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.

5 best books of the year

  1. “Cherry” by Nico Walker — Walker’s precocious debut novel is tough, streetwise and gruesomely war-torn. It is ugly, scabby — drugs, crime, graphic combat violence — yet lovely still, bristling with heart, candor and raw youthful love that throbs unvarnished truth. What emerges is a pungent, probing snapshot of America today, what has been dubbed “(perhaps) the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.” 

2. “There There” by Tommy Orange — This smashing debut is a novel of ambient beauty and a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire. Much of it hits home, like a lightning jag, pulsing with candor and woe.


3. “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk — My favorite book in Cusk’s remarkable Outline Trilogy, this slim volume continues a minimalism that feels maximalist, a headlong plunge into the circumscribed but deeply philosophical world of a single female protagonist who’s on a first-person journey amidst many places and people. Cerebrally and queerly enthralling.

4. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh — A young woman is determined to hibernate from life via shelves of pharmaceuticals and we don’t quite know why. She is a wreck, in cryptic self-exile. This wiggy, sometimes wayward study in alienation is at once comical, unnerving, depressing and iridescent.

5. “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by Yunte Huang — The lone non-fiction book in the bunch, this sensitive, captivating and occasionally creepy biography of conjoined twins Chang and Eng is a strange tale, a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and pulsating historical vitality.  

Bonus best: Classic book of the year, “The Easter Parade” by Richard Yates, from 1976, whose grim opening line sets a searing tone: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life … ” By the author of 1961’s caustic suburban masterpiece “Revolutionary Road.

And, as always, I chucked aside the predictable pile of unsatisfying titles, including Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s hyped stories “Friday Black” and Lauren Groff’s collection “Florida, which is brawny, but I was distracted by stronger stuff. (I also thought her 2015 novel “Fates and Furies” was hysterically overestimated.) 

Good but overrated: “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner. I gladly finished it. Not bad, not brilliant. Same goes for Nick Drnaso’s perplexingly ballyhooed “Sabrina,” the first graphic novel to make the Man Booker Prize longlist. A few grades above meh.

Best summer reading (so far)

The damn summer is nearing its damn end and I still have at least two books I want to finish before autumn (dear, dear autumn) introduces its cool, dry resplendence. I will tackle Jamie Quatro’s debut novel “Fire Sermon” and Nick Drnaso’s ballyhooed “Sabrina,” the first graphic novel to make the Man Booker Prize longlist.

It’s been a fine summer reading-wise, with lots of pleasantly prickly fiction. I’m noting the best books I’ve read during the moist months so far. (Some of these blurbs, where noted, are recycled from prior blogs, but you won’t remember anyway.)

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Rachel Cusk’s extraordinary Outline trilogy, starting with “Outline” in 2015 and concluding with “Kudos” this year, presents a minimalism that feels maximalist, a headlong plunge into the rather circumscribed but deeply philosophical world of a single female protagonist who’s on a first-person journey amidst many places and people, and it’s cerebrally and queerly enthralling. Restless and ruminative, each book is short, about 250 pages, and you can start with any of them. (I think “Kudos” is my favorite.)

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A beautiful, privileged young woman is determined to hibernate from life via shelves of pills and pharmaceuticals, and we don’t quite know why. It is the cusp of 9/11 and the only people in her life are a mean sometime-boyfriend, a sort-of best friend and the indifferent fellows at the corner bodega. She’s a wreck, in cryptic self-exile. This wiggy, sometimes wayward study in alienation is at once comical, unnerving, depressing and iridescent. Yet, as good as it is, it’s not as fine as Moshfegh’s …

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She types with talons, and it’s beautifully thorny, particularly in these indelible tales. As noted in a previous post: “Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them.” I’d read them again in a (skipped) heartbeat.

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I again quote a previous blog post: “This smashing debut by Tommy Orange is a novel of ambient beauty as well as a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire.” Look out for this one to sweep some prizes.

