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Brilliant Youths

Joseph Leahy

There’s a trick common to certain skilled conversationalists in conspicuously well-read society. It starts with an injunction: you don’t ask whether your neighbour has read the author you’re referring to. Instead you proceed on the assumption that they have, or that they are at least familiar with “the work”. There’s a balance to be struck here though. It can, after all, be humiliating to invite a level of engagement your conversational partner can’t provide. The essence of the trick is to couch what you have to say in sufficient detail – with accessible points of reference and a carefully judged number of “of course”s included – to allow your interlocutor to nod along and respond fluently, even if they are, in fact, entirely ignorant of “the work”. When well-executed, conversation flows seamlessly, founded on an equality gracefully maintained by speaker and listener, the product of an unspoken but mutually-understood compact.

In Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s deft first novel, Frances, our narrator, reads listlessly in bed. “I lay on my side with A Critique of Postcolonial Reason propped half-open on the pillow beside me. Occasionally I lifted a finger to turn the page and allowed the heavy and confusing syntax to drift down through my eyes and into my brain like fluid. I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart no one will understand me.” Acid humour aside, note what’s omitted: the author of this character-building reading material. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason is a major work by cultural theorist Gayatri Chakravoty Spivak; but of course you knew that already.

What’s at play here is an ability to construct implicitly shared premises with the reader, one that marks Rooney out as a novelist of uncommon generosity. It goes some way to explaining her remarkable success to date, which hardly needs elaboration. High-profile admirers include Saoirse Ronan and Lorde (“Oh how fast the evening passes / Cleaning up the champagne glasses”, Lorde sings on “Sober II” (Melodrama), a refrain that gestures at preoccupations common to both artists: the fascination of wealth, its twin ennui, an ambiguous sense of gendered domesticity …). This year will see Lenny Abrahamson’s BBC adaptation of Normal People, which will doubtless push Rooney’s work even further into the popular imagination and offers an apt moment for further reflection on these books and their accompanying sensation.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Rooney’s writing would appeal to intellectually engaged celebrities of the same generation. Certainly it’s hard to escape the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” soubriquet, the kind of cute literary promo that’s useful right up until it’s not. This, after all, is an author who has expressed scepticism about the endless conversation around “millennials”, a conversation defined by its tendency to focus on habits of consumption and communication at the expense of the degraded prospects of that generation. In a neat parallel, the initial notices for Conversations with Friends fixated on the novel’s use of instant messaging for narrative purposes; and it’s true that the technical innovation is thrilling, but it’s also telling that so much attention was devoted to how her characters communicate and less to what they think, or how.

Conversations with Friends revolves around college student Frances’s affair with a married man, Nick, itself enmeshed in a broader four-person dynamic that includes Melissa, Nick’s photographer essayist wife, and Bobbi, Frances’s ex-girlfriend and current best friend. Normal People tracks the relationship of Marianne and Connell, two hyper-gifted students from the fictional town of Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both novels are primarily set in Dublin, specifically in and around Trinity College. Normal People is told in staccato episodes across a period of five years or so. Conversations with Friends unfolds in similarly linear fashion over the course of a single year. Rooney doesn’t seem overly interested in formal experimentation, a position that feels like a conscious rejection of more ostentatious modern or postmodern forms.

Both novels are captivating, and it’s common to hear from readers that they read them in single sittings. Their readability stems in part from the unfussy plotting, but their compulsiveness is a result of Rooney’s cut-glass prose and perforating psychological insight. What I want to talk about here, though, is the appeal of these stories as “millennial fiction” in some distinctive fashion. (That’s not to say that their appeal is restricted, but it’s clear that they’ve struck a specific chord with readers of her own generation, and it’s worth examining why.) The key to understanding that appeal lies in Rooney’s ability to conjure generational concerns that are instantly recognisable but still transcend cliché. This is harder than it sounds: cliché forms at an accelerated rate in our hyper-saturated media environment. In that context, the thrill of recognition these novels provoke is all the more bracing. I want to suggest two facets of that recognition. The first is a matter-of-fact radicalism, one shaped by living with what Mark Fisher called the “inertial, undead defaults of neoliberalism” post-2008. The second is an ability to sketch certain psychic conditions peculiar to this hyper-networked generation. It’ll be in order, more or less.

