Sally Rooney’s essentially confessional account of female consciousness
The novel draws an emotionally generous picture of young adults trying to integrate intellectual and political beliefs with slippery real-world experience
Sally Rooney: Her novel contains thoughtful reflections on the very worst of contemporary selfhood, not to mention the very worst of contemporary capitalism. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends is a fabulous achievement in its own right. The story compels the turning of pages, in its evocation of the tangled relationships between two college students (Frances and Bobbi) and a young married couple of creative types (Melissa and Nick), including Frances’s affair with Nick, and her romance-turned-friendship-turned-romance with Bobbi. Narrated by Frances, but filled with conversations with, well, her friends, the novel draws an emotionally generous picture of young adults trying to integrate intellectual and political beliefs with slippery real-world experience, working out how to live their theory and, more generally, how to live.
This is a book that is immediate, intimate and sensory, rooted in the lived and felt experience of its protagonists. And still it looks ever-outwards, each line soaked through with socio-economic context. The language is precise, unusual and above all enjoyable. There is brittle repartee: the characters sometimes find themselves in an updated comedy of manners, participating in conversations that invoke all kinds of subcultural capital, and often do so through sarcasm and wit. There are biting societal observations: ostensibly feminist calls for more female CEOs are met with the reflection that “You know, there’s a distinct lack of female arms dealers, I’ve always thought”. And, above all, there is pleasurable, lyrical wordplay, filtered through a keen eye for detail: a character’s “little spoonlike ear”, feelings “hot as oil”, “a comma of shadow” on the wall. These are ways of noticing the world that infuse the quotidian with flares of vibrant intensity.
But what I want to say here is that Conversations With Friends is not just an achievement for its aesthetic prowess. It is also important for what it contributes to our contemporary moment in fiction, and especially to the contexts of millennial “new adult” literature, and women’s fictionalised life-writing. The novel is formally fairly conventional – it tells a story-shaped story, and fits loosely into the adultery-novel category – and it is indebted to fiction through the ages, drawing richly from the social fabrics of Jane Austen and George Eliot, the succinctly sensual language of James Salter, and the structures of too many bildungsromans to name. Yet Conversations with Friends also uniquely participates in interlinked cultural conversations and traditions closer to our present state.
The idea that novels can act as the “voice of a generation” is in many ways antithetical to the ideological conditions of the post-2000s, an era often characterised by a recognition of social difference, whether this difference is marshalled to make people buy things that bolster their unique identity, or to advocate for minority groups and voices. Either way, it suggests that novels written by dominant groups never really represent the whole culture.
But twenty- and thirty-somethings have also been studied as a generation their entire lives, and are used to being publicly debated in generational terms. Hence the “millennial novel” designation. It’s worth noting that this is often invoked as a kind of slur, signalling a generation entirely in cahoots with individualist consumer culture, mindlessly chomping avocado toast with one hand while wielding a selfie-stick with the other; a coterie of precious snowflakes who spend their time fruitlessly introspecting and worrying about hurt feelings.
The other new literary category frequently spoken about, the “new adult” genre for twenty-somethings, shelved between young adult (adolescent) and adult fiction, is hardly more positive, inevitably infantilising its target audience as overgrown teenagers, not yet ready to graduate to real “adult” fiction, and, presumably, not yet living real adult lives.
Conversations with Friends has something to say in this conversation, by giving us characters as intellectually sophisticated and generally capable as they are troubled. That’s not to say Rooney is a consummate defender of millennial culture. The novel contains thoughtful reflections on the very worst of contemporary selfhood, not to mention the very worst of contemporary capitalism. In the liberal university context, there is the constant paranoia around seeming affected or bourgeois – fresh-grinding coffee beans must be weighed up as a practice: “I wasn’t sure if this was pretentious or not, though the coffee tasted incredibly good. I told him it was pretentious anyway . . .”
