Sally Rooney Wants to Start the Revolution
Speaking with the Conversations with Friends Author About Class and Care
Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends is about many things, but one that comes up when I meet with Rooney in Manchester is learning the limits of disavowal. Frances, the novel’s 21-year-old protagonist, is an ambivalent surveyor of the adult world she is poised to inhabit. She doesn’t fear practical responsibilities so much as emotional ones: accepting human interdependence; acknowledging a very ordinary susceptibility to pain; figuring out how to live when one’s values, but not one’s desires, have divested from global capitalism. She and Bobbi, her charismatic best friend and former girlfriend, are students at Dublin’s prestigious Trinity College. They perform together the spoken word poetry that Frances composes alone. At one such performance they meet Melissa, a writer in her thirties. Bobbi is enamored of Melissa, but it’s Frances who begins an affair, with Melissa’s actor husband Nick. The older couple complicate the usually closed bond between the two women. Conversation, indeed, forms the backbone of the novel. Their charged exchanges glitter with deflections.
In writing her novel of social observation, Rooney drew on a world she knew: she moved to Dublin from the town of Castlebar in County Mayo to attend Trinity when she was 18. It’s the first thing I ask her about when we sit down to talk, a few hours before a reading she is giving as part of the Manchester Literature Festival. The streets are full of young people when I walk in waning light to the university where the reading will be held, some of the tens of thousands of students who populate this former industrial town. Castlebar, by contrast, numbers around 10,000 total. Growing up, Rooney’s father fixed phone lines for the then state-owned Telecom Éireann, and her mother ran the local Linenhall Arts Centre. Both were “big readers,” and through her mother’s work she “had the privilege of a lot of what is called cultural capital. It certainly wasn’t a freak accident that I grew up loving books.”
That facility with culture insulated her somewhat from the surprise she otherwise felt when she arrived to study English at Trinity. Though interested in gender politics as a teenager, it was not until college that she developed an awareness of class politics, too. The centuries-old university “attracts a certain class,” she says: both the ruling class within Ireland and wealthy British students. Rooney was struck, as a person of comfortable but decidedly normal upbringing, not simply by “the presence of material wealth” but by the realization that “this is actually how Irish society is run, by drawing from this small pool of people.” They weren’t the entirety of the student body, but they were the ones most visibly at ease. Later, an alumnus I happen to meet tells me that Trinity has stood for many years as a closed fortress in the center of the city, only recently opened, in various accommodations, to surrounding local residents.
Rooney found the whole thing both “glamorous” and “politically repulsive,” a “dual feeling” she thinks her novel shares. “It was a community of the elite that I wanted to be a part of but almost only so that I could then turn around and reject it, which I definitely think is something that’s in my character for some reason,” she laughs. “It characterizes a lot of the decisions I’ve made in my life. I’m exaggerating a bit, but I guess that’s the only way to tell a narrative about your life, to exaggerate a bit.”
She’s alluding, perhaps, to the time she insinuated herself into the university’s storied debating society, eventually rising to the rank of the no. 1 debater in the continent of Europe. Rooney’s recent history as a laurelled extemporizer is well-trodden territory, and will continue to be until her body of work supersedes the novelty of this fact (she has just finished her second novel). An essay she wrote for the Dublin Review assessed that history with piquant chagrin, containing lines like “I don’t think I will ever again want something so meaningless so much” and “Coming face to face with the irrelevance of your own strivings demands some kind of response.” (Incidentally, one hopes that Rooney might one day consider a secondary career as an essayist.)
“It was a community of the elite that I wanted to be a part of but almost only so that I could then turn around and reject it.”
But it’s true that there are some very suggestive resonances between Conversations with Friends and its author’s remembrance of debating days past. “Competitive debating,” she wrote, “takes argument’s essential features and reimagines them as a game,” in which “the emotional or relational aspects of argument are superfluous.” It offered a “fantasy of invulnerability, of total control . . . All the pleasures of conflict without ever really showing my hand.” Replace “argument” or “conflict” with “life,” and that’s Frances: she too would like to live as though the emotional aspects were superfluous. The book testifies to the impossibility of that proposition.
Asked on RTÉ Radio what she intended Conversations with Friends to achieve, Rooney responded: “To begin the revolution, obviously.” The tone was in jest, but the sentiment wasn’t totally unintended. There is a real sense in which the characters’ interpersonal experiments are connected to their political ideals—an attempt to outmaneuver old and unsatisfying ways of being. “There is no neutral social position,” Rooney said at her Manchester reading, in reply to a “meta-question” to herself and fellow panelists Joanna Walsh and Lisa McInerney about being asked about being a woman writer. “What I find interesting is”—her voice dropping to a conspiratorial register—”men have a gender, which they never get asked about . . . I don’t wish we had fewer conversations about those things, I wish we had more robust ones that included people from dominant classes and [examined] how all those factors affect the way we produce and interact with culture.”
