Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber, 2018
While reading Conversations with Friends and Normal People, when washing up after dinner or topping up my Oyster card, I would find myself narrating the mundane details of my own life in the style of Sally Rooney. It seems comical now to think of the imagined significance taken on by the angle at which I applied the jay cloth to the plate. But I also think the unconscious emergence of my Rooney-esque internal monologue is a testament to the elegant and skillful way in which her eerily perceptive pen transforms the unremarkable to the significant. As if by sleight of hand, inconsequentialities such as Marianne’s shoeless state in the opening chapter of Normal People become laden with subtle meaning, betraying faux nonchalance perhaps, or even the seeds of a flirtation.
I’d be surprised if I was alone in my susceptibility to self-narration of this kind while reading Rooney. She leaves the reader uncomfortably affected by her work. We find ourselves in a state of ‘emotional agitation’ similar to that of Connell when he leaves the library after hours reading Emma. And though it has now become almost clichéd to state that perhaps more than any other contemporary author she has captured the experience and anxieties of young women today, I do not think it’s overstating the case to posit that her work resonates deep into the souls of her readers. She is modern, writing ‘the kind of novel that young women transitioning into adulthood in the early 21st century may one day call ‘seminal’.
But she is equally the ‘Jane Austen of the precariat.’ Indeed, in Austenian style, the premise of Normal People is deceptively simple. It halves the number of protagonists offered by Rooney in Conversations with Friends, which traces the dynamics of a messy ménage à quatre. Normal People follows Connell and Marianne as they move from the same school in the west of Ireland to university at Trinity Dublin, tracking the oscillations in their friendship which wavers between animosity and profound romantic attraction in turbulent ebbs and flows.
They should have nothing in common: Connell is poor and popular where Marianne is rich and friendless. But nonetheless, they are drawn together like magnets by some deeper quality in each other. Rooney effortlessly positions herself in a tangibly contemporary world; Normal People is set between 2011 and 2015. But as is demonstrated by the passage from Daniel Deronda which forms the epigraph to Normal People, she never strays far from the blueprint provided by her Victorian predecessors, in which novels are at heart about love and human relationships.
Yet within her dissection of love and relationships, the body in all its visceral reality persists in emerging as a disruptor. Reading Rooney’s novels, Hélène Cixous’ famous mantra from ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, which argues that the ‘confiscated’ female form must be reclaimed through the act of writing echoed around my head: ‘Write yourself. Your body must be heard.’ Rooney certainly does write the female body often in visceral and astonishing detail. However, the body Rooney writes is not the jubilant, reclaimed body envisaged by Cixous.
On the contrary, the female physicality explored by Rooney appears in a plethora of permutations which are often troubling and hard to read, including miscarriage, abortion, menstruation, self-harm, bad sex, sexuality and eating disorders. I found Frances’ experience of endometriosis in Conversations with Friends to be particularly striking. A condition which affects 1 in 10 women in the UK, it causes chronic and often debilitating pelvic pain and leads to an increased risk of infertility. Yet despite its prevalence, it remains vastly under-researched and is frequently dismissed by doctors as normal period pain. Frances arrives in A & E after a disturbingly detached description of the blood and ‘thick grey clots’ which have soaked through her clothes. This coolly factual description of extreme pain and distress is typical of Rooney’s sparse style, creating the impression of a strange disconnect between the characters and their bodies. The response of the doctor who suspiciously interrogates Frances about her sexual history and mistakenly assumes she is miscarrying reflects the experience of women whose pain has been undermined by medical professionals for whom the female body in all its visceral reality is fundamentally unsavoury and inconvenient.
This current flows into Normal People, in which elements of Frances’ complicated relationship with her body seem to be transferred onto the form of Marianne. In Conversations with Friends, Frances wavers between wanting to master ‘inhabiting disappearance’ while also craving the feeling of her material form, hurting herself ‘in order to be returned to the safety of [her] own physical body.’ In a similar way, Marianne’s relationship with her body is complicated. Rooney describes her consumption of breakfast in an apparently throwaway comment, ‘the more slowly she eats… the less hungry she feels.’ Like Frances, her desire to physically disappear is betrayed by the painstaking ‘consideration’ she gives to her food. But where Frances self-harms in order to be reminded of her physical form, Marianne struggles with self-harm of a different kind in her attraction to abusive partners. In her submissive and violent relationship with Lukas, ‘she experiences no more ownership over her body’, craving bodily erasure in a similar way to Frances. It is also significant that Rooney’s depiction of the female body is rooted in a specifically Irish context.
In an essay which appeared in the London Review of Books a day before the abortion referendum took place in May, she stressed the extent to which ‘Irish women’s freedom to decide what happens to their bodies has been restricted by many and varied means’, and indeed both Frances and Marianne betray anxieties about the Eighth Amendment.
