BOOKS: A country slow to cast off its placid, stubborn misogyny.

FICTION

Normal Girls

Eva Kenny

In the last five years or so, a flood of new books by young Irish women have been published in Ireland and the UK. This is sometimes called the “Rooney effect”, as the enormous commercial success of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, has encouraged publishers to seek writing by young female writers from Ireland, finding that they appeal to an almost unbelievably broad span of readers, despite the specificity of their situation in contemporary Ireland.

The books I’m thinking of are extraordinarily heterogeneous in genre. Multiple forms of the essay collection have emerged: first-person narratives, like Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self and Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations; sociological-historical memoir, like Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair; hybrid works of personal and cultural criticism like Roisin Kiberd’s The Disconnect, and more. Bilingual texts, academic research as personal journey, poetry-in-prose, short stories and above all, debut novels, have proliferated.

The novels, like Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Normal People; Naoise Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times; Niamh Campbell’s debut, This Happy; Megan Nolan’s debut, Acts of Desperation and Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, take the literary form of the bildungsroman, a German term denoting a class of novel in which a young protagonist goes forth into the world and develops morally, intellectually and psychologically, often against a background of testing conflict. In Irish twentieth century literature, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy are towering examples of the genre.

The contemporary novels I’ve named are depictions of young women coming to know themselves in the widening window between childhood and motherhood, now filled with higher education, travel and terrible jobs. Out of the wilderness of unhappy upbringings, their protagonists trace paths through unhappy first relationships and out the other side, into the open expanse of the rest of their lives, in a country slow to cast off its placid, stubborn misogyny. Female writers of mainstream books as sexually explicit as these are unimaginable at any previous point in Irish history: they would have been censored (Rooney), institutionalised (Dolan, Nolan), or burnt at the stake (Campbell). Since the recent referendums on the right to same-sex marriage and abortion, it could be assumed, from afar, that Ireland is a country in which women are no longer discriminated against, in which women no longer experience sex as a shameful act. Women are no longer institutionalised for pregnancy outside marriage, and despite continuing issues about access to healthcare, particularly reproductive health; endemic intimate partner violence and pay disparity etc women at least nominally have the right to legal protection in all of these areas. While works of non-fiction can address these issues directly, the novels take the affective temperature of the patriarchy in contemporary Ireland, attentive to its small shifts forward and backsteps, haunted by what has been grotesquely hidden and what is still, very gradually, coming to light.

Dubliners juggling with life in the 21st century. Picture by Bill Heaney

All of these novels, while focused on one female protagonist, take as their subject more broadly the idea of normality: how to achieve it or avoid it, and what it means to be normal at all as a young woman in a country where norms have historically been produced by men. In a recent review of Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, in the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen picks up on this theme. Pulling the title of his essay, “I couldn’t live normally”, from the main character’s account of a recent nervous breakdown, he dwells briefly on the intense tabulation of normality that takes place across Rooney’s fiction. Tipped off, no doubt, by the title of her second book, Lorentzen observes: “Normality has totemic significance in Rooney’s writing … There is a relentless keeping score on this account.” While, universally, the spectrum from normal to weird can represent the entire adolescent emotional gamut, in contemporary Irish fiction by women, however, it indicates more than just youthful social anxiety. In Rooney’s novels as in those of her contemporaries, the constant highlighting of normal versus weird outlines the contours of something structural, revealing the formation and internalisation of behavioural patterns, and their codification, over generations, as society.

At the start of Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times, these values, “normal” and “weird”, mark the outer parameters of behaviour available to the central characters. Ava, a young Irish TESL teacher in Hong Kong, is reminded constantly by her English boyfriend and his friends that she is not the former but the latter. Normality, as it is presented by Julian and his cadre of creeps, is a set of foreign coordinates, characterised by the British public school system, the global finance industry in which they work, and male/female sexual relations governed by economics. Teaching English to Hong Kong schoolchildren, Ava finds that the language has been made utterly foreign to her by the repetition of its most basic forms. Under her intense scrutiny, English people are observed in the same way. Ireland’s closest neighbours are captured thousands of miles away living la vie expat, their forms of courtship examined with curiosity bordering on disgust.

