Midway through Sally Rooney's Normal People, we encounter this conversation among friends:

At the table they're talking about their day trip to Venice.... Marianne tells Connell he would like the Guggenheim, and Connell is pleased that she has spoken to him, pleased to be singled out as an appreciator of modern art.

I don't know why we're bothering with Venice, says Jamie. It's just full of Asians taking pictures of everything.

God forbid you might have to encounter an Asian person, Niall says.1

This generic Asian (a contemporary version of Eric Hayot's "hypothetical Mandarin") appears only once across Rooney's two novels. Its fleetingness a weak example of racial discourse, if not actual racism is also what arguably limns so many of the pieces in this cluster, however obliquely. We might conjure Rooney's rare racial example when reading Jordan Stein on racism and "white people's stories," Peter Coviello on Rooney's particular relatability, Claire Jarvis on Rooney's formal conservatism, Sam Huber's on literary criticism's inadequate politics, Matthew Hart on Anglo-Irish literary provincialism, and Sarah Brouillette and Gloria Fisk on anti-capitalism in contemporary romance novels. It has seemed, at least to me, that race is implicit but largely invisible whenever we talk about Rooney because race is implicit but largely invisible in Rooney's novels. The generic Asian is a minor figure here, to be sure. It is hardly the point of Normal People. And that seems to be the point. What matters is how it doesn't seem to matter much at all.

It's kind of racist, what you just said about Asian people, Niall says. I'm not making a big thing of it.

Oh, because all the Asians at the table are going to get offended, are they? says Jamie.2

With no actual Asians at the table, the Asian example is meant only to be that: an example. That this scene takes place in a context of isolated privileged Marianne's holiday home "outside Trieste" where she and her friends are vacationing meaningfully contrasts against that other imagined scene of "all the Asians," swarming with their cellphones, "taking pictures of everything."3 It's a thought experiment for Marianne's friends and, in a different way, a thought experiment for the reader. If someone makes a xenophobic comment but no Asian person hears it, did it really happen? And if that comment is coyly mediated through fiction as a self-aware teaching moment that confirms the villainous boyfriend Jamie's, well, villainy, then might it even be enlightened? Regardless, should I probably, like, not make a big thing of it?

Not unlike the scene discussing structural racism that Stein cites, this one also parodies white characters' capacity for racial abstraction. While I agree with Stein that Rooney's characters typically translate racial problems not into direct social action, but interpersonal revelations, I would insist that this is very much the point of these novels. Drawing on Jarvis's contextualization of Rooney in the Victorian novel tradition, Stein instead contrasts what he sees as Rooney's novels of psychological individualism with what he calls "Victorian social problem novels," exemplified in his piece by Middlemarch. Whereas the scope of the Victorian novel once grasped "the wide worlds of social connection and complex historical causation," Stein argues, Rooney's novels only turn inward "toward the psychological states of characters too inexperienced to really understand themselves." Yet it is hard for me to see how the two modes are not necessarily both implicated in the realist novel (following Georg Lukács), and perhaps even explicitly so in Rooney's. I would describe much of Middlemarch as a novel that bends "toward the psychological states of characters too inexperienced to really understand themselves." At the same time, I would argue, as Stein does about Middlemarch, that the social problems in Rooney's novels are hardly optional to their romance plots. For how else does the structural and economic get expressed in the realist novel other than through the personal and psychological?

If anything, the much-discussed affective flatness of Rooney's psychological characterization (which Brouillette helpfully connects to the recent autofictional turn) is one way her novels seek to formalize the felt burdens of capitalist exhaustion as an internal struggle a struggle of and for interiority. This narrative flatness, as I have argued elsewhere, can also be framed in terms of a somewhat longer literary tradition of Asian Anglophone affective inscrutability though the racialization of this contemporary novelistic voice is, again, not the point of Rooney's novels. Pointedly not the point.

If I wanted to read fiction full of explicit racial critique and representation, I would not read Sally Rooney. Her novels afford me something different closer to a "feeling that is not quite certainty or happiness, more like a kind of finally being together in the confusion with someone sympathetic" that Brouillette describes as Rooney's version of romance. I read Rooney's novels for their lingering contradictions the staging of uneven power relations and structural incommensurabilities that such scenes as my opening one tellingly foreground. What makes Rooney so seemingly "realistic" or "relatable" to me is how difficult it is for her characters to move beyond their social conditioning and structural contexts. What also makes Rooney realistic and relatable is that her characters nonetheless struggle to do exactly this. I would not expect every Irish millennial to have a robust understanding of diasporic Asian tourism, though I would also expect when given the opportunity that some of them might try to rise to the occasion. It is relatability not as identity politics, but as contemporary structural stuckness. More like a kind of finally being together in the confusion with someone sympathetic.

