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What Self-Awareness in Fiction Actually Amounts To

I hate to add to all the reviews of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times that make the Sally Rooney comparison, but as someone who only picked it up to fill the Normal People-sized hole in my heart, it’s a necessary jumping-off point.

My infatuation with Normal People was a big milestone in my life (and in my Covid-19 summer). I’ve read great books before, but none that touched me so expertly and charmed me with all the right nuances of prose. I remarked to a friend how difficult it must be to craft a romance novel that hinges on the reader’s love of the dynamic and not the characters. That’s not to say I don’t like Marianne and Connell, but I fell in love with their relationship, not them.

Exciting Times reads so similarly, but it takes a delve into two different relationships: Ava and Julian’s, marked by witty conversations and an emotional distance, and Ava and Edith’s, deep and substantive with all its obstacles and complications. The characters, though sympathetic, aren’t particularly likable (I’ll admit my massive crush on Julian, the resident emotionally unavailable banker, but that’s a conversation for therapy).

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In both these novels, a key item that pops up is self-awareness. In the book review penned by The New Yorker that encouraged me to pick up Exciting Times, Katy Waldman warns against the “reflexivity trap,” a fallacy where we’re inclined to believe that acknowledging a fault absolves us of it. Ava has Marxist politics, yet she enjoys living off Julian’s comfortable paycheck and out of his cushiony apartment, swiping his AmEx for purchases way out of her budget that he wouldn’t even notice.

Waldman goes on to compare the two novels, especially in regards to the political backdrop that does nothing more than add to the tension that complicates the characters’ thought processes—“Rooney, like her characters, seems content to perform awareness of inequality, even to exploit it as a device, but not to engage with it as a profound and messy reality.” Dolan’s Ava is similar, commenting on the merits of Marxism while enjoying lavish material items and shopping trips. The issue here is that Ava is presented as superior because while she does awful things, she’s aware of them.

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The political implications here are daunting to tackle. Dolan’s plot is one that pits safety against intimacy. Julian shies away from the emotional, but he offers Ava a comfortable life with all the money and material items she could desire. Edith, on the other hand, who runs in the same social circles and works a different kind of corporate job (law instead of banking), fosters a deep relationship with Ava, one with concomitant dangers of heartbreak. The “repurposed financial language” that Walden picks up points us toward the socioeconomic and political tensions in the background, but Dolan, like Rooney, does nothing to make them more than just tangentially related.

Walden critiques Dolan’s handling of capitalism—she poses no real challenge to it. And as issues like performative allyship rise to the forefront of our political discussions, this self-awareness seems pointless. I’d argue that it isn’t.

It’s good to interpret characters like Ava and Marianne—and their thoughts and actions that function as a cavalcade of cognitive dissonance—as problematic. I don’t think that reading them encourages similar behavior or a belief that, as Walden writes, “lip service equals resistance.” The backdrop of political tensions and inequality just goes to show that these issues are ever-present. Disparities between actions and beliefs are so obvious to readers in the current political context that they present as a warning sign, not a model.

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Ava is realistic—how many of us welcome the ideas of socialism and Marxism while enjoying the benefits under capitalism? This positions her perfectly to inspire more reflection of ourselves, our politics, and the disparities between what we stand for and what we actually do.

I joked with a friend that I’m now in the post-Exciting Times phase of my life. I’m a sucker for a great blend of romance, witty and fantastic prose, and real-life issues spread throughout.

And while the latter might not provoke substantial thought or action from the characters, they can for you.

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Carina is a senior studying Economics + Psychology at Boston University. She is passionate about marketing, Sally Rooney, and caramel lattes.
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