Against this backdrop, Ava’s own invocation of the word “normal” comes most often as a negation: “‘It’s normal to miss your family.’ I said that was why I didn’t.” For this character, normality as a concept has to be explored in relation to class, race and sexuality, as she examines her own position in the gig economy of postcolonial administration. Ava has one foot on either side of power. The novel explores both sides of this line: first the one in which she is a victim of financial capital, the Brits, and the power dynamic between men and women as it is impacted by money and class. Turning away from Julian’s world towards Edith, a Hong Kong native, in the second part of the novel, Dolan shows how the legacy of colonialism affects the power dynamics in this relationship, and the set of linguistic and geopolitical relations that allow her to make enough money to live in a foreign country when she can’t afford to live in her own. The zero-degree, affectless narrator of the first part of the novel is transformed by a relationship; not with the calcified Julian and his norms, but with the practical Edith, with whom the protagonist starts to access a real self. Pinched-off and abrupt while she is still with Julian, the chapter-endings and transitions become open and generative as Ava’s world expands, becoming more foreign, perhaps, and more genuinely herself.

History is never far away in these novels. In Niamh Campbell’s beautiful, haunting debut novel This Happy, Lana, a working class academic, has a chance meeting with the Landlady, a figure from her past; not just a personal recall but active here as a cypher or “race memory” of Ireland’s former ascendancy and corresponding art form, the Big House novel. Flashing back and forth between the memory of a short, unhappy affair with a married Englishman in her very early twenties and the life and status conferred upon her by her current marriage, the protagonist both delights in her husband’s innocence and is frustrated by the complacency of his social group. In memory, the landlady, the decaying stately home in the drab lands north of the Pale and the Englishman are overlaid with Dublin’s contemporary housing crisis and a “Castle Catholic”, Fine Gael, Clongowes Wood Dubliner with inherited property and children from two previous relationships. Disinherited by her own father, who has a new family now, Lana strives to find a place in a new hierarchy, if the aristocracy is in ruins and even if its replacement is depicted here as a disorganised and potentially doomed patrilineage.

“How do they know?” asks the nameless protagonist of Megan Nolan’s debut, Acts of Desperation, late in the novel. “How do they know that I can be hurt?” Nolan’s book relates, in retrospective chapters interspersed with commentary by an older, more forgiving version of herself, increasingly unbearable descriptions of the abuse, violence and rapes her character experiences, at the hands of both self-professed nice guys and sadistic Vikings alike. But this question could be asked by the protagonist of each of these novels. The women are isolated, friendless, easily picked off from the herd. Of all the attributes these characters have in common, most striking and primal is their lack of secure, protected status within the patriarchy. They are all outside the tribe for the same reason: fathers are conspicuously absent in this set of texts. In Rooney’s Normal People, for example, neither of the central characters, Marianne and Connell, has a father around.

Normal People is a romantic novel, but serves more broadly as a portrait of a patriarchy in intense transition if not decline. At first it reads as a love story that de Valera himself could only have dreamed of. Coded as faintly Protestant, Marianne lives with a cruel brother and vaguely insane mother in the big house with grounds outside the town. While Marianne’s dead father is the unseen locus of violence, who, we deduce, has provided her with a template for the series of abusive relationships with men that ensues, mothers and their doted-on sons form pseudo-couples that displace or replace father figures altogether. Marianne’s mother is detached, cold, unlovable and weird, and the book shows how this is stamped upon the hereditary chain: it is exactly how Marianne describes herself. Where Rooney is particularly interesting, however, is in her equal attention to the effects of this fraying, fatherless patriarchy on male as well as female characters. Although she doesn’t fit into the normal, rural Irish world of GAA, Christmas and group chats at school, she later finds herself at home in that notorious hotspot for degeneracy and sadomasochistic sex, Trinity College Dublin. Picking up these tropes, the novel performs a kind of critique not only of the society that so savagely policed behavioural norms in the century since the independent Irish state was formed, but of the literature that was demanded to produce it and to cohere it around national, religious and cultural demands. The norms that have made Connell comfortable in the world of school and home no longer suffice, and while he struggles with depression in Dublin, one of his friends, even more socially constricted, doesn’t make it to the end of the book.

