Sally Rooney was born in 1991 in Castlebar, County Mayo. She holds degrees in English and American Literature from Trinity College, Dublin, the city where she now lives. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.
Although acknowledging that 'nothing’s completely fictional', Sally Rooney is not, as she observed in an interview with the Belfast-based magazine The Tangerine, a writer of 'autofiction'.
The point is perhaps worth underscoring, since Rooney’s protagonists often bear some resemblance to their creator. In the essay 'Even if you beat me', which appeared in The Dublin Review, Rooney, explores her own career as a student debater. The narrator of the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award-shortlisted 'Mr Salary' has recently completed an undergraduate degree in Dublin and is now studying for a further degree (albeit in Boston). And Frances, the twenty-one-year-old fledgling author-narrator of Conversations with Friends, 'moves in all the same social circles' as Rooney, is studying for the same degree that Rooney pursued at Trinity College, Dublin, and 'has some of the same cultural position [sic]' (The Tangerine). However, Rooney goes on to stress, Conversations is a novel, and novels depart from life not least in having plots.
As Rooney told The Tangerine, Conversations is 'conventional in its structure'. Frances, whose best friend Bobbi is also her former girlfriend, falls for Nick, an older, married actor. Nick’s husband, the writer and photographer Melissa, becomes friendly with Bobbi, but when the four holiday together in France, Nick’s infidelity is exposed.
As Claire Lowdon noted in the Sunday Times, Rooney’s is essentially a rather more crowded version of the classic 'girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl finds boy' story; one, she suggested, that was haunted by the ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night. Rooney’s epigraph, borrowed from the poet Frank O’Hara, also suggests her central concern is with timeless themes: 'In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love'. Yet since her emergence, Rooney has consistently been hailed as a thrillingly contemporary voice - 'Salinger for the Snapchat generation', in her editor’s words.
Certainly, modern methods of communication loom large in Conversations – emails and text messages are its narrative motors. But here too Conversations is perhaps more conservative than one might perhaps expect. As Paula Cocozza pointed out in her Guardian profile of Rooney, no one in the novel actually uses Snapchat.
According to Jonathan McAloon in the Financial Times, Frances’s characterizing of her relationship with Nick as 'a Word document which we were writing and editing together' demonstrates 'the extent to which the younger generation have subsumed technology into everyday life and thought'. Yet when Frances wishes for physical proof of her affair with Nick, she is expressing a longing that romantic heroines down the ages would identify with. Moreover, the evidence she longs for isn’t available precisely because the couple’s affair has been 'conducted in real life and not online'.
Yet this is, unmistakably, a novel of the 2010s: although Frances’s relationship with Nick is, in some senses, a traditional one, she has diligently researched his screen roles on YouTube. A previous friendship has ended when the friend in question sent Frances an unsolicited picture of his genitals (tellingly, it is Frances who feels guilty, a reflex response that all too many women will recognise). And, having broken up with Nick, Frances downloads a dating app and begins to trawl through 'a series of strangers in my area'.
The specific anxieties of, and pressures experienced by, young millennial women are central to the novel. Claire Kilroy, writing in the Guardian, noted that previously it has been the church and state who have been the 'apparatus' of female repression in Irish fiction (and, one might argue, in fact). Now 'the women have repressed themselves: they are too guarded to articulate their vulnerabilities. Frances is crippled by the pressure to perpetually ‘act unfazed’, to ‘affect an ironic tone’'. The narrator of 'Mr Salary' also uses her formidable intellect as a defense: 'Emotionally, I saw myself as a smooth, hard little ball'; 'I was a cold customer'. But the champion debater narrator of 'Even if you beat me' knows that, as a woman, there is a penalty to pay if one appears lacking in warmth. 'Where aloofness in men is seen as mysterious, in women it’s seen as cold. If you’re a girl, judges don’t just want to know you’re smart; they want to know you care.' Some things, alas, don’t change.
Coolness can be costly in other ways, too. As Kilroy notes, Frances 'repeatedly declares herself to be emotionally cold, despite evidence to the contrary'. It is striking, for example, that when Frances harms herself (or thinks about doing so), she often seems to be seeking confirmation of her physical existence, a reality from which she has seemingly become divorced (but from which, as the onset of a debilitating and frightening medical condition cruelly proves, there can be no escape).
For Rooney herself, however, it is ultimately her characters’ economic circumstances that are most indicative of the age. 'The essential definitional fact about millennials,' she told The Tangerine, 'is that they are in an economically precarious position that older generations have forcibly placed them into…. I don’t really give a shit about whether people take selfies or not. That’s a non-essential characteristic… the essential characteristic is the economic one.' Thus in Conversations, 'part of what Frances fetishizes so much in [Nick and Melissa’s] existence is that they’re not condemned to the life that has been handed down to her. They… actually own a house after they got married, which used to be normal'.
On its publication, Conversations was widely praised, not least for the sharpness of its characters’ ironic, quick-fire exchanges. 'Rooney’s book glitters with talk', observed Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker, while Paula Cocozza emphasized its 'brilliant, funny and startling dialogue'. Criticisms were few: Claire Kilroy regretted that none of Frances’s writing ever makes it to the page, while Claire Lowdon suggested that 'not every metaphor lands'. Yet here it is perhaps necessary to distinguish between the book’s narrator and its author – one would not necessarily expect Frances to be as sure-footed in her coinages as Rooney. Moreover Frances’s use of figurative language provides us with plenty of clues as to the style and content of her work – one thinks, for instance, of the 'big warm plane' of Frances’s mother’s hand, 'like something that could have grown from the earth'. (Hands, it is interesting to note, are a recurring motif, emphasizing the book’s concern with connection and failures thereof.)
Rooney’s is, without doubt, a distinctive new voice, one that she suggested in an interview for the British Council has been formed as much by American TV and British pop music as by the greats of Irish literature. That it will inspire and influence a new generation of writers both in Ireland and beyond seems equally certain.
Stephanie Cross (2017)