Reflecting on her hospital experience, Frances muses that ‘If I ever had been pregnant, then I was probably miscarrying anyway. So what? The pregnancy was already over, and I didn’t need to consider things like Irish constitutional law, the right to travel, my current bank balance, and so on.’ The state itself challenges Frances and Marianne’s right to possess their own bodies. So though Rooney may write the body of her female characters, the body that she writes is fragile, vulnerable, and constantly on the verge of disappearance.
But in both Conversations with Friends and Normal People, there is a refuge in which Frances and Marianne alike can write their own bodies. Online messenger and email conversations are woven throughout the narrative in fragments, providing Rooney’s protagonists with a pixelated room of one’s own, in which they nurture a body which is textual rather than physical. In the midst of her abusive relationship, Marianne finds that her email conversations with Connell provide a space which is a ‘form of intelligence in itself, containing them both and containing their feelings for one another.’ As she feels her physical body diminish in real life, her online conversations allow her to project a complete sense of self and beam it across the world.
There is a sense that her textual body which lives online is more material than her physical one. Unlike a physical body, the textual body does not need to be fed, maintained and cared for. Unlike a physical body which bleeds, feels and changes uncontrollably, the textual body can be rehashed and edited at the whim of the writer.
Rooney’s characters attempt to forge a sense of their own identity in the messages they write to each other online, self-consciously writing their tangible social self in order to counteract a feeling of bodily insignificance and detachment. In Conversations with Friends, Frances downloads her entire conversation with Bobbi, her best friend and ex-lover, onto a Word document, putting the ‘command + f function’ through its paces as she sifts through in excruciating detail as though searching for herself. Each message offers up the narrative of their relationships as hard evidence of their identity. They have the potential to be re-read and updated at any moment.
It is important in itself that Rooney allows for the cultural valency of these online ‘rituals of communication.’ She explores their own vernacular in which starting a sentence without a capital signifies feigned nonchalance, and the addition of a full stop might betray anger. But even if the vernacular of online messaging is complex, Rooney’s reason for discussing it is pragmatic. In Vogue she alluded to the epistolary novel while arguing that ‘it seems really natural that when our forms of communication change as rapidly as they have over the last 20 years that the form of our fiction should be changing rapidly too.’
Across the Atlantic, Elif Batuman has similarly claimed the literary potential of the internet conversation in her 2017 novel The Idiot. It’s not a far cry from Rooney’s work in that it focuses on the relationships and conversations between a group of well-educated university students. And in a similar way to Frances and Marianne, Batuman’s protagonist Selin finds herself wrapped up in a relationship of which a significant part is conducted via email, ‘Why was it more honourable to reread and interpret a novel… than to reread and interpret some email from Ivan? … the fact that the email had been specifically written to me, in response to things I had said, made it literally a conversation, in the way that novels were not; and so wasn’t what I was doing in a way more authentic, and more human?’ Here, the email has just as much cultural value as the novel. Rooney and Batuman have embraced it as the medium of their generation, endowing it with the power it deserves as a literary form in its own right.
Nevertheless, the potential of online conversations in Rooney’s writing to provide a space for free expression of the female self is limited. The fragmented messenger and email conversations which are woven throughout the narrative in fragments also threaten to distort and disembody. I am reminded of an anecdote about the early days of cinema, in which baffled members of the audience would look under the screen in an attempt to find the rest of the actor’s seemingly dismembered body.
In the same way today, online conversations are a violent medium which cut up and fragment the self into digestible, pixelated chunks. The ability to draft and re-draft also allows for an impossible degree of control, creating an unsustainable self which is impossible to maintain outside of the online conversation. In reality, Frances is unable to exploit the luxury of expressing hostility by waiting several hours to reply to Nick.
In a different way, in Normal People Marianne is taken aback when Connell asks her to send naked photos of herself, not because of the request itself but because she doesn’t understand the complex ‘politics’ of this ‘erotic ritual.’ There are just as many confusing social codes and contracts online as in real life. That Connell concedes that he will delete the photos whenever she wants creates an illusion of control. But as Connell muses on a Skype call to Marianne later on, the digital image of her physical form threatens to become ‘a thing to be looked at’, as ownership of her body is ceded to the screen and the gaze of the message receiver. Cixous called on women to write their body into the text, but now the text is elsewhere. It no longer on the page but on the screen, broken up and outside the body of the narrative. In Conversations with Friends and now Normal People Rooney has captured this change, writing the female body of today.
Even so, later in the Vogue interview Rooney insisted that she ‘wasn’t in any way trying to do a commentary on the use of the Internet’. Rather, her uncanny knack which permits her to capture the experience of today births a more organic, implicit kind of commentary. At one moment in Normal People, Connell becomes uncomfortably aware of the ‘effortless tyranny’ he holds over Marianne. He knows that her trust in him is boundless.
In a similar way, I feel that Rooney wields a similar kind of ‘effortless tyranny’ over the reader. We revel in the luxury of reading about the lives, mistakes and anxieties of other ctional people. But as she unwraps her characters layer by layer as though by painstaking dissection, Rooney succeeds in revealing the us to our self. Her words burrow their way under our skin, and lodge there. Tyranny this may be, but it’s of an addictive kind.