Or, Sally Rooney part II
As promised, I got around to Sally Rooney’s debut novel, 2017’s Conversations with Friends. I did enjoy it more than Normal People. For one thing, the title was a bit less misleading: Normal People sounds like it should be about people in their forties, and in fact the action ends at their early twenties; while among the four central characters of Conversations with Friends the age range spans early twenties to late thirties.
But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.
Let me just come right out and say it: I’m not at all sure that Rooney writes fiction. Not that she can’t, but she hasn’t yet. She knows how to write about young people in Dublin aspiring to be creative types, because she was one of those people not long ago (or arguably still is), and so sticks to the formula she knows. Her voice and subject matter are what people are thinking of when they say “oh, you’re writing your first novel, is it based on your life?” And I, frankly, resent that implication.
This story follows Frances and Bobbi, friends/exes and slam poetry partners, as they cross paths with Melissa, a semi-famous photographer, and Nick, her semi-famous actor husband. I imagine Rooney framing the arrangement in her head: “I will create these four characters, all of whom will be mildly annoying at least, but only one will be truly insufferable, and I will make her the narrator.” Frances, whose mind we are trapped in, thinks she can singlehandedly bring down capitalism by not getting a job, and is not “cool-headed and observant” as the blurb claims so much as “completely passive.” The story is not about friendship, of course, it is about who she gets to fuck and why/not. She starts an affair with Nick but refuses to be honest with him about anything going on in her life—the fact that she has no money, her struggles with emotionally unavailable parents—just as she refuses to tell anyone what she is really thinking ever. She idolizes Bobbi: through her eyes it truly does seem as though Bobbi is whip-smart, perfect-looking, and at the top of her intellectual game all the time, which made me wish even more for the narration to be from Bobbi’s perspective, because Frances’ opinion can’t be the full truth. Their prior romance, initiated by Bobbi, was Frances’ first, and it would not surprise me in the slightest if she merely expected it to make her cool or edgy or something shallow like that (her response to Bobbi’s questioning if she likes girls: “Sure.”) Melissa, once Nick comes clean about the affair, is admirably levelheaded and lets them carry on: the marriage has been operating without a sexual component for a while, and neither of them plans to make any drastic changes. But Frances still isn’t happy, because she craves absolute power. If this were the 18th century, she would be one of the first ushered to the guillotine, and not even because she’s Irish.
I’d like to reiterate that this is not a story of friends. Frances loves Nick, and hates Melissa for no reason, and has unresolved feelings from her romance with Bobbi. Friendship happens when people lift one another up. This is not that. It can’t be, when at least one party declines to let herself be lifted.
Anyway. I won’t describe everything. I found myself disappointed in basically all the characters, which is probably unfair, because their lives don’t really seem to mean enough to them to merit an observer’s disappointment. More importantly, I found myself kind of disappointed in the intended—and apparently attained—audience. As I read I couldn’t help thinking, THESE are the characters we want to read about today? This is where our head is at, collectively?
You, meanwhile, might be thinking, wow, and she liked this one MORE than Normal People? That’s concerning. But I thought each character (except Frances) had funny moments, and I especially appreciated Bobbi for calling Frances on her bullshit, which she does most directly about four-fifths of the way through: “You underestimate your own power so you don’t have to blame yourself for treating other people badly. You tell yourself stories about it. Oh well, Bobbi’s rich, Nick’s a man, I can’t hurt these people. If anything they’re out to hurt me and I’m defending myself.” Authentic moments like these threw into relief how worn down I was by all the inauthenticity.
I’m still not going to declare that I dislike Rooney’s writing; I’m still not ready to go there. It’s her attitudes that bother me more. Sex, in her work, is always Tawdry—that word that nobody really knows what it means, but you read her sex scenes and you understand. It’s like the opposite of Nick Hornby: her characters are trying so hard not to care about it that they’re just making their neuroses surrounding it even worse. I happen to know a thing or two about the way a Catholic environment can engender neuroses around sex, thank you very much.
And then there’s her attitude to writing itself. Frances sells a short story to a magazine for an amount that is evidently impressive but about which we hear nothing concrete. Something similar happens to Connell in Normal People. Rooney had something of a magical big break herself, a point at which she transitioned from Somewhat Successful to Officially Undeniably Successful, and she crafts characters for whom things unfold the same way. And what of the rest of us? What of those writers, fictional and non-, whose rise is much less defined, much more incremental?
I know nothing of Rooney’s inner life or world. But creating this expectation, I felt as both a reader and a writer, is playing a dangerous game. (Not to mention that her characters seem determined not to appreciate whatever success they have.)
So, there you have it. Maybe this all comes off unduly harsh. I admit, though, that I just don’t get what people love about these novels. Maybe she’ll write something in the future that resonates more, or in a better way. I hope that’s the case—it sounds like she’s got a long career ahead of her.
Image: published by Faber & Faber, May 2017