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Sally Rooney’s Great Millennial Novels

The ‘Conversations With Friends’ and ‘Normal People’ author has become a literary phenomenon and a “voice of a generation.” What does that mean, for her generation and for the novel?

Getty Images/Hogarth/Faber & Faber/Ringer illustration

“I didn’t mean to write a novel,” begins Irish writer Sally Rooney, in a 2017 piece published shortly after the release of her debut novel, Conversations With Friends. Its plot of two college students who befriend a married couple, as Rooney puts it, struck her at first as a concept for a short story: “I started to write it, under the title ‘Melissa’, and eventually it got too long. I continued writing it until it seemed to be finished, and at that point it was about novel-length.” Conversations With Friends is ultimately told from the perspective of a 21-year-old woman named Frances who studies English at Trinity College, interns part time at a literary agency, and writes spoken-word poetry and fiction on the side. She lives with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi, and over the course of the novel, they become entangled with a more glamorous older married couple, Melissa and Nick—the male counterpart with whom Frances begins an affair. The tiredness of the adultery plot, as has been repeatedly noted, is renewed in Rooney’s hands, however, through the new kind of female protagonist that is Frances.

Rooney’s self-described intuitiveness—the almost inevitable logic behind her writing process—hints at why her novels have been so readily received. Bought by Faber in a heated seven-way auction and drafted in a brisk three months, Conversations With Friends was an almost instantaneous critical and commercial success. Normal People, Rooney’s second novel, also began as a short story; it was released in the U.K. a little over a year after Conversations With Friends and longlisted for the Man Booker prize. (It is finally out in the U.S. this week.) These few short years have seen Rooney become a worldwide sensation, both for her writing and the speed of it. But in contrast to the urgency behind their publication history, Rooney’s novels themselves are loose and naturalistic, filled with equivocating and meandering characters. As reading experiences, they go by quickly. (Emily Ratajkowski recently finished Conversations With Friends in one sitting; Sarah Jessica Parker read it in a day.) The books’ narrative structures track messy interdependent social systems so complexly realistic that they often, as Rooney suggests, outstrip the limits of their presumed forms. Even as a novel, Conversations With Friends ends on a cliff-hanger—a conclusion that necessarily spills over, to be continued, kind of like real life.

Rooney’s wide appeal has been consistently attributed to the “relatability” of her characters, and her female ones especially. Steely, shy, and a self-described “communist,” Frances, Rooney’s Conversations With Friends protagonist, is first and foremost a writer. As the novel’s narrator, Frances proves to be a compelling storyteller, whose ability to render her experiences in devastatingly affecting ways—even while trying to maintain a hardened exterior—is of course part of Rooney’s own genius as well. “Sally Rooney gets in your head,” goes the title of Lauren Collins’s New Yorker profile of the author. Reading Conversations With Friends, Meaghan O’Connell experienced what she describes as “the slow-burning dread of recognition.” Alexandra Schwartz’s review of the novel concludes that “Rooney’s natural power is as a psychological portraitist,” and especially her portrayal of “Frances’s defensive, deceived self-awareness, her painful errors in emotional judgment, feel so vividly truthful that the reader sympathetically braces for her comeuppance.” Citing Schwartz’s review, Ratajkowski’s recent Instagram stories provide further annotations on the power of these psychological portraits: “This part struck me as deeply relatable in the same way. I’m always trying to argue both sides within myself to a paralyzing extent.” In all these reflections, women readers are responding not to Frances’s likability and charisma, or even her typicality as a middle-class single white college-aged female. What makes Frances relatable is precisely how she constantly seems to exceed her categorical boundaries. She is both an ex-lesbian and current “other woman,” communist and conventional romance heroine, stubborn and sentimental. No wonder it took a novel-length work to figure it all out.

Normal People draws out the canvas and explores the evolution of a relationship between Marianne and Connell as it begins first as a secret high school fling, and later as a complicated friendship that frequently tips into romance at college. As suggested by their titles, Conversations With Friends and Normal People begin with simple, almost unassuming premises. What is remarkable about these novels, however, is not exactly found in their plots, or even in their individual female characters. What is remarkable is the very way Rooney turns the novel form—what was initially a vehicle for describing the psychological and emotional interiority of the individual bourgeois subject—and stretches it out to consider the refracted and contradictory relationships among a group of people. The characters in Rooney’s novels are recognizable not by themselves, but in the types of relationships and social entanglements that they find themselves in. What feels most identifiable are not the moments when characters connect, but those when they experience (often unwittingly) some form of miscommunication. After searching for the word “feelings” in her instant message history with Bobbi, Frances recovers an exchange from a past Christmas break that reminds her of the feeling of being misunderstood:

I remember having this conversation; I remembered how effortful it felt, the sense that Bobbi was misunderstanding me, or even intentionally averting her gaze from what I was trying to say. I’d been sitting in the upstairs bedroom in my mother’s house, under the quilt, and my hands were cold. Having spent Christmas in Ballina away from Bobbi I wanted to tell her that I missed her. That was what I had started to say, or thought about saying.

