The Berkeley Lecce
Frances Chats with Herself
Sally Rooney: ‘Conversations with Friends’, 2017, London, Faber & Faber, 321 pages, ISBN 978-0-571-33313-4.
‘Conversations with Friends’ might well have been called ‘Frances & Bobbi’. Sally Rooney’s meaning of ‘conversation’ includes every intimacy in a relationship. In their graduate school lingo, her main characters call it the gender revolution. Two young women, Frances and Bobbi, will live through the joy and tribulation as blushing revolutionaries in Ireland today. Despite stumbles, they keep the banner aloft, gender isn’t a hermetic box, but a broad landscape that leaves plenty of space for variations in love and friendship.
Bobbi is a very pretty graduate student, articulate and sharp, who seems destined to be a university professor. She is already capable of putting everyone straight on current critical thinking and steers a firm course against accepted shibboleths. Her parents, whose views she despises, are wealthy and support her at university. She doesn’t hide the fact that she is an unrepentant lesbian. Bobbi’s friendship with Frances began in convent school. They afterward lived together as a couple and have separated while remaining close as the novel begins. Bobbi describes Frances, in brief, as a bisexual and a communist.
Frances, like Bobbi, doesn’t see eye to eye with her parents. Comfortable but not wealthy, they help pay for her graduate studies. Her politics, like Bobbi’s, remain in the realm of opinion, something to argue about with other students. Neither young woman does any political work campaigning or organising, and their noble attitudes can seem at times to be a question of style, not far removed from the fashion choices to which Rooney’s novel gives much attention.
At twenty-one, Frances hasn't Bobbi’s self-assurance and is given to self-loathing. She considers herself plain-looking. Her talents as a writer and her academic success can’t ward off the strange feeling that she’s in danger of disappearing as a person. It’s hard to know whether her spiky repartee is meant to boost her confidence or to declare her withdrawal from competition. She doesn’t appear to know either. She weeps a good deal, even more than other of Rooney’s people who are a tearful breed. She leans toward self-harm, often calming the riot of her inner life by cutting her body. It’s a kind of ritual that ends with her careful application of a bandage. Frances’ fragility, physical as well as mental is emphasised in what is surely a point scored in the gender revolution. Description of her distress and pain during her menstruations doesn’t let us forget that she is a woman.
Crises arise when the model of conduct Frances has chosen for herself conflicts with her unreasoned impulses. The confusion that results makes her life a constant drama. That it is a drama within her own head or about matters that otherwise presented would strike us as trivial changes nothing. We are interested. We want to know how she sorts her life out. By making the novel an account of Frances’ thinking, its wrong turns, honourable mistakes, and irrational detours, Rooney reveals much about contemporary Ireland.
Consider religion. The Catholic Church has met strong opposition in recent years. Bobbi and Frances feel obliged to boast that they don’t remember the words of the many prayers they said in their convent school. They are apparently non-believers but surprise us by their curiosity about the life of Jesus, a regular subject of argument. In a moment of depression, Frances reads the Bible and takes refuge in a church where before fainting she indulges in a kind of praying. Their friend Melissa, who also went to a convent school, feels she has to explain that she finds “religious occasions like funerals and weddings ‘comforting in a kind of sedative way.’”
Rooney’s pervasive use of electronic instruments to tell her story probably isn’t meant to single Ireland out as a world leader in such contrivances. It’s more like her personal signature as an up-to-date novelist. ‘Conversations with Friends’ is very much a novel of manners—or changing manners—crossed with an epistolary novel. Its conversational exchanges are as pointed and loaded as the lines of a classic play. Instead of an exchange of letters, emails fly back and forth in the small hours. Cell phones are more present than minor characters. Frances says in an ‘action’ scene: “I wrote a sample message, and then deleted the draft in case I might accidentally hit send. Then I wrote the same thing over again. I sat staring at my laptop screen until it went black”. Here she is when an email so struck her she got up from her desk: “My MacBook screen had gone black and radiated a perfect rectangular glow from the reflected ceiling light. I sat back down, logged out of my email, and continued reading a James Baldwin essay“.
