Monday, April 20, 2020

Normal People is a Rotten Novel

Some "normal people", apparently.
The TV adaptation of Normal People, the phenomenally successful second novel by Irish author Sally Rooney, runs to twelve episodes. This is the latest news to stagger your faithful correspondent, for whom the success of Normal People exists at a similar level of bafflement as the placement of the figs in the fig rolls.

Normal People is a superficial, shallow, vain, vacuous, mutton-headed book about the first-world problems of a poor little rich girl. The characterisation would bring a blush to cardboard, the human insight is blind, the subtly is that of a cavity block and, if Sally Rooney’s really is the voice of a generation, that generation is an unusually stupid one.

Novels are written in three broad styles. These aren’t hard and fast guidelines, of course, more like familial resemblances than any scientifically rigorous classification, but useful for aiding our understanding and comparing our experiences.

The first family is the traditional story. There is a protagonist who does things, and these things are described in the course of the book. These books are generally set in a world that is real and recognisable. Emile Zola is typicalof this school. He thought it the novelist’s duty to go out in the world, and then report on what he or she saw there.

The second style is the window-on-the-soul school, of which Henry James may be considered the trailblazer. Acolytes consider such things as plots and story arcs passé and, for some reason, particularly prize the composition of the sentences in a novel, which are, ideally, exquisite. Colm Tóibín would be a leading member of this school.

The third style is avant garde, where the writer writes utter gibberish that can be understood by neither man nor beast, but we all pretend that they’re capital-P-Profound because we don’t want to look thick. Thomas Pynchon is the pope of this church, and Gravity’s Rainbow its sacred text.

To which school does Sally Rooney belong? Well. That’s hard to say.

Normal People is set in contemporary Ireland, rural Sligo and Dublin. Neither place is recognisable in the novel. A quick example: early in the book, the hero, Connell, is having an argument with his mother, Lorraine. Lorraine is so annoyed with Connell that she tells him to stop the car, she’s going to get out and get the bus home.

It is to be hoped that Lorraine packed a lunch, because she could be waiting a long time on that bus if she’s living in a small town in Sligo. I’m not sure how many rural Irish towns have public transport, but if there were any such towns in Sligo I feel I would have heard.

The book is full of these chasms in reality. Marianne, the book’s heroine, goes from social isolation at school to being the It-Girl amongst the freshers in college. That doesn’t happen. It takes time to learn social skills. You can’t just put them on like a hat.

Connell is from a working class background. He also has his own car and can afford to go back-packing in Italy while in college. Who pays that bill? Connell is embarrassed to tell his mother that he voted for Declan Bree, the venerable Sligo socialist. Lorraine voted for Bree as well – she’s a big fan, and has educated Connell about “Cuba and the cause of Palestinian liberation.” Why would Connell be embarrassed to agree with his mother? It doesn’t make any sense. Connell is appalled when a female teacher makes an advance on him in a nightclub. Come on, now. On what planet does that happen?

Only one part of Normal People feels real, and that’s in Italy, where Marianne is entertaining her college set and the back-packing Connell in her father’s villa. Marianne’s horrible college boyfriend Jamie – a pantomime villan, if ever there were one – gets snotty when the champagne is not served in flute glasses. Marianne points out that these are champagne coupes, *actually*, but the damage is done. We’re drinking out of gravy boats, sneers Jamie, and he means it to sting.

That part reads like an eye-witness account. That exchange was only part of the novel in which your correspondent was able to believe could have happened. The rest is narcissistic, pseudo-intellectual rubbish and how in God’s holy name the makers of the TV show have got twelve episodes out of it is baffling.

They’ve either stuffed it like a sausage with whatever offcuts or offal or dog or cat they could lay hands on, or else they’ve stretched it out, like someone buttering the bread for the harvest festival in the Presbyterian Hall. James Marriott wrote in The Times that he “finished the book determined to look at the world differently. I’m not sure what higher compliment you can pay a novel.” Sooner you than me, hoss.