While Rooney’s currency circulates around her depictions of the contemporary generation of millennials as they come into adulthood, this burden of representation has also spurred its own meta conversation about how successfully they do so. (Not to mention Rooney’s age—most pieces implicitly struggle to understand Rooney’s own youth as both naturally conducive to and an unlikely fact of her talent.) With the media attention surrounding every release of a new Rooney novel, one wonders: Is the novel itself having a moment, a kind of youthful regeneration of its own? And given that Rooney is frequently compared to other contemporary novelists such as Elena Ferrante, Rachel Cusk, Olivia Sudjic, Sheila Heti, and Zadie Smith, one might further ask: Is the moment related to what feels like increasingly new possibilities for portraying female characters? Rooney’s novels explore female subjectivity as crucially interdependent on not only female bonding, but also forms of male-female socialization that aren’t necessarily purely erotic. Reading Normal People feels like Rooney took the explicitly foregrounded female friendship in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and asked: What if we explored this codependent relationship through a heterosexual couple that was also never quite conventionally romantic? What if there are more ways of being a couple, being a friend? And if the revealing of a pseudonymous author can be seen as a celebrity event in 2016, what might we ask or expect from that well-worn fictional form that is the novel in 2019?

Born in 1991, Rooney is meaningfully younger than many of the other writers she’s compared to, which has already led to her being hailed as the new voice of the millennial generation. Similar to Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” Conversations With Friends was praised for its seamless incorporation of the newer mediums of instant messaging, emails, and texts into a much older fictional form. And like “Cat Person,” Rooney’s inclusion of text-based exchanges imbues the novel with a greater degree of ambiguity about agency and intention. (At one point, Frances even refers to her instant messages with Bobbi as “textual evidence” that she can always return to and reread, as well as reinterpret.) But as any student of the novel tradition—including Rooney—knows, the genre itself emerges through its inclusion of epistolary forms, as exemplified in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). “A lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing,” observes Rooney.

Conversations With Friends makes a point of unsettling readers’ expectations about what 19th-century novels even actually look like. While sitting in a hospital waiting room for an ultrasound that will eventually tell her she has endometriosis, Frances describes how

I sat there tapping my pen against the front cover of Middlemarch, which I had to read for a class on the English novel. The cover depicted a sad-eyed lady from Victorian times doing something with flowers. I doubted Victorian women actually touched flowers as often as art from the period suggested they did.

Embedded in Frances’s skepticism toward contemporary assumptions about Victorian women are also—especially in this scene, where she waits for a gynecologist—contemporary assumptions about contemporary women. By giving Frances a specifically female disease, but not killing her off, Rooney might also be coyly referencing the 19th-century novels that, in her words, often have their subversive female characters die “because she’s too dangerous.”

Instead, Rooney takes the novel, which necessitates closure—physical books always have to end, even if Twitter might go on indefinitely—and tests its capacity to narrate inconclusiveness and uncertainty. As the Frank O’Hara epigraph to Conversations With Friends hints: “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.” Or as embedded in the very form of Normal People, which oscillates between the perspective of its two protagonists, the novel’s ongoing proximity to “real life” relies on its accommodation of difference—of times of crises that involve change, growth, and adaptation. Normal People is dotted throughout with miniature moments in which either Marianne or Connell reflect on a scene as the beginning of their “new life” or “new existence.” In the absence of a more coherent narrative arc, these characters feel themselves endlessly remaking themselves.

Normal People alternates between Marianne’s and Connell’s perspectives over the course of 18 chapters that span four crucial years, beginning with their leaving high school for college and ending as they embark on different post-college trajectories. The chapter titles are date stamps that coyly indicate how much is passing: “Six Weeks Later (April 2011)” to “Two Days Later (April 2011),” for example, or even, at one point toward the end of the novel, as though to communicate the urgency of a climactic juncture: “Five Minutes Later (July 2014).” Mediating between the perspectives of two separate characters, Normal People formalizes the implied discrepancy among the four main characters of Conversations With Friends. A scene told from Marianne’s perspective, for instance, might look terribly different when later narrated from Connell’s. After Connell makes an insensitive comment:

For a second Marianne said nothing. He felt in some obscure sense that he had expressed himself incorrectly, but he didn’t know how.