Class, above all else, animates both novels. Conversations with Friends runs on the fuel of Frances’s encounters with a bourgeois lifestyle she finds both seductive and distasteful. Her clandestine encounters with Nick occasionally take place at the house he and Melissa own in Monkstown. (Her reaction on first crossing the threshold: “I thought: this is a whole house. A family could live here.”) They drink wine – decanted, presumably – and watch Hitchcock films. At one point, the foursome decamps to, of all things, a villa in the north of France. Frances observes vineyards in the misted countryside. In an earlier act of purely private radicalism, she had calculated what average yearly income would be if gross world product were evenly divided – $16,100, per Wikipedia – and concluded there was no reason to ever earn more.

Normal People is steeped in the same concerns, beginning with its protagonists. Marianne lives in “the white mansion with the driveway”; Connell’s mother, Lorraine, is her family’s cleaner. His and Lorraine’s surname, Waldron, carries a stigma in Carricklea, but Connell’s academic and athletic excellence makes him something of a golden boy in the town. Marianne, on the other hand, is a misfit, partly of her own volition. Connell’s neurotic desire to maintain his own social status leads him to insist that their relationship remain a secret, but when that relationship leads him to join Marianne at Trinity, the dynamic flips. Connell initially struggles to make friends, nurturing a loneliness that’s exacerbated by a temporary estrangement from Marianne. Meanwhile, the refining touch of rural wealth enables her to integrate seamlessly into a new milieu ‑ loosely speaking, the college debating set and assorted hangers-on.

As in Conversations with Friends, we’re presented with a brief interlude abroad, this time a suitably rustic holiday home in Italy. Connell arrives late, a final stop on a back-packing trip around Europe, enabled by his receipt of a generous scholarship. Within hours, he’s pitched into the centre of Marianne’s deteriorating relationship with her boyfriend, Jamie, a sneering rich-boy archetype whose father was a central figure in the financial crisis. There’s a petty argument over the correct glasses in which to serve champagne: coupes, not flutes, seemingly. Tensions build and explode in time with the consumption of multiple bottles. (“Oh how fast the evening passes …”) It’s a skilful passage, one where Rooney woos the reader with the trashy appeal of wealth while simultaneously reassuring them that they see through it, The O.C. in an Irish miniature. It is, it turns out, especially satisfying to deride the venality of a conversation about the proper serving of champagne when the author gives you the correct answer.

Jamie’s casual cruelty is one of the more unvarnished representations of the moral corruption that accompanies inequality in Rooney’s writing. She’s more subtle in teasing out how class dynamics shape her characters’ relationships. As Marianne and Connell’s first year in Trinity draws to a close, the pair find themselves drawn together again, and intensely happy. This, obviously, is the moment to stick the knife in. Rooney makes efficient use of the novel’s dual narration here: Marianne’s perspective is presented first, and we learn from her that Connell is to return home to Carricklea for the summer. He will, in a second betrayal, see other people. Connell’s retelling complicates matters. He can’t afford to stay in Dublin outside term-time, and when he attempts to screw up the courage to ask Marianne if he can move in with her she walls herself off as soon as he broaches the subject of the coming summer. (A reflexive self-defence mechanism, we surmise, shaped by the trauma of growing up in an abusive home.) The financial consideration never occurs to her. On Connell’s part, there’s a lack of conviction and a bewilderment at Marianne’s cold response, but there’s a pridefulness too, lightly implied. Not having money relative to the people around you instils a kind of defiance, one that’s contingent on a sense of independence and a (self-serving) rejection of the importance of wealth. The fact that it would be so easy for Marianne to have Connell live with her in her Dublin apartment is, in the end, precisely why he can’t ask.