Rooney’s descriptions of sexual give and take are of a startling precision. Yet they are free of any prurience or, for that matter, of any rapturous sighs. It’s as if she is saying, “All this talk about sex has taken the wrong turning. Let’s begin again with a fresh look”. Does she feel Ireland needs instruction in these matters? Despite its graphic detail, however, there is something naive about her word pictures. We could be witnessing a demonstration of sorts, two employees of a department store stepping out from behind their counter to introduce a new product. What goes on in Frances’ head while engaged in sex with her partner Nick appears less like passion and more like anxiety about missing her cues. As for Nick, his robotic gallantry makes the reader wonder if Rooney realised she wrote a comic scene.
“[…]sex with men, how weird”, says Bobbi the sapphist, after a gossip session with Frances. Although Bobbi’s rapport with Frances is the backbone of a novel that purports to tell all, we never learn what they do together in bed besides discussing the failings of their acquaintances. This daintiness on homosexual matters is strange indeed in view of the sex-manual clarity about the ways of heterosexuals.
Bobbi and Frances’ now toned-down relationship is perturbed when they become involved with Melissa and Nick. This well-to-do married couple in their thirties belongs to the professional, semi-bohemian art world. Nick is a familiar male from the Rooney repertory, passive, ultra polite, and chary of declaring his feelings. Frances begins an affair with him that remains clandestine despite her and her generation’s refusal of hypocrisy and insistence on truth-telling. This is partly because Nick wishes to safeguard his marriage, partly because Melissa is a cultural figure of some power that shouldn’t be antagonised and partly because none of the involved have completely thrown off the traditional views they claim to decry.
The connection between Bobbi and Frances endures. We dare not call it a friendship, remembering Bobbi’s rebuke to Frances: “Do I call myself your girlfriend? No. Calling myself your girlfriend would be imposing some prefabricated cultural dynamic on us that’s outside our control”. That’s the voice of the gender revolution whose theme music we often could barely hear in the tumult of the updated adultery melodrama. But Frances’ irrational impulses haven’t gone away. Her yen for renewing her affair with the serviceable Nick is satisfied on the last page.
Normal and Not on Campus
Sally Rooney: ‘Normal People’, 2018, London, Faber & Faber, 266 pages, ISBN 978-0-571-33465-0
The latest reprint of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel ‘Normal People’ is splashed as “The million copy bestseller”. A million novels is a lot to sell in a year or two of an epoch when literature has become the taste of a pre-shrunk minority. A closer look is in order. Straightaway we confirm that the book isn’t some sensation tailored for perusal between the ‘My Gods!’ and ‘What Nexts!’ of the Morning Tabloid. Rooney’s prose is neat, not showy but able to deliver subtlety about human beings well above comic-strip level. Another look and we widen our eyes. Hey, this is a campus novel!
Everybody thought the campus novel was dead. It moved into top gear in 1952 with the astringent Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Groves of Academe’. Then for fifty years everyone went back to college. Kingsley Amis opened the Angry-Young-Man era of Britain with ‘Lucky Jim’. Before the 1950s were finished the luminary Vladimir Nabokov contributed ‘Pnin’. Mystery there was none. The biggest names in American and British writing showed their faces in university classrooms as hired guests. Their time-management agendas meant they would write about the ivy-clad reinforced concrete. The almost-Nobel Philip Roth joined the Nobel J. M. Coetzee. A snob like Evelyn Waugh would not be left out nor the experimenter John Barth not deign to display his austerity. Tom Woolf, Stephen Fry, Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, and an inky-fingered multitude snooped in graduate schools, often repaying their employers with a superior snide touch.
So what killed the sometime varsity novel? Some say familiarity. More were reading about universities than actually got into them. There were also more interesting places for sin than between the stacks of a library, be it Neo-Gothic. Other explainers narrowed their sights and followed the money. U.S. and British attention shifted to the economy. It was all about the prohibitive cost of getting a higher education and paying off the interest on a student loan before collecting an old-age pension. You couldn’t sex up a story that was all numbers. There were a few last prurient squeaks from the campus. One author saw drama in students part-timing as call-girls. However, newspaper items made his angle seem tame.
Sally Rooney begins our education in remote and rural Ireland. She hails from County Mayo and it’s in her cozy town’s high school there that we meet Connell and Marianne. He’s one of Rooney’s wannabe-normal people. His father has never shown up and Connell has been raised by his loving mother. His aim is to fit in among the average despite his single-parent launch. He is well-liked at school, a handsome male, good mixer, perfect gentleman rounded off by sufficient athletic muscle. It’s a disguise he hides in.