It’s a feeling of not quite knowing what we all know well. It is also this pulsing possibility of ongoing doubt—of misunderstanding—between Rooney’s imperfect characters that brings them to life. “I guess everyone is a mystery,” says Marianne toward the end of the novel. “I mean, you can never really know another person, and so on.” Marianne is referring in this moment to Connell, but the line also provides an embedded theory about Rooney’s approach to characters (and also their endless appeal). On the next page, Marianne thinks about how Connell is different from her because he is a writer: “Marianne’s life happens strictly in the real world, populated by real individuals. She thinks of Connell saying: People are a lot more knowable than they think they are. But still he has something she lacks, an inner life that does not include the other person.” Rooney’s fictional characters appear increasingly real not despite, but because they’re constantly pointing to their own performative constructedness. What could be more relatable?

The word “normal” appears throughout both Conversations With Friends and Normal People to describe situations that are not only variously different from one another, but which also test the boundaries of our general assumptions about normality. The married couple in Conversations With Friends describe themselves as being in a “quasi-marriage,” where they sleep in different bedrooms and have ultimately decided not to have children. At one point, Frances and Bobbi have to clarify that they are not, in fact, “girlfriends” again; they’re just best friends who sleep in the same bed. No relationship or category remains stable in a Rooney novel; instead, they are constantly negotiated and renegotiated. This partly explains the somewhat circuitous plots of both novels, but it also explains their less traditional endings. Conversations With Friends closes with Frances possibly reinstigating her affair with the older, married Nick, though even this illicit quasi-romance is never conclusively resolved. After four years of romantic back-and-forth-ing, Normal People ends with Marianne and Connell leaving each other again. Both texts are, in ways, novels about the traditional heterosexual couple form that stop short of giving us the novel’s conventional marriage ending. If Conversations With Friends draws inspiration from Middlemarch (the penultimate paragraph explicitly adapts Eliot’s famous final lines about the “incalculably diffusive” effect of “unhistoric acts”), then it makes sense that Eliot’s later and more narratively fractured novel Daniel Deronda is the template for Normal People. Like Eliot, Rooney’s writing also follows an increased splintering of the novel form—both use the ambiguities of narrative fiction to reflect the contemporary precariousness of their respective world orders.

As a millennial who began college after the 2008 economic crash (and the 2008 collapse of the Celtic Tiger, more specifically), Rooney writes from a precarious historical moment during which she can still glean the vestiges of past forms of life, while having to renegotiate an uncertain future. A self-identified Marxist raised by socialist parents, she often questions the political value of novel writing. “I don’t really believe that what I’m doing is fundamentally all that worthwhile,” she says in a Mother Jones interview,

I would like to believe that the arts have like, the value of consolation, which is that if we’re all in the struggle together then we’ll need art as a form of consolation to make our lives feel meaningful while the struggle goes on. But we haven’t actually really gotten to the bit, culturally speaking, where we’re in the struggle yet. We’re very much still at the stage where things are going horribly wrong, and there hasn’t been any sort of mass uprising.

In the face of so much acclaim—“the first great millennial author,” “Salinger for the Snapchat generation,” “Jane Austen of the precariat”—it’s perhaps no surprise that Rooney demurs. Previously an avid Twitter user, Rooney deactivated her personal account last year.

Rooney’s skepticism about the novel’s political force is worked into her novels themselves. Both Conversations With Friends and Normal People include vacation trips to summer homes—in France or Italy—that function as set pieces where the oddities of luxury are critiqued, but also enjoyed. It’s undeniable that the set pieces themselves are luxurious: fresh flowers are bought, bottles after bottles of wine are brought to the table, everyone seems to be wearing linen dresses. The somewhat jarring aesthetics of the summer home is not lost on the more economically modest characters (“It should be illegal to have a holiday home anywhere,” writes Frances at one point)—and neither are they on the reader. At the same time, going to Étables or Trieste on someone else’s dime does seem fun, and the reading experience is not not pleasurable. Yet because Rooney’s enlightened characters are constantly thinking about how power dynamics are shaped by class and gender, their enjoyment of these experiences also comes with an unsettling discomfort.

Racial inequality doesn’t really appear in the novels except abstractly. Characters read articles about the situation in Gaza, or have heated intellectual debates about Syria—a reflection of their social position, as well as perhaps a self-ironic dig at Rooney’s previous life as a champion debater. For as much as Rooney departs from a classic novel tradition, part of her appeal continues to be how deftly she adapts the familiar aesthetics of the domestic bourgeois novel to a similar contemporary milieu. While the private life of that drama looks different in Conversations With Friends than in, say, Middlemarch, Rooney still keeps her drama in the socioeconomic realm of Eliot’s novels. That is, some characters are less well off, and others could be categorized as rich, but the main characters are almost all college students who—either from familial or institutional financial support—are able to spend time going to class, thinking about art, writing in their spare time. A few of them have part-time jobs, but Rooney doesn’t spend a lot of narration on their actually working. Characters’ frequent ambivalence toward their own privilege might even readers’ own disquiet when they realize that, yeah, they do want these two young straight white people to get together at the end of these novels. That the novels end with lovers separated but always with the specter of future reunion enables Rooney to have it both ways. In raising the possibility of heterosexual coupling, as well as the problematic nature of our desire for it, Rooney’s somewhat sentimental endings are threaded with a needle of self-critique.

