When she was 22, Sally Rooney was, in her own words, "the number one competitive debater on the continent of Europe". This was only a few years ago. In an essay about her experiences with semi-professional university debating, written for the Dublin Review, she describes the qualities necessary for the job.
"You have to enjoy talking out loud in front of people," she writes. "You need to have a taste for ritualised, abstract interpersonal aggression. You have to be willing to tolerate physical and mental discomfort: weekends of sleeplessness, bad food or no food, and interminable group conversations about how tired and ill everybody feels. And you have to learn how to lose." This could easily serve as a description of the characters Rooney has created in her debut novel, Conversations with Friends.
Frances is the book’s narrator. She is a 21-year-old student and poet. Bobbi is her best friend, performance partner and ex-girlfriend. Melissa is a well-known writer in her early 30s who sets out to profile Bobbi and Frances for a magazine. Nick is an astonishingly good-looking actor, and Melissa’s husband. The books revolves around the interactions of these four people over the course of a year or so. An affair is begun. Things get knotted up. It’s dramatic in the small way that life tends to be. They’re just ordinary people who, as Rooney puts it, “find their own lives interesting enough to be getting on with”.
The characters of Frances and Bobbi are not the kind of useless millennial caricatures you find in Dunham's world
They’re also witty, intelligent, serious and flawed people. They talk about everything: family, sex, literature, religion, politics and, most of all, friendship. They’re a lot of fun to be around. They are, in a word, natural.
This is something that marks Conversations with Friends as different from, say, Lena Dunham's Girls. Though ostensibly about the same kinds of things, the characters of Frances and Bobbi are not the kind of useless millennial caricatures you find in Dunham's world. They're in no need of Buzzfeed's "19 charts that will help you be an actual adult".
“A lot of that culture is focused on the idea that when you’re 25, 26, even 27, you’re not really an adult yet and you don’t really know how to navigate the adult world,” says Rooney. “I don’t think Frances feels like that. I think she knows how to make her own doctor’s appointments, she can do her own laundry. She’s not completely hopeless at navigating the adult world around her. I think if anything she’s too sophisticated at navigating that world, so she doesn’t make clear when she is having difficulties. I think she has pretty understandable difficulties. I think anyone would find it stressful to have an affair with a married man – that’s just going to give you anxiety.”
Quite significant sections of Conversations with Friends are written in the form of emails, instant messages and texts. It makes for a self-consciously breezy tone, an affected looseness that is both considered and charming. This reliance on text-based conversation is particularly interesting in the case of Melissa and, most of all, Frances.
Both are writers, and Frances particularly is much more comfortable communicating via the written word. She’s often anxious in person, but she can take control of her image and her impact much more easily in text. Rooney plays constantly with this kind of dichotomy, astutely tracking how Frances presents herself in different situations.
“You can spend hours editing an email but send it as if you wrote it in a minute,” she says. “And because we know Frances is a writer, she’s very in control of how she expresses herself through text. I think she finds that easier, but obviously she wants to have sex with this guy and that’s not going to be able to happen over email. It has to go back to the person at some point, but I think she finds that transition quite difficult. It seems to expose her in some way. She doesn’t feel as confident about her physical presence in the world as she does her textual presence.”
The tone of Frances’s writing leaks out into the book as a whole. This gives the entire story a lightness that, rather than obscuring the depth of the characters’ concerns, allows the abstract ideas that drive the book to emerge from the characters themselves, in their own voices. Rooney says this was the only way she knew how to handle them.
“It was like, imagine the voice you use when you’re emailing someone, a good friend who you like and aren’t afraid to express ideas with – that’s your voice,” she says. “Because I live so much of my life through text, emailing people and instant-messaging people, to completely transform the way I express myself would have felt dishonest in some way. I can express all of these ideas with perfectly easy facility in my ordinary life, so why do I need to adopt some kind of tone that’s completely alien to me in order to express these ideas in fiction?”
Perhaps more than anything else, Conversations with Friends is about power. Frances, Nick, Bobbi and Melissa are engaged in relationships where power is never static; it is always shifting with the context, the dynamics of the situation. These are smart characters, alive to their own presence (physical or textual), so they are constantly adjusting their words, their gestures, their actions, to mediate the impact they have on each other.
At the heart of this effort is the desire to apply political theories – Marxism, feminism, anarchism – to their most intimate relationships. It’s an emotionally demanding task, but for young, relatively idealistic people such as Frances and Bobbi, their sense of moral and political correctness depends on it.
“They’re genuinely left feminists who are concerned about how the world is, and they’re trying to live out those concerns in some way in their personal lives,” says Rooney. “Like, if we believe that these things can work broadly, theoretically, in capital transactions, do we also believe they can work at the level of personal exchange?”
No simple answer
The real power of the book is in Rooney’s refusal to settle for a simple answer to this question. The characters are attempting to push beyond what is already known, into a type of life that is as yet undecided. Their relationships are atypical, and there are few existing examples to help them navigate. They want something other than coercive monogamy or frictionless, Tinder-aided one-night stands. It’s a nerve-racking experiment, latent with potential disaster, but nonetheless optimistic. Something new is emerging.
“I was interested in questions that I feel we haven’t necessarily got the theory to deal with yet, or at all,” says Rooney. “Questions that drive a bit more into the heart of how power operates in relationships, that we don’t necessarily have an easy feminist primer to solve. Nick is familiar with feminist theory, right? If there was some easy way to fix the problems in their relationship by being a bit more feminist, he would probably at least try and do it. That’s what I’m interested in – how can we know all the theory, and feel at least passingly familiar with the political context, but still not be able to answer these questions? They demand new theoretical responses from us.”
Rooney read Jane Austen's Emma after finishing the final edits for her own book, and was startled by the parallels
It is interesting that these new questions, aimed at provoking new theoretical responses, comes wrapped in a form that is deeply traditional. On the page, Conversations with Friends is a classic novel. Rooney says she read Jane Austen's Emma shortly after finishing the final edits for her own book, and was startled by the amount of parallels she found there. For Rooney, as for Austen, the novel form is about "observing the behaviours and interactions of people as finely and in as much subtlety as possible". This is exactly what Conversations with Friends sets out to do.
“This is a novel, start to finish,” says Rooney. “I’m not too dissatisfied with that because I love novels, so I feel I’ve contributed to a genre I’m quite satisfied exists. But also because I want to think that it’s possible to adapt that form to ask questions that are specific to now. I definitely don’t aspire to writing that’s ‘timeless’, whatever that means. I want to write about this specific cultural moment, and I hope that I’ve succeeded to some extent in adapting the form to do that.”
- Conversations with Friends is published by Faber and Faber