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Conventional Wisdom

The politics of form in Sally Rooney’s novels

Like all novelists—women novelists especially—Sally Rooney is often asked stupid questions. In an interview with The Tangerine magazine after the 2017 release of her first novel, Conversations with Friends, she described being asked by a radio host whether she (like the novel’s protagonist, Frances) had ever had an affair with a married man. Besides being personally affronted by the invasive line of questioning, Rooney was dismayed intellectually:

. . . who could read a book that is plotted like Conversations with Friends and think, “Oh this plot happened in real life?” It’s like, do you really think everything happened in the exact shape of a classic adultery plot? I mean, it’s very clearly a novel, and novels fundamentally resemble other novels. They don’t resemble life, as such. There are a lot of experimental novels that test the boundaries of what the novel is, and Conversations is not one of those. It’s conventional in its structure, even though its prose style and the themes it explores and the politics that underpin it, maybe, are on the experimental side.

Rooney has never been anything less than forthright about her influences or her interest in the novelistic canon from which her books—the second of which, Normal People, will appear in the United States later this month—emerge. “A lot of critics have noticed,” she said in a recent New Yorker profile, “that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing.” There has been less consensus about Rooney’s political commitments and the complex role they play in her work. Rooney herself, an avowed Marxist, is ambivalent on this point. In her conversation with The Tangerine, she alluded to the possible experimentalism of “the politics that underpin” Conversations with Friends. Yet, in an essay published around the same time in The Irish Times, she wrote, “In the end I wasn’t sure the book offered any resistance to anything at all. Granted, all the main characters despise capitalism, but that’s mostly because I do.”

Some critics have gone much further than Rooney herself, to the point of reading her characters’ politics as vacuous. Laura Miller, writing in Slate, described the novel as “a satire, its characters prattling on about love as a ‘discursive practice,’ reading books about ‘postcolonial reason,’ and calling themselves communitarian anarchists while living what are, after all, fairly routine bourgeois lives.” (Only Frances’s best friend and sometimes lover, Bobbi, identifies as a “communitarian anarchist,” and only one book on postcolonial reason appears in the novel—Gayatri Spivak’s foundational one.) Readings like Miller’s assume Rooney is taking her characters’ politics unseriously and see them as being used primarily to highlight the hypocrisy of their expression against a backdrop of bourgeois life.

The novel’s critical tendencies are inextricably caught up in its conventional ones.

It’s not wrong to read Rooney’s novels as satirical, though Miller’s analysis ignores her characters’ self-awareness about their relationship to radical ideas. At one point in Conversations with Friends, abasing herself in a church, Frances asks herself, “have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement . . . yes.” Later, as she and Bobbi start sleeping together again, they attempt to cultivate a non-normative interpersonal structure (“It was a relationship and also not a relationship”) while also amusing themselves with respect to the attempt: “We developed a joke about it, which was meaningless to everyone including ourselves: what is a friend? we would say humorously. What is a conversation?” Elsewhere, Frances observes that Bobbi, who “said she hated the rich” but comes from money, has no trouble fitting in with wealthy people, who “took her radical politics as a kind of bourgeois self-deprecation, nothing very serious, and talked to her about restaurants or where to stay in Rome.”

This all points to the possibility of a subtler, more generative relationship between the novel and its characters’ (and Rooney’s) political beliefs—a kind of formal ambivalence particular to Rooney’s task of writing conventional novels with anti-capitalist political concerns. In her essay in The Irish Times, Rooney highlights why such a pairing might seem incongruous:

There are good reasons to be skeptical of the novel as a form. As Marxist critics have long noted, it is a structurally and historically bourgeois genre. In terms of its chronology, the novel originated alongside an emerging capitalist class in the eighteenth century; in terms of its concerns, it emphasizes as a primary focus the lone individual, both as writer and as reader. As Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936: “The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual”—and to some extent the reverse is also true. The philosophy of individualism owes a great deal to the tradition of novel-writing and novel-reading. In its development and in its aesthetics, the novel is not politically neutral; it has been a participant in history all along.

None of this necessarily forecloses the possibility of novels that oppose the form’s inherent conservatism. Yet Conversations with Friends doesn’t attempt such an opposition, at least in any obvious way. In one reading, its structure might neutralize the characters’ political concerns, which become objects of mere amusement if not outright derision. But what if we were to read these concerns not as something nullified by the novel’s conventional form, but rather as a force in productive tension with it?