Readers familiar with British social history will recall the postwar fuss made over the venerable public schools. (In the contorted way of English, these are private schools.) Old Etonians confessed that life as student boarders topped any drama they met with later as corporate CEOs or members of Parliament. We shook our heads and said,”0f course, the bloody rich”. Well, for Rooney, being a day scholar in a high school where money doesn’t figure large leaves a lifelong mark that’s often a wound. The effect seems enhanced by life in a small city although when the action moves to Trinity College, Dublin, her characters remain transfixed by observers with an eye on them.
Marianne is a friendless outsider in high school. She’s the brightest but her reflection in the eye of others is of arrogance and withdrawal to a superior region. Worse, in a tepid wee world of conformists, she spikes her difference with bad temper. Her father is dead. Her family, more prosperous than most, consists of a brother given to bullying her and a cold mother with a professional career that comes first
We note Rooney’s tendency to see people as decidedly good or bad. Connell’s mother, good, Marianne’s, bad, and so on, except for Connell and Marianne themselves who are the enigmas of considerable depth that ‘Normal People’ busies itself in understanding. The all-good or all-bad may reveal abnormalities on closer inspection, but that will be for another book. In this one, we find the two protagonists’ talk of “good persons” and “bad persons” touchingly naive. After all, Rooney’s careful chronicle of Connell and Marianne’s separations and comings together have nothing to do with goodness or badness. They are due to concealed niches of their characters that come to the surface.
In high school, Connell keeps away from Marianne because she threatens his intention to be like everyone else, normal. But her difference, her “weirdness” attracts him. Such is his enigma. Marianne’s is that within her rebarbative shell, she’s a self-hater, who feels worthless despite her gifts. The two fall into a friendship that becomes a sexual liaison. However, Connell’s fear of appearing different makes him insist on keeping their affair secret.
They both proceed to university in Dublin. Metropolitan life allows more freedom, though hometown and family pressure still condition them. What’s more, the university world provides another community of observers they must heed. Their friendship grows into an exceptional closeness, two sister souls. But Connell is still wary. He doesn’t want to be ‘weird’, to give up his quest to be a normal person. He withholds commitment. The two establish a pattern of breaking and reconnecting, the need for each other’s sympathetic ear always winning through. As Marianne’s social circle grows, so does her sophistication. She is no longer the outsider of high school days. However, her self-hatred hasn’t disappeared. The freer environment, in fact, leads her to a realisation that she is something of a masochist. She craves punishment as the finishing touch of love-making.
At this point, the reader has to ask himself if he’s not being invited for a ride on the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ bandwagon. That 2012 novel by E.L. James achieved planetary notoriety by making bondage and suchlike acceptable to fans of soap-opera mush. It was soft porn liquified, a peepshow for Harlequin Mills and Boon readers that offered an itty bit more titillation.
It’s true that ’Normal People’ meets the requirement of formulaic romance fiction in that it concentrates on the hearts of one couple beating in unison and finishes with a halfway happy ending. Connell and Marianne’s vibrant connection, though intermittent, is left ripe for a sequel. However, ‘Normal People’ is sharply enough written, full of insights and revelations of one layer of the new Ireland to lift it into another class.
How Connell deals with Marianne’s discovery of her taste for pain can be revealed here without spoiling the reader’s pleasure. For that will come in seeing the drama unfold in the background among the people the author has made us familiar with. Connell has gone through a period of depression and finds the cause:
“He had just wanted to be normal, to conceal the parts of himself that he found shameful and confusing. It was Marianne who had shown him other things were possible”.
But Marianne’s wish to be physically hurt was a step too far for the “good person” he remained. In truth, though, he had to admit that “Ever since school he has understood his power over her. How she responds to his look or the touch of his hand.[…] He has never been able to reconcile himself to the idea of losing this hold over her, like a key to an empty property, left available for future use. In fact, he has cultivated it, and he knows he had”.
So, how will he avoid delivering the longed-for blow? In a spirit not so remote, after all, from romance fiction, the lovers compromise. Connell henceforth adopts an uncharacteristic commanding tone to Marianne, like that of a drill sergeant. She’s content.
