Sally Rooney entered the literary scene in 2015 with “Even if You Beat Me,” a nonfiction essay published in the Dublin Review recounting her years as a champion debater. A year later, Rooney made the jump to fiction with “Mr Salary,” a short story picked up by the literary magazine Granta and quickly shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the richest prize of its kind. In 2017 Rooney released “Conversations with Friends,” her first novel chronicling the nuanced adultery that combines and recombines a couple and a pair of best friends. Rooney’s debut was met with electric praise, awarding her comparisons to both Salinger and Joyce and landing her in the VIP zone of the literary radar. For a year, we salivated. In Aug. 2018, Rooney released her sophomore novel, “Normal People,” in her home country of Ireland, where it quickly spread like rapid fire across the globe via social media and Amazon.
In the short span of three years, Rooney has evolved from essayist to fiction writer to “the first great millennial novelist.” Sally Rooney got a New Yorker interview in January, told The Guardian that she “do(esn’t) respond to authority very well” and has a 10-minute YouTube video on writing and Marxism. She’s a veritable cultural event, heralded for her bare prose, biting irony and slow burn of love in the time of late capitalism. Just check out what happens when you search #normalpeople on Instagram.
“Normal People” drops in the States on Tuesday, Apr. 16, and The Michigan Daily Book Review is celebrating by reviewing Rooney’s fiction career, last to first. Catch “Normal People” on the 16th, “Conversations with Friends” on the 17th and “Mr Salary” on the 18th.
Frances, the central character of Sally Rooney’s debut novel “Conversations With Friends,” is worried she doesn’t have a personality. More specifically, she’s worried about how porous she is, how willing she is to go along with things that happen to her: “At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterward think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.” She is always pretending to be interested in something or other, or is otherwise carefully evaluating the cultural valences of what she says or does. This never results in anything bad or evil, but it mostly involves a lot of Frances second-guessing herself in microscopic ways. She’s never quite sure if she’s fulfilling the role she ends up in correctly, or often, what that role even is. But there are roles.
In the place of a fixed personality, Frances experiences a series of intense, often contradictory and overlapping emotions that she frequently doesn’t find the right words to express. Instead, we get complex interpretations of things that happen to her and snippets of revelatory action. The prose is always even and precise, almost clipped at times; her fraught emotional landscape is rendered with what can be merciless objectivity.
Frances also seems to contrast her accommodating personality with her best friend and former lover, Bobbi, who is pretty, smart and self-assured to the point of being a little mean. It’s clear Frances is contrasting her unsteady inner life with Bobbi’s glittering exterior, a comparison destined to be maddening. Late in the novel, Frances writes a thinly-veiled short story in which she describes Bobbi as “a mystery so total I couldn’t endure her, a force I couldn’t subjugate with my will, and the love of my life.” If the idea of a “personality” seems, itself, a little elusive by this point, Frances’s story fully reveals the extent to which she tries to replace her desire for love and belonging with the dream of individualist autonomy. She wants to be Bobbi, in that Bobbi has no legible internal strife, in that Bobbi is worthy of love as a result of it.
Rooney, who came of age with the 2008 financial crash and austerity politics as a central event in her life, is skillful at teasing out the social mythologies of the present moment, where everything is in flux and precarity reigns. In one interview, she mentions “the particular nature of the crash, which came out of our first ever period of prosperity and revealed it to be a mirage.”
Her fiction is subtler than simple allegory, though, and she treats her thematic material on the scale of a small cast of people who, by themselves, can’t be blamed for much. Much is made of her Marxism as well as her attachment to an anti-individualist personal style that is popular with millennials, but she really has more in common with Jane Austen or perhaps Henry James. She has said herself that it’s sort of difficult to represent Marxism, which is societal in scope, in the confines of her chosen medium.
She instead considers the framework of a social novel, its network of overlapping and contested relationships, as a way to show how dependent people are on each other, in a way that can be usefully compared with the larger-scale question of society. Social class itself, the ways in which our interactions with each other are somewhat circumscribed by class tension, certainly crops up in Conversations — when Frances first goes to Melissa’s house, she quickly notices a framed print, a glass conservatory, other expensive objects. “Rich people, I thought. I was always thinking about rich people then.” A few chapters later, Frances recounts how her father accused her of “changing her accent.”
Class is communicated, ultimately, through small signifiers, in the same messy space where everything else about human personality is kept. Close to the end of the book, Melissa rips into Frances, making almost 300 pages of subtext text. “You treated me with total contempt … Suddenly I’m looking around my own fucking house, thinking: Is this sofa ugly? Is it kitsch to drink wine? And things I felt good about before just started to make me feel pathetic.” It’s impossible to know whether Melissa is necessarily referring to these things being signifiers of her relative class position above Frances, but it’s so obvious that such rhetorical questions wouldn’t be possible without their disparity.
Rooney’s characters have all the theoretical tools they need to understand these things, but they prove useless in the face of class divisions, real and fake, and the book is remarkable in how combative the characters are even in the best of situations. Actually, the novel is remarkably effective at showing how little it helps, on a day-to-day basis, to have knowledge. You can read feminist theory and thoroughly get to know the present state of neoliberal rot, and all of that won’t give you a course of correct action in the minutiae of day to day life that we are all subject to.