Normal People
  • March 10, 2020

    Opening Round

  • Sally Rooney

    2Normal People
    3Fleishman Is in Trouble

    Taffy Brodesser-Akner

  • Judged by

    Helen Rosner

Fleishman Is in Trouble

I’ve been stridently avoiding reading anything by Sally Rooney since shortly after Sally Rooney started to happen, back in 2015. Please believe me that this is a compliment. I read her career-launching essay “Even If You Beat Me,” about her experiences in college debate—I had also been a college debater, and I also spent years learning (and then years unlearning) how to treat every human interaction like a game to be won—and in her dissection of that world and its weird hierarchical sophistry I saw an image of myself rendered with such fine-lined clarity that I printed it out and brought it with me to therapy. It was too much; the threat of being seen so clearly was too existentially burdensome. And here I am now, having now read, for this Tournament of Books, her second novel, Normal People, and god, what was I so afraid of all these years? Being bludgeoned to death by spare and lovely prose?

Helen Rosner is the New Yorker’s food correspondent; occasionally, she also writes about the inedible. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “Taffy Brodesser-Akner and I regularly interact with each other on social media and we’ve had lunch a few times over the years.”

Connell and Marianne, in many ways the only characters in Normal People, are classmates who fall for each other, but due to their teenage neuroticism—Connell is working-class and cool, Marianne is rich and a social outcast—they keep their romance a secret, both from their friends and, in a sense, from one another, despite the fact that they’re fucking all the time. This goes on for years; the novel covers the end of high school and the breadth of their time in college, four full years of falling in love with each other, figuring out what is and isn’t love, being deeply in love, at times pretending both defensively and offensively not to be in love, and resolutely refusing to ever really talk to one another—or anyone else—about any of it. Things happen, they’re not very important. What’s important are these endless riptides of longing and self-denial, and being helpless against them.

These are the massive, unwieldy emotions of youth, and of course Connell and Marianne are awfully young people—a fact I kept losing track of, and then snapping back to. The story plays this trick intentionally, I think (I hope), helping us forget that our heroes are barely beyond childhood. They uncork bottles of wine, and gesture philosophically with cigarettes, and have friends over for dinner parties, all with the intense solemnity of undergraduates pantomiming adulthood, which is what they are. To anyone on the far side of 25, this behavior is hilarious, of a type with 10th-graders dressed in leather jackets and backpocket copies of On the Road, or the moments (which in my experience persist into at least one’s mid-thirties) when you gaze out the window of a city bus while listening to a sad song on headphones, and feel like the unspeakably profound and beautiful heroine of your own life—performances made all the more entertaining by the insistence, by the party in question, that it’s actually all extremely serious and not playacting and actually it’s you who doesn’t understand what life really is, in all its grime and glory, the real problem is you.

It is astonishing to me that this novel gazes with such generosity on these years in its characters’ lives; that it so deeply honors the outsize intensity of their experiences; that it allows the moments and issues they believe to be of earth-shaking importance to be, in fact, of earth-shaking importance. This, despite the fact that these moments are actually so much smaller than they feel while you’re living them, so ultimately insubstantial against the vast scope of everything that follows—not for Marianne and Connell specifically, but for everyone who survives the infancy of their adulthood, for any of us who make it far enough beyond those years that we start to be aware of the smooth, terrifying acceleration of time. I was reading this book and thinking, for most of it, that it was sort of a miracle: a brilliant, intentional bestowing of gravitas onto these flailing and ephemeral collegiate urgencies, so unlikely to persist, as the forward motion of your life plods and seethes, as anything more than a pleasant or painful emotional afterimage. At times, the characters seem like they’re in on the joke: “It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone,” Connell says to Marianne, late in the book, “and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.” This is a farce that’s written like tragedy, which is maybe what it means to be young.

There is, notably, a lot of sex in Normal People. Not in an especially hot way, but in an offhanded and youthful way, where your bodies are more mature than your hearts, and correspondingly more articulate, and so sex becomes a thing that you do with your bodies when you don’t have to employ the bodies for other purposes, such as going to class or draining the pasta. The novel’s early sections so precisely evoke that euphoric disorientation of being fumblingly young and lost in infatuation that I, not young, felt a sort of breathless, aching grief at the realization that I will probably never have that again. The book is, in many ways, about sex, about what it means to love a person, what it means to make love to a body, and where those acts of love overlap and where they fail to meet. This is good stuff! This is what we’re here for! Let’s dig in and feel those feelings, narrated with gestural dispassion in close third! But this is also where the book lost me—where it abandoned me, really, I felt almost betrayed—as the ballad of Connell and Marianne enters its third act, and the sex becomes a clunky and violent metaphor, and the underlying farce is replaced by an oddly retrograde, overly pat morality play. Maybe the gravitas wasn’t a sly miracle, maybe it’s not actually a book about playing grown-up, maybe this story really is just an earnest telling of the most important years in its characters’ lives. How sad for them, if they are.