That vignette is indicative of one of Rooney’s primary concerns, and her signature strength: how people communicate and miscommunicate within intimate relationships, and how they’re constituted and reconstituted by those relationships. The portraiture, however, is always inflected with her radicalisms, notably her feminist and anti-capitalist convictions. Crucially, though, these novels are never didactic or polemical. Instead, it’s as if they proceed on the basis that you share the same intellectual and even ethical scaffolding. The effect is one of assumed familiarity, much like being in (lower case) conversation with friends:

We often had political discussions, in which we all shared similar positions but expressed ourselves differently. Bobbi, for example, was an insurrectionist, while Melissa, from a grim pessimism, tended to favour the rule of law. Nick and I fell somewhere between the two of them, more comfortable with critique than endorsement. We talked one night about the endemic racism of criminal justice in the US, the videos of police brutality that we had all seen without ever seeking them out, and what it meant for us as white people to say they were ‘difficult to watch’, which we all agreed they were although we couldn’t fix on one exact meaning for this difficulty.

There’s a shared vocabulary here, and the characters freely skip steps, confident that they’ll be understood anyway. The reader, by extension, is made party to a discussion where their convictions might be categorised as insurrectionist or otherwise, where privilege theory operates as a background assumption, where “difficult to watch” is a term to be problematised instead of a throwaway description of our visceral reactions to racist violence. You feel vaguely flattered to be reading it. In Normal People, Marianne and Connell attend a protest against the 2014 Israeli offensive on Gaza, but we’re told nothing of their broader opinions on the conflict. But why would we be? We already know what they think. What else is there to think?

Notwithstanding these characters’ radical perspectives, their relations to wider society can occasionally feel thin. The near-unrelenting focus on the central relationships of both novels means that there’s little time spent with secondary characters. This needn’t present a problem but for the fact that the characters, even if they do “come from different worlds”, actually have quite a lot in common. Their politics are aligned, their tastes are aligned, and they are, without exception, quite brilliant.

Conversations with Friends’ first-person narration means we spend a lot of time with Frances, Rooney’s most showily intelligent creation:

I liked to sit in the library to write essays, allowing my sense of time and personal identity to dissolve as the light dimmed outside the window. I would open fifteen tabs on my web browser while producing phrases like ‘epistemic rearticulation’ and ‘operant discursive practices’ … When I went to get my feedback, the notes in the margins always said things like ‘well argued’ and sometimes ‘brilliant’.

As with the holiday home in Italy, Rooney is playing a shell game. The register is ironic, but the demonstration of intellect is real. Bobbi is perhaps less reflective, but what she lacks in depth she makes up for in conviction. In an argument about monogamy, she browbeats Frances’s milquetoast friend Philip by declaring that he “should have read Gilles Deleuze”. Melissa, meanwhile, is a regular contributor to “big literary magazines” and is about to publish her second book of essays. Even matinee idol Nick, we learn, once appeared on a British documentary about “gifted children”, although he seems refreshingly unreliant on his intellect as a source of self-worth.

The sensation of being in rarefied air is replicated in Normal People, albeit in younger company. Marianne and Connell’s romance is founded on a kind of mutual intellectual recognition. In between fumbling through their initial attraction – recounted in pleasingly physical prose – the teenage Connell urges Marianne to read The Communist Manifesto. When the results of the Leaving Cert become available, feverish phone calls comparing grades are exchanged throughout Carricklea. Marianne receives 590 points. Connell goes one better. Their academic excellence continues at university: both are elected Scholars at Trinity, a distinction that comes with, among other things, free city centre campus accommodation and evening meals—served by fellow students, for whom this is a part-time job. For Marianne, these are perks to a scholarship whose primary importance is as an external marker of achievement. Connell perceives the unreality of the award rather better.

