Connecting with Culture
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Rooney has been dubbed ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’. Her latest book is striking for its cynical and dispassionate account of modern life. In cool, spare prose, Normal People offers a window into the minds of the much-mocked ‘millennials’.
Rooney’s characters are over-educated, highly self-aware twenty-somethings. They are not always likeable; by her own self-deprecating admission, Rooney’s novels are ‘just stories about fake people’. The characters teeter between smooth self-assurance and cripplingly low self-esteem as they attempt to inhabit the facades they believe the world expects.
Despite the power with which Rooney’s characters experience both physical and emotional pain, their social identities are so artfully constructed they sometimes feel themselves becoming untethered from reality. In Normal People, Rooney writes of her main character: ‘Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was or become part of it.’
Alongside forensic examination of the characters’ emotional lives, the novel reflects on the power dynamics between couples, friends, and social groups. Whilst the central relationships are complex and fraught, they are nonetheless the one thing that seems ultimately to offer true value.
The closest any character comes to recognising this is in a resigned, almost flippant revelation: ‘No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.’
Is this really the best – the only – consolation on offer? The problem, as Rooney put it in one interview, is that our society has no better way to navigate the pain and confusion of modern life: ‘How do people console themselves through periods of immense suffering? Capitalism doesn’t really have an answer.’
As Christians we may feel that we do have an answer. However, if Rooney’s novel shows us anything, it’s that millennials are not a problem to be solved. They are individuals, each in desperate need of meaning, purpose, connection, certainty, love. They are, in short, exactly what her title promises: normal people.
If we are to share our good news with them, we must do so with integrity, humility, and empathy, acknowledging our own struggles. After all, Christians are normal people too.
Rachel works in marketing and attends King’s Church Durham.
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