Frances, Nick, Bobbi and Melissa know these things. “Well, I’m gay,” Bobbi says, when Melissa asks why convent school “posed issues” for them, “and Frances is a communist.” Bobbi and Nick come from money; they are also exceptionally beautiful. Frances, by virtue of her education, is obtaining a social status increasingly estranged from that of her small-town lower-middle-class parents. Each have fraught family histories that inform how they understand relationships and marriage. They talk about national borders and commodity fetishism and how niceness has become a proxy value for the more difficult act of scrutinizing power. They want, despite the temptations and traps of bourgeois whiteness, to reconcile desire and principle.
Still, if these characters are trying to transcend the limitations of their social positions, the novel also demonstrates the danger of too much shorthand. Near the end of the novel, Bobbi tells Frances that she can’t abdicate responsibility for the power she has over others simply by resorting to narratives like “Bobbi’s rich, Nick’s a man.” Rooney tells me that theory feels essential to her because it’s evident that “our whole way of life is destroying our planet and each other in an awful, pathological way, and to confront that without having some sort of intellectual understanding would be really overwhelming. It still is overwhelming.”
At the same time, theory is not necessarily a space of consolation “because that’s not its intended purpose.” At a low point, Frances turns instead to the Bible. But she does so in a typically wry fashion, her interest sincere if not quite earnest. She is surprised, having assumed that Jesus was “probably philosophically sound,” to find that she considers much of what he says “cryptic and even disagreeable.” She is able to take the Gospels much more seriously when she imagines Bobbi as Jesus, at times sarcastic, at times straight. When Bobbi floats some unflattering theories about Melissa, Frances observes, “I was striving to love everyone, which meant I tried to stay quiet.”
“There has to be some quality of human relation that informs theory,” Rooney says, “and I guess Frances wonders if that’s Christianity.” In real life, Rooney wonders whether that might be feminist care ethics, which she was reading a lot at the time she was finishing the book. She describes it as “putting the caring relationships between human beings at the center of an ethical vision” instead of the rights and responsibilities of the individual. “I wonder whether that’s a way of marrying the human need for consolation with the rigorous critical, analytic perspective.”
“Our whole way of life is destroying our planet and each other in an awful, pathological way.”
Conversations with Friends is attuned to the playfulness and sensuality possible in human interaction, as well as the misinterpretation and evasion. Rooney is fond of French literature for its treatment of these themes: Colette’s Chéri is a favorite; she recently finished Swann’s Way, and was both surprised and pleased to see Conversations compared to Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. The central place that sociability occupies in her work is why Rooney describes herself as a “relationally” rather than “linguistically driven” writer. “I don’t get up in the morning thinking, ‘can’t wait to experiment with form.’ I think, ‘I want to be with my characters.’”
Still, the desire to produce an honest account of modern relationships drives formal decisions in itself. In writing about 20- and 30-somethings interacting in the present day, Rooney had to contend with the ways in which online textuality is unlike traditional literary textuality: how long can an email go on for? What’s at stake in the difference between writing a face-to-face interaction and one over instant message? “When you’re presenting a scene of dialogue in real life, the characters move—they could be smoking or eating or drinking, and they’re looking at each other or they’re not.” Over text, there’s “none of that . . . It’s a really different way to present dramatic action.”
Then there are questions of voice, because Frances “narrates the book as a literary narrator,” and writes emails “as a normal person who writes emails.” Rooney captures these shifts with a precision that’s almost painful. Discord first surfaces between Frances and Nick while the latter is away on a film shoot, and they’re communicating over instant message. “i don’t know what you want,” he tells her; “obviously we can’t see each other very often” and “having an affair is reasonably stressful.” “haha,” Frances responds, followed by “are you breaking up with me”: truly a lol to keep from crying. The novel is written in a register approximating that with which you might write to a friend, resulting in the sacrifice of what Rooney says “could have been more lyrical writing.” It is still, and often, beautiful.
Finishing the book, I wondered where Rooney came down on the success of these characters’ experiments. The novel leaves the question open, ending with Frances and Nick preparing to pick themselves up and try again. Writing it, Rooney says, she was clear only that she didn’t want the book to end with a “lesson on the value of monogamy,” some modern-day rendition of Anna Karenina’s death on the tracks. “I’m confident that Frances and Nick will get a lot more out of their relationship. I’m also confident that a lot of what they get will be suffering,” she says. “But, you know, some suffering is necessary. It’s like what we were talking about: disavowing. The gesture of disavowal is not sufficient. You can’t just say, that person has brought me some pain: I disavow them. . . . There’s something redemptive about deciding to be on the side of relationships rather than on the side of independence and autonomy and self-protection.”
We’re all already vulnerable; the real difficulty is to let that be seen. It’s unclear in so doing what the ratio is of pain invited versus pain forestalled—“I don’t think,” Rooney says, “that I go easy on that.” But she feels strongly that “there needs to be some more complex answer.” She doesn’t have it yet. “But it’s something that I’m interested in exploring. I think you have to set yourself the burden of honestly trying to engage with really difficult stuff that can leave you open to criticism.”