Conversations with Friends concerns a short period in the life of the narrator, Frances, and focuses on the relationship between her and Bobbi—both undergraduates at Trinity College—and their relationship with Nick and Melissa, a married couple in their thirties. Frances is a writer, and she and Bobbi perform as a poetry duo. One performance catches the interest of Melissa, also a writer, who proposes profiling Frances and Bobbi. Eventually, Bobbi develops a flirtation with Melissa, and Frances falls into an on-and-off affair with Nick.

The novel follows the developments of these relationships as they intersect with and affect Frances’s intimacy with Bobbi. This is also where the characters’ idle theorizing most touches the heat of their lives. “You can love more than one person,” Bobbi tells Frances. She means Nick could pursue a relationship with Frances even if he still loved his wife. (He already has, though at this point Bobbi doesn’t know it.) But the remark also seems to presage a kiss Bobbi and Frances share shortly thereafter. Between these two exchanges, Frances has sex with Nick, after which she thinks “about Bobbi’s dry and ideological reading of nonmonogamous love.” It’s Frances, it seems, who can love both Bobbi and Nick, and it’s in the space of these relationships where the “dry and ideological” meets the novelistic world of action and feeling. But this series of events is also marked by the driving, conventional force of narrative: Will Frances and Bobbi end up together? Or Frances and Nick? The novel’s critical tendencies are inextricably caught up in its conventional ones.

In Normal People, the romance that drives the novel is also shaped by intellectual and political concerns. Normal People tracks four years in the life of Marianne and Connell, two secondary school (and later university) classmates who have an intimate friendship and on-and-off sexual relationship. Like Frances and Bobbi, Marianne and Connell have left-wing political commitments. Also like Frances and Bobbi, Marianne’s and Connell’s intellectual closeness is its own form of romance, one inseparable from their sexual chemistry; at one point, Rooney writes that Connell “suspects that the intimacy of their discussions, often moving back and forth from the conceptual to the personal, also makes the sex feel better.”

Marianne and Connell mirror Frances and Bobbi in another key way: both study at Trinity College, and one member of each pair studies English (Connell and Frances), while the other studies History and Politics (Marianne and Bobbi). In Conversations with Friends, Frances briefly expresses insecurity around this subject, noting that the objects of Bobbi’s study are things that her mother “considered serious.” Connell—who, like Frances, becomes a writer—also worries about the possible unseriousness of studying literature. Rooney writes:

One night the library started closing just as he reached the passage in Emma when it seems like Mr Knightley is going to marry Harriet, and he had to close the book and walk home in a state of strange emotional agitation. He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him.

Later, Connell attends a reading by a visiting writer at Trinity and finds the performance torturous, emblematic of literary culture’s often cynical relationship to politics:

He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw her hands up and said: Not politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.

Rooney even introduces some of the language from her Irish Times essay into Connell’s indictment: “Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.” Yet this analysis fails to defuse Connell’s aspirations as a reader and a writer. He goes home after the reading to work on a story and feels “the old beat of pleasure inside his body,” which recalls his sensual description of how it feels to read Emma: “the feeling provoked in Connell when Mr Knightley kisses Emma’s hand is not completely asexual, though its relation to sexuality is indirect. It suggests to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.” This is exactly the sort of readerly pleasure that Rooney succeeds in evoking in both Normal People and Conversations with Friends. Connell’s experience as a reader and writer seems to affirm the value of that pleasure, while his wariness puts it into question: it is, after all, coextensive with the “false emotional journey.” As with Conversations with Friends, Normal People puts the rapt reader in a self-questioning position, without ever fully disrupting the raptness.

But where the relationship dynamics in Conversation with Friends contest the normativity of heterosexuality and monogamy, the relationship at the heart of Normal People is quite conventional: heterosexual and largely monogamous. Besides the fact that both Marianne and Connell resist labeling their relationship (a choice that breaks old norms but perfectly conforms to contemporary mores), the exception to this conventionality is Marianne’s interest in BDSM. Even this departure from conventionality gets reabsorbed into a conservative frame, though, as Marianne’s proclivities are linked to the abuse she has suffered at the hand of her father and older brother, and she explores them only with men who are revealed to be domineering partners.

Normal People puts the rapt reader in a self-questioning position, without ever fully disrupting the raptness.