FOCAL SCOIR: The New York Times previewed the TV show last week as “a rare TV show about teenagers that respects intimacy as a powerful storytelling tool, both on and off camera,” and praised the show for hiring an “intimacy co-ordinator.” Thank goodness the intimacy co-ordinator never went to so far as to suggest that the actress who portrays Marianne keep her clothes on. Nobody would have known where to look.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Half-a-Million Voters Have the Right to be Represented

Sinn Féin TDs: Children of a Lesser God?
There is a strange unanimity current in Irish political media at the moment. Unanimity would be odd at the best of times; these are not the best of times. Nevertheless, an accepted wisdom has developed, and this accepted wisdom can be summed up in four points.

First, the next government will a coalition dominated by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Second, there is no possible alternative to this arrangement. Third, it is the patriotic duty of certain smaller parties in the Dáil to make up the numbers in this coalition, and finally, there’s nothing very, very odd about points one to three as outlined.

The absence of any “now, wait a minute” impulse in all this is surprising. For instance, Pat Leahy of the Irish Times has written about the gulf in understanding between what the politicians thought the last election was about and what the people thought the last election was about. The politicians thought the election would be dominated by Brexit, and how things would break between Fine Gael’s expert handing of these delicate tripartite negotiations between Ireland, Britain and the EU, or else Fianna Fáil’s nobility and patriotism in giving Fine Gael a free hand to do what needed to be done.

The people, in their ingratitude, insisted on making the election about housing and health, subjects that were that much more real to the people’s own day-to-day lives and experiences.

The election was a reality-check for political consensus. Why, then, is it business as usual for the political establishment? Why isn't so shocking a result having a tangible effect in terms of governance?

One of the more thoughtful pro-Brexit arguments among our neighbours was the idea that, be it for good or for ill, the people had spoken. You may not like what they said, or you may be horrified by what they had said, but that they had spoken could not be denied. If Britain were a democracy, then politicians had no option but to accept the expressed will of the people.

There are not many buyers for that notion of accepting the expressed will of the people in - hateful phrase! - Official Ireland. Half a million citizens voted Sinn Féin in the general election. Where are those voices finding expression currently? Where is the pundit telling a Prime Time presenter that there is something wrong in the denial of that mandate? Where are the articles speaking for those half-million?

There are complexities to the situation. Governments are formed by seat-counts, rather than vote-counts, and if Sinn Féin did not run enough candidates to maximise their incredible vote, that is Sinn Féin’s problem and not anyone else’s. Of course this is true. But it doesn’t explain why Fianna Fáil’s 37 seats – not counting the Ceann Comhairle – count and Sinn Féin’s 37 seats do not, or why Fine Gael’s 35 seats count, and Sinn Féin’s do not.

The political commentary is reminiscent of the late Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev John Charles McQuaid, preaching that nothing had changed after Vatican II. The 2020 general election voting was so revolutionary that the political correspondents are struggling to process it, and are trying to deal with it by pretending it never happened at all.

This is very dangerous thinking. If the election has been rendered null and void by COVID-19 fair enough; let’s have another election, and settle it that way. What’s completely out of the question is this ideas of ignoring the result of the election entirely. Ignoring the result of the election is a sure-fire confirmation that some people’s worst suspicions about the state are true.

Specifically, the suspicion that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, that there is a permanent government that doesn’t change, and that permanent government is run by faceless figures who are members of clubs to which you can never belong.

There was one particular factor in the last election that should have made all psephologists sit up and take notice. All through the history of the state, the Irish electorate has placed personality above politics. The Irish electorate votes locally first, nationally second. That’s why politicians attend so many funerals. If they don’t attend funerals, people won’t get to know them, and if they’re not known, they won’t get elected.

That went out of the window in the 2020 election. Sinn Féin had a TD elected in Kildare who went on her holidays instead of canvassing. Sinn Féin did not just get a blown-in elected in Clare, but a candidate who had blown in from Dublin. Dublin!