Dreams of luxury food products, shiny kitchen appliances and home ownership float just beyond the grasp of Rooney’s characters. For all they see themselves as purposefully rejecting a life consisting of these comforts, they still feel its loss, its unavailability. Then there are the many ways characters try on political identities they can’t quite live up to. The characters who speak the most about economic privilege are those who worry the least about money, and who fail to notice when Frances is properly struggling. The absurdity of Frances responding to Nick’s disclosure of severe mental illness with: “Bobbi thinks depression is a humane response to the conditions of late capitalism” is palpable. And catchy, catch-all abstract ideologies are brilliantly skewered in the following online exchange between Frances and Bobbi:
me: but I mean, I get that, I’m anti love as such
Bobbi: that’s vapid frances
Bobbi: you have to do more than say you’re anti things
So there are millennial burlesques here, if you look for them. But the book holds back from satire. What comes across most is a sense that Rooney truly respects her characters. The sections quoted above act as a warning never to detach political philosophy from care for real people. But her characters already know this danger, call each other out when they veer into complacency, and diligently grapple with understanding how to do right by themselves and the world. Crucially, they listen to one another. Frances’s most striking epiphanies come about through dialogue, and she is willing to accept hard truths about herself, including the realisation that conceiving of herself as passive and powerless masks the power she does have, including the power to “treat other people badly”.
Frances and Bobbi fit the “new adult” age group, but these capable characters are hardly learning how to be adults. In fact, they are not interested in training for adulthood, if adulthood means participating in the same failed systems as the older adults around them. In the webs of conversations and relationships these characters engage in, the novel suggests alternative, if imperfect, ways of connecting and caring for one another.
Given that this often occurs in the process of working through ideas, it has something in common with what Maggie Nelson calls “intellectual family-making”, the act of widening traditional familial relationships to include networks of thinkers, interlocutors and friends. In certain respects, Conversations With Friends shares common ground with the tradition of women’s life-writing that spans from Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus through to Nelson, Sheila Heti, and Lena Dunham’s script for Girls – writing that blurs the boundaries between life and fiction. Although this novel is fictional rather than autobiographical, it amounts to an essentially confessional account of female consciousness. We are swamped in Frances’s minutely detailed perspective, which includes diaristic self-presentation and transcribed fragments of conversations with others, both on- and offline. Conversations With Friends overlaps with these other works by centering on the psychological development of a young female protagonist, and also by centering on the alternative – intellectual and emotional – family formed in young adulthood as the site where this psychological development happens. Instead, the self is developed through female friendships, reading and debate and non-traditional romantic relationships.
In my initial review of this novel, I mentioned that I felt the sections with Frances’s parents were bracketed off too much, kept entirely separate from her university life. I still think that, but I also think that something interesting happens through Frances’s self-making mostly occurring outside the nuclear family, thus displacing the sacred importance of the family present in most psychotherapeutic accounts of self-formation.
This alternative narrative opens up space for women to discover and shape themselves outside of determined family roles as daughters, girlfriends and wives. It takes female intellectual development seriously as a source of life wisdom. All this, of course, means that amid the glowing reviews, it has been subject to some of the same critiques as Heti and Dunham, who are accused primarily of narcissism, mixed with millennial entitlement. These critiques tell a story in which focusing on oneself is dangerous and anti-social. In this story, millennial women, doubly-charged, come off as both vain and bratty, even when the self they focus on is under constant pressure, as Frances says, to become “someone worthy of praise, worthy of love”. Playing up to – and poking fun at – this image, at one stage Frances tells us:
My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was.
This quote has been singled out (mostly in online reviews) as evidence of Frances’s rampant self-absorption. The scene that immediately follows it is less often brought up. Right afterwards, Frances recounts her online friendship with an American grad student, when she was a teenager. He flatters Frances by telling her she has “the brain of a physicist” before promptly revealing his intentions by sending her unsolicited dick pics; she feels “guilty”, “terrified” and silenced. The message is clear: women’s intellectual overconfidence is not the real problem here. As this exchange suggests, we still don’t exactly live in a culture where smart women are taken seriously outside of a sexual framework. On these terms, Frances bolstering her ego and taking a defensive, self-involved interest in her own intelligence is an understandable – and maybe useful – strategy, at least at times.
Just like this, Conversations With Friends both tempts the stereotypes of millennial women’s fiction, and exceeds these. Its characters, couched in contemporary theory and media, call to mind other smart, sensitive literary narrators throughout history, from JD Salinger’s self-conscious outsiders to – as Rooney noted herself – Jane Austen’s Emma. But most of all, they are irreducibly themselves. Fixed in specific bodies, negotiating a particularly contemporary world, they stake a claim for the value of their generation’s shared intellectual, emotional and creative lives.
Gill Moore is the books editor of Totally Dublin magazine. She is working on a PhD in contemporary US fiction at the University of Cambridge, and on a piece about influence and inspiration in recent Irish writing