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A funny, wry and almost gnomic novel about love, marriage (and its dissolution) and raising an inquisitive daughter in Brooklyn. So singular, it’s hard to describe, this brief, breezy book is rife with wisdom, borrowed (the Stoics to Kafka) and original. It’s a pure delight, a glittery gem, in which epiphanies and head-nodding observations abound. It seems to introduce a new fiction form, and it’s a sort of masterpiece.

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Again, from a prior blog post: “Amie Barrodale’s ‘You Are Having a Good Time’ is a gratifying off-kilter kick, a spasm of spare, elusive, funny tales that are touched by mystery, an alluring unknowability. With cavalier irreverence, she throws a strobe-light on aberrant facets of the human condition.” A rare find, a dissonant joy.

Cutting to the core of creativity

I’m reading two books right now: “Kudos,” the mesmerizing new novel by Rachel Cusk, and the non-fiction treatise “The Creative Habit” by celebrated dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp.

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The former is a whole-cloth original, narrative-defying, discursive and brainy, like the two previous books in Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, “Outline” and “Transit,” of which “Kudos” is the ravishing finale. Challenging and unorthodox, the seemingly autobiographical novels crack open your mind in a furiously fresh manner. They evoke Karl Ove Knausgaard’s rambling “My Struggle” series but are more rigorous, compressed, and chewier.

Catching my breath, I’m really here to dwell on Tharp’s self-described “practical guide,” whose full title is “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.” I’m a sucker for eloquent lessons on creativity and the artist’s way, including, yes, “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, “The Sound on the Page” by Ben Yagoda, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott and “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. These books possess transformative powers, tweaking your creative habits just so, massaging your brain to look at the blank page or canvas with a kind of nervous optimism instead of paralyzing dread or clogging trepidation. They are weighted with wisdom.

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Tharp, a paragon of her art form, knows of what she speaks, and she speaks it plainly and persuasively, with little decorative dressing but plenty of panache. She’s a beneficent, caring lecturer, and the book, breezy and empathetic, bulges with sticky, pragmatic advice. Quick: “In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.” Or: “There are no ‘natural’ geniuses.” That’s in the first nine pages, and somehow I find these statements awfully encouraging. 

She digs much deeper, with infectious enthusiasm. Using hard-earned lessons from her own work methods and creative processes in ballet and presenting instructive anecdotes about artistic challenge and triumph among such underachievers as Mozart, Beethoven Richard Avedon, Balanchine and Maurice Sendak, Tharp casts a wide net showing how happy accidents, preparation and luck (those are Siamese twins), ritual, archiving and mineable memory are critical components of productive creativity. (She also includes some loopy exercises that I didn’t have much use for. One required a bunch of eggs.)

Flipping through this clean, handsome, none-too-big book I plucked a few quotables:

“The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty, I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.'”

“Another trap is the belief that everything has to be perfect before you can take the next step. You won’t move on to that second chapter until the first is written, rewritten, honed, tweaked, examined under a microscope, and buffed to a bright mahogany sheen. You won’t dip a brush in the paint until you’ve assembled all the colors you can possibly imagine using in the course of the project. I know it’s important to be prepared, but at the start of the process this type of perfectionism is more like procrastination. You’ve got to get in there and do.”

“The best writers are well-read people. They have the richest appreciation of words, the biggest vocabularies, the keenest ear for language. They also know their grammar. Words and language are their tools, and they have learned how to use them.”

“There is no one ideal condition for creativity. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming.”

“Jerome Robbins liked to say that you do your best work after your biggest disasters. For one thing, it’s so painful it almost guarantees that you won’t make those mistakes again. A fiasco compels you to change dramatically. The golfer Buddy Jones said, ‘I never learned anything from a match I won.’ He respected defeat and he profited from it.”

“These mistakes — relying too much on others, waiting for the perfect setup, overthinking structure, feeling obligated to finish what you’ve started, and working with the wrong materials — are deadly. Any one of them will undermine your best efforts.”

“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources … Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat.”

