I’m not sure whether the publishing company Faber and Faber had a specific target group in mind when they put together the promotional material for Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends, in 2017. Though this story is very much about the lives and mindsets of millennials (roughly speaking the generation born between the early 1980s and early 2000s), it curiously seems to appeal to readers both young and old. Judging from the audience demographic at this year’s Louisiana Literature festival, where Rooney appeared on stage no less than three times, Conversations with Friends has indeed caught the attention of people who actually own real estate. So let’s unpack.
The 27-year old Irish writer Sally Rooney’s first novel is not only about the kind of insecurity that is symptomatic of being a young person in the world in general. It is also about the very time-specific insecurity that is undoubtedly conditioned by 1) the repercussions of the financial crisis of 2008, and 2) the sudden omnipresence of social media platforms and the way these have changed most people’s modes of communication. The fact that the novel also portrays non-heterosexual, non-monogamous relationships in a completely non-sensational manner is yet another hint at the time specificity of this story. Rooney takes it for granted that these kinds of relationships are no longer out of the ordinary, and thank goodness for that.
Conversations with Friends is told by the first-person narrator, Frances. Frances is a 21-year old literature student who writes and performs spoken word with her best friend and ex-lover, Bobbi. Frances and Bobbi are an interesting couple. They use each other as mirrors both professionally and romantically and are often deep in conversation about politics, art and the way love itself has been chewed up by capitalism, or maybe not? There is a strong undercurrent of competition, jealousy and playful menace in their otherwise loving and devoted friendship, which is being put to the test when they meet Melissa, a 35-year old established writer and photographer married to Nick, a handsome 32-year old actor with a semi-successful career. Melissa shows immediate interest in Bobbi and invites both her and Frances to their home, a classy Dublin red-brick that includes a glass conservatory, a dog and a kitchen where chorizo and eggplant are considered basic ingredients. Both feeling a little left out, Frances and Nick lock eyes, and so the ménage-à-quatre plot unfolds.
In its set-up, Conversations with Friends imitates the classic adultery plot. Some must play the parts as villains and some are inevitably cast as victims, at least on the surface level. What this well-known plot structure is really doing is enabling a deep-dive into the inner life of the narrator at a crucial and unsettling moment in her life. It allows Rooney to explore what happens when a self-contained, self-aware character such as Frances is confronted with a reality that is neither containable nor recognizable. The affair between her and Nick is the main arc of the story, but all of the very serious issues that Frances keeps to herself – not to be entirely revealed here – are in my opinion much more interesting. This is especially because of the way they are being pushed to the margins of the formal plot structure, as well as the margins of Frances’ self-perception. These issues felt more real to me than the hot mess affair with the handsome Nick.
Strategy replaces spontaneity in all of the relationships in the novel, perhaps made easier because of the general availability of written communication: less impulse, more editing.
Conversations with Friends is mainly carried out through dialogue, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which is also about a young couple and an older one, in an endless conversation about love, work, money, art etc. Again, I appreciate Rooney’s choice of framework; the bitterness of experience put up against youthful naivety and beauty is just a delicious cocktail that has the potential, in the hands of a writer skilled in their craft, to really make you dizzy and thirsty for more. And despite her young age, Rooney is a remarkably good writer. Her style is stringent and consistently clean and each chapter is perfectly rounded off with a subtle cliffhanger or a sense of impending drama. At times, I found the writing to be a little too tidy and well behaved as if Rooney is trying to fit her story into an acceptable novel format with wide appeal. But this is not to undermine how well written these dialogues are. Messenger and email is the preferred choice of communication between all four characters, and often a conversation will start face-to-face and end on the screen, or vice-versa. A very realistic scenario that points to the fact that most people’s way of communicating has changed completely within the last 5-10 years, and that anything from dinner plans to emotional conflicts can now be solved without having to look each other in the eye.
The conversations between Frances and Nick are particularly on point when it comes to the show-don’t-tell nature of well-written exchanges. As readers, we are constantly made aware of Frances’ pain (physical as well as psychological), while at the same time understanding the analytic model that she operates with both as a writer and in her relationships to other people. In the following, Frances calls Nick to talk about the obviously unsettling news that Nick has started sleeping with his wife again, thus displacing Frances as his sole lover:
“You kind of threw me with that phone call last week, I said. Sorry if I overreacted.
No, I don’t think you did. Maybe I underreacted. Are you upset?
I hesitated and said: no.
Because if you are, we can talk about it, he said.
He was oddly quiet for a few seconds and I worried he had something else bad to tell me. Finally, he said: I know you don’t like to seem upset by things. But it’s not a sign of weakness to have feelings. A kind of hard smile came over my face then, and I felt the radiant energy of spite fill my body.
Sure, I have feelings, I said.
I just don’t have feelings concerning whether you fuck your wife or not. It’s not an emotive topic for me”
Strategy replaces spontaneity in this and in all of the other relationships in the novel, perhaps made easier because of the general availability of written communication: less impulse, more editing. In the quote above, you also get a sense of Frances’ way of separating herself from having feelings she does not find to be politically or ideologically appropriate. Her constant self-monitoring is a little exhausting: “I need to be fun and likable, I thought. A fun person would send a thank-you email” and “I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me”, but also highly realistic. It is precisely because Frances is so occupied with controlling her self-image that her falling apart is a sort of relief when it finally happens.
As I was reading, I kept wondering why I couldn’t detect any sense of humour in this novel. The less than flattering self-importance of all the inner micromanaging of the main character would have been much easier for me to digest had there been a few laughs along the way. The characters and the scenery heavily reminded me of HBO TV-series Girls, but the difference between the show and Rooney’s novel is the presence versus absence of a satirical or humorous streak. Girls demonstrate great sympathy with its characters, but they are also always being mocked a little bit, their actions and thoughts exposed in comical ways. That is why the show is tragically depressing and funny at the same time. It reveals the silliness of taking yourself too seriously, something I would have appreciated in Conversations with Friends.
I’m excited to hear more from Sally Rooney and hope she will be a little less well behaved in the future, both in her writing and during interviews.
To go back to my initial remarks, this novel is time-specific, in the same way, that Girls is. But whereas Girls moves easily past the financial problems of its characters, in Rooney’s novel, money is a very real issue. One thing that Frances is tormented by throughout the story—and part of the secret parallel life she leads—is her lack of cash. For all of her accumulation of cultural capital, her sense of empowerment built up around a prestigious educational program, there are times when she cannot afford to buy food. She has a completely disillusioned relationship with money and work, as do many young people out in the real world who are navigating through fields of precarious work. Frances’ insecurity and her internalized equivocation between political and emotional matters might have something to do with a despair that is more collective than the formal structures of the novel (and its reception) make it out to be. Perhaps this quote, really about Frances waiting for Nick to call her, sums up the kind of common experience Rooney is also trying to convey:
“Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen”
Disillusion and a lack of faith in the future were not really unfolded as a theme during the interviews with Rooney at Louisiana Literature. Though Rooney herself mentioned “financial crisis” as a defining condition for her characters’ perception of themselves and the world surrounding them, neither interviewers seemed to pick up on it. I’m excited to hear more from Sally Rooney and hope she will be a little less well behaved in the future, both in her writing and during interviews. Radical voices are needed, especially at a venue like Louisiana Literature festival, and Rooney actually seems to be cut out for the job.