Eyes Like Cursors Blinking: On “Conversations with Friends” and “Normal People” by Sally Rooney
Dec 15 ● BY Rob Madole
I find it difficult to imagine a reader who, by the fifth or sixth page of Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel Conversations with Friends, hasn’t become convinced that Rooney’s writing is a startling, lucid gift. Her prose to me is that self-evidently spellbinding and new.
Yet it’s tough to pinpoint how exactly Rooney achieves this effect. She expends no apparent effort to be luminous or “literary.” She doesn’t go to great lengths to flaunt her erudition or intelligence. In fact, for long stretches of her first novel, Rooney’s prose seems to aim for a flat, muted affect, avoiding flights of lyricism or theatricalized emotion like the plague. The following excerpt exemplifies the novel’s deadpan tone:
I was in work when I received the email . . . I read the message several times. For some reason I deleted it briefly, and then went into my trash folder to retrieve it almost straight away. Then I marked it as unread and opened it to read it again as if for the first time. Of course Bobbi was right. I had called her jealous to try and hurt her. . . . Realising not only that hurting Bobbi’s feelings was within my power but that I had done it practically offhandedly and without noticing, made me uncomfortable. I wandered around the office and poured some water from the cooler into a plastic cup though I wasn’t thirsty. Then eventually I sat back down. It took me several drafts to finish writing my reply.
Here the protagonist Frances, a twenty-one-year-old aspiring poet and student at Trinity College Dublin, is reading an email from her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi. Frances has been conducting a secret affair with an older married man named Nick, and Bobbi is beginning to grow suspicious. The rhythm of this passage is brisk, staccato. The pacing is somehow breakneck, even though the contents (reading email, drinking from a water cooler) are not. What marks the writing as particularly unusual, though, is Rooney’s approach to characterization: one receives the impression that Rooney has a programmatic disinterest in depicting her characters’ inner lives. Or rather—and this, perhaps, is what makes her style feel so distinct—Rooney seems allergic to the leveling that’s entailed in consigning an emotional life to language. There is something intentionally vague, even deliberately oversimplified about the wording of Frances’s reaction to Bobbi’s email: “Realising . . . that hurting Bobbi’s feelings was within my power . . . made me uncomfortable.” Just that. Uncomfortable.
This could mean we’re entering Tao Lin territory,1 where clever urban millennials treat their emotions with flippant disdain. Since Rooney is all of twenty-seven years old, many reviewers have been delighted to cast her in this role. It’s hard to find a profile that doesn’t mention at some point how Rooney has been labeled the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation,” whatever that means. Yet the comparison with Tao Lin makes clear how the directness of Rooney’s prose is not crafted to serve some posture of hip disaffection or ironic distance. It rather attests to a species of steady, unblinking attention, a kind of uninflected exactitude. The young twentysomethings who populate Rooney’s two novels—an equally remarkable sophomore novel, Normal People, was published in the UK in September 2018 and is forthcoming in the US—are something like impartial observers of their own interior lives. They may be estranged from their emotions and have a cynic’s disdain for hyperbole, but they are nonetheless committed to registering these interior lives with faithfulness, with nearly clinical rigor—even when these lives turn embarrassingly mushy, or love-addled, or myopically egotistical and self-destructive. Rooney’s deadpan, in other words, is not an act of self-promotion.
Much of the interiority of Rooney’s characters is revealed from the outside in. In Conversations, for instance, Frances has a habit of perceiving her physical reactions to an emotion before identifying the emotion itself. When Frances has sex with Nick for the first time, Rooney writes:
While we undressed I tried to seem casual by keeping my limbs still and not trembling violently. . . . But when he asked me if I was sure I wanted to do all this, I heard myself say: I didn’t really come over just to talk, you know.
One is struck here by the strange opacity between Frances and her inner life. It seems to burble out of her unbidden, unlooked for. The same woman who shakes uncontrollably as she undresses (we later learn this is Frances’s first time having sex with a man) suddenly “hears herself” uttering an audacious come on. The passage continues:
In bed he asked me what felt good a lot. I said everything felt good. I felt very flushed and I could hear myself making a lot of noise, but only syllables, no real words. I closed my eyes. The inside of my body was hot like oil. I was possessed by an overwhelming and intense energy which seemed to threaten me. Please, I was saying. Please, please. . . When it was over I lay on my back shivering. I had been so terribly noisy and theatrical all the way through that it was impossible now to act indifferent like I did in the emails. That felt kind of okay, I said.
The physical pleasure of having sex registers for Frances as being “possessed,” as posing an obscure threat that can only be neutralized by irony. The threat, of course, is that her involuntary expressions of pleasure disarm Frances’s ability to edit her self-presentation—the ultimate horror for a painfully self-conscious, aspiring young writer. Thus, Frances’s bodily reactions are presented to us as something like poker tells, as unwanted revelations of the trembling heart beneath the tough-skinned facade.
This is a species of dramatic irony, but it feels new in Rooney’s hands. Usually dramatic irony reveals something to the reader that the narrator knows about a character but cannot state explicitly because doing so would go over the character’s head. Instead, therefore, the author arranges the dramatic situation to reveal the true import of a character’s behavior to the reader without necessarily revealing it to the protagonist. Here, however, Frances’s level of access to her own interior life is about equivalent to the reader’s. She too is mystified; we are both trying to figure Frances out and cannot anticipate what will burble up next. As a result, every beat in the novel feels charged and unpredictable. The indeterminacy of Frances’s inner life generates a propulsive narrative force.
