-time Pulitzer winner, who died in January

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There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway 

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On reading and writing: quote of the day

Following my prior post about being a writer, I resort to the pith and punch of William Faulkner who said that anyone who wants to be a writer should be a reader first:

Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

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And if you want to be a great writer, you must absolutely smoke a pipe.

The queasy leap of calling oneself a writer

I hate saying I’m a writer. I hate the way people’s faces light up, as though I’ve told them my secret kink. Oooh, a writer. How one expects them to follow up with la-de-da and a twirl.”

Bethany Marcel at Literary Hub 

What’s so bad about that? I’d love to get a trill and twirl when I tell people I’m a writer. 

I half joke, because I get where Marcel is coming from. Saying you’re a writer is a slightly loaded statement, even a bit mortifying. As Marcel notes in her Literary Hub essay “How to Say ‘I’m a Writer’ and Mean It,” people always want more information: What do you write? What books have you written?

They get nosy. The perceived glamor attached to the writer’s life entrances. Sometimes people are lightly starry-eyed. Other times they’re simply curious. Other times: meh.

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But it’s not so simple. Saying you write is like saying you act, or tame lions. It’s exotic. It’s oft-misunderstood. Writers are outliers, and sometimes writers believe all the romantic rubbish that attends the title. These run from literary saplings (earnest neophytes who read too much Stephen King) to the bluff and blustery (Hemingway, Mailer).

Yet while many writers are unswerving blowhards (with beards to match), lots of them are painfully introverted and suffer a “shyness that is criminally vulgar,” to quote a famous ’80s British pop band. 

That’d be me. As Marcel says, “I’m bad at talking about my work. Like many writers, I’m shy. I care too much what people think.”

I for one wince when people say they’ve read my stuff, even if they’re complimentary, or when an editor scours my copy line by line, syllable by syllable. I’m a raw nerve. I feel naked and nauseated. Writing in many ways is a performance, and I have stage fright.

For a long stretch my speciality was arts and celebrity journalism, with a focus on film, not fiction, though I always dreamed of writing the latter. Marcel says that she’s “ashamed (she) was too shy to major in journalism in college. That (she) feared the prospect of conducting interviews so much (she) majored in literature instead.” 

I was the opposite. I majored in journalism. I was too nervous to take creative writing classes — all that reading your work aloud, all that classmate critiquing. I finally took a fiction course in my late-20s, a university night class. I lasted one meeting. 

What happened was exactly what I dreaded would happen, a variation on my worst nightmare. The class of about 20 students was instructed to write a short story in 15 minutes and then read it aloud. Horrified, I decided in that instant I would drop the course the next day, and I did, no refund.

Speaking before groups, even at the dinner table, has always been excruciating for me. I won’t even say grace. Large work meetings give me intestinal anguish. On numerous occasions I’ve been invited to speak to writing and journalism classes. I turned down all offers, with a blush, and utmost relief.

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A creative writing class — a Circle of Hell.

Yet I find interviewing people easy, almost extremely so, even invigorating, which is odd when I’m the first person to leave a house party because such events are just too people-y. 

Unaccountably, I enjoy asking others about their life and work. I possess a thirsty curiosity to learn about all manner of personalities, walks of life, mannerisms, pastimes, love lives, favorite foods, what have you, while a tape recorder takes it all down. I’m voracious for copy fodder. I just like to write about people, places, happenings, stuff.

For years I was a culture critic. I was known to be mean, mordantly honest. An asshole. Since college, when I was the campus newspaper opinion editor, I’ve evinced a boldness in print and shyness in person.

People wondered about the dichotomy, and I always said I hid behind the newspaper byline. I was largely invisible, save for my words and ideas. I could walk down the street without being accosted. (There were a few exceptions, none of them ugly. Once, comically, someone asked for my autograph.)

I often think I can call myself a writer, despite the pretentious ring to it. All I know is that when I say I’m a writer, I feel both a sense of pride and charlatanism. And always my stomach does a terrific backflip of crazy self-doubt.

“Before you can say you’re a writer and mean it,” Marcel says, “first you must believe you’re a writer.” I’m still working on it.

On language: quote of the day

“Rather than make one’s argument come alive, clichés do the reverse. They capture a morsel of thought, cover it in batter, and fry it into mush.” — Mark Abley in The Walrus

For good measure, here’s a rogue’s gallery of flagrant clichés. As language guru William Safire put it (with a sardonic wink): “Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”

Don’t cry over spilt milk; Selling like hotcakes; The rest is history; Every cloud has a silver lining; When it rains it pours; Don’t judge a book by its cover; Don’t beat around the bush; Don’t count your chickens before they hatch; It’s a dog eat dog world; To be honest; Basically; With all due respect; Giving it 110%. It is what it is; Paradigm shift; Walk the walk; Pushing the envelope; Thinking outside the box; The elephant in the room.

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