Sally Rooney’s two subsequent novels, ‘Conversations with Friends’ and ‘Beautiful World Where are You’, never stray far from the campus. But it’s the tie that bound Connell and Marianne in half-hearted flight from County Mayo that bears the most genuine mark of the author.
Beautiful World, Where Are You
Sally Rooney: ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, 2021, London, Faber & Faber, 337 pages, ISBN 978-0-571-36543-2.
After ‘Conversations with Friends (2017) and ‘Normal People’ (2018), Sally Rooney has risen to the top of the UK’s bestseller list and it’s time to look into her third novel. ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, is a line from a Friedrich Schiller poem of 1788 and also the name of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial literary festival that Rooney attended. It suggests something of her intention. Her native Ireland and what we have come to call the West are irremediably into the 21st-century, but is it so sure the Irish and the rest of us are ready for it? She will try to find out by examining the lives of four thirty-year-olds. (Rooney herself was born in 1991.)
Alice is a young, prosperous and respected novelist who left Dublin to live in New York. After a while, her friends heard nothing from her and It turned out that she suffered a breakdown. In time she returned to Dublin and a stay in hospital. When well enough, she went to live in a country town hours from Dublin. Her spiky personality and her illness made personal relations near-impossible for her. She had to learn growing-up again while attending with less ardor to her career and doubting her worth as well as that of novel writing.
Eileen was and remained Alice’s only friend. Their intense friendship began by sharing an apartment. Unlike Alice, Eileen isn’t alienated from her family. She simply doesn’t agree with it and indulges in sibling skirmishes with her sarcastic sister. Eileen works for an obscure literary magazine and feels her professional and personal life has stalled. Outwardly a strong, independent woman, she lacks confidence and a feeling of self-worth. Rejection by the man she has been living with for several years adds to her misery.
Simon is a childhood friend of Eileen. Brilliant, handsome and proper in every way, he is also a friendly acquaintance of Alice. Being a practicing though discrete Catholic, he doesn’t share the two women’s refusal of religion. But like them, he believes that our world is in a terminal crisis. He is gentlemanly, generous, and helpful to excess but has difficulty expressing his emotions and saying clearly what he wants. He lived some years with a French woman in Paris who finally left him because, she said, it was like living with depression. He works as a consultant on refugee matters although he could hold a better-paid job.
The fourth character scrutinised is Felix. He is from the small town where Alice goes to live. Unlike the trio of Dubliners who belong to the university-educated, lower-middle-class, Felix is working-class and trapped in a mediocre job. He is something of a wild boy, intent on his pleasures. These include drinking, occasional drug-taking, and sex predominately but not exclusively with women. While taking no thought for the future, he sometimes does feel he is on the wrong path. Felix is sharp-minded, independent, and curious. He likes to throw other people’s hypocrisy in their faces.
The story sees Alice settled into solitary residence in a big house by the sea. She meets Felix but is still too shaken by illness to have an ordinary relationship. All the same, she invites him to accompany her to Rome at her expense where she has a book promotion. He, slightly hostile, goes along but keeps his distance and doesn’t hide his indifference to high culture and Alice’s novels. She is in no state of mind to object. They do advance their connection with a sexual encounter, Alice’s first for ages. Her thought returns to the bad time she’s been given on social media, She’s in despair that people take her for the celebrity figure their fantasy has made of her.
In Dublin, Eileen stews in her unhappiness. She and Alice exchange long emails about the degradation of the contemporary world, citing Wikipedia, and adding merciless criticism of one another’s life choices. Eileen’s squabbles with her family intensify. She’s lonely and hypercritical about everything, especially herself. A self-Googler, introspection is for her a form of self-sabotage. Her friendship with Simon on occasion peaks to love-making. But he is also involved with other women. His sincere religious beliefs do not include chastity.
Despite the trio’s intimacy, all three shy away from a proposed visit to Alice in her provincial retreat. When it does take place, Felix the outsider’s presence makes him a catalyst for change. He and Alice are now a couple, unstable but functioning. Simon and Eileen also have finally sealed their childhood friendship and are on the point of moving in together. Mixing the bookish visitors into ordinary small-town life mellows the foursome. But Felix will not leave off his awkward prodding.