This is not to say that Rooney’s treatment of Marianne and Connell’s relationship is inattentive to the power dynamics at play. They remain central to the novel’s sense of momentum and a key way in which Rooney’s politics manifest. Normal People’s opening line—“Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell”—immediately suggests his power over her. But this image is complicated by the fact that Connell is much poorer than Marianne—his mother even works cleaning Marianne’s family’s home, which is the only reason the two encounter one another in this scene. On the other hand, Marianne is an introverted outcast, while Connell is gregarious and popular, though their social fortunes are reversed at Trinity, where their class differences come to the fore. Connell also wields over Marianne the power of male approval, even if, as she reflects, he’s “wholesome like a big baby tooth” and “probably never in his life has . . . thought about inflicting pain on someone for sexual purposes.” (Even this perceived purity is a form of power: Marianne understands her own sexualization of pain as debasing her before Connell, haloed by wholesomeness.) Continually and in ever-shifting ways, each ends up feeling subservient to the other, a sense that Rooney illustrates as not incidental to the passion between them.

The novel’s climactic moment arises from the culmination of this power differential. When the two are having sex back in their hometown, Marianne asks Connell to hit her, bringing her interest in BDSM into their relationship for the first time. He refuses, and she, consumed by a sense of rejection and abjection, rushes home, where her brother attacks and injures her. Marianne calls Connell for help. He comes to her aid and threatens her brother: “If you ever touch Marianne again, I’ll kill you. . . Say one bad thing to her ever again and I’ll come back here myself and kill you, that’s it.” After all this, he comforts Marianne:

Look at me for a second. No one is going to hurt you like that again.

She looks at him above the veil of white tissue, and in a rush he feels his power over her again, the openness in her eyes.

Everything’s going to be alright, he says. Trust me. I love you, I’m not going to let anything like that happen to you again.

For a second or two she holds his gaze and then finally she closes her eyes. She sits back in the passenger seat, head against the headrest, hand still clutching the tissue at her face. It seems to him an attitude of extreme weariness, or relief.

Under a conventional reading, the scene is triumphant. But Rooney’s rendering troubles this interpretation. Even as Connell declares his intention to protect Marianne, Rooney emphasizes his feeling of power over her. The reader is denied Marianne’s experience of the event, and filtered through Connell’s, it’s unclear whether her attitude is one of “weariness” or “relief.” The reader—rapt yet critical—is allowed and encouraged to experience the velocity, release, and romance of the rescue while also sensing the way in which it’s another episode of Marianne’s continued subjection to male power.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether Rooney’s subtle disruption of this scene goes far enough. When discussing her “very conflicted” affinity for Victorian literature in a profile in Elle, Rooney herself noted the way that “structurally bourgeois” novels often fail to “accommodate” their own radical tendencies. She observed that “so often the female protagonist who subverts the confines of the nineteenth-century bourgeois novel just dies at the end because she’s too dangerous.” Marianne doesn’t die in Normal People, but she is certainly pacified. In the final chapter, which serves as a kind of coda, it becomes clear that, whatever the reader’s view of Connell’s exercise of power over her, she has accepted and idealized it: “She was in his power, he had chosen to redeem her, she was redeemed.”

Marianne, though, understands this not as submission, but as accepting dependence. Rooney traces the path of her thinking:

How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.

Framed this way, Marianne’s acquiescence is one side of a mutual accommodation; it can be read as a subversion of the individualism that Rooney has argued is central to the novel. Normal People is narrated in close third person, alternating between Connell’s and Marianne’s perspective. This delightfully claustrophobic structure creates the sense that the novel’s central character is neither individual, but the interdependent (or perhaps codependent) couple. In the novel’s last scene, Marianne reflects on an image of their relationship that doubles as an articulation of Normal People’s form: “All these years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.” Rooney’s choice of an epigraph, from George Eliot’s 1876 novel Daniel Deronda, is similarly telling: “It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which has been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.” Normal People, it seems, aspires to contest the individualism of the novel form through its own affective resources. This is a subtle goal, and at moments it gets lost among the book’s more conventional pleasures. But it’s also an ambitious one, and Normal People advances the project of Conversations with Friends in a compelling direction.

Whether that project is ultimately worthwhile is a question that seems to plague Rooney. In a profile in Gulf News, she described the frustration that accompanied leaving a master’s program in politics and public policy for one in American literature, which led to her career as a novelist. “I feel like I could devote myself to far more important things than writing novels,” she said. Asked by the interviewer whether giving readers “pleasure and enrichment” is important in itself, Rooney responded: “There are a lot of people who probably enjoyed Conversations with Friends who are part of the system that is actively exploiting other people’s labour. I am sure there are landlords who read it and thought it was a great read. Am I happy that I have given those people ten hours of distraction? Not really!” Rooney may ultimately find a more confrontational vehicle for her politics. But it’s refreshing to see a novelist so earnestly uncertain about the value of her task—and a complex pleasure to read the novels animated by such ambivalence.