“You might not struggle for spine. You might be content to receive any random thought floating through the ether that happens to settle on you that day. You might think you don’t need a supporting mechanism for the art you’re constructing, a controlling image, a collateral idea to guide you. You might think getting lost is a big part of the adventure. You may think that, but you’d be wrong.”

More highly finicky reading

I’m the worst. I’m impatient. I’m mean. I’m discerning. I have taste. When it comes to books, I am ruthless. I’m even worse with movies. Most don’t stand a chance.

I have put down four books, closed them for good well before the 100-page mark, in the past two and a half weeks. Suffused with sorta-guilt — ah, not really — I swan to the next book, hoping for gems and genius. I am an optimist garbed as a very dark pessimist.

Mining this small stack I located gold — the books are by literary heavyweights, after all, and they do often gleam — but I also found fool’s gold, which I will not abide.

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The yeasty comic novel “Less” was the chintziest of the four. It won the Pulitzer Prize this year for fiction. What are you gonna do? I read, I shrugged, I shut. 

With wan humor tangled in wry, hackneyed observations about gays and straights and executed in lite-beer fizzy prose — “a quick, easy summer read,” said one critic, as if that’s a compliment — “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer, reminded me of a gay-themed comedy series on HBO, one of those middling shows no one watches. The novel, says Greer, is “a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart.” Thanks, Mr. Greer, for defining “generic.”

I read some 75 pages of “Less” and I must agree with this writer who actually finished the book: It’s “chock-full of gay clichés that feel outdated, and the tone is generally one of superficial, unearned cynicism that sometimes drifts into cattiness.”

Yup. Even The New York Times, in an upbeat review, called it “too sappy by half.”

Zadie Smith writes with a magic wand; her language and storytelling gifts are things celestial (and she makes me gush floridly). I’m an ardent fan of her fiction — “White Teeth” glitters — but her 2012 novel “NW,” a typically vibrant latticework of people and place, didn’t grab me by the lapels, no matter that I don’t have lapels. As exceptional as the writing is, the story has a matte finish when I yearned for glossy. 

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Wade into Rivka Galchen’s hailed stories “American Innovations” and it’s clear why she is one of America’s hottest young fiction writers. She’s crisp, funny and fanciful, with a biting originality and a smidge of the surreal. But as much as I appreciated the collection, I put it down. I almost fell for it, then fashioned a one-word review: meh.

While there’s no shame in not finishing a book — I can’t believe people who feel they have to get to the last page even if it’s a slog — I can’t help but gulp and blush at this failure: Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer-winning classic “The Age of Innocence.”

I did not get far in the rather slim novel. I found the prose cluttered and perfumey, chokingly Austenian (though without the giggling), and fustily 19th-century for my contemporary palate. (Oddly, I loved Wharton’s 1911 “Ethan Frome.”) Wharton weaves long, highly populated sentences of lace and crushed velvet, many of them woozy and lovely.

Problem: I kept picturing doilies. 

Antidotes to these literary losers are a trio of new fiction by some of the most acclaimed women authors around: “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk, “How Should a Person Be” by Sheila Heti and “Homesick for Another World” by Ottessa Moshfegh. 

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I’m knee-deep in that last title, a 2017 collection of stories by the precocious Moshfegh, whose novel “Eileen,” a darkly off-kilter character study, impressed and troubled me — just how I like it.    

Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them. 

Some excerpts:

“He thought that the drugs we bought in the bus-depot restroom were intended to expand his mind, as though some door could be unlocked up there and he would greet his own genius — some glowing alien in glasses and sneakers, spinning planet Earth on its finger. Clark was an idiot.” 

“Our repartee would be rich with subtlety and sarcasm, as smart and funny as mid-career Woody Allen. Our fucking, like Werner Herzog, serious and perplexing.” 

“I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood.”

To me, that is dreamy writing, all at once blithely sardonic, intelligently aloof and drolly perceptive, attached to the stinger of a scorpion.