The freshness of Rooney’s writing, however, extends beyond mere questions of style. Although the subject matter of Conversations is familiar to the point that it could verge on the soapy, the relationship between Frances and Nick never feels predictable or preordained, and it’s rendered by Rooney with uncanny wisdom and perceptiveness. One would expect certain life lessons to be imparted in a novel centering around a twenty-one-year-old’s affair with an older married man—and imparted they are, yet they are not the life lessons we anticipate. Ultimately, Frances is the instigator of the affair and the party who wields the sharpest emotional scalpels; Nick is at her mercy, and Frances is often tempted to twist the knife. Yet what Frances acquires over the course of the novel is an expansion of her capacity for empathy, a regard for the feelings of others that even comes to encompass Nick’s wife Melissa—who is informed about the affair relatively early, and whose unruffled acceptance is finally what drives Frances away. “Did he respect Melissa more than me?” Frances wonders at one point. “Did he like her more? If we were both going to die in a burning building and he could only save one of us, wouldn’t he certainly save Melissa and not me?” As Frances comes to better understand the pain and the heartbreak at the center of the marriage she has thrust herself into, it becomes an act of mature, adult self-abnegation to deny herself the pleasure of Nick’s body—that is, if she can manage to maintain this resolve through to the book’s end.
In charting such a course, the narrative bears a strong resemblance to Jane Austen’s Emma, in which the titular character starts as a precocious and accidentally cruel young woman—whose perspicacity isn’t quite as keen as she thinks it is—and transforms into a gentler, wiser adult, chastened by the knowledge that her character judgments aren’t infallible and that people are infinitely more complex than her privilege had enabled her to see. That is to say, Emma charts an asymptotic path where the gulf of dramatic irony between protagonist and narrator slowly diminishes until Emma’s perception of her social surroundings is almost equivalent to Jane Austen’s. Emma’s blinkered vanity is ultimately replaced by more empathic acuity, dovetailing with the acuity required by the author to narrate the tale.
Interestingly, Emma figures significantly in Rooney’s second book, Normal People. Unlike Conversations, Normal People is narrated in the third person, and alternates between the characters of Connell and Marianne as they grow up together in small-town Ireland, move to Dublin for university, and fall in and out of love, repeatedly, in a cycle of misapprehension and accidental hurt. In its effortless ability to toggle between Connell and Marianne’s points of view, Normal People is more structurally daring than its predecessor, yet it doesn’t feel quite as cohesive as Conversations. Nevertheless, Normal People represents an admirable expansion of Rooney’s vision and is a remarkable novel in its own right.
Early in the book, as Connell is beginning to wonder whether he might want to become a writer, he has an uncomfortable experience reading Jane Austen’s Emma:
One night the library started closing just as he reached the passage in Emma when it seems like Mr Knightley is going to marry Harriet, and he had to close the book and walk home in a state of strange emotional agitation. He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him. One of his professors calls it ‘the pleasure of being touched by great art’. In those words it almost sounds sexual. And in a way, the feeling provoked in Connell when Mr Knightley kisses Emma’s hand is not completely asexual, though its relation to sexuality is indirect. It suggests to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.
Connell’s reaction to Emma and his feelings about its significance have obvious resonance with Rooney’s fiction. Connell’s glimpse of the troubled connection between human intimacy and the act of trying to “read” people, in fact, seems to be the central premise animating Rooney’s first two books. How can we comprehend our own interior lives except through the refracted mirror of other people’s reactions to us? In an age of virtual interaction, this process is more fraught and confusing than ever.
It feels worth noting that the epigraph to Normal People is a quote from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and that the act of reading Middlemarch comes up a handful of times in both novels. Austen and Eliot, the English language’s two great savants of the social novel, appear to be Rooney’s most obvious literary forebears. Part of me wonders, therefore, if Rooney’s mode of narration is intended as something of a computer-age reappropriation of the nineteenth-century novel of manners. Consider this description of Marianne’s visage as she regards herself in the mirror near the book’s beginning: “Her face lacks definition around the cheeks and jaw. It’s a face like a piece of technology, and her two eyes are cursors blinking.” On one hand, the description seems to invoke the habit practiced by nineteenth-century writers like Austen of making at times uncomfortable conflations between physiognomy and character. Yet Rooney’s handling of the trope puts a startling spin on it. What does it mean for a face to be “like a piece of technology,” for eyes to be like “cursors blinking?” It suggests a brain that functions as an empty Word document, watchfully inscribing the world as it passes by—reinventing, deleting, and editing as it sees fit, before finally spitting out a printout and reopening a blank page. This trope and its reconfiguration feel definitive for Rooney’s project. In the nineteenth-century omniscient novel, characters are primarily experienced from the outside in. Their personalities are additive rather than subjectivized; they result from the sum total of their observed social behaviors, rather than from an essential core or consciousness.
This approach to characterization is considered outmoded, at least in what passes for “literary” fiction today. The rule of contemporary fiction seems to be that the radical subjectivity of modern experience cannot be captured unless represented from the inside out, from one vantage point at a time. Yet all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, etc. What I mean to say is: one could make an argument that the headlong evolution of our networks of discourse over the past decade has not yet been matched by an evolution of literary form; and that, for the collective consciousness one sees glimpses of emerging on the horizon, there could be a rediscovered value in older forms of narrativization, from a time before we became convinced that each individual’s experience is so alien to everyone else’s that it’s a violation of the rules of mimetic reality for a narrator to reside anywhere but in the innerest, most solipsistic corner of the human heart.
The charge one feels behind Sally Rooney’s writing, that is to say, might be that she’s speaking to an audience yet to arrive, or articulating a reality for which we haven’t yet developed rules and forms. In any case, it seems safe to say that Rooney is not much interested in following rules. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.