May 18, 2022

I am suspicious of the Sally Rooney phenomenon. In particular, I suspect the claim, often made on behalf of the books, that they are an especially authentic or perspicuous representation of the experiences of young adults today.

Her novels — Normal People, Conversations with Friends and last summer’s Beautiful World, Where Are You — have helped to popularise a flat, affectless, prose. Novelists operating in this disenchanted style presuppose, like Rooney, that an unshakable feeling of worldly-alienation, together with an almost pathological degree of highly absorbed self-examination, constitutes the only fitting response to the conditions of millennial life and to the dilemmas forced on their protagonists by “late capitalism”. The temperament described — and probably shared — by these writers is one that veers unsettlingly between a familiar kind of cynicism about the social world (underpowered by any deep understanding of it) and embarrassing displays of earnestness.

The TV series (first Normal People in 2020, and now Conversations with Friends) are rather less annoying than the books. Because the alienated world-view is so much bound-up with prose style, it is difficult to reproduce on the screen. Both series are, needless to say, extremely handsome and expensively-produced. Everything — the shabby-chic interiors; the cute acoustic soundtrack; the long, stilted silences; the tiny corners of well-chosen novels allowed briefly to appear from between the protagonists’ hands; the carefully-choreographed sex between hairless Grecian bodies — all of it is just dreadfully, dreadfully tasteful.

More vividly than the books, the dramatisations indulge certain aspirational fantasies the viewer may have about her own life. They are also rather forgettable. Freed from Rooney’s reductive prose-style, the stories lose much of their distinctive atmosphere. First-personal detachment is difficult to convey in film; these series opt, sensibly, to be complacently beautiful rather than meet the challenge. One result is that the highly conventional quality of Rooney’s stories becomes more vivid to us: they are sentimental teenage romances, languidly extended over ten hours.

Still, in both Normal People and Conversations With Friends there are helpful clues that we remain in the Rooney-verse. Many scenes are given over to patience-testing depictions of the mundane business of the protagonists’ lives, which seem at moments to be unfolding before us in real time. (Characters brush their teeth, do the dishes, walk around… brush their teeth again). Rooney co-scripted Normal People, and in both series dialogue is often lifted directly from the books, which — when spoken aloud —reveals a strangely remedial quality, as if it is being translated from a foreign language off-the-cuff and by someone with a slightly limited vocabulary in English.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you’re feeling bad about this”, Connell’s mother tells him, profoundly. “I feel like our friendship would be a lot easier if certain things were different”, Connell later confesses to Marianne. ‘Nice’ is a near-universal term of approbation. Al dente pasta is ‘nice’; the university therapist is ‘nice’; doggystyle is ‘nice’; Christmas with grandma is ‘nice’. At times, the anti-naturalistic dialogue seems by its presence to reveal a nervousness about the actors’ abilities to communicate any unspoken feeling whatsoever to the viewer. “I want this so much’, Marianne is made to announce while she and Connell have sex. ‘It’s really nice to hear you say that’, he replies.

An underdiscussed fact about the books and their adaptations is how remarkably without humour they are. There is no hint in the books that the world might be a remotely funny place. Of course, we are given to understand that the characters themselves sometimes say funny things, more often than not of a cruel or misjudged sort  — that they occasionally cause one another physically to laugh — though we are not very often allowed to know what the funny thing at issue was. If they weren’t at least minimally funny, I suppose, the worry is we might start to question whether the characters were quite as attractive or intelligent as we are instructed to think they are.

For doubt to set in on that question would be fatal to the ideal on offer. The neurasthenic temperament, one exquisitely tuned to social nuance and psychic discomfort, is what admirers of Rooney’s work identify with and aspire to. They want to see themselves in this disfiguring generational portrait. Why? One ready explanation is that Rooney’s novels flatter the kind of reader already likely to be attracted to her work. They do this in one straightforward way by being sentimental fantasies of requited erotic love whose characters achieve their aims despite comparably little effort and much glamorous emotional anguish. The protagonists are everymen but also intensely special and distinctive. The stories are exercises in wish-fulfilment.