Fleishman Is in Trouble is nominally about Toby Fleishman, a Manhattan doctor who’s going through a divorce and having just astonishing quantities of phone-app-enabled sex and searching (perhaps not urgently enough) for his curiously missing estranged wife, Rachel. It’s actually a novel about men in general, and men as they’re seen by women, and how cruel it is that women see men as humans, but men, oblivious, rarely return the favor of granting humanity. Years ago I came up with a hypothesis about why it’s so rare for male novelists to construct complex female characters, which I think I continue to stand by, and it basically boils down to this: They aren’t writing complex male characters, either, but we as a reading public think that’s great. I go back and forth on exactly how much I still believe this (and whether I ever really believed it), but I do know that there’s something viscerally thrilling about great women writers writing men—I don’t mean characters who are men, but men, men walking around wearing the fact of their man-ness, observed and analyzed as men.

It is of course a terribly harmful cultural falsehood that women, as a category, have richer inner lives than men, that women feel more, and more deeply, that our motivations are more kaleidoscopic and esoteric. Men are just generally forced to shove all that down, to put it all away, and even an uncommonly perceptive man can, looking inward, observe a tidy room with an opaque storage box tucked in a corner and consider his psychic inventory complete, forgetting to account for the seething masses of memory and experience and endocrine chaos barely contained beneath the box’s lid. The men in novels written by men do things, they say things, they solve problems and have emotions and seethe and howl, but I wonder (not myself being a man) how much those men on the page are merely the annotated lives of their authors, and not the authors’ observations and analyses of manhood. (Do I need to say that not all men are like this? Plenty of men aren’t like this! And there are innumerable male authors who write both women and men with sensitivity and insight, and I’m sure all of you will not hesitate to tell me who they are!) But women who write men well—oh god, they write them like a thing on fire.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

This is the great earthquake of Fleishman Is in Trouble: It opens like a story about a man told by a man. A sad, misunderstood man fucking his pain away with the help of the slender, middle-aged women of upper Manhattan? Stand in the doorway of that one arepa joint in the East Village and whip a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow across the room—you’ll graze the ear of at least three Keds-wearing grad students named Matt who have that exact novel half-written in their Notes app.

But then it twists: The narrator, Libby, steps into the frame, and she’s her own character, not just the disembodied, all-knowing avatar of Brodesser-Akner. (Though a little bit, maybe, she is the author, and I really feel like I ought to mention here that I have had a few work-related meals with Brodesser-Akner, though not for a few years now. I suppose in terms of conflicts of interest, “The author and I haven’t talked business over lunch since the Obama administrations” is about on the same level as “I did the same niche college activity as the author, albeit a decade earlier, and by all accounts she was way, way better at it than I was.”) Libby is one of Toby’s oldest friends, maybe his only female friend—a former writer for a men’s magazine, and therefore at least semi-professionally an observer and analyzer of men, who early on in the book looks back on her clip file with despair:

I never landed on anger—I never ended a story there—and I think maybe that was where I failed. My empathy only created more empathy, which sounds good, yes, but was born of inherent cowardice. I was too scared to finish with anger … I was afraid of seeming too hateful, and so settled on hating myself for caring too much. That’s not to say I was a bad writer. I was good, and I was liked, and people said I was compassionate and that it was nice to read warm things, and only I knew that it was actually a failure of bravery and will to be as compassionate as I was.

Libby has, for whatever reason, given herself the task of telling us Toby’s story, and immersed as she is in his dramatic reconsideration of the role and value of women in his own life, she starts to reconsider herself, and then to reconsider him, and then herself again, and then finally Rachel. The sands are ever-shifting, which is—well, it’s not exactly fun, you’d never call this a fun novel, but it’s thrilling and destabilizing and infuriating and it held me fast as superglue: As a narrator Libby’s not unreliable, she’s un-static. She changes as the story unfolds, and her sense of what matters changes along with her, so the version of Toby’s story she gives us by the end isn’t at all the same story we began with.

I would also like to take a moment to appreciate that, as befits a social satire of Austenite scope, the book makes a point of telling us exactly how much Toby’s annual salary is, and later on also makes a point of noting that Rachel makes about 15 times more than he does, and while doing the math on their precise income disequilibrium did take me out of the narrative for a few seconds, it was ultimately a very satisfying diversion.

Picking a winner between these books wasn’t difficult. Still, despite how much Normal People disappointed me in the back half of the novel, I’m glad I read it; there are enough parallels between it and Fleishman Is in Trouble that I might actually encourage someone to read them together, and then FaceTime me for a compare-contrast book club. To discuss: How does each novel use sex as a narrative tool? Do you think Connell and/or Marianne grow up to be people in Toby and Rachel’s social orbit? What can we learn about Connell and Toby from the different ways they express their discomfort with women requesting to be hit in the face during sex? Normal People starts out as a novel with two main characters, and ends up really only having one, in a way that feels like a narrative mistake; Fleishman Is in Trouble starts out as a novel about one person, and ends up actually being about many people, in a way that feels like being brought blinking into the sunlight. Not a question, really, just an observation, great talk, see you next week. What are novels like these, anyway? Characters live their lives, they fight their feelings and give into them, they screw and cry and walk around within the rooms of their tiny world, and the rest of humanity goes about their own small lives just off the page. It’s a finesse game, a metanarrative: It’s all in how you tell it, and the ways you pay attention to how it’s told.

