Morally neutral at best: Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends

And a few paragraphs about Normal People

Frances, the 21-year-old narrator of Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, is not sure that she has a personality and, if she has, that she wants to examine it too closely: she might not like it. When she and her friend Bobbi are invited back to the Monkstown home of their new acquaintance, Melissa, Frances thinks:

I felt excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s home, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming. (Conversations with Friends, Faber paperback, 2018, p. 3)

Her performance is at best partly successful. Towards the end of the novel, after Melissa’s husband Nick has told her that he’s been sleeping with Frances, the two women speak on the phone, and Melissa tells the younger one:

The first time you came to our house you just looked around like: here’s something bourgeois and embarrassing that I’m going to destroy. And I mean, you took such enjoyment in destroying it. Suddenly I’m looking around my own fucking house, thinking: is this sofa ugly? (p. 296)

This draws a response from Frances that (if we can trust it) changes our understanding of her:

I didn’t feel any contempt for your house. I wanted it to be my house. I wanted your whole life. Maybe I did shitty things to try and get it, but I’m poor and you’re rich. I wasn’t trying to trash your life, I was trying to steal it. (p. 297)

Reading this, I felt that I was learning something significant and new about Frances — and that, crucially, so was the character herself. Conversations is less obviously a novel about social class than Rooney’s second book, Normal People, but the tension between wealth and poverty are at the heart of the story. Frances is materially worse off than any of the people around her.

Melissa and Nick are probably not as rich as she assumes: Melissa is a fairly well known photographer and writer with a book deal and Nick is an actor who, partly because of depression, hasn’t been working much lately. Frances has the impression (p. 75) that Nick’s family have money (hence the house in Monkstown) but he doesn’t make this explicit. Bobbi, too, comes from a well-off family, though that doesn’t stop her from adopting politically “insurrectionist” (p. 241) positions.

She initially characterizes Frances to Melissa and Nick as a “communist”, but Bobbi is the one who has a theoretical understanding of socio-economic forces, even if Frances has attempted to take in the “the heavy and confusing syntax” of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (p. 94). Frances seems to have a more instinctive, unreflective antipathy to capitalism (p. 75).

Bobbi likewise tells the couple that Frances is bisexual (p. 38), though if this is how Frances thinks of herself, the narrator doesn’t say so. At this point she has not yet had sex with a man (p. 70), and the reader doesn’t know if she has ever wanted to. One has the sense that Bobbi may be trying to present her quiet friend in the most interesting possible light, or that she may enjoy projecting different personae onto her.

At the beginning of the third chapter, Frances mentions the question of her “personality”:

I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things. 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. At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am. (p. 19)

Frances’s (to some extent wilfull) lack of self-awareness makes me wonder how seriously we should take her assertion of the centrality of her own ego:

My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual achievement was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was. When I couldn’t make friends as a child, I fantasized that I was smarter than all my teachers, smarter than any other student who had been in the school before, a genius hidden among normal people. (p. 34)

As her phone conversation with Melissa suggests, Frances is sharply aware of the difference in wealth between her and her friends. Bobbi’s family are tolerant of her revolutionary rhetoric. Her parents are negotiating a divorce, and Bobbi has dinner with her father while Frances goes to see Nick perform in a play:

Bobbi’s father was a high-ranking civil servant in the Department of Health. She did not apply her otherwise rigorous anti-establishment principles to her relationship with Jerry, or at least not with any consistency. He’d taken her to a very expensive restaurant for dinner … (p. 31; elllipsis original)

Frances’s father is an alcoholic who on one occasion doesn’t pay her money into her bank account, so she is obliged to borrow from Nick. This echoes Rooney’s short story, “Mr Salary”, whose narrator, Sukie, has no choice but to move in with an affluent friend of the family when her father, an opiate addict, becomes unable to support her. The benefactor, Nathan, worries that his friends will think he’s “paying me for something”. When her father is about to die, Nathan has to pay for her unexpected flight home from graduate school in Boston. (Here is my discussion of three of Sally Rooney’s short stories, including “Mr Salary”.)

Another occasion when an emergency loan is sought from a wealthier friend is when Connell in Normal People has to borrow from Marianne after he’s been robbed and beaten while drunk. For characters like Frances, Sukie and Connell, money is inevitably a sensitive issue, while Nick and Bobbi seem not to have to think about it.

When Bobbi discovers that Frances has written a short story featuring a “fictionalised” Bobbi, and plans to sell it to a prestigious literary magazine, she is furious:

I heard you’re getting good money for it, she said.

Yeah.

Fuck you.

I actually need the money, I said. I realise that’s an alien concept for you, Bobbi. (p. 265)

I don’t recall having seen it mentioned before, but one of Rooney’s strengths as a writer of fiction is her skill in manipulating narrative. As a first-person narrator with an undeveloped self-awareness, Frances tells the reader a lot more than she herself seems to know. For example, until they get back together, Frances is seemingly unaware of the extent to which Bobbi is still smitten with her, though it’s evident to the reader. Nowhere does she tell us that she is, or is perceived as, beautiful. In fact, she describes her face as “plain” (p. 35). But the way that other characters — Nick, Bobbi, Melissa — act towards her make it clear that they see her as being extraordinarily goodlooking, and they perhaps make allowances for her that they’d be less inclined to make for someone of average looks.

Rooney’s command of narrative is equally evident in her second novel. Here, there isn’t a first person narrator, the point of view shifts between the two main characters. The author maintains tension and surprise by jumping about in the timeline, so that the reader learns of a decisive event or episode, is then brought back to an earlier encounter which lays the groundwork for the decisive event, and so on.

For example, in July 2012, we find Marianne visiting her home town alone. She and Connell are clearly not togther and both are awkward and uncomfortable when she runs into him and his mother, Lorraine. But they had seemed to be getting on well when we last encountered them in April. As we read on through the July chapter, we discover that they actually got together at a party in May. That clearly didn’t last.

The next chapter finds them back at college in September 2012. They’re still a bit distant with each other, and have agreed to meet for coffee. Connell doesn’t think they’ve ever done that before. It turns out that Connell lost his part-time job just before the exams. He told Marianne that he had no choice but to move back to Sligo for the summer, having no way to pay his rent in Dublin.

He had been hoping that she would ask him to spend the summer with her, in her flat. However, through a combination of her own insecurity and insensitivity to Connell’s financial embarrassment, Marianne thinks that he’s trying to break up with her, hence the mutual frostiness when they met in July.

This extended episode is at the centre of the novel, and shows that the class difference between the two protagonists is of fundamental importance to the story. Sally Rooney’s juggling with chronology helps to maximize its impact.

In the next issue, I’m planning to return to Empson’s insightful errors, and take a close look at the great critic’s interpretation of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time.