Like every other twenty-something student, suffering with a predictable but-still-so-very-real bout of cosmic angst, I hungrily devoured Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
And like everyone, I was bewitched.
I was ready to close the book dissatisfied, to say that I had been somewhat disappointed – that I’d found a flaw in what less discerning readers had called perfection in novel form.
Alas, here we are.
If you’ve read either of Rooney’s two novels, you know exactly what I’m harping on about. If you haven’t you might be wondering what it is about her writing that has pulled the rug out from underneath our comfortable reading armchairs.
I, perhaps like you, dear reader, finished Normal People having shed a tear or two, looked pensively out of the window, past my mug of cold tea, and still couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that made reading her book feel simultaneously like a hug and a slap in the face.
So, I turned to Conversations with Friends, her somewhat-less-talked-about first novel, to see if I could find out.
Both Rooney’s works follow characters on the brink of adulthood. A brink, that in the modern world seems to extend from the age of 17 to approximately 32. Normal People charts the unlikely (or so their friends think) relationship between Marianne and Connell, two Irish schoolkids who end up at university together. Both ardent readers, with agonising vulnerabilities, but electrifyingly funny and relatable.
Conversations with Friends is different. It is told in first person, from the perspective of Frances: a young aspiring writer, birdlike in features but not temperament, and ex-lover of her best friend Bobbi.
If Frances is rain, Bobbi is a hurricane.
A cigarette-smoking contrarian with a loud laugh and a precocious wit, Bobbi waltzes into Frances’ life, ‘radiantly attractive,’ drinking vodka from a Coke bottle at a school dance. The interaction which sparks their relationship is both amusing and devastating. Seventeen-year-old Bobbi asks Frances if she likes girls, to which Frances replies: ‘It was very easy to act unfazed around her. I just said: sure.’
To Frances, Bobbi is a puzzle she loves not knowing how to solve, the antithesis of her own introverted self. This is not to say that Frances thinks Bobbi is infallible – quite the opposite. Frances observantly notes that Bobbi ‘could be abrasive and unrestrained in a way that made people uncomfortable, while I tended to be encouragingly polite … Bobbi told me she thought I didn’t have “a real personality,” but she said she meant it as a compliment. Mostly I agreed with her assessment.’
The novel blooms with such dialogue, conversations blurring from spoken to written, the prose arrestingly muted but uncanny in its wisdom and perceptiveness:
Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon
Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system
Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness
Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality
Bobbi: and yet also it’s subservient and facilitatory
Bobbi: i.e. mothers selflessly raising children without any profit motive
Bobbi: which seems to contradict the demands of the market at one level
Bobbi: and yet actually just functions to provide workers for free
me: capitalism harnesses “love” for profit
me: love is the discursive practice and unpaid labour is the effect
me: but I mean, I get that, I’m anti love as such
Bobbi: that’s vapid frances
Bobbi: you have to do more than say you’re anti things.
Frances epitomises the classic paradox of a well-educated youngster. She is simultaneously arrogant and a voracious critic of others, whilst also being paralysingly unsure of herself. When her and Bobbi meet an older couple of more well-established artists, Melissa and Nick, Frances is conscious that Melissa seems to like Bobbi much more, despite initially admiring the poetry that the pair performed – which Frances wrote. Frances starts up a secret affair with Melissa’s husband Nick, who according to Frances said he was ‘“basically” a Marxist, and he didn’t want [her] to judge him for owning a house.’
Despite her initial reservations, and claims that she ‘considers masculinity personally oppressive,’ Frances surprises herself and enjoys Nick’s company. But, she treats him callously, and her sharp tongue can be bitterly cruel. Just before her first time with a man, trying to keep her trembling limbs still, she says to him: ‘We can sleep together if you want, but you should know I’m only doing it ironically.’
Frances wields her emotional and erotic power over Nick like a weapon, as if she’s trying it out for size, precisely because she refuses to believe that she could have any.
This first sexual encounter creates a complicated ménage à quatre between Frances, Bobbi, Melissa and Nick, a tangled web of relationships which causes its fair share of heartache. This is far from new subject matter in the literary sphere: Simone de Beauvoir was famously involved in a ménage à quatre with her boyfriend Sartre, with two further members: Olga, and Wanda Kosakiewicz, about which she wrote her book L’invitée.
In his play Huis Clos, Sartre describes a version of hell in which three newcomers are placed in a room in some satanic cellar. No hot pokers or fiery pits in Sartre’s vision of eternal damnation – instead, just conversation. A little harsh on de Beauvoir there, Sartre.
As it transpires, each of the three characters damned to live out eternity in this torture chamber has certain features of their personality that drive the other two up the wall. Each projects a version of themselves that never quite lands – they are never seen as they want to be, this image of themselves constantly fails, each one wants from the other what they cannot give, -making them all miserable. Hellish, no? This is where Sartre’s famous line comes from: ‘L’enfer c’est les autres,’ or ‘Hell is other people.’
In Conversations with Friends’ ménage à quatre, as in Sartre’s tragi-comic version of hell, each character serves to illuminate the others’ flaws. They all have the power to make each other suffer and do, sometimes with disturbing cruelty, sometimes with excruciating innocence. But, Rooney’s novel is so much more human – though it is brim-full of pain, her narrative remains optimistic in its tragedy. She tells her tale with a knowing smile, creating characters that are messy with contradictions, but doing so affectionately – she doesn’t condemn them.
Each person, with their flaws and weaknesses in tow, is fiercely loved by someone else.
Who needs Sartre when you’ve got Sally!
Ellie Paine is a freelance arts writer specialising in contemporary world fiction, in her fourth year reading MML at Fitzwilliam College, and current Books Section Editor of The Cambridge Student.
See more from Ellie: @librellie
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