Sally Rooney is a planter of small surprises, sowing them like landmines. They relate to behavior and psychology—characters zigging when you expect them to zag, from passivity to sudden aggression and back. The four protagonists in her debut novel, Conversations With Friends, are as hyperconscious of social norms as the vers libre poets were hyperconscious of meter. Rooney, a 26-year-old writer from Ireland, takes a similar tack toward narrative conventions (the “other woman,” the love letter), teasing and subverting them with assertive charm. Rooney has crafted a novel called Conversations With Friends in which not a single quotation mark appears. In some fiction, the choice to present dialogue without signpost punctuation can feel affected; here, it underscores how talk is not just a part of the story but the very material of the book.
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As in Rachel Cusk’s Outline, reality for these characters is not experienced so much as told to others. When your world takes shape through dialogue, it means you cannot construct your experience alone. You are always participating in a system, even when you haven’t consented to all of its rules. Conversations With Friends asks whether it is possible to sustain authentic connections to people in the presence of flawed, overarching structures: capitalism, patriarchy, a devilish ménage à quatre.
The book follows two students, a 21-year-old communist poet, Frances, and her best friend and former lover Bobbi, a devil-may-care radical. At a spoken word performance, they meet the older, more established artist Melissa and her actor husband Nick. The quartet sinks into a knotty, lusty, fretful dynamic. Frances begins sleeping with Nick, while Melissa grows enamored of the magnetic Bobbi, who returns her interest but is increasingly possessive of her onetime girlfriend Frances. The students savor their alienation yet covet the couple’s wealth, stability, and minor fame. Melissa and Nick are drawn to the girls’ youth, their edge.
The four protagonists seem to live their entire lives inside quotation marks (another reason for Rooney not to deploy them selectively to indicate speech). The boundary between their self-presentation and their inner worlds feels as evanescent as the smoke they are constantly inhaling outside trendy Dublin bars. “We can sleep together if you want,” Frances tells Nick, “but you should know I’m only doing it ironically.” When Melissa first invites Frances and Bobbi to her home, Frances is “excited, ready for the challenge … already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions.” “I enjoyed playing the smiling girl who remembered things,” she confides. “Bobbi told me she thought I didn’t have a ‘real personality,’ but she said she meant it as a compliment.”
Frances’ passivity—her seeming reluctance to own her emotions or commit to any notion of herself—leads her to abuse and betray her friends on the theory that she doesn’t actually have the power to do so. The roots of this complicated act of permission lie in self-loathing. “My face was plain,” Frances says, in one of many wretched “conversations” with her mirror. Meanwhile, she describes Nick as “luminously attractive,” Bobbi as “radiantly attractive,” and Melissa as perilously charismatic. “You think everyone you like is special,” Bobbi tells her friend, diagnosing the quality that makes Frances both a ready sidekick and a born narrator.
Rooney herself is acute and sensitive—she may have pinned these fragile creatures to a board, but her eye is not cruel. Bobbi, Frances, Nick, and Melissa excel at endearing banter and hesitant, vulnerable disclosure. They are all thrillingly sharp, hyperverbal, as when Frances observes that “Bobbi and I discussed at length what Bobbi would wear to the dinner, under the guise of talking about what we should both wear.” Conversations With Friends unfolds in an Ireland plundered by the 2008 financial crisis, a country in which the old constants—Catholicism, a national poetry, alcoholism—appear fleetingly, as contrails and vestiges. Nick scornfully remarks that “no one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.” (A Yeats fan might reply that these characters aren’t winning any human intimacy awards either.) And Melissa considers religious occasions “comforting in a kind of sedative way.” “They’re communal,” she tells the young women. “There’s something nice about that for the neurotic individualist.” Her faith is as toothless and theoretical as Frances’ communism, just another collective vision that goes nowhere.
If the old forms have lost their power, new ones have replaced them. Frances grows “infatuated with the house [Nick and Melissa] lived in.” “I secretly liked all the expensive utensils they had in their kitchen,” she continues, “the same way I liked to watch Nick press the coffee so slowly that a film of dark cream formed on its surface.” That high-pile sentence makes no effort to separate the allure of costly appliances from the sensuousness of the coffee and the dark cream. Wealth, Frances learns, facilitates pleasure. And her relationship with Melissa’s husband introduces her to something else, too, an emotional power that shimmers and inverts with every line of banter. “You’re very easy to please,” Nick tells Frances at one point. She shivs him back: “Not really … I just know you like it when I lie there telling you how great you are.” If the enjoyment of luxury goods is a kind of romance, then romance itself is a commercial transaction, advantage changing hands.
Rooney has done the impossible in the Trump era: She’s rescued the ego as an object of fascination. Frances craves approval from the successful writer Melissa and consoles herself, in low moments, by remembering how smart she is. “I had no achievements or possessions that proved I was a serious person,” she reflects; therefore, she is eternally out to impress onlookers, to project interestingness. Rooney casts this youthful thirst for praise and attention as a kind of exploration of what it means to be an individual—to be a self worth attending to—but she also gives it a mirror image. Frances mortifies her ego operatically, cutting holes in her flesh, starving her body, ignoring her terrible menstrual pain. “You suffer,” Bobbi observes in her sphinxlike way, to which Frances replies, wryly, “Everyone suffers.”
There must be a middle ground between narcissism and such abnegation, between wallowing and denial, another posture Frances tries on. “I just don’t have feelings concerning whether you fuck your wife or not,” she insists to Nick. “It’s not an emotive topic for me.” To frame the cardinal facts of your life as mere “topics” for conversation is to remove them safely to the realm of the notional, the abstract. It is to defend your emotions behind a waterfall of smart-sounding words. Even if Frances won’t admit to anything, Rooney reveals a young woman painfully coming to terms with the beliefs, desires, and feelings that belong irrevocably to her. Conversations With Friends sparkles with controlled rhetoric. But it ends up emphasizing the truths exploding in the silences.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. Hogarth.