Rooney says she seeks to write a Marxist novel—that Marxism is the analytical framework through which she understands the world—but that she’s not sure her novels in fact accomplish that. Her characters read and cite theories of capitalism. Does that make her novels Marxist? Her novels are constituted by ambivalent characters who prioritize the stakes of the social collective over the individual. Does that make them Marxist? The dissonance between the political ambitions of Rooney’s novels and their domestic interpersonal content might suggest that these novels ultimately fail to give any kind of critique of life under global capitalism. After reading a Rooney novel, I don’t necessarily want to instigate a mass uprising. But that her books explicitly broach these questions—that they even demand such answers from the novel form itself—makes them more conceptually dynamic than most contemporary fiction. That Rooney mediates these philosophical questions through questions of gender and love, codependency and care, renders her political critique as not just intellectually but emotionally complex as well.

The relationship between Frances and Nick in Conversations With Friends is a constant negotiation of not only gender and money, but also of age. Nick is 32, placing him at the earlier range of the millennial spectrum, and his relative wealth in contrast to Frances becomes symbolic of his historical evasion of the 2008 crash at the time of his employment. Well into their affair, Nick and Frances finally have a discussion about money in which the former muses, “Yeah, it’s weird. I have money that I don’t urgently need, and I would rather you had it. But the transaction of giving it to you would bother me.” I get it, but I also just wish there was an easier way for Nick to give Frances some of the money he doesn’t urgently need. While Nick is rich in money, Frances is rich in youth and—as evidenced by her narration—interiority and poetic intrigue. There’s an adultery plot, yes, but, Conversations With Friends also becomes an allegory for an older generation’s illicit and almost vampiric fascination with a younger generation that seemingly exemplifies our precarious present, as well as the possible solution out of it. As Malcolm Harris examines in Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, the future of our current economy relies on the availability of a millennial generation who are both overworked and undervalued. “Come and get me,” says Frances to Nick in the novel’s final line—a provocation at once seductive and foreboding. What is implied if Nick does once again pursue Frances? The logic of the romance plot says yes, but the discrepancy in age—when reframed as a generational divide that is also economic—suggests no.

Normal People recalibrates this power dynamic by making Marianne and Connell peers of the same age (both born in the early ’90s), but its ending similarly compensates for romantic uncertainty by providing an unsustainable economic solution. Connell has been accepted to an MFA writing program in New York, and will be leaving Marianne behind in Ireland. Born into a single-mother household who makes ends meet by cleaning houses, Connell’s ending is framed as a reward for his creative talents—a way to transcend his station. The ending does not tell us whether the program is funded. The ending doesn’t talk about money at all. It doesn’t think beyond the MFA, because the MFA marks the promise of Connell’s future: “His life opens out before him in all directions at once.” Marianne’s future is not discussed, possibly because she is already born into a wealthy family. And although her parents have abused her (another metaphor for the ways an older generation has compromised the flourishing of the current one), Marianne’s privilege—her sentimental ending—is irrevocably tied to them. “They’ve done a lot of good for each other,” Marianne assures the reader in the final lines of Normal People. “Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another.” It’s a gutting way to end a novel, not because our couple is ultimately separated, but because the optimism in this separation feels like a promise that no one—not even Rooney’s moving prose—can deliver on.

Both Rooney’s novels conclude with an affecting idealism about the possible futures for her millennial characters. As such, they often feel less like candid sociological narrativizations about contemporary young adults than an attempt to assuage our anxieties about what their lives will hold. Rooney’s novels seem to speak to a hope that we—millennials as well as non-millennials—currently seek in our fiction. Her work is less a true representation of a millennial generation and more what we might wish them to represent. No wonder Rooney’s characters often feel like their personalities are being imposed on them from without.

Near the start of Conversations With Friends, Frances describes how she feels under the gaze of the older married couple:

I felt a weird lack of self-recognition, and I realized that I couldn’t visualize my own face or body at all. It was like someone had lifted the end of an invisible pencil and just gently erased my entire appearance. This was curious and actually not unpleasant, though I was also aware that I was cold and might have been shivering.

Frances’s slippery interiority stages the drama of a girl coming of age in a world not quite made for her. What emerges is a new kind of contemporary—and yes, millennial—female heroine who, in feeling misrecognized, also feels profoundly real.

Jane Hu is a writer and PhD candidate living in Oakland.

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