Hidden animosities surface. Alice insists that Simon has a “martyr’s complex”, is too nice and too detached. Eileen asks why Alice doesn’t stick to her announced intention to stop writing or else fully return to her former active life in Dublin. Simon plays the unbiased, humble arbiter, refusing to make claims for himself. This upsets Eileen and makes her feel it would be better to remain his admiring friend than his full-time partner. She is all too willing to admit she needs him, but it angers her that he doesn’t say the same about her. Faced with Eileen’s decision to pull back, the “emotionally inaccessible” Simon, at last, speaks up and commits himself. Felix, pleased with his handiwork, returns to his crushing job at a local warehouse of the Amazon sort.
Rooney has proceeded by mixing the two women’s long emails with chillier sections of God’s-eye, scene-setting description. This is in fact the way we live now communing with screens large and small while our fingers do a nervous dance. A not untypical passage:
“Eileen put her phone away and opened a new browser window on her work computer. For a moment she paused, staring at the search engine on the home page, and then quickly and lightly she tapped out the words ‘eileen lydon’ and hit the return key. A page of results showed on-screen, with a set of images displayed at the top. One was a photograph of Eileen herself, sandwiched between two black-and-white historical images. The other results were chiefly social media profiles belonging to other people, along with some obituaries and professional listings. At the bottom of the page, a link to the magazine’s website read: Eileen Lydon/ Editorial Assistant. She clicked the link and a new page opened. […]The final part of the sentence was hyperlinked and Eileen clicked it, leading her to a page on which the magazine issue could be purchased online. She closed the tab then and opened up her work email account. At home that evening, Eileen called her parents’ landline number and her father picked up the phone.”
The surprising thing is that this detailing of electronic device manipulation does not annoy us. Rooney has decided to write a novel with the now-familiar instruments playing a principal role, and she brings it off smoothly enough. The click of telephones signals a surge in the story, dialogues take place at a distance, drama climaxes after frenetic thumb action. It’s a coherent picture and for all its Third Millennium ways, an epistolary novel, a story told by exchange of letters. But epistolary novels of yore didn’t bother much with the postman's footwear or how envelopes were stamped. We tolerate being told still another time how someone reached for a phone in desperation or, crestfallen, locked it and pushed it aside with distaste. But we do ask ourselves why, back a couple of generations, when we had only the radio and telephone party lines, did we not write novels about them?
While Rooney is intent on showing us how up-to-date her characters are, she also reveals their ties with a past that’s still very much around. The generation gap is underlined. As the story goes forward, a most conventional fully-draped wedding is one of the main stops. And because this is Ireland where the Catholic Church has only recently been confronted in a big way, questions of belief are still asked that elsewhere in the West have become history. Jesus in retreat still hovers.
Sex is never off the minds of the foursome. Given Rooney’s taste for electronics, it’s not surprising that phone sex isn’t forgotten. The description of Eileen and Simon’s or Alice and Felix’s affections on sofa and bed could serve as a feminist and nice-guy recipe on how to copulate. Rooney’s treatment is original, clinical description with a rosy touch. It would be a stretch to call it soft porn. When the hard variety is discovered on Felix’s laptop even he is embarrassed. All four see sexual roles as unfixed and liquid. It’s in tune with Rooney’s idealism, as is Eileen’s correctness politically that remains lofty but very abstract. Alice and Eileen are disappointed progressives that the current world situation has left with nightmares of civilisation—ours—ending. But this seems as much a reflection of their depressive moods than bad news from the media. After the reunion in Alice’s big house in the sticks, their four lives go forward, their perspectives adjusted.
An epilogue, dated eighteen months later, fills us in. The pandemic has arrived. We learn that Felix and Alice are still together in a cloud of homemaking and quibbles. Alice understands that for her life will always be stressful. Eileen is pregnant and after some heart-searching and Simon’s agreement, which he delivers like a committee report, she looks forward to motherhood. She admits that she can’t put the larger world right and feels we have “to content ourselves with trying not to let down our loved ones”. The reader can only scratch his grey head and wonder that for all their acquired electronic know-how and other catching up the Irish have had to do, they are no farther than those characters of E. M. Forster’s novels a century ago who made such a thing of ‘personal relationships’.