The acuity of Connell’s perception is, if anything, a problem for Normal People. In his first weeks and months at Trinity, he’s intimidated by the confidence with which his fellow students, with their identikit accents and Macbooks, engage in class debates. That sense of intimidation quickly dissipates when he realises they haven’t done the required reading. They’re bluffing, but with an alien self-assurance. “They just move through the world in a different way, and he’ll probably never understand them, and he knows they will never understand him, or even try.” At first glance, this appears a relatively sanguine response: these people are just unlike him. But if we dwell on Rooney’s trip-along clauses, we note that while he will “probably” never understand them, no qualifier is offered in reverse; and even if that attenuated possibility existed, it would never be pursued. This needn’t be a question of malice or indifference. The possibility of other ways of relating to the world is, in Rumsfeldian terms, an unknown unknown. Forgive the rich kids, for they know not what they do, magnanimity built – as it always is – on an unarticulated superiority.

It’s a sophisticated response from a teenager, and this kind of thing is probably more ventriloquism than characterisation. It’s the shape Connell’s intellect forces on Normal People’s social commentary that presents the novel’s most serious conundrum, however. He seems to be markedly unaffected by the most insidious effect of the oppressive systems with which Rooney is concerned: their internalisation. Because Connell sees through the brash self-confidence of his classmates, he never seems to feel any insecurity toward them, or to ever crave their acceptance. The conflicts the novel feels poised to explore are neutered before they even manifest. In Italy, when Jamie breaks a champagne glass to taunt Marianne, Connell intervenes and steers her away from a physical altercation, calmly ignoring her tormentor. While we are occasionally reminded that he remains the subject of mockery (“a milk-drinking culchie” in one memorable put-down), it only ever happens behind his back. Confrontation is nominally averted. But you don’t need to be told when you’re being dismissed. You know.

Frances, meanwhile, affirms to herself that intellectual attainment is “morally neutral at best”, but nevertheless uses it as a palliative for her self-worth. Like Connell, it operates as a vehicle for her social advancement, albeit never by design. It’s her talent as a composer of spoken-word poetry – she and Bobbi perform together, but Frances writes alone – that first brings the pair to Melissa’s attention. Melissa photographs them and plans to make them the subject of an essay, acting as a kind of sponsor for their entrance to polite society. In France, Frances meets and clashes with Valerie, the wealthy British owner of the villa and an important promoter of Melissa’s work, but even this relationship is soon transformed into patronage. Valerie recommends a short story by Frances for publication in a Dublin literary magazine. It’s the first story she has ever written.

This relation of intellect and class is troubling. Connell and Frances’s extravagant gifts act as a skeleton key to social circles defined by wealth and wealth adjacency, but their admission to those circles (partial, in Connell’s case) comes at no ethical cost. Connell, in particular, remains perfectly aloof, meaning he never even seems to feel compromised. The idea that he could be co-opted by wealth is presented as absurdist humour: “Life would be different then. He would start going to dinner parties and having conversations about the Greek bailout. He could fuck some weird-looking girls who turn out to be bisexual.” Neither he nor Frances has to grasp for success, and as such they’re spared the indignity of even appearing grasping. Instead, it lands in their lap, opportunities afforded to them by well-meaning benefactors who just know talent when they see it. It’s all terribly meritocratic, in that term’s original, negative connotation: class divisions are trumped by excellence, and as such appear as bare material inequality, defanged of structural violence.

These are strange and doubtless unintended consequences for an avowedly radical author. To consider why they might arise, we might start with a quote from Adam Mars Jones’s essay on Rooney’s novels in the London Review of Books. He declares that “Irish writing often makes a conscious effort to brand itself as such. Rooney’s does not.” Setting aside the oddness of the first, more general claim, it’s worth unpacking the latter. Rooney was born in 1991, making her seventeen and soon to enter Trinity College herself when the global financial system crumbled in 2008. What Mars-Jones misses is what distinguishes the Irish experience of that crash and by extension the young adulthood of Irish members of Rooney’s generation: the fact that Ireland was the Anglophone country that suffered the most extreme economic shocks as a result of 2008 and the decade lost to austerity thereafter. It’s not a stretch to say that it was less a typical example of financialised capitalism’s workings than a distillate of them.

The salient point then is not that Rooney represents a discontinuity with a tradition of Irish writers writing Irishly, whatever that might mean. It’s that new Irish writing increasingly reflects concerns that are both Irish and international. That those are radical concerns should come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity with recent Irish history. If anything, we arrive at a more interesting intuition if we flip the issue: it was unusually likely that it would be an Irish writer to break this ground.

