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What’s Normal?

My late mother-in-law held very strong views, most often beginning or ending her observations with a rhetorical comment, “ And THAT’S normal?” Gone were the days of no white pants in winter, buzz cut haircuts or clothes unadorned with holes. For the longest time, my generation ( and hers) grew up with notions of what normal looked like: Paul Bernardo’s good looks obscuring the hideous monster beneath. The façade of polite WASP society the desired mask overriding all else.

There is the old saw revisited by Howard Stern, most recently in his interview with Stephen Colbert, in which he lays blame squarely on his upbringing while simultaneously championing his psychotherapy to mediate his understanding of self and make him a nicer guy. And I think it is true that one’s upbringing, the environment in which our genetic roots are sown, can make or break us, or at least twist our stocks from growing straight, for our families are in deed, the soil from which we rise or fall. But it is a complicated tale and from now till forever will we debate which, heredity or environment, exerts the greatest force.

When thinking about Howard Stern, one often immediately links his potty- mouth words and attention- getting schemes, most often commandeering sex, sexual antics or perversions to draw attention. In his conversation with Colbert, he discussed his support for Hilary Clinton, having wanted her to humanize herself on his radio show, humanize not in terms of her sexual proclivities, but her hopes, dreams, growing up stories that might have brought her story to enough viewers to make her the presidential winner. In a very grown up, no expletives manner, he discussed how the Donald was able to reach out to his audiences. It was a fascinating calm analysis, not one we have come to associate with the showman Stern.

Yet often, the sex- talk is only the coverup. We’re watching a British show on Prime called Fleabag, considered as Howard Stern is, in- your- face sexual ribald even unspeakable outloud humour. Written and performer by Phoebe Waller- Bridge, creator of Killing Eve, the pilot sets up the focus on the unnamed narrator who enjoys a good poke, is sarcastic, likeable, funny, able to take it in the rear, laugh at herself, is even willing defer to her artist stepmom, the horrible ( but incredible)Olivia Coleman of Oscar fame. As Kevin Spacey did in House of Cards she confides to us, the fourth wall, the viewer, wisecracking her offcolour thoughts while noting the behaviours of her mates.

She has a tortured but caring real relationship with her sister, but not so much with the men in her life. She fancies a priest, her father finds it almost impossible to speak directly to her, her brother-in-law an insipid fellow lying about his attempts to kiss her at his wife’s birthday party. Her one true relationship with former friend Boo riddles Fleabag with guilt. One fellow after another drops her for other women, she all the time finding faults and describing their unsuitability as lovers, or even men. Each time, however, she believes she is the object of their affection: her comments quick, funny, to the point and spot on.

Yet as always, under the joking, the splash, the conquest and quick ritual of sex there is a desire for sex that is the extension of love and communion and meaningful wherein sex is more than “ the little death” as coined by the French expression, “ le petite mort” : defined as the feeling of shame, one’s soul dying a little inside after masturbation or meaningless sex. But for Fleabag, it is in deed, for her the big death: of loneliness, of self- recrimination, of self worth , of alienation, of identity search. Our wisecracking thirtysomething gal with the big smile has deep issues that a momentary physical fix smoothes over but cannot placate the pain in her soul. Here too the death of her mother, the on-again off again competitive relationship with her sister and the fumbling misplaced attempts by her father undermined by his horrendous wife are not soft sanctuaries for Fleabag to sort out or even voice her problems.

In Normal People, Sally Rooney’s best seller, it’s similar. For the female protagonist, her cold mother, abusive father, her maniacal brother do not give Marianne a safe haven. Although blessed with brains and good looks, not unlike Fleabag, Marianne seeks sex and fulfillment with childhood heart throb Connell, son of her mother’s house cleaner. He tells her he loves her ( in bed ) , but does not invite her to the prom in high school, and even at university and post- grad, couples and uncouples with her, always betraying her for another. It is a pastime of secrecy, miscommunications, and anxiety and unease against an Irish background of social hierarchy in class. Her words could easily be murmured by Fleabag, “ I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people … I don’t know why I can’t make people love me.”. A need for being sexually dominated does not fill her void either. Intimacy in bed while it lasts is a stand in for fulfillment.

In an NPR interview, we acknowledge that Rooney’s characters may be academically gifted, but they aren’t sure how they want to live or what they want to do with their lives. In response to emotional injury, they sometimes seek physical pain. When overwhelmed, they detach. Connell reflects on his connection with Marianne explaining, “She would have lain on the ground and let [me] walk over her body if [I] wanted, he knew that…of a sudden that [I] could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let [me].” A crippling sense of unworthiness chafes against feelings of intellectual superiority.” Similarly the dry wit of Fleabag, obviously bright and personable only covers over the need for self- abasement- perhaps any contact better than none, the characters suppose. And just as Rooney is remarkably comfortable writing about sex, so too Fleabag is likewise, easy quipping about masturbation, anal sex, the size of her” tits”, all subterfuge. In The New York Times Dwight Garner writes, “Rooney employs this artery-nicking style while writing about love and lust among damaged and isolated and yearning young people.”

In The Only Story by Julian Barnes a relationship between a 48 year old woman and her 19 year old tennis partner from the countryclub persists for years. In a compassionate reflection on his years with Susan,Paul reviews and parses the problems that eventually accrue from the liaison as Susan leaves her husband, abusive Gordon, a drunken brute who slams her face into the doorjamb. In three sections, we are privy to changes that not unexpectedly drag down an initial love story : such as alcoholism, regret, depression, pill- taking, the unrelenting deterioration of the physical body as aging sets in.

Bored young Paul, drawn to Susan’s “laughing irreverence,” hoping to overturn “ the normal” and relishing a scandal, boasts he has “landed on exactly the relationship of which my parents would most disapprove.” In a small English suburb where his activities will be the topic of gossip, he hopes to expose the bourgeois mentality of the people who lead and champion their normal lives. He dismisses conventional families and describes the townspeople as “furrow-dwellers”. Initially, Paul is drawn to her irreverence, her criticism and mockery towards the boundaries in her unexceptional life,” She laughs at life, this is part of her essence. She laughs at what I laugh at. She also laughs at hitting me on the head with a tennis ball; at the idea of having sherry with my parents; she laughs at her husband, just as she does when crashing the gears of the Austin shooting break.”At 19, one expects those attitudes, the insouciance- and the reader can understand the adolescent attraction of being charmed – by an adult who seems to deviate from socially acceptable norms. Besides which, she has these cute little ears!

The story told in this case from a man’s point of view albeit from first, second and third person narrations accompanies each shift in the romance so that the reader can be empathetic, sympathetic, even critical ascertaining a love affair not usually considered normal. Barnes writes, “In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd.” Barnes differentiates among various kinds of sex- good sex, bad sex- but worst of all- sad sex. The sad sex, of course, is the most painful as persons allow or even encourage their bodies to be the receptacles to deaden their souls that yearn for true affinity. Truly, that petit mort.

In Fleabag, Normal People and The Only Story, we have three different cases, three different scenarios in which apparently normal people try and fail at normal life. In all three cases, sexual relationships are at the forefront in attempts to stabilize and maintain happiness. In all three, success is only achieved in the satisfaction of physically linking up, and obliterating painfully daily life. Time in the bedroom is indeed the be-all and the end-all.

These are days of quick fixes, online dating in which a quick linkup is the goal. Accepting that the quick shag is the goal rationalizes the deeper need for talk, affection, caring, significance in a world so fraught with the appearance of breaking normal. But in truth, the normal trajectory of a real relationship is the desired end.

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