Beyond this, I think the explanation has to do with the connection Rooney makes between alienated self-awareness and moral virtue. In Rooney’s works, a state of highly-analysed self-awareness in itself has a kind of redemptive quality. Marianne and Francis exist in a state of troubled grace. A neurotic and conflicted attitude is presented as somehow appropriate to the conditions of the contemporary world, its injustices, and the impossible options it places before us as individuals. Not only is the alienated condition admirable, then, it is, given the state of the world, cognitively reliable. Rooney’s protagonists see the world more clearly than the rest of us do, and their psychic unease is a testament to this epistemic achievement.

This combination of views accounts for much that irritates in the books. It explains for instance how the protagonists’ posturing and dogmatic political beliefs are combined by Rooney in such an apparently seamless way with a strangely smug quietism about politics itself. All that is required for personal absolution is to be painfully aware of one’s own horribly compromised position.

Early on in Conversations with Friends we watch Bobbi upbraiding Nick, an actor, for playing a gay role when he is a straight man. “Well, as long as you’re self-flagellating and having an awful time!” Bobbi reassures him, archly. It is a truer expression of the work’s political outlook than can have been intentional. “May the revolution be swift and brutal”, Marianne proclaims in Normal People — a mad prescription, issued to no one in particular, with no expectation that it should take effect.

Marianne and Francis, merely in virtue of being fascinated by their deficiencies of character – the gap between their lofty ideals and their shameful desires, their acts of unthinking selfishness – are shown not only to be better than people who do not have such perceptions about themselves, but also to understand the world more truthfully. The chief alternative to being an intelligent hypocrite in Rooney’s world is not, say, to be well-balanced or temperamentally sane, but to be stupid.

Rooney – a “lifelong Marxist” – thinks of her protagonists as having achieved a double-vision of the social reality of which they are a part. They see bourgeois social norms and sexual conventions for what they are. Unable to escape the analytical habit, Rooney’s protagonists also see through other people, even the ones they profess to love, and eventually, with no object remaining to detach themselves from, they see right through themselves.

“I feel like I’m walking around trying on a hundred different versions of myself”, Connell tells us in Normal People. Aware that their preternatural intelligence allows them to justify, by casuistical lines of argument, any particular reading of the world they care to alight on, a kind of global alienation sets in, where the feeling of detachment itself is the only remaining fixed-point in psychological space, with little sense even of what it is detachment from. The result is the strangely Cartesian quality of Rooney’s picture of the agent — an internal ghost assailed by a stream of suspicious data from a hostile world.

Like Normal People, the adaptation of Conversations with Friends is over-long and emotionally laborious. For one thing, each of the show’s four lead characters attaches enormous importance to the question of whether each one of the other characters is feeling alright, and, at higher conversational iterations, whether they would tell them if they weren’t feeling alright. Such enquiries are pursued with limitless patience, and often whole episodes pass with little else discussed. Despite their indefatigable efforts to relate to one another, the characters misunderstand each other all the same, and cry themselves into dehydration. By the time the sans-serif credits began to crawl across the ending of the twelfth episode — reminding me of the names of the men and women responsible for doing this to me — I felt as if I would never be alright again.

Why is Rooney’s work so highly regarded as generation-defining commentary? Why do people think it definitively skewering of our social age and atmosphere? Rooney herself, by explicit allusion, encourages a comparison with Jane Austen within the pages of Normal People. (Reading Emma in the university library one night, Connell is put into “a state of strange emotional agitation” and concludes that “literature moves him”, indeed that it touches him in a way that is “not completely asexual”). As with Austen, Rooney’s novels do not adapt to the screen in a way that successfully preserves their character; in Austen’s case this is to the decided detriment of the dramatisations, in Rooney’s case less obviously so.

The allusion to Austen is strangely ill-advised. The picture of the world Rooney gives the reader is one entirely mediated by the protagonists’ neuroses and hang-ups. Austen relies on precise, puncturing ironies. The comparison also runs the risk —  hardly sensible under the circumstances — of reminding the reader that instead of watching Conversations with Friends or Normal People, she could be reading Emma.