And this does feel like ground-breaking political fiction, albeit in ways that are not immediately obvious. Jameson and Žižek said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, a dictum that features early in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Writing in 2009, Fisher noted that a whole generation had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and that

[f]or most people under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable. Jameson used to report in horror about the ways that capitalism had seeped into the very unconscious; now, the fact that capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment.

Fisher argued that while capitalist realism had not been (fatally) undermined by the 2008 financial crisis, it had led to “the relaxing of a certain kind of mental paralysis”. We were confronted now with a political landscape dotted with what Alex Williams called “ideological rubble”.

Fisher’s prognosis feels unduly pessimistic from our current vantage point. There are cracks in the horizon. In an inversion of his claim, many of the young people in Europe and North America he referred to take for granted the absence of a persuasive moral basis for capitalism, even if programmatic alternatives seem unattainable ‑ or unimagined. When we speak about radical political fiction, we often think of literature that takes a hammer and chisel to our perception of political possibility: LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, say. The political fascination of Rooney’s writing, however, is that it isn’t an effort to widen the aporia on the horizon. Instead, it breathes in them. In other words, this is fiction pointedly concerned with the inner experience of living in/through what is still sometimes called “late capitalism”.

That experience is characterised in part by dysthymic tendencies. Nick and Connell are both formally depressive. Normal People features an extended passage on Connell’s first bout of depression, partially structured by his answers to the Beck Depression Inventory. Frances’s discontents are never medicalised but her voice expresses the flat affect characteristic of depressive disorders: “Bobbi had gone home and I was on my own. I turned on all the lights before I went to bed. Sometimes that was something I did.” Marianne reports a “depression so deep it is tranquilising” on a semester abroad in Lund, where she has regular sado-masochistic sex with a Swedish artist. “The quality of gratification is thin and hard, arriving too quickly and then leaving her sick and shivery. You’re worthless, Lukas likes to tell her. You’re nothing. And she feels like nothing, an absence to be forcibly filled in.”

This pervasive psychic malaise prompts two entwined responses: ironic detachment on one hand and a desperate desire for intimacy on the other. Notwithstanding the turn in sentiment against him, David Foster Wallace remains a useful foil for mapping the terrain of the former. In his 1993 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, Wallace wrote that irony was the agent of “a great despair and stasis”: “the most frightening prospect, for the well conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges: the crime is naïveté.” He was writing about television and US fiction, but this description might even more cleanly be fitted to our present relation to the internet. Wallace was part of a reaction against the primacy of irony as a mode of artistic engagement, and that’s reflected in our timelines too. If anything, it’s the constancy of the dynamic in the intervening years that’s most disconcerting.

Wallace’s focus on television and the US, while probably commendable from an editorial perspective, elided the more general applicability of his argument. (A glance at Wallace’s endnotes is revealing as to his theoretical influences: he actually quotes Fredric Jameson at one stage, referring to him in the main text – in an amusingly bland formulation – as a “critic of capitalism”.) It’s clear now that television isn’t uniquely able to repurpose irony in order to push us toward consumption, and that this is actually a more fundamental feature of capitalism. And while Wallace made much of the six hours a day the average American spent watching television in 1993, that seems practically ascetic when compared to a Nielsen audience report suggesting that the same average American, twenty-five years later, devotes ten hours and thirty-nine minutes a day to media screen time. For a generation fermented in this, irony often feels like the only safe response: to information overload, to image overload, to unstable epistemic frameworks, to their inner lives.

