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Arts & Culture

ZOU: Writing the Political Millennial in Sally Rooney’s Novels

Sally Rooney strikes a nerve.

As detached, deluded, or dysfunctional as they get, her characters are, if anything, too frighteningly real. Perhaps it’s the youth of her protagonists: their status as undergraduates at a prestigious university places them in close imaginative reach of the average Yalie or of the average East Coast magazine reviewer. Perhaps it’s the way that they discuss mental health and self-image: there is enough honesty to render a specific emotion and experience, but also enough reticence to suggest a greater, unuttered interiority. Whatever it is, there’s something inescapably modern about Rooney’s writing, driving reviewers to concede that her work is both Austenesque and a phenomenon of its own, distinctly millennial in its essence.

Going by plot alone, there is nothing especially innovative about her work. Conversations with Friends, Rooney’s 2017 debut, adapts the adultery novel to a literati context in which Frances, a poet and a writer, begins an affair with Nick, a moderately successful writer. The novel tracks the course of their relationship to show how their relationship affects Bobbi, Frances’ close friend and former girlfriend, and Melissa, Nick’s photographer wife. Normal People, Rooney’s 2018 follow-up, is similar to a romantic slow-burn, limiting its gaze to the complicated relationship between two characters, Connell and Marianne, which vacillates constantly between romance and friendship. These are, in Rooney’s own words, “nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing.” Yet there is something that resounds in  their execution. 

What is especially striking and uncannily millennial about Rooney’s writing is the way she develops the inconsistencies and confusion of her characters. Every writer strives to convey the contradictions of being, but Rooney proceeds with unique precision. She expertly delineates the ways in which characters exert power over each other, often referring to the advantages conferred by age, wealth, education, beauty, and even attachment. She highlights how relationships do not exist in isolation: how we exist in a single relationship is a product of how we exist in our other relationships. This complex gridwork of power undergirds Rooney’s writing, electric in its quicksilver turns of emotion and belief. 

In this sense, politics lie at the heart of Rooney’s work. It is not the politics of the senatorial, crisis-room variety. It is the politics of gender and privilege, which suffuses the novels and gives each character’s voice a smothered, fragmentary quality. Rooney’s characters are conventionally “woke,” hyperconscious of white privilege and patriarchal structures. Beyond this, however, Rooney uses this political language to put words to the complication of her protagonists’ various relationships. 

On one level, this emphasises the knotty threads of advantage and insecurity between people, illuminating both the hopeless complication of our relationships, and their constant shifts in power. These rapid shifts are especially obvious in Normal People. In high school, Connell dictates the terms of his relationship with Marianne: he is well-liked and popular, while she is an outcast. However, these dynamics are reversed when they head to Trinity College: Marianne’s wealth assimilates her into the popular crowd. Here, Connell is the outsider, tolerated only because of Marianne. In connecting these imbalances of wealth and social position to the twists and turns in her characters’ relationship, Rooney manages to pack scope and breadth into a story that revolves around two people, pointing to a world of labyrinthine structures and influences that is inextricably linked to the ways that we love and understand others. 

On another level, Rooney’s writing continually hints at the limits of current sociopolitical discourse in helping us decode the struggles of our relationships. The uniquely millennial sensibility of her writing springs forth in the moments where politics fail and sociological analyses break down, exposing instead the emotion beneath the rhetoric. As Cody Delistraty observes, while characters like Frances, Marianne, and Ronnell are well-versed in current affairs and conversant in the politics of oppression and privilege, this awareness reads as a kind of mask. Their political awareness is performative; it shows them as well-informed scholars. On a more personal level, though, there are moments when this mask turns inwards: politics become a self-deluding performance. In a move that is perhaps familiar to some Yalies, Rooney’s protagonists apply intellectual and political analyses to their relationships in order to distance themselves from their deepest fears, insecurities, and desires.

 This process recurs in Conversations with Friends, as Frances is constantly mistaken in her assumptions about the dynamics of her relationships. She is initially standoffish towards Nick, intimidated by Nick’s masculinity and assuming that he is indifferent about her. However, she later realizes that his apparent unflappability stemmed from insecurity and serious depression. Similarly, France realises that she had made Bobbi insecure and uncertain in the course of their past romance,  even though she had believed Bobbi to be unfailingly confident because of her affluence and beauty. Frances is preoccupied with the ways in which Nick and Bobbi appear to hold power over her. As a result, she fails to recognize her own influence over these people—as she fixates on Nick’s and Bobbi’s apparent power, she ignores her own emotions and desires to avoid getting hurt. She speaks about her feelings and actions in a forthright, unflinching manner. It’s a sort of self-awareness that is brittle in its honesty, that tries to dispel vulnerability in the very act of admitting to weakness. In Normal People, too, Connell attempts to offset the sting of his breakup with Marianne by remarking that Marianne would not seriously consider dating him because of his working-class background. Connell’s class consciousness stands in as a defense mechanism, and a disavowal of his own genuine hopes for a lasting relationship with Marianne.

Both Conversations with Friends and Normal People feature protagonists who flatly relay the embarrassing details of their thoughts and actions, who deftly pick apart the socioeconomic realities and past traumas that drive their actions. The effect, however, is a muffling, a self-distancing, a sort of disillusioned helplessness: characters recognize the greater, oppressive social forces at play, calling it out in every aspect of their lives. But, or precisely because of this recognition, there is a sense that these powers are too complex and too inevitable to be contended with, especially for an individual who is born and shaped by structures beyond their control. 

An image that comes to mind is a dinner scene in Conversations with Friends: Frances and Bobbi participate in a debate on refugees at a vacation home in Italy, during which Frances is distracted by the fact that Nick has draped an arm over her chair. While Rooney satirizes the frivolity of the bourgeois setup, she also points to a sense of helplessness: Frances is powerless against the dealings of the wider political realm, and against an affair that—without a particular commitment or decision on her part—is hurtling along its course. When everything—politics, loves, insecurities—can be traced to a set of prevailing social conditions, one’s agency is cast adrift, tugged along by mysterious forces. 

The irony here is that Normal People and Conversations with Friends deal with characters that are constantly sucked into each other’s orbit—there’s a mysterious attraction that goes beyond capitalist forces. In these stories, love and interdependence are ultimately inexplicable and unavoidable. At the end of Conversations with Friends, Frances concedes that:

“Things and people moved around me, taking positions in obscure hierarchies, participating in systems I didn’t know about and never would. A complex network of objects and concepts. You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.”

Rooney acknowledges that, in spite of the humiliations, insecurities, and doubts that we encounter, we are driven to care for each other. The actions of her protagonists are animated by desires beyond momentary lust or fleeting infatuation; her characters persist in their love despite their past failures and neuroses. The question then is whether this love rescues us from the inequity of capitalist society. In the spirit of the age, any response must be temporary and self-questioning. Love seems to draw people together, to create moments of private, incandescent joy. Yet Rooney’s couples come together and fall apart so often that the tentative optimism of her endings is tinged with uncertainty. It’s hard not to suspect that love may be a cyclical force, functionally identical to the other unstoppables structures that mar our society.