At The Clinic by Sally Rooney, 2016
The magic trick:
Relentless focus on the writer’s strength: understanding and dissecting human relationships
We’re beginning a week of love stories leading up to Valentine’s Day.
This is the short story prequel to Rooney’s famous novel, Normal People, made even more famous as a TV series. This was the world’s introduction to Connell and Marianne, the intense and complicated relationship at the center of the novel.
I have not read the novel or seen the show, but I’ve read enough about each to know that “refreshingly frank” portrayals of sex are at the heart of both. And I see that here too in “At The Clinic.” But it doesn’t overshadow what the story is all about, as I feared and assumed it might.
This is supremely intelligent writing. It’s microscope fiction unconcerned with the wider world and instead relentless in its focus on understanding these two people and their relationship together.
When an author understands human beings this well and focuses almost completely on that strength as a writer, it almost doesn’t matter what else the story is doing – whether it’s plot, poetic imagery or, yes, refreshingly frank portrayals of sex. The story’s power is assured.
And that’s quite a trick on Rooney’s part.
You like women who don’t complain because you don’t want to see women as fully human.
Every time I criticise you, it turns into a thing about me hating women, he said.
Marianne started to sit up then. She gathered her hair into a roll and felt for a clip to put through it.
I find it suspicious, she said. That you always get into relationships with people you don’t actually talk to.
You’re upset and you’re taking it out on me now, he said. I’m not completely stupid.
She touched her hair with her hands to feel that it was in place and then lay back down beside him. It was a bad sofa, with a pattern of brown flowers.
Me, she said. You see me as a full human being. That’s why you’re not attracted to me.
Yes I am.
Sexually, but not romantically.
She watched him looking up at the ceiling then. Their faces were very close together.
I guess if it was romantic I wouldn’t like you having other boyfriends, he said.
Although actually, you don’t.
I don’t like your taste in boyfriends, that’s different.
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