It’s the latter relationship that produces the most profound dislocations. Because it involves a kind of knowing observation, irony requires exteriority. In Conversations with Friends, Frances obsesses over the meaning her face conveys. Melissa, she notes, has “an expressive, conspiratorial smile, which I thought she probably gave to all of her subjects, as if to say: you’re no ordinary subject to me, you’re a special favourite. I knew I would enviously practise this smile later in a mirror.” Marianne’s narration in Normal People begins with an examination of her reflection, which is “like a piece of technology, and her two eyes are cursors blinking. Or it’s reminiscent of the moon reflected in something, wobbly and oblique. It expresses everything all at once, which is the same as expressing nothing.” We are on the outside of ourselves, looking in. But this is impossible, obviously, and the pretence of exteriority produces an effect that’s less like examining our reflection and more like the weird recursion of standing in a hall of mirrors. Prompted partially by pain and weakness brought on by endometriosis, Frances has an epiphany while taking shelter in a church. The passage captures an inner reflexivity, but also suggests the possibility of moving beyond it:

Instead of thinking gigantic thoughts, I tried to focus on something small, the smallest thing I could think of. Someone once made this pew I’m sitting on, I thought. Someone sanded the wood and varnished it. […] And even things built by machines were really built by human beings, who built the machines initially, And human beings themselves, made by other humans, struggling to create happy children and families. Me, all the clothing I wear, all the language I know. Who put me here in this church, thinking these thoughts? Other people, some I know very well and others I have never met. Am I myself, or am I them? Is this me, Frances? No, it is not me. It is the others. Do I sometimes hurt and harm myself, do I abuse the unearned cultural privilege of whiteness, do I take the labour of others for granted, have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement, do I have a troubled relationship with my body, yes. Do I want to be free of pain and therefore demand that others also live free of pain, the pain which is mine and therefore also their, yes, yes.

She stands up from the pew, suffused with revelation, and immediately faints.

The body always retains the capacity to break our stances of detachment. Rooney’s shorter writing covers this ground too, abortion, cancer, fainting. It’s sex, however, that her characters turn to of their own volition ‑ for unmediated sensation and for its related ability to disarm our defences. Frances’s first time having sex with Nick offers a paradigm: ‘The inside of my body was hot like oil. I was possessed by an overwhelming and intense energy which seemed to threaten me. Please, I was saying. Please, please … When it was over I lay on my back shivering. I had been so terribly noisy and theatrical all the way through that it was impossible now to act indifferent like I did in the emails.” She cries too, not out of any particularised sadness, but as a form of release. Physical longing turns to physical contact, which in turn creates the space for affective consolation. Both novels conclude with their female protagonists closing their eyes, blocking out the outside world, feeling their way through certain realisations made possible only through the experience of intimacy. Frances concludes that “you live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.” Marianne thinks to herself that Connell “brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her … They’ve done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another.”

Here, then, is the big premise that Rooney’s writing wants you to share: you think like this too. The pitiless, reflexive self-analysis, the ill-defined sense of alienation, the desire for authentic sensation, this is how you relate to the world too. And possibly you do. These are, after all, intuitive and widely-articulated responses to our political conditions, and they are in any case built on plastic concepts. Certainly it’s a near universal that human beings look for solace in the secret – but not wholly private – worlds of our relationships. These are beautiful books about love, about how people can find respite in each other, even as we are conditioned into unhappiness. That’s not nothing. Is it enough?

Consider again the strange thinness of class in Normal People. This presents a problem, surely; there is no purely private radicalism. You can’t always take the anaclitic position. What, though, can we expect of political fiction when our own radicalisms are so unfinished? The turn inward seems inevitable. It’s not wrong, either, to attempt to make our way through our day-to-day lives, to search for clarity and ways to survive on a smaller scale. There is, however, a perceptible change in sentiment between these two books, one that’s characteristic of an author looking outwards. Conversations with Friends is perhaps the better crafted novel of the pair, but its prose can sometimes feel like looking on a still lake: extreme clarity, indeterminate depth. In Normal People, the characters’ experiences are more visceral, more felt than thought. There’s a plausible through line to be drawn from Frances’s epiphanies at the end of Conversations with Friends to Rooney’s more sustained engagement in her second novel with class, with depression, with abuse, one that suggests a questing impulse. As generational qualities go, there’s something to be said for a certain restlessness.

1/4/2020

Joseph Leahy is a civil servant.

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