Exciting Times: A Novel
The literary rumor mill portrays Naoise Dolan as the new Sally Rooney, and that suggestion alone might push a writer onto the bestseller list these days. Surely, Dolan has much in common with the immensely popular Rooney in terms of themes and style. Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times, is a smart, funny, unsentimental picture of 20 year olds in their un-moored brave new world.
Ava, the 20-something narrator of Exciting Times, a Dubliner who finds herself walking robotically through her life as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong, offers a sharp-eyed and sardonic gaze at everything around her—including herself. She describes herself as a person who “dented fricatives for a living, badly.” With not much more driving her than ennui, she falls into a moribund relationship with Julian, a wealthy thirtyish expatriate, an investment banker from London. Their scores of conversations—reminiscent of the sardonic, self-referential moments of dialogue in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends—are often pitch perfect verbal tennis matches. Ava refers to them, aptly, as volleys.
At first, it’s hard to tell how much genuine feeling there is between Ava and Julian because they come across as hollow people and don’t so much interact as they “act out scenes” like characters in an Oscar Wilde play. If they had more passion between them, they might seem to be 20th century versions of Albee’s Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Ava and Julian drift along in an empty, loveless relationship—more roommates than partners— until Edith, a young Hong Kong lawyer, steps onto the scene when Julian’s job sends him for six months back to London. Edith comes into her life “just when there was a vacancy.” An unusual love triangle ensues, and the question of sexual identity comes to the fore for Ava. She falls authentically in love with Edith, but loving a woman is complicated in Hong Kong and maybe more so in Dublin, where Ava’s family remain in the dark about her sex life. For Ava, who describes herself as “good at men,” the bisexual conundrum is not easily solved. She says that “holding Julian’s hand was like holding a museum pass, and holding hers [Edith’s] was like holding a grenade.”
Ava knits her life as a TEFL instructor with her love life, translating Dublin English into London English and then into a Hong Kong version as well, as if her life and loves were a sentence to diagram. And, in a way, everything for Ava is like diagramming a sentence—be it sex or money or status. It all seems to come down to finding the right way to parse the sentence. Ava is often funny in a Wildean manner.
Ava is often funny in a Wildean manner. For instance, in describing her job, she says, “Because I lacked warmth, I was mainly assigned grammar classes, where children not liking you was a positive performance indicator. I found this an invigorating respite from how people usually assessed women.” And in the Wildean fashion, she explodes sentimental clichés. In contemplating the fact that Julian wants to have sex with her but not be her boyfriend, she says, “That hurt my ego. I wanted other people to care more about me than I did about them.” She’s as tough on others as she is on herself— “Victoria had large teeth. They made it difficult for her to smile without scaring people, which was why Victoria smiled a lot.”
Ultimately, Exciting Times occasionally feels like a simulacrum of what Rooney does best. It’s easy to enjoy the wit of Dolan’s characters and to appreciate their alienation, but it’s not as easy to feel the depth of their loneliness or to see the clarity of the light in their souls.