And these patterns repeated across the country. It’s all very well for pol corrs to be briefed by special advisors with stories about Shinners with British scalps around their tummy and pockets full of stolen money over big plates of Comeragh Hill lamb, spring vegetables and beautiful barley marjoram sauce. But it's too late to go bitching about the Shinners now.

Those Sinn Féin votes were cast all across the country, north, south, east and west, by rich people and poor people, by country people and townies, by people with nothing in common except a feeling that something has very wrong in a country where you obey all the rules and can’t afford a house for you and your family.

Politics is a contact sport and high-mindedness is a poor shield, but good God, how can so seismic a mandate be ignored? It is natural that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would seek to conserve their power – even if it is a little disappointing that there isn’t even some slight acknowledgement of how things have changed – but for the press, whose job it is to hold these jokers to account, to normalize Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael marginalizing of Sinn Féin’s democratically-expressed mandate is noticeably pathetic.

What should be particularly worrying is the question of how the half-million who voted for Sinn Féin will take the ignoring of their expressed wish and the confirmation of their worst fears. The guess here is: badly. Those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind, and we might all be destroyed in the coming storm.

Monday, April 06, 2020

On the Current Dáil Arithmetic

Buddy Movie Government
The Irish Times reported on Saturday that national peril sees the two great houses of Irish politics prepared from ancient grudge to break new unity in order to gift the country with the government it so richly deserves. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are on the verge of agreeing a program for government. What was not reported was the difference this makes as regards the current Dáil arithmetic.

The awkward reality is that it makes no difference at all. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can agree on a program for government down to the last jot and they would still be eight votes short of a majority. And the nature of a majority is that you either have it or you don’t. On or off, one or zero. There are no in-betweens. There are no almosts, but not quites. You are there, or you ain’t.

Both parties are furiously briefing currently that if only those damned Greens would get with the program and do what they’re damn-well told the country would finally have a government to tackle the three-headed monster of Covid-19, Brexit negotiations and the EU’s upcoming revision of member-state corporation tax policy.

There is an implicit understanding in this story that the smaller parties should bow to the larger for that reason – that they are small and the larger parties are large. However, the last government saw power handed to Shane Ross and Katherine Zappone that was out of proportion to their parliamentary representation, and what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The Green Party – because things do hinge on the Green Party, currently – realise that to hold the balance of power is to hold all the power, and they are correct in that assessment.

There is a thought experiment in the new maths of Game Theory that illustrates this quite well. Suppose a genie pops from a bottle and tells you that you can have one million dollars if and only if your buddy Frankie says it’s OK. How much of the million dollars do you have to give Frankie to get him onside?

Some people think a few grand will do Frankie just fine. He’s going from zero dollars to a few grand, the price of a new Beamer, maybe – what’s not to like? It’s not like your own soon-to-be great wealth is any skin off Frankie’s nose.

But this is incorrect. Frankie is in exactly the same position as you are, even though the money is offered to you alone. The offer to you does not reflect the true state of things – without Frankie’s participation, there is no money.

The offer appears to be made to you alone, but that appearance is not the reality. You alone do not have the power to make the offer come true. Therefore, Frankie must get half of the money because without Frankie, there is no money at all. And once that penny drops for Frankie, he’s damned if he’s settling for one penny less.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are in the position of the person who thinks she’s been offered a million dollars. She thinks it’s hers, but it’s not. The prize is only there if another party gives its permission. No permission, no nothing. Zero. Zip. The null set. The what-is-not.

Are the Greens correct to hold this position? Of course they are. Everyone in the Dáil can hold any position they like and, God help us, some of them actually do.

In what way is the Greens’ position – which is, if I understand it correctly, that a government of national unity has to be formed to get us through the current crisis and then another election held as soon as it’s feasible – less reasonable than that of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in their refusal to countenance anything to do with Sinn Féin? The teasing out of that question is what will decide the formation of the next government. Provided there’s a country left to govern, of course.