Watching ‘Normal People’ in Lockdown

That’s ridiculous, he says. I’m not going to New York without you. I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for you. It’s true, she thinks, he wouldn’t be. He would be somewhere else entirely, living a different kind of life. He would be different with women even, and his aspirations for love would be different. And Marianne herself, she would be another person completely. Would she ever have been happy? And what kind of happiness might it have been? All these years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions. But in the end she has done something for him, she’s made a new life possible, and she can always feel good about that…

… what they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once. They’ve done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks. Really. People can really change one another. You should go, she says. I’ll always be here. You know that.

When I think about Marianne and Connell’s relationship and the indelible imprints they leave on each other’s lives, the notion of a palimpsest comes to mind. A palimpsest is a piece of writing or manuscript on which subsequent writings have been superimposed, with the old text often rubbed out or effaced. The metaphor is that our first and most intense loves never really leave us, and we carry them with us throughout our lives, imprinted forever on our hearts and memories, recalling how irrevocably each changed the other. The metaphor of a palimpsest also illuminates the opening quote of Rooney’s novel:

It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which has been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a particular influence, subduing them into receptiveness
- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

I gazed at myself in the mirror. Inside Nick’s coat my body looked very slim and pale, a white wax candle. He came back into the room and laughed at me in a good-natured way. He always dressed to go to the bathroom in case Bobbi came home unexpectedly. Our eyes met in the mirror.

and

When Bobbi talked about me it felt like seeing myself in a mirror for the first time. I also looked in actual mirrors more often. I started taking a close interest in my face and body, which I’d never done before. I asked Bobbi questions like: do I have long legs? Or short?

It’s interesting to think about the overall significance of the repeated use of mirrors as a literary and cinematic technique. Without drifting too much into literary criticism or analysis, lots has been written about the way in which Rooney holds “a mirror” up to the millennial generation. I think it has more to do with Rooney’s concern with self-perception and examination, as the above quotes suggest. It also captures the romantic sense of recognising your self in your lover, and vice versa. This feeling of complementarity and authentic belonging is something that pervades Normal People — i.e. the search to “find your other half”.

I am my lover’s, and my lover is mine.

What were these people doing, Marianne thought, writing on the Facebook wall of a dead person? What did these messages, these advertisements of loss, actually mean to anyone? What was the appropriate etiquette when they appeared on the timeline: to ‘like’ them supportively? To scroll past in search of something better? But everything made Marianne angry then. Thinking about it now, she can’t understand why it bothered her. None of those people had done anything wrong. They were just grieving. Of course it didn’t make sense to write on his Facebook wall, but nothing else made sense either.

The above neatly summaries the changed ethical and technological landscapes we’ve found ourselves in over the last decade and a half, and the attendant ambiguities around etiquette and social protocols. With more of our lives and relations playing out online than IRL (it’s not uncommon for zoomers and millennials to spend 12 hours a day working, socialising and interacting through screens) what happens to our elaborate digital selves after we die? How do we memorialise loved ones in the digital realm?

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita

Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

One of the most powerful and transcendent features of Normal People is how it handles the subject of male mental health.

I just feel like I left Carricklea thinking I could have a different life, he says. But I hate it here, and now I can never go back there again. I mean, those friendships are gone. Rob is gone, I can never see him again. I can never get that life back.

It’s incredibly moving to watch Mescal deliver these lines as the camera lingers on his grief-stricken, distressed face. His voice gives way to waves of tears, despair and grief, not just for Rob, but for the life he once had and the person he once was. The performance evokes an overwhelming feeling that many of us experience growing up and moving schools, cities and countries. That of not quite fitting in and feeling comfortable in ourselves and around others, nor knowing where or who to call home.

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