These effects are traced in two relationships in Beautiful World, Where Are You. In the novel, the relationship of two young women, Alice and Eileen, whose friendship is articulated through emails to each other, forms the core of the novel. Flanking this central relationship, and told in alternating chapters, are their on-off liaisons with two generally uninspiring men, Felix and Simon. Like previous pairs of female friends in Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls, the wide-eyed Cait and scheming Baba, or Lenù and Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, the novel’s central consciousness is split into the depiction of a relationship between two separate women, because it is still easier for us to imagine two separate women’s lives than it is to imagine that one woman can be both maternal and intellectual, or sexy and bookish. In Beautiful World, new layers of corrosive self-hatred for the female characters manifest: now they’re not just depressed students but successful, rich women, powerful within their industries. And what do they want? To be fathered, and/or to be dismissed. And to be normal, above all; to fit in, free from mental illness, possibly via motherhood.

From the very beginning of Beautiful World, men encode and carry the keys to normality: they can instruct and advise on this matter. When celebrated writer Alice moves from Dublin to a small town in the West of Ireland after a nervous breakdown, her glamourous isolation, in the big house outside the town, leads her to a Tinder date with local mad lad Felix. “People moving away, that would be the normal thing,” he advises. When they get together, Alice’s fantasy is to be wanted a lot, not just “a normal amount” by him as a sexual partner; as a replacement for paternal care, she will put up with any amount of poor or dismissive treatment to secure it. Nothing she does is normal; Felix, resentful, finds it hard to measure up at the same time as he is made uncomfortable by her need and lack of self-respect. “When I treat you in a normal way it’s not good enough.” And what sort of normality is this: what does it really offer to the men populating these books? Straight out of a bell hooks treatise, his only previous outlets for care and sexual expression have consisted of obsequious displays of kindness to a dog and a history of “rough anal” videos in his search engine. Their versions of normality are restrictive, punitive at best and extreme in their violence at worst.

Writing about the variety of natural hairstyles in Black Panther, Emma Dabiri describes the 2018 blockbuster as “powerful not least because it showed our hair as beautiful but, more than this, because it was presented as normal ‑ a space we have historically and very intentionally been excluded from”. Dabiri’s, however, is the only book that explicitly and appropriately redirects anger outwards from the self towards the matrix of racism and neoliberal capitalism. And where is the political expression of rage, articulated as feminism, in the absence of which their anger is so internalised, so self-directed, so individually experienced, so alone? In Roisin Kiberd’s recent book of essays The Disconnect, she characterises this acute loneliness as a function of the internet, all alone, self-harming and reading articles online. These novels show how such norms continue to be produced, if church power is culturally if not economically much diminished: through a soft, neoliberal power that doesn’t need physical structures to inhabit or be internalised by its subjects. They deal with the afterlives of institutions, their affective and moral tenacity, where they continue to dwell in the body. The material effects of society: class, the housing crisis, emigration, sexual violence; are all registered in these books, however, all injustice done to the central characters is thoroughly absorbed and made individual. On such a cellular level is this understood that even the protagonists of these novels don’t quite understand why they feel so outsidery and alone. But their authors do. If only one book about a miserable, downtrodden Irish girl came out, we could think of it as an individual phenomenon. When all the books being reviewed, praised as literary fiction, translated, reprinted, etc within the space of a few years, register the same experiences, their critical mass forces us to imagine their authors articulating the outline of something structural, poking into its deepest corners and pockets.

Rereading the novels for this essay, their affectless, cool prose made me think often of a line from Samuel Beckett’s 1938 novel Watt: “Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done.” Taken en masse, the protagonists of these novels create a study of Irish society both through a deeply personal lens and a scrutiny bordering on the anthropological, considering their own bodies and sexual experiences, and those of others, with curious objectivity. The material is intimate, but the tone is detached, almost dissociated. Something is being expressed through this approach. How can a patriarchy succeed without fathers? How does the structure play out even without individual actors? “The scaffolding was there within the legal system,” writes Rosita Sweetman in Feminism Backwards, “it massively favoured the male half of the human race. We believed that only by exposing the scaffolding would real change come.” Recounting these stories at an emotional distance from pain or disappointment, the measured and measuring tone of these novels articulate the structure of patriarchal society in contemporary Ireland, allowing it to speak for itself.

Eva Kenny is a writer from Dublin. Her fiction and criticism has appeared in The Stinging Fly, the Irish Times, the Dublin Review of Books, the LA Review of Books, Artforum, Frieze and the Journal of Beckett Studies, amongst others. She is at work on a collection of stories and essays. 

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