If race is implicit but largely invisible in Rooney's novels, it is made visible but largely unacknowledged in the recent BBC TV adaptation of Normal People. Rooney's novel describes Marianne's boyfriend Lukas, with whom she has an unhappy BDSM-relationship, as "Scandinavian looking," and never explicitly names Connell's college girlfriend Helen's race.4 Yet, the BBC adaptation casts both as conspicuously two of the only raced bodies in the show, with Lukacs portrayed by Lacelot Ncube and Helen portrayed by Aoife Hinds (the third is Marianne's first college boyfriend, Gareth, who is played by Sebastian de Souza). For a TV adaptation that otherwise hews quite faithfully to the marketable millennial aesthetics of Rooney and her novels (that Marianne is cast to resemble Rooney herself in the form of Daisy Edgar-Jones is more to Brouillette's point about autofiction), the casting of a "Scandinavian looking" character as the show's only black body might already be telling. That Lukas is arguably the show's second most flatly villainous character after Marianne's brother (with their BDSM sex directly linked to Marianne's abuse by her brother) makes it even more so. There is a sequence that actually cross-cuts between Marianne and Lukas's sex and Connell and Helen's sex, with the implication that our two protagonists are sleeping with the wrong people. I'm not sure what else to make of the fact that Helen and Lucas are framed as the "bad" partners for Connell and Marianne; the visual analogy suggests that bad sex is also, at least in this show's world, raced sex.

I'm not sure what to make of it because the show makes nothing of it outside of a few punctuating formal expressions, such as the juxtaposed sex scenes. In the wake of these fleeting characters (the show radically condenses Helen's role), Rooney generates a world of white safety of bourgeois comfort and coziness in which the private retreat to Connell and Marianne's sex life, as Jarvis puts it, is as straight as it is white. As the television adaptation makes visible, what looms outside the frame of such consoling romantic coupledom is a world of difference that is coded as not only dangerously queer, but dangerously raced. It is, for me, a conspicuous failure of the TV series in rendering the social and psychological work of Rooney's contemporary realist novel, which thematizes the parochialism of traditional British literary realism by foregrounding it as a white racial fantasy. In explicitly visualizing bad sex and wrong love in terms of racial difference, the BBC adaptation presents a blunter reification of the racial biases that the novel's ambivalent narrative voice might, however weakly, critique.

While Rooney is openly committed to anti-capitalist and leftist thinking, her romance novels as both Brouillette and Jarvis point out do not always align with her politics (much to the chagrin of Jacobin, perhaps). For Brouillette, Rooney separates anti-capitalist politics and the novel by grouping "romantic coupledom, escape, treatment for broken selves, and consolation...as pacification." For Jarvis, Rooney's foregrounding of pleasurable straight sex works to dislodge the assumption that one's sex dictates one's politics. These are helpful reminders of the potentially powerful because often pleasurable contradictions afforded by the novel, and romance novels perhaps especially. Whereas the novel might heighten the potential contradictions between anti-capitalism and romance, the TV adaptation does something closer to suggesting them as mutually exclusive. If you are in love, then you cannot be for the revolution because true love in the BBC series gets narratively and visually framed as a retreat from racial embodiment. (The sex in the show is interesting is good but only for Marianne and Connell.) I'm not trying to make a big thing of it; this is simply the basic arc offered by the TV series.

We are already in the struggle, as Brouillette reminds us. And that struggle includes who and how we love, as the collapse of our unbearable world circumstances force us to remake the world at whatever scale we can. When Connell struggles to ask Marianne whether he can live with her for the summer, it is less a failure of romantic connection than it is a triumph of class shame. The happy alternative here in which Marianne and Connell live happily ever after together would be considered happy on multiple fronts.

Some have called the end of Normal People happy, but I find it something closer to a form of romantic realism one that might help ease Mark Fisher's concept of "capitalist realism" through a minor form of mutual care, however tenuously. Romantic realism is hardly any resolution to capitalist world crisis, and at least part of the romance and realism here is sustained by the accepted neutrality of Marianne and Connell's whiteness. It matters that it doesn't matter. At the same time, my favorite part of Normal People (I find Conversations with Friends the superior novel) is how it ends with Connell and Marianne separating, but with the promise of helping each other again later, when it might be, as Connell puts it, "good for each other."5 The uncertainty of this ending seeks to hold the world open with a modest sense of futurity, at least for Marianne and Connell, that they might also be good for others as well.

Many thanks to Claire Jarvis, Rosetta Young, and Trisha Low for endless text exchanges about Sally Rooney.

Jane Hu is a PhD candidate in English and Film & Media at UC-Berkeley, where she currently holds a Townsend Dissertation Fellowship and an AAUW American Fellowship. She is working on a project about the rise of Asian Anglophone popular media in the post-1970s era of US economic decline.


  1. Sally Rooney, Normal People (New York: Penguin/Hogarth, 2018), 182.[]
  2. Rooney, Normal People, 182.[]
  3. Rooney, Normal People, 163; 182.[]
  4. Rooney, Normal People, 192.[]
  5. Rooney, Normal People, 273.[]