TODAY’S WINNER: Fleishman Is in Trouble

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John Warner: I just want to start by saying that was a heck of a decision. I read and really liked both books and had thought about them quite a bit on my own, but Judge Rosner has given me plenty more to chew on.

Kevin Guilfoile: Before I read Judge Rosner’s decision, I also had made notes about male authors writing female characters and how we don’t talk as much about female authors writing male characters. I actually agree that women are generally better at writing men than men are at the reverse. This is probably because every day many women must observe men with a Jane Goodall-like sense of clinical wariness: You might love these hairy apes, but any one of them might also kill you.

And I agreed that one of these novels had a stunningly accurate portrayal of a male character, but I was thinking of Rooney’s rendering of Connell more than Brodesser-Akner’s portrayal of Toby. I want to say first that I loved both of these books, but Fleishman Is in Trouble is something of a farce and Toby is a bit of a caricature by design. A terrific character to be sure, but we only know him through Libby’s portrayal of him, and it’s not Toby’s internal thoughts we get, but Libby’s understanding of those thoughts and there’s yet another meta-layer between Libby the narrator and Toby’s internal life that I won’t reveal because it’s something of a twist. I thought it was all excellent, but Toby’s feelings and desires and grievances are intended as a satirical contrast to the other characters, and as a result I didn’t necessarily think he was a paragon of true inner maleness. Even though I am much closer to Toby’s age than Connell’s, I didn’t really “feel seen” (to paraphrase Judge Rosner) by Brodesser-Akner’s portrayal of Toby.

John: In a lot of ways, Fleishman Is in Trouble looks like a classic WMFUN (White Male Fuck-Up Novel), but the filtering through Libby and the twist subvert this frame in interesting and wonderful ways. It’s one of the things I most appreciated about the novel because I still like a good WMFUN, even as I’m weary of middle-aged men and their foibles, particularly now that I’m middle-aged.

But it’s hard to escape the notion that Toby Fleishman is a “character” in this drama, as opposed to a flesh-and-blood person whose deepest interior we’re being given access to. This isn’t a criticism, but a distinction in how the different novels are working.

Kevin: Connell, though. Man. I feel like Rooney really got him. And even though (especially though), Rooney’s portrayal of Connell is often unflattering, Normal People shocked me into a kind of meditative state where I could remember teenage-boy feelings in a way that I had long forgotten. I really did feel exposed reading Normal People.

Normal People is an exploration of characters who, like almost all of us, seek intimacy with others before our own identities are forged. The book has a keen sense of what it was like to be a young adult who is perplexed and lonely and ambitious and selfish and manipulative and horny. It covers the subject from many angles—gender and class and sex. And Rooney gets just right the shifting loyalties and priorities of kids in their late teens and early twenties.

John: Judge Rosner describes Normal People as treating its characters with “generosity,” which is exactly right. The novel allows the emotions of youth to be as serious as they feel at the time of occurence, rather than attempting some kind of ironic distancing or dismissal. Fleishman Is in Trouble was one of my favorite reading experiences of the year, but Normal People burrowed into me in a much deeper way.

Kevin: Rooney’s sentence skills are something to behold. Every scene has details—sounds and smells and tastes and feels—that not only register as exactly right, but which paint whole rooms in four colors and three dimensions. And she does it with so few words. She is a gloriously economical writer. Judge Rosner grew impatient with the story in its third act, but I wished it could have gone on and on. If Rooney wanted to go full Michael Apted on Marianne and Connell I would have followed them all the way to 63 Up.

John: Ditto. I was fully gripped by the book to the end and still want to know what’s going to happen to Marianne and Connell. Maybe if the planned TV series gets a second season we’ll find out.

Kevin: In the suburban (mostly female) book club circles into which I have a small window, Fleishman Is In Trouble seemed to be the book everyone was talking about last summer. Akner is genuinely funny and carries insights by the pallet.

As mentioned, the book appears to have a narrator problem—the story is being told by a friend of Toby’s who isn’t present for most of the action and couldn’t possibly have access to all the thoughts and details related to us. Eventually we get a super-meta explanation for this, and I still haven’t decided how I feel about it. Actually that can’t be true because I loved the book so I must be okay with it. There. As of just now I realize I’m OK with it.

John: As a reader, I was thrilled by it. It took the book to another level for me. I might’ve gone the opposite way if I was the judge here, but it would’ve been a Sophie’s Choice.

Kevin: The last few pages of the novel are basically an essay about marriage that I, a 25-year veteran of wedded happiness, found quite moving and true. “Regularness is actually quite extraordinary,” one character says. At 52, you can embroider that on a banner under my sigil.

John, you and I get the day off tomorrow as a special guest joins our very own Andrew Womack in the commentary booth. Meghan Deans will be the judge with Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli taking on Mary Toft; or The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer.


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