How much you enjoy Exciting Times depends on a Rorschbach reading of the title. If you’re the sort of person who takes 'exciting times' at face value - goody, a jolly romp with neatly solved adventures, perfect escapism for these dark times! - then I'm afraid you will be disappointed. If, however, you read 'exciting times' as a self-ironising indictment of the very notion of joy, a ruthless dismantling of the social construct of ‘excitement’, the words with which one might describe, for example, day 44 in lockdown ("Went for my state-permitted walk in the rain. Made some rock-hard sourdough. Stared at my fingernails. Exciting times") - then you’ll get everything your irony-clad heart desires.
Ava is a 22 year old from Dublin who has moved to Hong Kong to teach English as a foreign language. Not because she has any particular affinity with children or language, or a desire to see the world, but because “I'd been sad in Dublin, decided it was Dublin's fault, and thought Hong Kong would help.” Ava is a complex soul. She is a wildly intelligent socialist, acutely cogniscent of Ireland's abortion laws (the book is set between July 2016 and December 2017, six months before the eighth amendment was repealed). She also has sex and lives rent-free with Julian, an Eton and Oxford-educated investment banker. She justifies her needling of Julian as "socialist praxis when it literally isn’t", and is the kind of person who uses the words "socialist praxis" in a text message. She obsessively criticises her own thoughts and actions, and other people’s. Everything she says is overlaid with a slick patina of irony, particularly in her relationship with Julian, which is supposed to be all fuck buddy, no feelings.
Funnily enough, despite the self-despising detachment, it turns out Ava does care, a lot, about her relationships both with Julian and Edith, a Hong Kongese lawyer. Naoirse Dolan brilliantly depicts the blank obsessive agony of not knowing where you stand with someone, and the conversations such relationships provoke that are like irresistibly picking at a scab until there’s either a torrent of bloody emotion, or the other person goes offline and leaves those double blue ticks just sitting there.
As a devoted superfan of sardonic millennial self-introspection, I love this. I love Dolan’s ability to skewer pretension in one dry, wry sentence; I love her bravery in not passing clunky moral judgments on her characters' behaviour, or trying to make them more likeable than they are. I’m slightly terrified of the way she seems to have burgled my (and probably your) romantic history, ransacked the most humiliating, masochistic memories and metamorphosed them into gorgeously downbeat prose that is also really fucking funny.
Look, let’s not ignore the other Irish socialist millennial author of hyper-intellectualised downbeat romance-shaped elephant in the room. After all, Dolan literally thanks Sally Rooney in the acknowledgements. So yeah: if you loved Conversations with Friends, if you are currently lapping up every exquisitely painful episode of Normal People, then you’ll be thrilled by Exciting Times. What a time to be alive, indeed.